Two years ago this month Beshir Kamel went on television and thanked so-called Islamic State terrorists for not editing out the last words of his brother and the other Egyptian men they beheaded on a beach in Libya. “Lord, Jesus Christ,” were the last words of the Coptic Christians slaughtered because of their faith.
The courage and integrity of their witness strengthened Kamel’s faith. “We are proud to have this number of people from our village who have become martyrs,” he said after his brother’s murder. “Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyrs and have learned to handle everything that comes our way. This only makes us stronger in our faith, because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.” He further explained that his mother is prepared to welcome any of the men involved in her son’s beheading into her house. If one of them were to visit her, she would “ask God to open his eyes, because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven.”
The Christian host invited Kamel himself to pray for his brother’s murderers on television. This was Kamel’s prayer: “Dear God, please open their eyes to be saved and to quit their ignorance and the wrong teachings they were taught.”
What hope and what gratitude.
There are more persecuted Christians today than in the early days of Christianity, sources as varied at the Pew Foundation and Pope Francis will tell you. About the persecuted, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput makes two points in his new book, Strangers in a Strange Land:
First, the religious liberty that Americans take for granted is actually quite rare in the world. Even in the United States, our freedom to preach, teach, and witness our Catholic faith is only as strong as our willingness to live the faith vigorously in our own lives, and to work and fight for it in the public square.
Second, he writes, in particular as a reminder to Christians, for the sake of all of our neighbors, and strangers, and the world:
We can never forget that we fight for the God of Love. We need to engage with that spirit even those who hate us. The Coptic martyrs and their families — like the early Christians — call us to claim the more excellent way. They remind us that we should bless our persecutors and pray for their conversion, that we should even be thankful for the opportunity to suffer for the sake of Christ. Only that kind of radical love can, in the end, bring victory not on the world’s terms, but the victory of genuine peace in Christ.
Why does this matter to the world? Because if we care anything about peace in the Middle East, for starters, having some of these people in the mix is just and right — Christianity has been there since its earliest days. It also matters because these martyrs are leaven there — refusing hatred even at machete’s edge. “Christian faith can turn ordinary men and women into heroes,” Chaput writes. “Christians in the Middle East offer us a powerful lesson in how to live as Jesus lived.”
Chaput also quotes from Archbishop Amel Nona, formerly head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Mosul, Iraq, appointed after his predecessor was murdered. Addressing Christians in the West, Nona wrote:
The Christian faith is not an abstract, rational theory, remote from actual, everyday life, but a means of discovering its deepest meaning, its highest expression as revealed by the Incarnation. When the individual discovers this possibility, he or she will be willing to endure absolutely anything and will do everything to safeguard this discovery — even if this means having to die in its cause.
It was not all that long ago that we celebrated Christmas. And if it is not just a matter of Hallmark cards and nostalgia, those who face persecution with love point the way to something that goes beyond “resist” and grievances and some possible reprieves until another presidential administration takes yet different actions again on some matters of life and death and religious freedom.
As Archbishop Chaput puts it:
In China, India, North Korea, and many Muslim nations, harassment and bloody persecution of Christians are now common. As free members of the body of Christ, we need to live our faith all the more zealously for those who cannot. The witness of the early martyrs reminds us that as much as a passionately Christian life is difficult, it’s also a life of joy.
This is the kind of selflessness — based on the Beatitudes — that our “selfie” world needs. It’s the road to the kind of happiness that otherwise can seem illusory or even downright impossible. The martyrs show the way; they are icons of hope and joy, tilling fields for a culture of forgiveness and love.