terrorism

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.

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.

Fundamental Breivik truths

As journalists began digging into the who, what, when, where, why and how of Anders Behring Breivik, the deputy police chief of Oslo faced a media scrum and served up the day's hottest sound bite. "What we know is that he is right wing and he is a Christian fundamentalist," he said, the morning after the hellish attack on Norway's Labor Party and on the children that were its future.

That was the English version of the quote that jumped into American news reports and wire service stories around the globe.

Breivik was officially a "Christian fundamentalist." He was also a "Christian extremist" in a New York Times headline, a "religious conservative" on an ABC newscast and a "Christian terrorist" in an Associated Press report.

However, the pivotal "fundamentalist" phrase sounded a bit different in the context of the televised Norwegian press conference that ignited this media storm, said the Rev. Arne H. Fjeldstad, a minister in the Church of Norway and a former senior editor at the major Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. He is also one of my colleagues in the GetReligion.org project to study the mainstream media's coverage of religion news.

Translating from the Norwegian, Fjeldstad said the police claimed that Breivik was part of a "Christian, fundamentalist, extreme-right environment in Norway." The key was his violent opposition to the political policies known as "multiculturalism."

"I am not sure this police official knew what he was saying when he used the word 'fundamentalist,' " said Fjeldstad. "I think he was trying to say that this was a crazy, lunatic, radical guy on the political fringe and he is calling himself a Christian."

It's crucial to know, he added, that "fundamentalist" has literally been pulled into the Norwegian language from English -- even if there is very little history of Protestant fundamentalism in Norway.

During debates inside the Church of Norway, said Fjeldstad, the term is primarily used by liberals to describe conservatives who stress the Bible's authority as the "inspired word of God" and who defend traditional Christian doctrines on moral issues. While there are Christian groups in America who identify themselves as "fundamentalists," this is not the case in Norway.

As media around the world quickly reported, Breivik did identify himself as a Christian -- period -- on his Facebook page. He also added other details about his religious and cultural beliefs in his 1,500-page online manifesto, "2083 -- A European Declaration of Independence."

At the age of 15, Breivik apparently chose to be baptized and confirmed into the state church. However, the writings left behind by the 32-year-old radical also stress that he does not hold traditional Christian beliefs or practice the faith. Instead, he carefully identifies himself as a "Christian agnostic" or a "Christian atheist (cultural Christian)." In his manifesto, Breivik emphasizes his identity as a Free Mason, his interest in Odinist Norse traditions and his role as a "Justiciar Knight" in a new crusade against Islam.

"If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian," he wrote, in a passage that found its way into a few media reports. "Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian."

Breivik explicitly separates himself from conservative forms of Christianity, at one point noting: "It is therefore essential to understand the difference between a 'Christian fundamentalist theocracy' (everything we do not want) and a secular European society based on our Christian cultural heritage (what we do want).

"So, no, you don't need to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus to fight for our Christian cultural heritage. It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian-atheist."

In other words, noted Fjeldstad, for Breivik the "Christian" label is cultural or political -- but not a statement of personal faith in his case.

"If you are going to use the word 'fundamentalist' it must be used to describe someone who is a very conservative Christian when he is talking about the Bible and the practice of the faith," he said. Thus, a fundamentalist Christian "would always place a heavy emphasis on having a personal faith in Jesus Christ. ...

"So whatever Anders Breivik is, the last thing you can call him is a 'fundamentalist' Christian."

Nervous believers in Year 18

Religious folks sure get nervous when public officials talk about "fundamentalist" gunmen invading a school.

Consider what happened recently after a staged emergency at Burlington Township High School in New Jersey. The police script for the drill called for armed men to crash the front doors, shoot several students and barricade themselves in the library with hostages. This document, according to the Burlington County Times, described the intruders as part of "a right-wing fundamentalist group called the 'New Crusaders' who do not believe in the separation of church and state." The two gunmen attacked because a child had been expelled for praying.

For some reason, evangelical pastors became alarmed. Thus, local officials and educators released a statement saying they regretted "any insensitivity that might have been inferred" by this scenario, including any offense taken by those who "inferred" that the mock terrorists were Christians.

I have no idea why pastors "inferred" that organizers of this tax-funded drill had in any way suggested that "right-wing" fundamentalists in a "New Crusaders" army opposed to the "separation of church and state" and angry about a "school prayer" dispute might be conservative Christians.

