Minya, Egypt - For Christians in Egypt, the possibility of martyrdom is not a remote one.
“It is something they concretely feel, it is part of their Christian life,” Father Paolo Asolan, an Italian priest who recently visited Egypt, told CNA. “And for a mother and a father, the fact that one of their sons can become a martyr is always a great gift.”
The Islamic State’s beheading of 20 Coptic Christians and another man shocked the world in February 2015 when video of the murders on a Mediterranean beach became public. The other man was a non-Christian who reportedly professed belief in the Christian God before his death.
During a recent trip to Egypt, Fr. Asolan met the family of one of the Coptic Christians. He visited the village of al-Our in the north-central Egyptian province of Minya. From this province came 13 of the 21 people beheaded.
Al-Our is a small farming community of some 6,000 Muslims and Christians, located about 90 miles from Cairo.
There the priest met the family of Milad Makeen Zaky, who was the first martyr seen praying in the video.
“I was struck by the fact that, before he died, he was praying the name of Jesus,” Fr. Asolan said. “He died speaking the name of Jesus, and that was the very last act of a life that witnessed Jesus in every moment.”
This faithfulness to Christ, Fr. Asolan added, is proved by many details in his life.
“When the Islamic State militants came to seize him, Milad had just finished his daily one-hour meditation over the Sacred Scriptures… at the beginning of the day, he always spent at least one hour reading the Gospel,” the priest recounted.
Fr. Asolan heard from Milad’s mother several anecdotes about his life. She said that it was “as if her son was preparing her for his martyrdom.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church has proclaimed the 21 men to be martyrs. Their beheading shocked Egyptian society.
Fr. Asolan said that “a church for the martyrs” is being built in al-Our. It is completely funded by the Egyptian president, a noteworthy fact because the construction of a new church is highly restricted. It requires specific authorization from the president’s office, which the priest said is “often difficult to obtain.”
Egypt’s Coptic Christians represent between 10 percent and 20 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million.
Fr. Asolan is a professor of pastoral theology at the Pontifical Lateran University. He said that the faith of Coptic Christians is based on the twin pillars of monasticism and martyrdom.
“Travelling through Egypt, there are many burials of martyrs. These same Christians used to tattoo a cross on their wrist,” he said.
Fr. Asolan also considered the meaning of martyrdom today.
“Martyrs are witnesses of Jesus, that is, he who said: ‘I am the truth.’ As witness of Jesus, they raise up the issue of truth. Martyrdom is an act of love,” he said. “The fullness of truth is a conversion to love.”
On the other hand, he said, “we live in a time of ‘heresies of life.’ There have always been Christological and Trinitarian heresies… but this is a time of new heresies, not regarding the faith, but love … it is in name of love that truth, that is Christ, is denied.”
From this standpoint, there can be a comparison between what happens in Egypt and what happens in in the Western world.
Fr. Asolan said that just as some Muslims promote the assassination of those who have different beliefs “in the name of love toward God,” in the West there are “people emancipated from religion (who) kill with abortion and euthanasia, claiming that they do it for the love of the human being.”
These “heresies” are sometimes backed “in the name of an unreasonable obedience to a ‘god’ who wants death and not life, as it happened with the 21 Egyptian martyrs.”