ISIS

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

After one trip into Libya as a migrant worker, Tawadros Youssef Tawadros reported that he had been warned that his Christian name -- "Theodore," in English -- might anger Muslim radicals.

His widow, Maleka Ayad, recalled him saying: "Anyone who starts changing his name will end up changing his faith."

Malak Ibrahim Seniut was more blunt, in a final talk with his priest. Told that Christians could be witnesses by living a long, faithful life, the young man replied: "That's not enough for me. I want to do it through death."

On Feb. 15, 2015, both were among the men beheaded by Islamic State soldiers on a beach in Libya. All 21 -- 20 Egyptian Copts and a Ghanan who professed his Christian faith -- were soon declared martyrs by the Coptic Orthodox Church. This is the latest chapter in a long drama, detailed by writer Martin Mosebach, of the German Academy of Arts.

"The Coptic Church, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist, is among the earliest manifestations of Christianity. In 1,400 years of suppression after the Islamic conquest, it has still preserved its original form and it has proven to have the most amazing vitality," he said, at an event this week in New York City, marking the release of the English edition of his book, "The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs."

"The faith found in this church was and is stronger than all of the economic and social disadvantages Christians have to suffer. The Coptic Church has never been broken by political oppression. The Christianity of the first millennium is still to be found there and is … a living reality."

After immersing himself in the village culture surrounding these new saints, the Catholic author reached this conclusion: For these men, liturgy and martyrdom were "two sides of one and the same coin."

There was something truly iconic about those 21 men in orange jumpsuits kneeling on that beach, said Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London.

Holy Week parable: Yes, faith played role in life, sacrifice of Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame

Holy Week parable: Yes, faith played role in life, sacrifice of Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame

Three years ago, a French police officer traveled to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne d'Auray near the Brittany coast, seeking yet another change in his already eventful life.

Arnaud Beltrame made his pilgrimage to offer prayers that he would meet "the woman of his life." Soon afterwards he met Marielle Vandenbunder and they celebrated their engagement in 2016 -- at Easter. They were married a few months later.

That was a secular union. Arnaud and Marielle wanted more time to prepare for a truly Catholic marriage, according to Father Jean-Baptiste of the Abbey of St. Mary of Lagrasse in South France. The wedding was set for June 9, 2018.

Father Jean-Baptiste was at their side all through that process. He was also at their side performing last rites -- hours before Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week -- when Lt. Col. Beltrame died hours after a sacrificial act that caused mourning across France.

French President Emmanuel Macron was blunt, stating that by "giving his life to end the murderous escapade of a jihadist terrorist, he died a hero."

Pope Francis sent his condolences to the families of those killed and injured when a self-proclaimed ISIS supporter attacked a supermarket in Trebes. The pope singled out the "generous and heroic" act by Beltrame, who offered himself as a substitute for a female hostage the gunman was using as a human shield.

The 45-year-old officer entered the standoff alone and placed his cellphone -- the line open -- on a table, allowing police to listen in. After two hours officers heard gunfire and rushed inside, killing the gunman. The fatal blow to Beltrame was a knife stab to the neck.

In a lengthy interview with Famille Chretienne (Christian Family), Father Jean-Baptiste went much further than the pope, when linking Beltrame's heroism with his pilgrimage to faith.

The officer "knew the incredible risk he was taking. He also knew the promise of a religious marriage he had made to Marielle, who is already his wife and loves him tenderly, of which I am a witness," said the monk, in a transcript, translated online from French.

What Vice President Pence said about global (not U.S.) persecution of Christians

What Vice President Pence said about global (not U.S.) persecution of Christians

Their loved ones died on a Libyan beach, beheaded by Islamic State militants as cameras recorded their agony for a 2015 propaganda video.

Some of the Coptic Christians died repeating these words: "Lord, Jesus Christ." An ISIS leader in a ski mask, in turn, offered this warning: "We will conquer Rome with Allah's permission."

During the recent World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, relatives of these modern martyrs stood to receive the applause of participants, who came from 136 nations -- including the ravaged lands of the Middle East and Africa.

"Today our Christian brothers and sisters across the world are facing persecution and martyrdom on an unprecedented scale," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, who hosted the event for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. "No part of the Christian family is exempt -- Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox -- nor is any part of the world exempt."

There were other poignant moments, including an Iranian woman ringing a memorial bell for the dead, including her father who was hanged for converting to Christianity. Summit speakers represented the global church, including remarks by Archbishop Christophe Louis Yves Georges Pierre, the U.S. ambassador for Pope Francis, and a major address by Metropolitan Hilarion, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church's ecumenical office.

