In this May 26, 2017 file photo, Coptic Christians shout slogans after the funeral service of some of the victims of a bus attack, at Abu Garnous Cathedral in Minya, Egypt. Amr Nabil/AP

Unrelenting killing of Coptic Christians intensifies debate over martyrdom

CAIRO (RNS) – As a little boy in Sunday school, Bassem Al-Janoubie was fascinated by the illustrated stories about the martyrs of Egypt’s Coptic Church.

“Even more than cartoon comic books, the dramatic events and details of the ordeal of each saint held my attention,” remembers the now-40-year-old graphic designer. “They were like superheroes – not accepting attempts to change their beliefs or efforts to get them to deny their Christianity despite torture and even death.”

The 2,000-year-old Coptic Church of Egypt has a long tradition of hallowing those who died affirming their faith in the face of violence.

But the group that calls itself the Islamic State has launched waves of attacks on the Coptic community in recent years – claiming at least 70 lives and wounding scores of others – an unrelenting assault that has opened a debate in the community about martyrdom.

The issue has been most recently punctuated by the deadly knifing of a Coptic priest in a poor Cairo neighborhood Thursday (Oct. 12). A suspect was arrested but his motive is still unknown.

Recently, another Coptic priest — the well-known Rev. Boules George from the well-heeled Cairo suburb of Heliopolis — took to the television airwaves to “thank” the Islamic State terrorists who launched the Palm Sunday church bombings that claimed 45 lives, saying they provided “a rocket” that delivered victims straight to heaven.

“Thank you very, very, very much,” George told the viewers of his program on Egypt’s Coptic TV channel just hours after the terror attacks. “You have given us the death of Christ himself, and this is the greatest honor that of any of us can attain.”

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Many Copts rejected that assertion. “This death doctrine is terrifying,” said Jacqueline Ezzat, 21. “Jesus died for a cause and a purpose. Those who die in violence are lost to us for no reason. Father Boules’ doctrine is insidious. It’s like he wants us Christians to be zombies.”

The Islamic State intensified its insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and targeted Copts, Coptic churches, police and military facilities in Egypt after the 2013 ousting of ex-President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Glorifying a particularly bloody December attack on a Cairo church, the militants in February released a video declaring that Christians in Egypt were their new “favorite prey” and pledging to wage a "jihad" similar to that in Iraq and Syria, where tens of thousands of Christians have become refugees after fleeing the militants.

Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, Cairo. Photo courtesy of Ashashyou, Creative Commons

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Comprising an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, the Coptic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East and North Africa.

“We are Egyptian citizens as well as Christians,” said Al-Janoubie. “We need to stop viewing this harassment toward us with pride and saying terrorism gives us a chance to play the same role our ancestors did like in those Sunday school stories about the torture of martyrs.”

Coptic leader Pope Tawadros II, however, has publicly supported the idea that the church derives strength from these deaths of the faithful.

“The blood of our martyrs, the tearful prayers of our monks, and the sweat of all those who serve the church is the source of our spiritual power,” said Tawadros in a Sept. 13 message to the faithful.

Some in the hierarchy of the Coptic Church say martyrdom is widely misunderstood.

“It is true that we love martyrdom, but we also love life,” said Bishop Raphael, the No. 2 man in the Coptic curia. “We do not hate life on earth, because our Lord created us to live in it, not to die.”

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This summer, Raphael implemented an Egyptian Interior Ministry directive to suspend church events in difficult-to-secure locations in order to minimize exposure to new attacks. “The fact that we receive death with a spiritual philosophy does not mean that our blood is cheap,” said the bishop.

Still, Raphael is calling for erecting a new church dedicated to the 28 martyrs of a jihadist attack in May that occurred on a desert road between the Egyptian city of Minya and the monastery of Samuel the Confessor — a sixth-century saint tortured at the hands of a rival Byzantine Christian sect.