No way. Why would anyone "infer" something like that?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Boredom is rarely a problem for journalists on the religion beat. That's why I mark this column's anniversary every year -- this is No. 18 -- by offering a grab-bag collection of strange stories that I didn't have the chutzpah or the time to cover during the previous 12 months. So hang on.

* During holiday seasons, I get all kinds of email and often it's hard to tell when people are joking. For example, I received an copy of "The Two-Minute Haggadah: A Passover service for the impatient." It condensed the rite's pivotal four questions to this:

(1) "What's up with the matzoh?" (2) "What's the deal with horseradish?" (3) "What's with the dipping of the herbs?" (4) "What's this whole slouching at the table business?" The answers? "(1) "When we left Egypt, we were in a hurry. There was no time for making decent bread." (2) "Life was bitter, like horseradish." (3) "It's called symbolism." (4) "Free people get to slouch."

* No joke. The KFC restaurant chain did ask Pope Benedict XVI to bless its new "Fish Snacker" product, which the company said would be "ideal for American Catholics who want to observe Lenten season traditions while still leading their busy, modern lifestyles." Apparently, the pope declined.

* Try to imagine the media response if President George W. Bush ended a United Nations address with a call for the second coming of his Messiah and pledged to help this apocalypse happen sooner rather than later.

Would this make headlines? Thus, I was surprised when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew little fire when he ended his fall U.N. speech by saying:

"I emphatically declare that today's world ... above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet. O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return."

* Candid religion quote of the year? Asked by Vanity Fair if she is a Christian, columnist Ann Coulter replied: "Yes, sort of a mean Christian."

* Church PR efforts are getting edgier. An Episcopal parish in New Jersey issued a "Message to Disaffected Roman Catholics" proclaiming that many "whose spiritual lives are grounded in the Mass and in the sacraments are, nevertheless, unable to concur with the Vatican's position on issues such as the role of women in the church, contraception, remarriage of divorced person, homosexual relationships, or abortion. ... If you are among them, you may find a comfortable spiritual home at Grace Church in Newark."

* In a list of 100 men and women who are "transforming our world," Time editors included 27 "artists and entertainers," 16 "scientists and thinkers" and many other powerful people. However, the list included only three religious leaders. This is the planet earth we are talking about, right?

2005: Is terrorism 'religion' news?

The suicide bomber struck at a sandwich stand in the busy outdoor market of the Israeli coastal city called Hadera, killing five people and wounding dozens more.

Islamic Jihad claimed credit for the blast, which came a month after Israel's September exit from Gaza. Israeli leaders quickly released a statement noting that this attack followed remarks by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Jewish state should be "wiped off the map."

The bomber was a Palestinian. News reports did not attempt to pin ethnic or religious labels on the victims.

Are events such as this one "religion" news?

This question matters because, week after week, journalists struggle to describe conflicts of this kind between the extremists many now call Islamists and other believers -- Jews, Christians, moderate Muslims, skeptics and others. These events are haunted by religion, yet it is faith mixed with politics, history, ethnicity, economics, blood feuds and many other factors.

I am not sure it would help readers if the press called these events "religion" news. If might stir even hotter emotions. Do we need to know the religious identity of every victim or have we reached the point where journalists can assume that we know? When are rioting thugs merely rioting thugs? When are police just police?

Nevertheless, it's hard not to ask these kinds of questions when reading the list of the Religion Newswriters Association's top 10 news events of 2005.

The overwhelming choices for the top two stories were the final decline and death of Pope John Paul II -- who mourners hailed as "John Paul the Great" -- and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. The 100 religion-beat professionals who took part also selected John Paul II as religion newsmaker of the year, with 68 percent of the vote. The new pope placed second, with 21 percent.

News at the Vatican will always make headlines. The rest of the 2005 list included other familiar topics, from debates about evolution to euthanasia, from battles over homosexuality to unresolved church-state tensions among the justices -- current and future -- at the U.S. Supreme Court. But the top 10 included no events linked to terrorism, Iraq, Israel and the clash of cultures that has dominated the news in recent years.

This is news about religion, but is it "religion" news?

According to historian Martin Marty, America's best-known commentator on religion, it's time for journalists to ask a more disturbing question: "In the wake of Sept. 11, is there any news today that IS NOT religion news?"

