We should be wary of declaring martyrs

One of the themes that has been emerging over the last few weeks is the desire to recognise people who have been killed by terrorists as martyrs. However, we should pause and ask whether that’s really the most appropriate language to be using.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was eager to do this in his Easter sermons and there are reports of the Pope speaking of the Kenyan students who were killed last week as modern Christian martyrs though I’ve not been able to track down the verbatim comment myself.

Two incidents in particular seem to be being recalled in this rush to declare people as martyrs for Christ. Firstly the massacre of Coptic men on a Libyan beach some weeks ago and secondly the killing of students in Kenya in Holy Week. In the case of the Copts, it is reported that many of them died with the name of Jesus Christ on their lips. In the case of the Kenyans, there are reports that they were killed because, being Christians they were unable to recite or answer questions on certain portions of the Qur’an. Both are despicable incidents.

Having travelled in Egypt, I don’t find it hard to see how or why the Coptic church lost no time at all in declaring the murdered men to be martyrs. Everywhere you go in Egypt there is a martyrdom cult amongst Christians there. The Coptic church has known its troubles through the centuries and many, many people were killed witnessing to their faith in the past. To a certain degree, the Coptic church has the strength it has because of its history of persecution, particularly during the time of the Emperor Diocletian – yes, right back to the third century after Christ.

It may be technically correct to refer to at least some of those who died as martyrs – they witnessed under duress to Christ even unto death. However something about all of this makes me uncomfortable.

To make martyrdom the dominant rhetoric surrounding these killings is to risk losing the opportunity to unite a diverse world against these killings.

I’m not sure that it is martyrdom to be killed for not knowing a particular verse  of the Qur’an. That doesn’t make it any the less wicked an act either.

I find myself listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon and asking what would be wrong in describing these acts primarily as crimes against humanity? Don’t we need to build an ever growing consensus amongst religious and non-religious alike that such acts are irrefutably wrong?

To speak of martyrdom risks adopting those who have died into a vulgar sectarian mentality where my dead are holier than your dead.

We need to remember that Christianity is not the only religion to speak of martyrs and most of the talk of martyrdom in recent years has come from those who wish others harm for their own radical extremist ends.

It is impossible to put oneself into these situations. Yet I find myself wondering whether if I were facing death in this way I’d prefer the focus to be not on my personal entry into heaven nor upon my own individual faith – however dear that is to me, but upon building a world where such acts become inconceivable. There must also be a place for international work on ensuring that appropriate pathways to justice are available in new and previously unforeseen situations where para-state institutions commit what would otherwise be called warcrimes.

These acts are primarily crimes and vile and horrific crimes. Christians should lose no opportunity to present them as such and leave God to work out the religious significance or otherwise of such wicked acts.



  1. Agree totally. I find myself in a comparable position vis-à-vis the mass canonisations of the ‘martyrs’ of the Spanish Civil War, which assume that all those worthy of commemoration were on the same side.

  2. Anyone killed for professing their faith is a martyr. ISIS is an equal opportunity martyring machine. The various faith communities targeted, including Islamic ones, should build common ground to dismember ISIS. I simply fail to see the point in quibbling about who is a real martyr and who is not.

    • Is it your view that someone is a martyr for Christianity because they cannot recite a verse from the Qur’an?

      It seems to me that whilst some men and women of violence are being claimed to be martyrs if they should be shot by law enforcement agencies whilst pursuing paths of terror that there’s a huge amount to be gained by determining who is a martyr and who isn’t.

      • Bro David says

        Not being able to explain a quranic verse was merely a way of discerning if someone was not Muslim. However, is it not just as great a presumption to think they weren’t martyrs, as to think that they were.

        The early church seemed to accept that all who were crucified or sent to the lions for their Christianity were martyrs. Perhaps not all did so as a statement of faith, but were nominal Christians caught up with the rest. But the church didn’t seem obliged to footnote who didn’t qualify.

        I’m not sure that I understand why your are hesitant. It seems a quibble. I don’t think anyone is leaning toward canonization here, just speaking of them as a whole.

  3. The SEC still keeps the feast of Charles, King and Martyr. I don’t think we get to be too narrow in defining who is or isn’t a martyr.

    • Actually, Jo – that’s not quite right. The SEC keeps the commemoration of “Charles I, King, 1649”

      There’s no mention of him being a martyr in the calendar (and the current calendar superseded and replaced the one in the prayer book). There are plenty of people who are named as martyrs such as Agnes the week before Charles or indeed “Charles Mackenzie of Central Africa, Bishop, Missionary, Martyr, 1862” the very day after Charles.

      It would appear that rather careful thought was given to whether to describe Charles as a martyr and though he is included in the calendar (not least for founding one of our dioceses) any notion of martyrdom is absent.

      • Thanks for the correction, I hadn’t realised there was that detail of difference between the SEC and CofE.

  4. Father David says

    Of course, King Charles was a Martyr and is commemorated as such on January 31st each year. The trouble is that Anglicans have no real mechanism for declaring people to be saints or martyrs. Having referred to two recent horrific incidents on the African continent where Christians were slaughtered simply for being Christians, I wonder what the Provost of Glasgow thinks about the Ugandan Martyrs of the 19th century and would you personally regard them to be martyrs? As you know 23 Anglicans and 22 Roman Catholics were killed by the Kabaka for refusing to submit to King Mwanga’s corporal intimacies. The Roman Catholics were beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1964 but what of our Anglican Ugandan brothers – where they equally to be regarded as martyrs, or would you deny them that honorific title?

    • The Scottish Episcopal Calendar is again very clear: “Charles Lwanga and his companions, 1886, Janani Luwum, Bishop, 1977, Martyrs of Uganda”

      I have no idea why anyone would say that the SEC has no means of declaring someone to be a martyr. Not only do we have such a mechanism, we use it.

  5. Father David says

    It would be interesting to know how this mechanism works in the SEC in deciding who is eligible to join the noble army of martyrs? Bishop Edward King of Lincoln is widely regarded as a saint South of the Border. I think it was Archbishop Lang who was asked how it was decided that Bishop King had reached sainthood status and the answer was that he was given a Collect, Epistle and Gospel to commemorate his saint’s day – 8th March, the day of his Heavenly Birthday.

  6. Harry Campbell says

    “We strongly condemn such atrocities, whether they are Ethiopians are not,” the Ethiopian communications minister Redwan Hussein told AFP.

    What a shame the Archbishop couldn’t have said something similarly inclusive about the victims of the Kenyan massacre, and all such massacres, without caring about what their religion affiliation may or may not have been.

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