The Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt has faced ongoing persecutions in the last few years, with devastating church bombings and other acts of terrorism committed. What attitude did you find among this Christian community in Egypt and how they faced this continuing persecution?
In recent years, in the wake of the so-called "Arabellion" - in which President Mubarak was overthrown by the Muslim Brotherhood and then President Morsi arrested -- there has been a current hidden civil war in Egypt. Persecution, destruction and attacks against Christians have become worse. But for the Copts, this is nothing new.
The actual situation is very difficult, that is true, but the Copts have a history of 1,400 years of oppression, and the recent years are nothing more than a new chapter. The Copts lost their civil rights with the Islamic conquest. There have always been waves of persecution and destruction; they are used to it.
Now you wrote in your book that in your conversations with the families, not once did the concept of revenge or justice for the executioners came up. How is forgiveness a part of the story of these Coptic martyrs?
In fact, that is another astounding aspect: There was no talk of revenge at all in these families. There was no talk of revenge, no talk of justice. There were no demands to support the Christian communities, to help and protect them. Let me put it this way: the persecutors simply did not exist; they had no face. And, indeed, they had worn face masks; their whole attitude was that of being simply messengers of Satan.
It is the eternal story: The Christians are in the world to fight the good fight, and in every century they have to face new challenges, new temptations. This is only one in a long chain. The individual persecutors were of no interest to them. I would say they lived in a world completely orientated towards the afterlife, and maybe they did not even perceive these persecutors as individuals, but rather expressions of an evil power.
I know several of these martyrs were in their early twenties. Was there something, in examining their lives and their formation in the Coptic Orthodox faith, that you saw that gave them the strength to sacrifice their lives for Christ at that moment?
In terms of religious education, the Coptic Church is very well organized - at least since the 20th century. Since that time, the Coptic Church has adopted the habit of Sunday school after the liturgical education of the young people. A young Copt knows what he or she believes in.
I have often noticed that Christian faith is a very complex thing. And not many Christians know their religion - but the Copts do! And then they have this long and splendid liturgy, which they celebrate every Sunday. The martyrs, the young people, knew it by heart because they were also church singers, singers ordained by the bishop. So you can say, they have spent great part of their lives and almost all of their leisure time in Church.
They were young people who had based their whole life on the Church, on faith.
What is the greatest lesson that you think you will take away from spending time with this persecuted Christian community in Egypt?
My greatest lesson is that martyrdom has the function of working as a fifth Gospel. The Evangelists were all martyrs, and when the first Christian martyrs entered the scene, the Gospels had not yet been written. The martyrs are the true messengers of Christian faith, and as long as there are martyrs, we do not have to worry about the Church.
And this is very important, especially today, in a time where the image of the Catholic Church has been tarnished, and where there are great doubts, especially in the Western world, as far as its responsibilities and its leaders are concerned.
The most important thing are not the bishops, the cardinals and not even the pope: the most important thing are martyrs.