Here's the rest of the RNA list of the top 10 religion stories:

(1) The world mourns the death of Pope John Paul II after his historic reign of 26-plus years. His courage in the face of death inspires many. Admirers call for his canonization and major networks broadcast mini-series about this life.

(2) The veteran Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a top aide to John Paul II, is elected by the cardinals to succeed him as Benedict XVI. Catholic progressives are appalled, while other Vatican insiders watch for signs of what his papacy will bring.

(3) While demonstrators mourn, Terri Schiavo dies in a Florida nursing home after her feeding tube is removed. Politicians, clergy and family members debate her right to live or die.

(4) Churches and faith-based agencies respond to Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Southeast Asia and a devastating earthquake in Pakistan. Many clergy ask: What role did God play in these disasters?

(5) Disputes about homosexuality continue to split the global Anglican Communion, as well as cause tensions among Evangelical Lutherans, United Methodists and, in a dispute that finally went public, the American Baptists.

(6) Advocates of "intelligent design" continue to push for the right to question Darwinism in public schools, but suffer stinging defeats in Pennsylvania.

(7) U.S. Supreme Court approves posting of Ten Commandments outside the Texas state capitol and disapproves their posting inside Kentucky courthouses -- both by 5-4 votes. A federal judge reinstates a ban on "under God" in Pledge of Allegiance in three California school districts.

(8) Voices on the religious right and left question President Bush's three nominees to the Supreme Court, with some evangelicals supporting and some opposing born-again candidate Harriet Miers.

(9) Vatican releases long-awaited document on gay seminarians, barring from ordination those who are actively homosexual, have "deeply rooted" gay tendencies or oppose the church's teachings on the subject.

(10) Billy Graham holds a final evangelistic campaign in New York City.

Passionate news in 2004

For headline writers, 2004 was the year of "values voters," stormy acts of God in Florida, gay marriage rites and countless clashes between "believers" and "infidels" in Iraq, Russia, Spain and other locations around the world.

This may sound like the annual list of the top 10 news events released by the Religion Newswriters Association. But no, these events dominated the 2004 Associated Press survey of the top stories in the world -- period.

In a typical year, at least half of the world's top news stories have a strong religious element. But it was next to impossible to find a major news story in 2004 that didn't raise faith questions of one kind or another. It was just that kind of year on the religion beat.

Thus, it was no surprise that the re-election of President George W. Bush was voted No. 1 in both the AP and the RNA surveys. But the religion-news specialists decided that another story was just as hot as the White House race. The release of "The Passion of the Christ" tied for the top spot and director Mel Gibson was named Religion Newsmaker of the Year, with Bush coming in second.

Truth is, these faith-based stories had much in common, according to Frank Rich of the New York Times, one of the critics on the cultural left who fueled the firestorm that enveloped Gibson and his film. This was the year of the angry fundamentalist in politics, war and pop culture, he said.

"The power of this minority within the Christian majority comes from its exaggerated claims on the Bush election victory," argued Rich, in an essay entitled "2004: The Year of 'The Passion.' "

"It is further enhanced by a news culture ... that gives the Mel Gibson wing of Christianity more say than other Christian voices and usually ignores minority religions altogether. ... In the electronic news sphere where most Americans live much of the time, anyone who refuses to engage in combat is quickly sent packing as a bore."

Cultural conservatives would, of course, disagree with Rich's claim that they were uniquely to blame for the acidic atmosphere that surrounded the White House race and the smashing box-office success of Gibson's epic exercise in sacramental symbolism and bloody special effects. After all, culture wars require at least two armies. One thing is certain: Preachers on the religious and secular left are sure to turn up the volume in 2005.

Here are the rest of the RNA poll's top 10 stories:

(3) Gay marriages are performed for the first time in Massachusetts, but the legal status of the rites remained uncertain. Religious groups mobilize on both sides, as 11 states pass amendments against the redefinition of marriage.

(4) Sen. John Kerry runs for president, setting the stage for several archbishops and bishops to warn that they will deny Communion to Catholics who openly oppose church teachings on moral issues such as abortion and gay unions. A task force of U.S. bishops leaves the decision up to local bishops.

(5) The Anglican sex wars escalate, as a Lambeth Commission report does little to close the global rift caused by last year's installation of a non-celibate gay bishop in New Hampshire. More Episcopal parishes flee, uniting with Third-World dioceses.

