In John O’Sullivan’s timely piece on the persecution of Christians, from Friday, he writes that “a martyr is someone who, confronted with a choice between death and his faith, chooses to undergo death; a victim of persecution is someone who is killed or brutally abused because of his faith without being given a choice.” He argues that Mariam Fekry, a Copt who was killed in Alexandria in an attack on a church during Midnight Mass in 2010, is not a martyr because she “was not confronted with a choice between death and her faith.” Maybe, although, she probably knew that it is becoming more and more dangerous to be a Christian in Egypt and she may or may not have considered that in deciding to attend Mass that night. I suppose it’s most likely, though, that she wasn’t thinking she would die as a consequence of attending that particular Mass — but does that mean she isn’t a martyr?
The Church considers those who are murdered in odium fidei to be martyrs, regardless of whether the victim faced the scenario of making a radical choice, at the critical moment, between fidelity to faith and preserving his life. Someone who is killed because he is a Christian is a martyr simply because he has, to go back to one of the earliest understandings of the meaning of Christian persecution, suffered for the sake of the Name.
Saint Stephen, considered the first martyr of the Christian Church, wasn’t given the choice to renounce his faith or die that O’Sullivan claims defines martyrdom. The dramatic scene of his stoning in the Acts of the Apostles takes place after he has been accused of blasphemy before the high priest. The high priest asks him, “Is this so?” giving Stephen a chance to deny the testimony that was given against him. Stephen gives witness to his faith in Jesus Christ, accuses his accusers of having killed the Righteous One whom Moses foretold, and is promptly stoned by the enraged crowd, who are angry about being accused by him. Whether or not this account in Acts is taken as accurate history, it demonstrates that the Church does not share O’Sullivan’s definition of martyrdom. Stephen was the first martyr not because he was given a specific choice between rejecting his faith or death, but because those who killed him did so out of hatred for the message he preached.
There are plenty of martyrs who had even less of a choice in going to their deaths. In 2007, Pope Benedict beatified close to 200 Japanese Catholics who were killed in the 17th century during widespread and brutal persecution of Christians. They are all — including 18 who were under the age of five — considered by the Church to be martyrs. Is this a radical departure from what we usually think of as martyrdom? Merriam Webster defines martyrdom as “suffering of death on account of adherence to a cause and especially to one’s religious faith.” Mariam Fekry was certainly adhering to her faith in attending Mass, and she died because of it. Martyr means witness, one who testifies. Copts and others who are killed because they are Christians make a testament by their deaths, even if they don’t make a deliberate choice then and there to die rather than betray their faith. Their blood is a sign to the world that they believe blood has been spilled for them, too.