Recognizing the 21 Coptic Martyrs – an Ecumenical Opportunity

It is unnecessary to retell the horrific story of the disgusting martyrdom of the 21 Coptic men in Libya last week, gloatingly displayed to the world in an online video of the sort that ISIS  Daesh* is notorious for producing. Though I have not watched it, those who have say that many of the martyrs had the name of Jesus on their lips as they died. Despite the hair-splitting of the SSPX, whether or not their murder was in revenge for the killing of a senior jihadist is irrelevant: they were murdered because they were Christian, and in hatred of Christ.

*(a name hated by the ISIS jihadists themselves and so most appropriate to give them)

The second objection of the SSPX to granting the title of martyr to the 21 Coptic brethren is that the Copts are heretics. This objection has more weight to it, but how relevant is it to this situation?

Firstly, are Copts actually heretics? Without going into a detailed history of the early Church and its theology, suffice it to say that the Coptic (ie Egyptian) Christians were in communion with the universal Church until the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). After that Council they, with the other Oriental churches, were cast as monophysites (ie those who hold that Christ had only one nature, not two, and that this nature was either totally divine or a divine/human synthesis) and thus heretics. As so often happens, the argument was over vocabulary more than substance. The Copts formally reject monophysitism, and accept the perfect humanity and divinity of Christ in his one Person, though they centre the union of these two natures in one “nature”, rather than in one “person” as do Chalcedonian Christians like the Catholics and the Orthodox.

However, the issue is essentially a dead one. In 1988 the Catholic and Coptic Churches issued an Agreed Statement which affirmed the orthodox understanding of Christ’s identity:

We believe that our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Incarnate-Logos is perfect in His Divinity and perfect in His Humanity. He made His Humanity One with His Divinity without Mixture, nor Mingling, nor Confusion. His Divinity was not separated from His humanity even for a moment or twinkling of an eye.

At the same time, we anathematize the Doctrines of both Nestorius and Eutyches.

While we cannot ignore the mindset of separation that 1500 years will have naturally produced, this would seem to be weaker with regard to the Copts. Just as, in the wake of another agreed Christological statement with the Assyrian Church of the East, it is now possible for members of either Church to receive Communion in the other under certain conditions, it seems more than possible for the same arrangement to be made with our Coptic brethren.

Heresy is not an issue in reality; schism is, but even there can be found opportunity for progress.

Yet perhaps we can be bolder yet. Yesterday after Mass I was discussing the very issue of these 21 Coptic martyrs with Graham Hutton, Chairman of Aid to the Church in Need (a most worthy Catholic charity indeed). We discussed Pope Francis’ recent comments about an “ecumenism of blood” that unites us with our persecuted, non-Catholic brethren. This was an idea he had raised as far back as December 2013. He has not developed it theologically, which leaves the way for theologians (especially some young ones I know) to take this up and run with it.

Graham and I took this ecumenism of blood a little further in light of the ancient doctrine of Baptism by blood (see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1258-1259). In short, dying for Christ effects Baptism for those who die for him while unbaptized. So, we speculated, could it be possible to speak of an absolution by blood, by which dying for Christ would effect the absolution of any grave sins, even the sins of schism or even (formal) heresy? Pope Francis implies this when he said a few days ago that,

The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard… It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.

This is not to minimize differences, nor to turn a blind eye to them as though they did not matter. However, in death divisions among Christians on earth cease to have much bearing. In dying for Christ one has become the perfect disciple, and enters communion with Christ’s Body in heaven.

The Coptic Church has just acclaimed the 21 victims as martyrs by inserting them into their liturgical calendar (15 February), the Coptic Synaxarium, an equivalent process to our own equivalent canonization. Pope Francis has informally identified them as martyrs. Now is the time for theologians to develop this possibility of an ecumenism by (or in) blood, and perhaps also an absolution by blood. This is real ecumenism that respects difference, and respects the essence of Christian discipleship. The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya are role models for all Christians, and surely we can honour them as such. Surely, we as well as Copts can and should call on their martyrs’ intercession before the throne of God in whose presence they now dwell, eternally.