But this meeting was held in Washington, D.C., and led by the always outspoken Franklin Graham -- who called the persecution of Christians "genocide." Also, an address by Vice President Mike Pence guaranteed some mainstream news coverage, as well as a hot spotlight on the U.S. political implications of his remarks.

Thus, a Huffington Post news report claimed: "Pence reiterated a common belief among conservative Christians in the U.S. that they are among the most persecuted people of faith in the world."

While the vice president alluded to trends in the United States, he made it clear that his primary worries and prayers about persecution were global.

Complex facts on persecution hiding behind that Muslim Ban hashtag

The late 1980s were dark times for Jews trying to flee persecution in the fading Soviet Union.

Finally, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) acted, adding language to a massive 1990 appropriations bill to offer special assistance to refugees in persecuted religious minorities. Year after year, the Lautenberg amendment has been extended to provide a lifeline to Jews, Baha'is, Christians and others fleeing persecution in Iran, the former Soviet bloc and parts of Asia.

"There's nothing new about the United States taking religion into account when it's clear that refugees are part of persecuted minority groups," said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. He also teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

"Tragically, religion is part of the refugee crises we see around the world right now and that certainly includes what's happening in Syria and Iraq."

Thus, Tadros and a few other religious-freedom activists paid close attention -- during the #MuslimBan firestorm surrounding President Donald Trump's first actions on immigration -- when they saw language in the executive order that was more nuanced than the fiery rhetoric in the headlines.

In social media, critics were framing everything in reaction to this blunt presidential tweet: "Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!" Trump also told the Christian Broadcasting Network: "If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States. … If you were a Muslim, you could come in."

However, the wording of the executive order proposed a different agenda, stating that the "Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

The New York Times, however, summarized this part of the order by saying it "gives preferential treatment to Christians who try to enter the United States from majority-Muslim nations."

Islamic State leaders attempt to read Pope Francis a theological riot act

Islamic State leaders attempt to read Pope Francis a theological riot act

Moments before the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians, an Islamic State leader warned "Crusaders" that this rite was being held on a North African beach for a reason.

Previous videos of ISIS fighters "chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time" were filmed in Iraq and Syria, he noted, in fluent English. "Today, we are … south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

When the slaughter was over, the lead executioner stressed again: "We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission."

Time after time, Pope Francis has refused to take this bait -- consistently stating his conviction that true Islam promotes peace, not violence. He said this again when a reporter asked about the murder of the elderly Father Jacques Hamel in France.

"I don't like to speak of Islamic violence," said Francis, flying home from World Youth Day in Poland. "When I browse the newspapers, I see violence, here in Italy -- this one who has murdered his girlfriend, another who has murdered the mother-in-law -- and these are baptized Catholics! …

"If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence. … Not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent. It is like a fruit salad -- there's everything."

The terrorists who slaughtered the Egyptian Christians, he added, were quick to "show us their identity cards" as part of the Islamic State. "But this is a fundamentalist group which is called 'ISIS.' But you cannot say -- I do not believe -- that it is true or right that Islam is terrorist."

The pope's stand has caused debate among Catholics and other Christians, as well as quiet tensions with Christians in the ancient Middle Eastern churches. However, he has drawn praise from mainstream Islamic leaders, who stress the fact that ISIS has massacred countless Muslims who have rejected its radical vision of the faith.

Now, in a new issue of its magazine Dabiq -- entitled "Break the Cross" -- ISIS has responded directly to the pope of Rome, arguing that Francis has been misled by Muslims who are themselves heretics.

Did the terrorists who murdered Father Jacques Hamel know what they were doing?

One after another, news reports about violence at Catholic churches in France kept stacking up.

There was a mysterious fire on a church altar in Provence. Elsewhere, someone attacked the tabernacle containing the unleavened bread used in the Mass, scattering hosts on the floor. Attackers destroyed crosses and crucifixes in graveyards.

None of this surprised the Pro Europa Christiana Federation, which collects French media reports on anti-Christian acts of this kind. In 2015 they found 810 similar attacks in France.

But the murder of Father Jacques Hamel was different. The attackers interrupted a Mass, shouting "Allahu Akbar" and references to the Islamic State. The duo forced the elderly priest to kneel at the altar, where they slit his throat in what may have been an attempted beheading.

A nun who escaped -- Sister Danielle -- told reporters: "They told me, 'you Christians, you kill us.' They forced him to his knees. … That's when the tragedy happened. They recorded themselves. They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It's a horror."

This drama unfolded in the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, named for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, noted Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Australia, during a "Mass In Time Of Persecution" in Sydney.

