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Can we say "martyrs"?

February 19, 2015

Can the 21 Copts recently killed by ISIS militants be classified as martyrs?

The international media has been reverberating with the news about the video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS (Islamic State militants), and Pope Francis' remarks of this atrocity and referring to these victims as “martyrs” whose blood “is a testimony which cries out to be heard.”

What does it take to be a martyr?

Their only words were: ‘Jesus, help me,’ ” the sickened pontiff said. “They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christians.” The pope’s unusually strong words came less than 24 hours after the Islamic State released a horrific, 5-minute video of the bloody executions on a rocky beach in Libya.

The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony that cries out to be heard… It makes no difference whether they be they Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.”

This gives us the opportunity to explain the traditional teaching on the question of martyr.

The conditions necessary to become a martyr

The term martyr comes from the Greek meaning witness. The Church has given it a strict theological meaning for the person who undergoes bodily death as a witness to the truth of Christianity (See Prummer, Theologia Moralis, II #623). Hence, three conditions must be met before we speak of a proper martyrdom:

  1. One must suffer a corporal death. The reason for this is that the martyr is the most perfect witness of the true Faith in as much as he/she prefers to suffer death rather than suffer the loss of his/her soul.
  2. One must suffer from an enemy inflicting death in hatred of the Christian Faith. Thus the cause of any martyrdom is the truth of faith. But the true Faith demands not only the belief of the heart but also the exterior protestation. And this is done either with the tongue whereby we confess our faith, but also by actions. In this sense, the works of all virtues in so far as they refer to God are a protestation of the Faith and can be the title for martyrdom as is seen in St. John the Baptist’s death suffered for condemning adultery.
  3. One must accept death voluntarily. Hence if an adult is killed in his sleep for reasons of faith, without having foreseen his death, he is probably not a martyr.

Does the term “martyr” properly apply to the Coptic victims?

How do these conditions apply to the case of the 21 Coptic Christians? Or said in other words, can we say that they all underwent bodily death as a witness to the truth of Christianity or, that which is the same, in hatred of the Faith?

At first sight it seems that there are good grounds for such a title of martyrs to be applied to these souls. They suffered a real death. Although it is not so clear whether they accepted death voluntarily or by force, there might be some cases among them in which death was seen as an act of offering to God for their eternal salvation. It is not clear in the relation given by the media or the pope whether all the 21 Copts died pronouncing Christ’s name.

Yet, the main question is whether or not they died in hatred of the Faith from the ISIS thugs. This is not evident on two scores.

  1. The ISIS spokesman revealed that this killing was in retaliation for that of Osama Bin Laden a while ago. It may not be the only reason but it certainly sheds some doubt as to whether the hatred of the Faith was also certainly included to have these 21 victims declared ‘martyrs’ ipso facto.
  2. More pregnant is the question of martyrdom for the Faith. There is only one such ‘Christian Faith’ and that is the Catholic Faith. On the other hand, the Orthodox or the Protestants are properly speaking heretics, and do not hold the Faith at all since they contradict it and, instead of believing the whole Revelation because God has said it, they pick and choose. The question which we raise is whether a non-Catholic can die in defense of the Catholic Faith which he does not embrace? The question seems answers in the asking. Hence, it is not only imprudent but dangerous to the true Faith to publicly give to manifest heretics the tag of martyrs.

If not martyrs, could they yet be saved?

Does this mean that these people, especially if they did utter Our Lord’s blessed name as they went to their certain death, are eternally damned? This is where another important distinction must be made. There are certainly numerous cases in which non-Catholics have lived all their lives confined in heretical circles and have had little or no knowledge of the true Church.

In this case, they form part of what theologians call material heretics, as opposed to formal or obdurate heretics—those who know the true Faith and reject it positively. Such material heretics will not be saved thanks to their error because error saves no one, but rather might be saved despite their error by the fact that they implicitly wished to belong to the true Church founded by Christ, whichever it was. And, in the hypothesis of dying professing Christ’s faith and perhaps in hatred of the true Faith, there is little doubt that they made it safe and went to their eternal reward.

If we can discuss the use of the term of martyr applied to these 21 victims, we hope with the Catholic Bishop of Giza, Egypt, Antonios Aziz Mina who said: “The men entrusted themselves to the One Who would receive them soon after.”

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