Nothing unites like persecution; nothing builds the Church more than the blood of martyrs. Perhaps here the struggling western Church can find the renewal it so sorely needs.

Coptic martyrs of Libya – pray for us!

Taylor Marshall has kindly listed the names of the martyrs, which I copy here for reference:

The names of the 21 Coptic Martyrs are:

1. Milad Makeen Zaky
2. Abanub Ayad Atiya
3. Maged Solaiman Shehata
4. Yusuf Shukry Yunan
5. Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
6. Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
7. Somaily Astafanus Kamel
8. Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
9. Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
10. Girgis Milad Sinweet
11. Mina Fayez Aziz
12. Hany Abdelmesih Salib
13. Bishoy Adel Khalaf
14. Samuel Alham Wilson
15. A worker from Awr village
16. Ezat Bishri Naseef
17. Loqa Nagaty
18. Gaber Munir Adly
19. Esam Badir Samir
20. Malak Farag Abram
21. Sameh Salah Faruq

The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya, an icon drawn by Tony Rezk.
The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya, an icon drawn by Tony Rezk.      (click to see a larger version)

16 thoughts on “Recognizing the 21 Coptic Martyrs – an Ecumenical Opportunity

  1. See also Pope St John Paul II Ut Unum Sint n.84:
    “I have already remarked, and with deep joy, how an imperfect but real communion is preserved and is growing at many levels of ecclesial life. I now add that this communion is already perfect in what we all consider the highest point of the life of grace, martyria unto death, the truest communion possible with Christ who shed his Blood, and by that sacrifice brings near those who once were far off (cf. Eph 2:13).”


    1. Wonderful! Thank you, Joe. This shows how collaborative theology can be so fruitful. That this is from an encyclical adds a great deal of weight to the argument for recognizing the Coptic martyrs.

      You have earned a drink with that find. 🙂


    2. What about extra ecclesiam nulla salus ?

      Cardinal Raymond Burke interprets Church documents with an irrational premise and conclusion and offers the Traditional Latin Mass

      SSPX ‘spokesman’ : Theology of Vatican Council II is in agreement with the strict interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus

      Vatican Council II (premise-free) agrees with the SSPX position on an ecumenism of return and non Christians needing to convert for salvation


  2. Father, you mustn’t stay away from the blog for so long—as I so miss your keen and Godly observations!!
    I wrote, as a layman, on the horrific incident last week—
    of course not delving into the various differences which separate our various beliefs and faiths but truly out of sorrow for the senseless loss of life and for my own government’s inability to call it what it is—a martyrdom of Christians—
    Persecution is indeed alive and well as my heart grieves for all who suffer at the hands of barbaric madmen. . .this as the world fixates on who wore what to the Oscars. . .I ache so as the world seems turned upside down—
    Yes, prayers for our brethren, their families and for all who suffer at the hands of evil incarnate. . .
    Blessings Father—Julie


  3. Hello Julie! I am so behind in so many things, that I had not got round to your post. I have now, and have taken up there a point you made without developing.

    Let us pray that in the 21 Martyrs we may find a silver lining to this black cloud of persecution.



  4. Our pastor gave us a handout with their names on it so that we can remember one a day during our private devotions.

    I’m reminded of Pope Stephen and Cyprian who had their tussles, but ultimately reconciled during a persecution in which they both have their lives.


    1. A very good example, Pope St Stephen and St Cyprian – both saints!

      If you ever find out the name of the unknown martyr in the list please share it. Though to be honest, I will shortly be praying to them, not for them.



  5. What’s your take on this section of the Council of Florence?

    [The Sacred Roman Church] firmly believes, professes, and preaches that no one existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews, heretics and schismatics can become partakers of eternal life, but shall go into the eternal fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before the end of their lives they join themselves to her, and that the unity of the Church body is so necessary that only for the Christian soldier that remains in her do the church’s sacraments profit for salvation, and fasts, almsgiving and the rest of pious works and exercises produce eternal rewards, and that no one, however much alms he has give, and even if he has shed his blood for the name of Christ, can be saved unless he remain in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.

