New era of Coptic martyrs: RNS dives into big questions about a deadly serious subject

Lots of news stories -- big ones and everyday ones -- are haunted by religious themes (and even factual material) that mainstream reporters skate right past. Here at GetReligion, we call these religion-shaped holes in stories "ghosts."

There are also news stories that, to be blunt, are haunted by questions and issues that can only be described in terms of theology, often requiring a willingness to dig into centuries of history and debates of a complex or even mysterious nature.

I sincerely appreciate attempts to write these theologically driven stories, because I know that they are (a) hard to get right, (b) hard to get approved by editors and (c) hard to write in words that work in a daily newspaper (think accuracy plus readability).

So I really want to cheer for a Religion News Service feature that came out with this headline: "Unrelenting killing of Coptic Christians intensifies debate over martyrdom."

This is a story about a very complex issue: Is there a point at which praising Christian believers who are killed by the Islamic State turns into a bad thing, when crying "martyrdom" begins to blur the lines between terrorism and the kinds of heroic witness honored by the church through the ages?

Before I mention my one question about this fine story, let's look at some crucial summary material near the top:

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.

Here is the crucial question: Is being blown up by a bomb, or killed in random violence, truly an act of "witness" to the Christian faith delivered to the apostles?

Now, this next quote is strong stuff, reacting to the ideas expressed by Father George::

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.”

Now, here is my one concern. The story describes two different kinds of deaths at the hands of ISIS. In one case, people are being killed randomly. In the other, believers are being killed after being confronted by terrorists -- face to face -- in acts that pivot on the Christian's refusal to renounce their faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

The second kind of death includes an explicit act of witness, a public refusal to surrender the faith. I don't think there is any question that these believers are dying as martyrs.

However, that isn't the same thing as dying in a bombing. Right? I am not arguing the these deaths are meaningless or lacking in tragedy. However, they fall short of the theological content assigned to martyrdom through the centuries.

You can tell that the RNS team is thinking about some of these details, but -- in my eyes -- the wire service stopped just short of articulating the key issue in this debate. See these two passages. First there is this:

Coptic leader Pope Tawadros II ... 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.

What does the word "martyr" mean in this passage? I am not sure. But later there is this, referring to the deaths of pilgrims on their way to visit a desert monastery:

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.
“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.

See the theological difference, the explicit connection to the many acts of "witness" by martyrs through the ages?

This is a fine story. I simply think readers needed one more point clarified to understand what this poignant debate is all about.

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