Interview: A matter of life and death
The writer Martin Mosebach talks to Stephen Tomkins and Charissa King about the 21 Egyptian martyrs
On 15 February 2015, 21 men, most of them Egyptian and in their 20s or early 30s, were beheaded on a Libyan beach by Islamic State militants. The men who were killed were labourers who had left Egypt to find work and been captured that December and January. Their murder was filmed and the video released over the internet the same day. Six days later, Pope Tawadros II announced the canonisation of the 21 and their feast day is celebrated on 15 February.
Martin Mosebach, a German novelist and a Roman Catholic, found himself obsessed by the video and photographs, which seemed to speak of a kind of Christianity rather different from what we know in the west. So he travelled to Egypt to meet the families and visit the villages of the martyrs. An account of his visit, The 21: A journey into the land of Coptic martyrs was published by Plough Publishing House in 2019.
Would you consider your journey to Egypt in some sense a pilgrimage?
Yes, that is true, I could call it a pilgrimage. You go somewhere to touch a holy place.
Where did the idea come from?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in eastern Christianity, because their liturgy is unchanged since the early centuries. You can really see there how the early communities celebrated the sacrifice of the cross. It is richer and more perfect than the rationalised, shortened western liturgies.
But also I believe martyrdom is one of the essentials of Christianity. We are living through a crisis of the Church, of decline and abuse and financial problems. These things are far from what faith really is. Martyrdom is much more important than these things. As Tertullian, one of the Church Fathers, said: Martyrdom is the seed of the Church. Where there is martyrdom, there the Church will flourish. Persecution is horrible for the Christians of Africa and Asia, but it is a sign of hope. Where the Church is persecuted, the Church is living. The endless temptation of the Church is not to be persecuted.
You seem in the book fascinated with the idea that you can live a fairly poor Christian life and then in one moment of martyrdom everything is redeemed.
Yes, though that was a bit ironic and I’m not sure if it’s completely right. But the early Church said anybody who died for Christ is a saint, without canonisation. Later, the idea grew that you need to live a holy life too.
But the 21 lived perfect Christian lives. They did not need to heal many sins by the act of testimony. They lived very simple lives in their poor villages, dedicated to their work and the liturgy. Some of them were ordained as singers by the Bishop – singers of the three-hour liturgy in Greek, Arabic and the old Pharaonic language. …
This is an extract from an article that was published in the June 2019 edition of Reform