I listened with great sadness to last week’s news about the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS in Libya. While I have not tracked all of the “public” murders ISIS has performed in the past, it seems that – besides punishment for unpaid ransoms – they often target journalists and unsuspecting aid workers, and direct their brutality toward entities and governments that cherish free speech, which, along with freedom of religion, is contrary to ISIS’ beliefs. This public beheading specifically targeted members of the Coptic Orthodox church—the predominant Christian church among Egyptians who professes faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
I worked for a Coptic Christian while living in Orange County, and visited the local Coptic Orthodox church a few times. This faith tradition with its chanting, incense, icons, etc., can seem foreign, even pagan to members of evangelical churches across America. Yes, Coptic Orthodox churches around the world – along with Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, even some Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches (among others) – can look different due to their varying focuses on peripheral practices and traditions, but their core beliefs are the same. Just like Baptist and other evangelical churches across America, these churches’ central figure is God’s son Jesus Christ, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, led a sinless life yet died for the sake of sinful mankind, and was resurrected on the third day to take away the sins of the world.
For a long time I have felt a calling in my life’s work to help bridge the gap between the more acceptable (by evangelical American standards) forms of Christian faith and practice and those denominations that seem on the periphery. If you have done much traveling in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, even South America, you know that the conventional evangelical church as we know it is more “Americanized” than we might want to admit. When we reach heaven, we will be rubbing shoulders and entwining hands in worship with people in different garb, with different accents and different ideas about worship than we might feel comfortable with. The book of Revelations even refers to incense in heaven! So who are we to judge these Christ-followers just because they practice their faith differently than we do? In this age of Christian persecution, we cannot afford to isolate ourselves from our brothers and sisters in Christ.
My feelings about this issue were birthed slowly, after interviewing Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand (founders of Voice of the Martyrs, an organization that serves the persecuted church worldwide, www.persecuted.com) in the 1990s. I will never forget Sabina’s retelling of the story of how her husband Richard got to be in the Communist spotlight that led to his arrest and 14-year imprisonment for his faith in Christ.
The year was 1946 and the new Communist leadership in Romania called for a gathering of delegates from every religion and confession in Romania. The convention opened with a speech by the new premier, Petru Groza, who avowed in his most convincing manner that the new Romanian government was in favor of faith. But the Wurmbrands soon concluded that this was a farce. Nevertheless, one by one, delegates from a wide variety of faith traditions stood up at microphones and gave the government authorities what they wanted to hear.
Sabina turned to Richard and said: “Will you not wash this shame from the face of Christ?”
“If I speak,” Richard responded, “you will lose a husband.”
“I don’t need a coward for a husband,” Sabina replied.
Richard stood up to the microphone and presented a short speech saying that everyone present should “praise and glorify God the Creator and Christ the Savior, who died on the cross for all.” Very soon he was arrested, and his torture began.
Seeing the video last week of those 21 Coptic Christians marching to their death, Sabina’s words rang as true as ever in my mind. These brave men could have changed their profession of faith and saved their hides, but instead they held fast to their Christian confession and suffered the consequences.
What is our responsibility in all of this? New Testament writers such as Peter and Paul wrote about partaking in the sufferings of Christ…in this case, acknowledging and sharing in the heartbreak of these men’s stories as if they were our own, and lifting their families and communities up in prayer, along with financial support if feasible. Also I think these stories are a clarion call to us to consider how we might stand firm for Christ in our own circumstances. Just as Richard Wurmbrand often speculated (before the event above) whether or not he would remain true to Christ under pressure, so we must cry out to God daily for the strength and courage we need to stand up for Christ with every opportunity that presents itself.