Remembering 21 martyrs on St. George’s Day
Updated: Apr 28, 2021
April 23 is St. George’s Day, marking the fourth-century martyrdom of this early Christian saint. The Roman Empire executed George during the reign of Diocletian for refusing to give up his Christian faith.
St. George’s courage in the face of persecution is not widely or accurately remembered, but the day provides an inflection point to remember 21st century martyrs. One unique effort is under way to remind the world about those who died at the hands of ISIS: a short film with the working title of 21 Martyrs.
The film focuses on the final days of 21 kidnapped Christians in Libya. In December 2014, ISIS terrorists abducted 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians working in the Libyan oil industry. The Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East, numbering around 10 million adherents. Only the pervasive poverty and religious discrimination of rural Egypt could make the danger of turbulent Libya remotely attractive. Soon after, the ISIS captors added a Ghanaian Christian to the group, bringing the number to 21.
In an act that shocked the world, ISIS staged a mass execution on the shores of the Mediterranean in February 2015. As many remember, ISIS released a sophisticated video showing terrorists dressed in black marching the 21 along the sea in orange jumpsuits. With music and dramatic camera shots, they videoed a mass beheading of all the men. ISIS wanted to project power and terror through one of the most gruesome examples of religious persecution in modern times.
Now, to honor those men and present the true story of their faithfulness to Christianity, an effort is under way to remember their heroism through art. 21 Martyrs is a short film currently in production that aims to demonstrate the ability of hope to overcome fear and the 21’s willingness to die for their faith instead of kill for it. I’ve seen a pre-production version of the 11-minute film. It’s a remarkable fusion of Coptic iconography and artistry that reminds me of graphic comic books. It delivers a powerful message of courage and hope. And it just looks cool.
The film is the brainchild of Mark Rodgers, who launched the ambitious project after he visited Egypt in 2019 and met “Mama Maggie” Gobran, whose ministry, Stephen’s Children, has served some of the martyrs’ families since their deaths (and indeed, a few of the martyrs grew up in Stephen’s Children programs in Egypt’s garbage slums). As the project website states, “The ISIS propaganda video is the only publicly available visual storytelling concerning the 21 martyrs and their courageous stand for their ancient faith …. That video does not depict the spiritual victory won by the martyred saints, thus creating the need for a counternarrative.”
Mandi Hart, with whom I have worked on other projects, is part of the team bringing this idea to life. Mandi said their goal is to “showcase the spiritual victory of the 21 martyrs as they stayed true to their faith, even in the face of death.”
Many Copts are directly involved, ensuring the story stays true to the aesthetic of Egyptian Christian culture. My friend, His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos of London, has provided feedback on the script and formally endorsed the project. The Ayoub Sisters, classically trained Coptic musicians out of the UK, have agreed to develop a soundtrack. Neo-Coptic artists such as Tony Rezk helped create the concept art that is visually arresting and representative of Coptic iconography. And Coptic animators like Bishoy Gendi, an artist and iconographer based in London, are translating the concept art into animation without losing its Coptic feel.
In addition to Coptic artists, the 21 Martyrs project connected early with three ministries serving Copts in Egypt: Stephen’s Children, the charity run by Mama Maggie mentioned above, Coptic Orphans and Hands Across the Nile. These three ministries provided advice and insight in the early stages of the project.
“Thirteen of the 20 Egyptians came from the same small village 150 miles south of Cairo.”
The developers of 21 Martyrs believe their project will inspire faith and sacrifice, despite the somber ending. Why? That’s what happened in real life.
Thirteen of the 20 Egyptians came from the same small village 150 miles south of Cairo. After the murders, the village priest, Father Makar Issa, told how the tragic news actually “had a positive effect, not a negative effect” on his community. During the month and a half while the group was kidnapped, Father Issa said, “the whole congregation was coming to the church to pray for their return, but in their prayers later on, they asked that if they died, they die for their faith, and that’s what happened. The congregation is actually growing, psychologically and spiritually.”
21 Martyrs is tragic and challenging, while hopeful and optimistic. The project wants to reorient the story away from their death to focus on their faith. St. George’s Day provides an opportunity to be inspired by their commitment and courage. Importantly, we should also pause to remember the countless others suffering for their beliefs around the world.
Knox Thames (@knoxthames) served as the State Department special advisor for religious minorities under both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is currently writing a book about 21st century persecution.