Book Review: ‘The 21: A Journey Into the Land of Coptic Martyrs’ by Martin Mosebach

Review by Kent Annan. Annan is director of humanitarian and disaster leadership at Wheaton College. He is author, most recently, of You Welcomed Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God First Loved Us (InterVarsity Press).


Martin Mosebach’s new book, The 21, tells the story of 21 Coptic Christians martyred by Muslim extremists on a Libyan beach in 2015. I finished reading it a day before the horrific terrorist attack by a white nationalist on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The echoes between the martyrdoms in Libya and Christchurch are uncanny. In both cases, the perpetrators made a video recording of their violent acts in order to heighten fear and promote their demented vision of purity. In both cases, the victims died because of their faith—and, for many, because they were vulnerable as migrants who had gone to a foreign land to work or make a new life.

In the aftermath of such terror, we often debate the extent to which we should focus attention on the terrorists and their motives. We’re conscious of how excess publicity can spread their destructive ideas and encourage imitators. (The Christchurch terrorist claimed that certain murderous predecessors had precisely this effect on him.) Yet our understandable interest in the perpetrators and desire to counteract what has gone wrong should never drown out our concern the victims, because they deserve our grief. And one way to honor them is by learning their stories and seeking deeper understanding.

This is the approach Mosebach, a German novelist, takes in The 21. In the book’s introduction, he explains he “had no intention to learn anything more of the perpetrators. … It was enough for me to leave them in the darkness they themselves aspired to. … I was significantly more moved by, and motivated to know more about, the fate of the murdered men.”

Contemplating the victims’ humanity makes the tragedy feel heavier. But in a small way, it also makes room for light to shine in, because it affirms that evil and the killers don’t get the final word.

‘Completely Normal Guys’

In The 21, Mosebach travels to visit the land, homes, families, and churches of the men killed in Libya by ISIS militants. Their deaths were dramatic: They were marched in orange jumpsuits along a beach, each led by a sword-wielding man dressed in black from head to toe (only their eyes were visible). But their lives, before their martyrdom, had been quiet and unassuming. All but one were migrant workers from Egypt, and they were Coptic Christians by faith. As Mosebach quotes one of their pastors, “These were average young men, completely normal guys. I never would have thought they’d become saints!”

Each chapter starts with a photo of one of the men. Because their lives were so “normal,” there is limited biographical material for Mosebach to recount, which often makes the book seem as much about the author’s journey in a lesser-known (for many of us) branch of Christianity as about the martyrs themselves.

Coptic Christians trace their history back to Mark, one of the four gospel writers. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, they broke from the Roman Catholic Church on account of disputes over the exact nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity. A few centuries later, their position within Christendom became even more marginalized. Ever since the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century, the Copts have persevered as a minority religion within their nation.

The 21’s strongest chapters take us deep into the lives and churches of these Coptic believers, with Mosebach exhibiting an attention to detail befitting his novelistic gifts. In a chapter called “The Martyr’s Liturgy,” we visit their church and learn about the sanctuary, liturgy, and eucharistic service. We hear that Hany “was friendly and had a kind heart” and that Sameh “gave alms even though he was poor.” When working in Libya, they slept in a single room, side by side on the floor. They sent the money they earned back to their Egyptian families. In the evenings they sang, prayed, and read the Bible, although some could only listen because they were illiterate.

We gain a rich impression of what shaped the lives and faith of these martyrs, and we witness how their martyrdom reverberates to this day through their families, churches, and communities. Their families each have an iPad with the video of their martyrdom. Photos of them as saints are on display in homes and churches.

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Source: Christianity Today