"Though we welcome the solidarity of those of other faiths, and while we recognize that this was very much an attack on France, on civilization, on all religions more generally, we cannot ignore the fact that this was also a targeted attack on our Christian faith," he said.

Pope and patriarch point to the unity found among the modern martyrs

Metropolitan Hilarion of Russia left little room for doubt about his priorities when offered a few moments to speak during the Vatican's tense Synod on the Family.

"Militant secularism" was on the rise, he said last fall. Thus, Catholics and Orthodox Christians should stand united while defending the "traditional Christian understanding of the family," "marriage as a union between a man and a woman" and the "value of human life from conception till natural death."

But most of all, Moscow's top ecumenical diplomat wanted to talk about martyrs -- new martyrs.

Consider Iraq, home to 1.5 million Christians a few years ago. Today, 150,000 remain while the "others were either exterminated or expelled," he said. Then look at Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere.

"We are deeply concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe … unfolding in Syria, where militant Islamists are seeking political power," he said. Wherever jihadists "come to power, Christians are being persecuted or exterminated. Christian communities in Syria and other countries of the Middle East are crying for help, while the mass media in the West largely ignore their cries and the politicians prefer to close their eyes."

It was a foretaste of the historic "airport summit" declaration signed in Cuba by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Orthodox Church of Moscow and all Russia.

2015 and beyond: So much news about religious liberty battles at home and abroad

The goal of The Atlantic Monthly's recent LGBT Summit was to gather a flock of politicos, artists, activists and scribes to discuss the "Unfinished Business" of queer culture, after a historic win for gays at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The summit's final speaker was Andrew Sullivan, the British-born, HIV-positive, occasionally conservative, liberal Catholic whose trailblazing online journalism helped shape so many public debates.

Sullivan ranged from the genius of "South Park" to the impact of smartphone apps on dating, from the positive impact of gay porn to the lingering self-loathing that prevents some gays from embracing drugs that could end AIDS. He attacked Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, while yearning for another term for President Barack Obama.

Most of all, he stressed that it's time -- after a "tectonic" cultural shift on sexuality -- for professional LGBT activists to end the "whiny victimhood" in which they recite a "you're a bigot, we're oppressed, why do you hate us" litany to Americans who disagreed with them about anything.

Calling himself a "classical liberal," Sullivan stressed that gay leaders must accept that some believers will not surrender the ancient doctrines that define their faith. Thus, it's time for honest conversations between believers, gay and straight.

"The blanket … I would say, yes, bigotry towards large swaths of this country who may disagree with us right now … is not just morally wrong, it's politically counterproductive," he said, drawing screams of outrage on Twitter.

"Religious freedom is an incredibly important freedom. To my mind it is fundamental to this country and I am extremely queasy about any attempt to corral or coerce the religious faith of anybody."

Sullivan's comments captured one of the tensions that dominated the Religion Newswriters Association poll to select the Top 10 religion news events of 2015.

Striving to save churches, ancient and modern, in Iraq and Syria

The small chapel in ancient Dura, near the Euphrates River in western Syria, is not a spectacular historical site that tourists from around the world travel to see.

However, the diggings yielded priceless insights into life in an early Christian community, and a synagogue as well, in the days before Dura was abandoned in 257 A.D. The frescoes, for example, include an image of Christ the Good Shepherd -- one of the earliest surviving images of Jesus in Christian art.

Then came the Islamic State. Has the Good Shepherd fresco been destroyed?

"Religious heritage sites throughout ISIS held areas of Iraq and Syria have been suffering enormous damage and face constant risk. The targeted extermination of religious minorities by ISIS results in mass death and also the erasure of the outward manifestations of the minority religious culture, threatening the continuity of their religious practices," said Katharyn Hanson of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, in a recent House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing.

In her litany describing the destruction, she gave this verdict on what has happened in the "Pompeii of the Desert." The Dura-Europos site "has been extensively looted and is currently under ISIS control," she said. Scientists estimate that "some 76 percent of the site's surface area within the ancient city walls has now been looted."

The hearing's goal, of course, was documenting what is happening to flesh-and-blood believers -- especially women and children -- in minority faith communities inside the borders of the Islamic State, not just the ancient ruins and holy sites that symbolize their deep roots in the region. As Jacqueline Isaac of the organization Roads of Success testified: "We cherish ethnic and religious diversity. ISIS hates it."

The most anticipated testimony was by Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominicans of St. Catherine of Siena convent in Mosul, who was the only member of the delegation of Iraqi religious leaders invited to testify who was initially denied a visa by the U.S. State Department. She was the only Christian from Iraq in the group.