    Would we make the V2 distinction about the visible bounds of the Church?


    1. From memory, the Council of Florence was problematic on more than point. The context was the rise of conciliarism, the role of papal primacy and the desire to bring eastern churches back into communion. All these colour the language of their decrees.

      That said, note two things. First the “sacred Roman Church” affirms the necessity of unity with the “Catholic Church”, which clearly implies that the Catholic Church is not confined to the borders of the Roman Church.

      Secondly, this phrase is crucial: “unless before the end of their lives they join themselves to her”. I do not have the Latin before me, but I suspect that “before” might also be validly translated as “by” or even “at”. My argument would be that absolution by blood restores that union with the Catholic Church at death.

      The Council is at pains to show that no purely human work can have salvific effects if performed in defiance of the Church. But martyrdom, properly speaking, is a response to grace, a supreme act of conversion and of reconciliation with Christ, and where Christ is, there is the Church.

      These are just initial reactions. They may be flawed in a way I cannot yet see. Maybe you can?



  6. “an absolution by blood, by which dying for Christ would effect the absolution of any grave sins, ‘even the sins of schism’ or even (formal) heresy? Pope Francis implies this”

    If we really believed the sin of schism existed then how are we called to fix it?


  7. Hi Father–I wanted to let you know that in keeping with the custom that it is indeed better to give than to receive I wanted to let you know that I’m passing the torch so to speak—I was given a kind honor this morning by being awarded the Inspiring Blogger Award—I in turn wish to pass this on to you—as I find your blog an important part of my life and faith—you mince no words Father nor do you ever apologize for what it means to follow Christ—I hope you don’t mind, but I have nominated you for this award as folks such as yourself are far more deserving than I—
    Blessings Father—Julie


    1. Dear Julie, how kind of you. Alas I think that in the general run of things I am not as deserving of the reward as you are. I am too belligerent to be inspiring. That is not to minimise the fact that you find something in what I write that you find helpful, and for which fact I am very thankful.

      But I am not being churlish, and so I thank you very much!

      May the Coptic martyrs of Libya pray for us.


  8. These men were true witnesses. It does none of us any good to dwell on the barbarity of these martyrs’ deaths. In my time in Parkminster, trying my vocation to the Carthusians, I dreaded going into the Chapter House because I recoiled from the depictions of the butchery of the London Charterhouse martyrs, painted all around the high walls of the chamber. Maybe I am too queasy to be a Christian.

    But I am certainly strong enough to stand up to those cowards who quibble about the 21 Egyptians being “true” martyrs. Retract your nonsense! Those who die confessing Christ are Christian martyrs.

    The bureaucrats can sort out the earthly church problem later. For the present, who can doubt they are in heaven with Jesus?


    1. Salve frater!

      I entirely agree. This is a grassroots ecumenism that has real legitimacy. We do not pretend there are no differences, or that they do not count. Instead we look to an act of total discipleship that surely covers a multitude of sins, unites the martyr to Christ and so to us. No one is pretending this back-door full communion. Instead it is a recognition that as Christians, be we in the right or the not-so-right church, if we can die for Christ, then all Christians are our brethren. And with one small bond of fraternity established, through the blood of martyrs, what momentum might emerge towards reconciliation in the fullness of time and truth.

      You were at Parkminster? As young American “youf” used to say – Respect! Yes the martyrs’ in the chapterhouse are challenging, but then everything about the vita Cartusiana is challenging. It is not for all of us. But at least you tried. I had a wonderful day there as a guest of the prior about 10 years ago. It entranced me, yet I knew I could never endure it. That said, I am so glad they are there.

      Pax semper!


  9. I wonder if you found out yet the name of the ‘unknown’ of the 21? It seems that he was a Ghanaian, Matthew Ayairga, and that Samuel Wilson was NOT one of them. I suppose that still leaves us with twenty but I am sure there will be more certainty soon. In all this I do feel we should not forget the hundreds, thousands, who have also been killed in hatred of Christ, including the children who said they could not betray Jesus and were killed on the spot.


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