It’s hard to argue against martyrdom for the 28 people who died in the attack, some community members say. Survivors said their assailants ordered them to fast because it was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, killed their husbands and brothers, and ordered them to convert to Islam.

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“After spraying us with gunfire and taking our jewelry, they ordered the women and children who were still alive to recite a testimony to convert to Islam,” said Hanan Adel, a 28-year-old survivor.

Those horror stories don’t inspire all Copts to embrace martyrdom.

In the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, where youth unemployment remains stuck at slightly more than 30 percent, young Copts want better living standards and civil rights today, not hope in the afterlife, said Wael Gally, a Coptic attorney.

“Coptic suffering as a minority has been compounded by the increasing pressure of economic problems facing all Egyptians,” said Gally, 40. “People are doubting the purpose of losing life to no avail and the promises of eternal life.”


  1. The religion of peace plus the religion of love=I see dead people.

    Oh well, as a Christian general once pointed out:
    “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.”

    There is a sickness here. I can’t even begin to fathom it.

  2. While embracing martyrdom for its own sake is patently feckless, martyrdom in obedience to the faith is laudable. No sensible Christian seeks martyrdom, for it takes an active member of the faith in living testimony to spread the Gospel of the Lord. Martyrdom is a consequence not a proper practice and should be avoided if it can be done without compromising the faith. I appreciate the Rev. Boules fervency, but I endorse Bishop Raphael’s mature pragmatism.

  3. I’m not sure if Coptics qualify as True Christians, though.

  4. This is a kind of adaption that the Coptic church has invented centuries ago since it can’t face the Islamic terrorism.
    Actually, this strategy is just perfect for any terrorist! Nothing is more matching than killing who loves to be killed

  5. As you have been repeatedly and reliably informed, in these very pages, very few Christians would qualify either.

  6. The fact that people are killed because of their religion is abhorrent. What’s worse is that another religion is what usually motivates the killers. It really is disgusting. And people wonder why there are atheists.

  7. Some comments are missing the main point.. the Copts identity does NOT equal common Christianity.. The article is about certain culture amonge Egyptian version of Christianity,

    To combat murder on the religious identity in Egypt, it is not only necessary to change the jihadist ideology of the murderer, but also to change the martyrdom of the victim.. Copts have a cultural identity sanctifying death.. The legacy of the ancient Egyptians we knew through the “tombs of their death”.. Contemporary Christians are an extension of this Sanctification.. Perhaps because of the high doses of religious heritage that glorify the deceased ancestors who were brutally murdered through the ages of martyrdom, it has turned from a courageous confrontation of death to a cultural and social heritage that seeks death..

    We can clearly observe that the victims are not resisting but accept with full submission.
    We can observe the procedures of induction/Funeral, which are not free from the Psychopathic behavior of the families of the victims, such as joy for the loss of their children. We can see even the political statements of the church, which deal with massacres of mass murder on religious identity, as if it were normal within the democratic climate of the state.

  8. The Church of Alexandria not Christian? Are you serious?
    You do realize and know Coptic contribution to Christianity right?

  9. No. I’m mimicking some fundamentalists here who don’t count Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Catholics and variants, including Coptics, as real Christians.

  10. Catholics can trace their church directly to St. Peter. Protestants can not. As for Mormons they really aren’t Christians they believe in other prophets ie Joseph Smith. I think all reasonable people will agree they are not Christians.

  11. One of the more unreasonable comments to appear thus far.
    But that’s OK. Any reasonable observer can see clearly the fundelibangelist obsession with being god’s one, true, only, unique, and faithful BFFF, willing to damn everyone else for not sharing their particular obsession.
    It’s cute is what it is.

  12. Any Christian that doesn’t take up arms against them should welcome their Martyrdom!

  13. The Mormons are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and believe Jesus is God made flesh who died for our sins. There is no reasonable definition of Christianity that excludes them.

  14. WRONG, John, Mormons believe Jesus is A God, not THE GOD. They are not Christains.

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