In 2015, the entire world was mesmerized as every horror movie seemed to converge in the sands of the Libyan desert. That February, 21 Christian men were ritually slaughtered in one of the first scripted and elaborately produced acts of terror created specifically to be broadcast. Horrific carnage splashed across the estimated five billion screens around the world at once.
Leading up to the climatic blood-letting was a 40-day Islamic “promotional” campaign. ISIS members repeatedly demanded the Christians convert to Islam, making it clear this was their only way out. Prisoners refused in resolute and total unity. It was like looking at gods circled by mangy, snarling creatures.
Cameras recorded a row of stoic faces against the backdrop of the sea. Except for whispered prayers, the men were solemn and silent, ignoring cameras and threats. Prisoners were taking on an otherworldly aura by then, inviting astonishment more than pity.
In response to the carnage, there was universal outrage. Media glorified the peaceful martyrs and vilified armed ISIS terrorists. The UN rushed to make resolutions, and even kept them. Cultural capitalists in Hollywood took on anti-ISIS projects, and films against Islamic venom are lined up to come out soon.
Wait, you didn’t see any of that either? The sorry truth is that people have neither the attention span or interest. But the Eastern Church traditionally honors its martyrs, and has had 2,000 years to perfect it. One way is through making icons for commemoration and admiration of their saints.
All but one of the young men were Egyptian, and 13 were from one small village 125 miles south of Cairo, Al Aour. As most of Egypt’s Christians, they belonged to the Coptic Orthodox Church based in Alexandria.
The first publicly unveiled icon honoring the Libyan 21 was created by Egyptian-American artist Tony Rezk in 2015. It is extremely stylized and relatively simple. Identities of individual martyrs are only hinted at. This is intentional, where repetition emphasizes the communion of all saints. Christ hovers in a ring over them, witnessing their death from heaven. Behind them the “sea and waves roaring” stack up in symbolically colored layers.
Asked about his purpose by the National Review, Rezk said: “If the video didn’t move me, then I couldn’t be a human being.” The artist also quoted the Bible in answer: “If one member [of the Body of Christ] suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” (1Cor. 12:2).
Rezk claims there has been “overwhelming interest” in this icon – even by Catholics and Protestants. The image is even featured on a sweatshirt. The making of icons is part of an ancient tradition, and has changed little since the Middle Ages. Since Rezk’s art is digitally produced, he isn’t certain if the Church will be so open to his work in the future.
Another Orthodox artist made a searing image that ended up in European art galleries. Nikola Sarić is a Serbian-German artist. Like Rezk, he claims his striking piece was a personal reaction more than anything else, but he had studied icons long before. Sarić describes how he stared for hours at an icon of the crucifixion in the monastery of Studenica. “For me that was not just a painting but the reality beyond any comprehension. I did not want to paint like that but to grasp the essence of the image or what made the painter make such icon.”
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Sarić’s piece has elements of antiquity – repetition, simplicity, symbolism – yet feels contemporary. Christ presides over a long panel of men who form a visible Body to his Head. Inclusion of the ISIS members here makes Sarić’s work stand out. Inhumanly identical, the rows of black-swaddled creatures at first glance look like giant centipedes reaching out for each man.
Then there are the very unorthodox orange jumpsuits. ISIS intended to score political points with these, which are identical to the prisoner garb at Guantanamo (some of the killers may have been released from there). But attempts at portraying some grimly deserved revenge fell flat. So did other oriental hyperbole, such as the towering ISIS members in the video – a pathetic use of film editing programs … except the blood, death, and bereavement were all too real.
Although exact portraits are avoided in iconography, subtle differences in Sarić’s work mark each face; the curve of a mustache, heavier eyebrows, or no beard. In both icons, one black face stands out among the others.
Mathew Ayairga was from Chad, and was kidnapped with his fellow workers. He was not a believer. Each man was asked “Do you reject Christ?” on camera, just before their execution. Mathew not only refused, but stated: “Their God is my God.” Only the courage and faith of the Egyptians could have steeled him for this last decision.
Immediately, the Coptic Church designated all 21 men as martyrs. Only a few months later, Pope Tawadros II announced the slaughter will be annually commemorated on Feb. 15. Their Coptic calendar is essentially based on martyrdom, a common occurrence where Islam rules.
Each man’s name was also added to “Coptic Synaxarium,” which is their version of the Roman Catholic Martyrology. Officially, all 21 men are now canonized and considered “saints” of equal stature to St. Mark the evangelist, who wrote the Gospel and established the Church in Alexandria.
Compared to the cowardly, well-armed terrorists, the behavior of these Christians was inspiring But their survivors had a hard choice: revenge or forgiveness. Early CNN interviews before the men’s bodies were barley cool quoted mother Om Beshir, who lost two boys in the massacre. In a state of shock, she was not feeling forgiveness. “The bastards kidnapped them. Like they deprived me of my sons, I hope God deprives them.” A reasonable desire for justice.
But less than a week later, in an interview with SAT 7-Arabic, the family of brothers Bishoy and Samuel changed its attitude. A surviving son, Beshir Kamel, thanked ISIS for not editing out their declaration of faith, where they called upon Jesus Christ before their deaths. Beshir was asked how they would feel if approached by an Islamic State militant, and he quoted the same mother who previously wanted revenge: “My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [him] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven.”
Other icons are showing up and more will likely appear, after such a gripping ordeal. Modern iconographer Fakhoury made a distinctly Egyptian contribution in memory of the men. “The souls under the altar” are tribute to the 21 martyrs, with reference to a chilling passage from the Book of Revelation (6:19): “I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?”
But these aren’t the only modern icons for martyred Christians. In 1996, a 19-year-old Russian soldier died because he refused to remove a small silver cross and convert to Islam. The agonizing death of Evgeny Aleksandrovich Rodionov came at the hands of Chechnyan rebels, who had kidnapped and tortured him for days. His story is well known in Russia, and several icons have been made in his honor. Legend has it a WWII veteran removed his Medal for Courage, and left it at Evgeny’s tombstone. Paintings of the teen saint in his fatigues and a red cloak always show the little cross that cost him his life.
Directly after the carnage of the Libyan Martyrs, while all religions were united in shock, the Bible Society of Egypt distributed gospel tracts there. This poem was part of their message (in Arabic):
Who fears the other?
The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?