(6) Church-state conflicts continue to hit the U.S. Supreme Court, which upholds the Pledge of Allegiance's "under God" language and the right of the state of Washington to block scholarships used for ministerial studies.

(7) Religious groups debate the role of American troops in Iraq, while Shiite clerics emerge in leadership roles that are crucial to that war-torn nation's future.

(8) The United Methodist Church's split on homosexuality is demonstrated by the trials of two lesbian pastors. Karen Dammann is acquitted in Washington State and Beth Stroud is found guilty in Pennsylvania. Some mainline Protestant leaders publicly call for amicable splits in their denominations.

(9) The Catholic dioceses of Portland and Tucson go into bankruptcy because of sex-abuse scandals, while the largest financial settlement in such a case is reported in Orange County, Calif. Former Springfield (Mass.) Bishop Thomas Dupre became the first bishop indicted, but the statute of limitations had run out in his case.

(10) The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) votes to pull investments from companies profiting from Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict decreases somewhat from recent years.

Beyond the Brighton bombing

Twenty years ago the Irish Republican Army bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton in an attempt to kill Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her entire cabinet during a Tory Party conference.

Jo Berry, Harvey Thomas and Patrick Magee will mark the Oct. 12 anniversary with a reflective evening at the historic St. James' Church near Piccadilly Circus in London. Their goal is to talk about the lessons they have learned from one of the most shocking terrorist acts in the bloody history of the Irish and the English.

Berry is the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, one of five people who died.

Thomas was Thatcher's press secretary and barely survived.

Magee was the IRA terrorist who planted the 100-pound bomb behind a panel in the bathroom of Room 629.

"The fact that the three of us will stand side by side as friends is a story in and of itself. It shows that true reconciliation is possible," said Thomas, during lectures at Palm Beach Atlantic University. "Reconciliation isn't easy. But how do we move forward if we cannot forgive our enemies?"

The 65-year-old Thomas is a broadcaster who is as well known for a 15-year stint with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as for his years as Thatcher's media specialist. Thus, he works in two different worlds. Thomas is as comfortable dissecting Bible passages with other Christians as he is fine-tuning public-relation campaigns for politicos and executives in Saudi Arabia and other tense locales. His passport has been stamped in 120 nations.

Reconciliation in the post-September 11th world, he said, must involve secular people as well as religious believers. It means convincing hostile armies of true believers to treat each other with respect, if not tolerance. What is the alternative?

"What happens if nothing is done is almost certainly global warfare," said Thomas. "We have to ask ourselves: What are we willing to do to try to head that off?"

Berry has asked the same question. Two days after the bombing she fled to the St. James sanctuary and sent up a non-believer's prayer to find some way to seek peace and deal with her own grief. This pain led her to seek a meeting with Magee when he was released from prison after 14 years, as part of the Good Friday peace agreements in Northern Ireland. They met privately and then agreed to have further talks about forgiveness, this time filmed by BBC cameras.

The public forum with Thomas is the next stage in this bridge-building process. Berry hopes it draws everyone from political activists to therapists, secular diplomats to believers from many different sanctuaries.

"I dream of a world in which we have choices to resolve conflict other than violence," she said, via email. "Talking with Patrick Magee is a way of learning from the past, which may give insight for creating a different future. I am learning about the effects of blame and looking at how we make choices not to blame."

Thomas was made a similar pilgrimage.

For millions of people in Great Britain and around the world, one of the most unforgettable moments after the bombing was watching -- live on television -- as rescue workers pulled the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Thomas out of tons of concrete rubble. His own memories of those moments center on hours of frantic prayers for his family.

Now Thomas has new memories. His dialogue with Magee began with letters while the bomber was in prison. A few years later, Magee ended up sitting in the Thomas family kitchen, sharing baked beans, stories and regrets. They talked about decades of oppression, the bitter choices of civil war and the dehumanizing effects of violence.

One of Thomas' daughters asked Magee: "You do realize that if you had succeeded in killing daddy, I wouldn't be here?"

Magee wept and so did Thomas and his family.

Reconciliation is a process, said Thomas, but it begins with a decision to forgive. This is a personal choice and it's impossible for one person to tell another when or how to take this step. Seeking personal reconciliation is not the same as seeking justice.

"I have no doubt that I needed to forgive Patrick Magee," he said. "It's what God wanted me to do. So I did it."