by Joseph F. Naumann
This past February, the world was shocked by the brutality of the Islamic State militants as they released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who were working in Libya in order to provide a better life for their families.
In their early to mid-20s, these 21 modern martyrs were tortured by the Islamic militants in an effort to motivate them to deny Jesus. As a result of their refusal to deny Our Lord, they were executed on a beach in Libya while singing Christian hymns.
Pope Francis expressed his sympathy to the Coptic Patriarchate and to the families of the martyrs, noting that “they were killed simply for the fact of being Christian.” Pope Francis stated: “The blood of our Christian brothers is a testimony which cries out to be heard.”
The mother of Gabir Munir Adly, one of the 21 Egyptian martyrs, said about her son: “I am so happy that he remained true to his faith in Christ. This is so much better than what could have happened.”
The father of Esam Budir, another of the 21 martyrs, said of his son’s death: “My heart aches, but I thank God for giving me this amazing gift. He truly lived for Christ in amazing integrity and uprightness and now died for Christ. Esam has made us proud.”
Gabir’s mother also said that if she were able to communicate with her son’s murderers, she would say, “From all my heart, may God forgive you and remove the scales off of your eyes and place you on the right path, the path of light. Our Christ taught us love and peace and forgiveness. He didn’t teach us to take revenge. He didn’t teach us to curse if we are cursed, or kill if we are killed.”
The word “martyr” means “witness.” The Christian martyrs throughout the church’s history have given the ultimate witness of their faith. Martyrs are willing to sacrifice life in this world, rather than deny Jesus. Along with my admiration for these young martyrs, I am also in awe of the testimonies of their parents. What an example they are of living our Christian faith in the most difficult of circumstances!
The contrast between these 21 Egyptian martyrs and their executioners could not be more profound. These young Egyptians were poor men simply attempting to provide a better life for their families. They had done nothing to provoke the Islamic militants other than refuse to deny their Christian faith.
The example of these modern Christian martyrs prompts the question for every Christian: How much are we willing to sacrifice for Jesus, for our Christian faith? We are fortunate to live in a country that has historically set the gold standard for protection of religious liberty and conscience rights. However, in recent years, we have seen troubling efforts to narrow the American notion of religious liberty.
The Health and Human Services (HHS) mandates that are part of this administration’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act attempt to coerce religious employers, like the Little Sisters of the Poor, to provide in their employee health plans so-called “services” (abortifacients, contraceptives and sterilizations) that violate their sincerely held religious and moral beliefs.
Similarly, we have witnessed efforts to force small business owners (e.g., florists, photographers, bakers, and now even a pizza parlor) to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies or to be saddled with fines and attorney fees that will put them out of business.
It has been a positive development of our time to make unacceptable the ridicule and mockery of those who experience same-sex attractions. It is not too many years ago that those with same-sex attractions were the targets of cruel jokes and offensive humor. The Catholic Church has consistently called its members — and society as a whole — to treat individuals experiencing same-sex attractions with respect and compassion.
For some gay activists, however, extending respect and compassion to those experiencing same-sex attractions is not sufficient. Their goal is not just to be respected as persons, but to compel everyone to approve of behaviors, even if these behaviors are inconsistent with deeply held moral and religious convictions.
If extreme gay activists get what they want regarding the law, individuals choosing to live a gay lifestyle could become, legally, a protected class. If this were to happen, it is not inconceivable that Catholic schools would be required to hire or retain teachers who are living in a manner inconsistent with Catholic moral teaching, or shut their doors. Those presenting themselves as championing tolerance are, in fact, creating a new intolerance.
The Egyptian and other modern martyrs remind us that living our Catholic faith will require us to be different than our prevailing culture. We are called to speak the truth with love, even when we may be ridiculed by the popular culture. Following Jesus faithfully requires heroic sacrifice. Jesus Christ and our Catholic faith are worth both living for and worth dying for.