A memorial for the 21 Christian martyrs who were slaughtered by the Islamic State for refusing to renounce their faith was inaugurated last February 15, on the five year anniversary of the tragedy, which took place in Libya, 2015. Pictured above, it consists of 21 kneeling statues, each fashioned after the appearance of one of the martyrs, with a large statue of Christ behind them, his arms open in an embrace of salvation. This memorial stands in the Egyptian village of Al Our, where many of the slain Coptic Christians came from.
The day after the Islamic State had released the video of their slaughter, Coptic Orthodox Bishop Anba Antonios Aziz Mina, said: “[I]n that diabolic product of bloodthirsty play-acting and horror, some martyrs can clearly be seen to say at the moment of their barbarous execution ‘Lord, Jesus Christ!’ The name of Jesus was their last word. Like the passion of the early martyrs, they entrusted themselves to He, who moments later, would welcome them into his embrace. This was how they celebrated their victory, a victory of which no executioner could ever rob them. With that name, whispered at the very last, their martyrdom was sealed.”
The slain are ultimately modern day reflections of an ancient (and ongoing) phenomenon that permeates nearly fourteen centuries of history: Muslims slaughtering Christians who refuse to renounce Christ and embrace Muhammad.
Indeed, earlier this month, on March 6, the martyrdom of 42 other Christians was commemorated. They too were beheaded—1,171 years before half their number (the 21 martyrs of 2015) were executed under very similar circumstances. Known as the 42 Martyrs of Amorium, their dramatic story follows:
In 838, Caliph al-Mu‘tasim—at the head of eighty thousand slave-soldiers—burst into Amorium, one of the Eastern Roman Empire’s largest and most important cities. They burned and razed it to the ground and slaughtered countless; everywhere there were “bodies heaped up in piles,” recalled a chronicler. The invaders locked those who sought sanctuary inside their churches and set the buildings aflame; trapped Christians could be heard crying kyrie eleison—“Lord have mercy!” in Greek—while being roasted alive. Hysterical “women covered their children, like chickens, so as not to be separated from them, either by sword or slavery.”
About half of the city’s seventy thousand citizens were slaughtered, the rest hauled off in chains. There was such a surplus of human booty that when the caliph came across four thousand male prisoners he ordered them executed on the spot. Because there “were so many women’s convents and monasteries” in this populous Christian city, “over a thousand virgins were led into captivity, not counting those that had been slaughtered. They were given to the Moorish and Turkish slaves, so as to assuage their lust,” laments the chronicler.
When the young emperor, Theophilus (r. 829–842), heard about the sack of Amorium—his hometown, chosen by the caliph for that very reason, to make the sting hurt all the more—he fell ill and died three years later, aged 28, reportedly from sorrow. Meanwhile, the Muslim poet Abu Tammam (805‐845) celebrated the caliph’s triumph, since “You have left the fortunes of the sons of Islam in the ascendant, and the polytheists [Christians] and the abode of polytheism in decline.”
Among the many captives carted off to Iraq were forty-two notables, mostly from the military and clerical classes. Due to their prestigious status and in order to make them trophies of Islam, they were repeatedly pressured to convert:
During the seven years of their imprisonment, their captors tried in vain to persuade them to renounce Christianity and accept Islam. The captives stubbornly resisted all their seductive offers and bravely held out against terrible threats. After many torments that failed to break the spirit of the Christian soldiers, they condemned them to death, hoping to shake the determination of the saints before executing them. The martyrs remained steadfast…
Interestingly, some of the arguments used by Muslims indicate that they acknowledged Christ as the Prince of Peace and Muhammad as the Lord of War—and played it to great effect. One Theodore, a Christian cleric who fought in defense of Amorium, was goaded as follows: “We know that you forsook the priestly office, became a soldier and shed blood [of Muslims] in battle. You can have no hope in Christ, whom you abandoned voluntarily, so accept Mohammed.” Theodore replied: “You do not speak truthfully when you say that I abandoned Christ. Moreover, I left the priesthood because of my own unworthiness. Therefore, I must shed my blood for the sake of Christ, so that He might forgive the sins that I have committed against Him.”
In the end, none would recant; and so, on March 6, 845, after seven years of torture and temptation failed to make them submit to Muhammad, all 42 Christians were—like their 21 spiritual descendants, the martyrs of 2015—also marched to a body of water, the Euphrates River, ritually beheaded, and their bodies dumped into the river.
When it comes to the Muslim persecution of Christians, past and present, some things apparently never change.