On the beheading of Christians

How many more martyrs will ISIS create as it seeks to extend the caliphate?
James Schall SJ | Mar 10 2015 | comment  

Sandro Magistro’s account of the beheading and subsequent canonization of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya, with the name of each man killed, was heart-breaking and poignant. I must confess that when I heard the next day the remarks of Benjamin Netanyahu to the US Congress in which he said, defiantly, that Israel is now armed and will defend itself, I felt a touch of envy. Our spiritual and temporal leaders can barely bring themselves to mention the terrible persecution that Christians in too many lands now regularly undergo.

Magistro recalled that these Copts had originally fled from Iraq to Egypt, as if to warn us that there is no longer any hiding place. These Christians literally had no one to defend them. No Christian armies exist. The words of Christian leaders are usually: “Why does not someone else protect us?” Appealing to the United Nations is like “blowin’ in the wind”.

Urban II, who convoked the Crusades, somehow, is looking better every time we hear of massive killings of Christians and others by Muslim who claim, with justification in their own minds, that they carry out the will of Allah. To Christians they are terrible atrocities. To Muslims carrying out these deeds, they are acts of war and piety.

What ought to be done with these killers if ever captured? Many people who ask themselves this, even if they favour the abolition of the death penalty, will answer: “Shoot them at dawn.” They show no sorrow or repentance, only a defiant courage that stops at nothing. If freed, they will continue the killings. ISIS poses a real dilemma for those who want to abolish capital punishment, especially for Christians.

Of course, if, rather than imprisoning them for a few years after a civil trial lasting three or four years, their captors did shot them at dawn, much of the Muslin world would be in the streets protesting and look on them as “martyrs”. Such is our world.

The “separation of church and state”, however wise, has left us with an American President and other world leaders who cannot acknowledge either that it is Christians who are being killed or who kills them. The killers are said to be just “terrorists”, an absolutely meaningless designation. They kill to advance a cause that they believe in, not just to kill. “Terrorism for its own sake” explains no actual group in the Muslim world.

In this case, it was the Muslim leaders of Egypt who behaved honorably, putting to shame their Western counterparts. The Prime Minister and the impressive President separately visited the families of the Coptic martyrs. They promised aid and help to build a church in their honor. These are good Muslim leaders, even though they were the ones most capable of preventing these particular killings. The Coptic Church, bless it, immediately canonized these young men—no ecclesiastical delay there.

How are we to think of these things? If we are not enraged by them, there is probably something wrong with us. Unlike Augustine’s friend Alypius, who finally could not resist gazing at the killings in Roman gladiatorial combats, I cannot bear to watch clips of these beheadings. There is something diabolical about them, even something diabolical about knowing they are going on and doing nothing about them.

Again, what are we to think of deaths? First of all, in the mind of the killers, it does not matter to which “branch” of Christianity one belongs. Pope Francis talks of an “ecumenism of martyrdom”. Indeed, it does not really matter if one is a Christian. The whole culture that is not Salafist Muslim is said to be guilty and a legitimate object of war.

What about the thousands and thousands of Christians who have been killed? Christian peoples and even buildings are being eliminated from within the Muslim world. Will there be any place to which to flee? Are we all to suffer the fate of the Iraqi Copts who fled to Egypt, only to be slaughtered there a few decades later? What seems clear is that we have no leadership willing and able to understand the theological roots and consequent practices that justify these killings.

What is left?

The brother of two of the murdered men speaks by telephone to a Christian TV station in the Middle East. 

Two of the Coptic men who were killed were brothers. Their third brother was interviewed about the killing of his brothers. He was asked what he would do if he saw a member of the Islamic State who killed his brothers.

Kamel Beshir, the third brother, replied that the ISIS tapes of the beheading of his brothers and companions did not edit out their final profession of faith in Christ before they were decapitated. We know they died martyrs. He then referred to his mother, what would she do? This is his reply: “My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, says she would ask [the killer] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her sons entered the kingdom of heaven”.

The immediate response to the beheadings is up in the air. Some think we should pull out and let the Arabs fight it out among themselves. Others want American intervention to knock out ISIS. Perhaps Islam will reform itself? Or Turkey will take over the area? Israel might strike, or be wiped out. ISIS may succeed in overturning the Saudi monarchy, or regain Egypt.

Yet, whatever the immediate policies or fates, surely we have here the ultimate answer, spoken by an uneducated Coptic woman.

Militant Islam, if it is doing nothing else, is busy populating the Kingdom of God. Meanwhile, an increasingly relativist culture doubts that there is any transcendent purpose in individual human lives. Hence it averts its eyes in such a way that the beheadings are hardly noticed except as added dramas on the evening news. They are hardly distinguishable from the fictional violence that is shown on television every day. The fine line between reality and image is confused. Actual events like the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts are merely added incidents in a busy day of imagining how we can improve the world. “Coptic martyrs of Libya, Pray for us.”

Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.

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