By: Emma Lane, Regional Manager for the Middle East
2/15/2016 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – One year ago today, the world was instantaneously subject to the most gruesome display of murder in our time. While those in the West try to empathize with the violence of modern non-state warfare at the hands of terrorists, we are often unable or unwilling to visualize it as reality.
ISIS made that possible. A group of savage beasts under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had only recently come to the global stage at this time last year. On February 15, 2015, they released a video beheading 21 Christians: 20 from Egypt and 1 from Ethiopia. Few of us alive on this planet will ever forget that video or the imagines it left with us.
Today, however, rather than retrace the past and focus on the bloodshed and horrific nature of that tragedy, I want to talk about the legacy of those 21 martyrs. The nature of the infamous video makes it difficult to watch, but for those that thought they could stomach the pain of modern martyrdom, one thing stood out: the men in orange, on their knees, were singing hymns on that beach. For days, their ISIS kidnappers demanded they renounce their faith in Christ and accept Islam and they refused. Most of those men were likely told they would be able to go home and see their families if only they muttered the simple words that renounced their faith in Christ. Yet every single one of them refused.
I wonder if I would refuse to renounce my faith when faced with imminent and certain death, after undergoing the torture they sustained as captives.
Recently, I had the incredible privilege to meet some of the family members of these 13 men of faith. In the midst of my Westernized inability to comprehend how to undergo a conversation with such “victims,” I was immediately overwhelmed by their faith. I asked the surviving family members, as a group, what message they would give to followers of Christ in America if they could say one thing. The first answer I heard was from Jaya Stephanos Kamel. She and her brother Bashir watched two of their brothers, Bishoy and Samer, lose their lives on that beach. “All of us must be ready to die for our faith. We are proud of our brothers, but we have been told what we will face in this world, and should be prepared to accept that in faith and joy not matter what.” Jaya’s words have continued to replay in my head. Her voice (and those voices of those I met with) was firm and strong, seeping through deep emotions and scars that may never heal on this Earth. The balance of deep loss measured against unrelenting faith in Christ was something I have never witnessed first hand.
She asked me later that day to tell her what I would do if it were my family. Would I forgive the ISIS militants that were shown in that video? I simply answered that I believed in evil. I believe in a powerful evil that can overtake the soul of any human who doesn’t belong to Christ, and in that I can forgive all who seek true forgiveness and restoration. She and her cousin both nodded in agreement. That is something they have worked hard to do–forgive the militants that took their brothers’ lives in front of the entire world. But who am I to say I could forgive? The truth is, I do not know. I don’t know that I possess the capacity to understand their pain. I hope that if I ever am forced to understand it, I will have an ounce of the faith these families do.
What excuse do I have, as an American, to complain about my circumstances? What excuse do I have to project judgment against my fellow man rather than show love and compassion, even to someone who doesn’t know Christ? I sat before warriors of faith in talking to these families, but not because they had a new vendetta or some revenge tactic, that we so often idealize. They are warriors because their love of Christ is unrelenting and it grows everyday. Their unwavering faith is seen through their obvious contentment. They know, without a doubt, that all who die in Christ are immediately united with our Lord God and King. Sure, this doesn’t erase their pain. But these family members wanted to share their faith in Christ and their contentment that the martyred loved ones are wearing the Crown of Righteousness in heaven. This type of Christ-follower is reminiscent of figures I have only read about in the Bible.
The days of apathy and Biblical “characters” being considered actors in some far-off reality are behind us, and the time is coming when we all must be willing to ask what we are called to do as followers and disciples of Christ. Are we willing to stand firm in our faith even to the point of death in this world? Are we ready to undergo persecution because of our faith and withstand it even to the end? Are we ready to “be hated by everyone because of [Christ]” as we remain steadfast in our adherence to his gospel and the Great News of his death that paid our price? What has He called us to do? Why has He allowed us to undergo the hurts that we have faced in this World? Is there a higher purpose that we must begin to grasp?
I can’t write about a tragedy on this horrific anniversary because I have met the bloodline of the 21 martyrs, and I have been awakened by their testimonies. I can’t write about sorrow because I can hear the songs of praise coming from their lips before their lives were taken. I can’t recount horror that feeds the fears of the people when those closest to the situation do not fear death because they know exactly where they are going.
Today, let’s choose to look at the 21 martyrs’ death as a wake up call to the followers of Christ. Let’s reignite the church in America that has grown cold in rendering love and speaking the good news, now largely replaced by political agendas and anger. Let’s celebrate the legacy these men left by standing today with their families and proclaiming that “we are ready to stand firm in our faith.”