The 21 Christian Martyrs of Egypt: A Feature Film?

By Raymond Ibrahim Published on May 12, 2024

A filmmaker recently announced that he is making a movie dedicated to the trials and travails of the 21 Coptic Christians who were ritually decapitated by ISIS terrorists in Libya in 2015.

The iconic and infamous moment the 21 men in orange jumpsuits were killed was captured by video and disseminated around the world. Kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs, the Christian martyrs appeared to be silently praying before their executors knocked them down on their faces, knelt on their backs, and began to decapitate them, as their blood mingled with the waters of the Mediterranean. Their deaths were neither clean nor quick.

I recently interviewed Egyptian filmmaker Raouf Zaki, who detailed his extensive research to gather information for his screenplay (including interviewing  Libyan officials, investigators, and imprisoned or former ISIS members, as well as visiting the martyrs’ families in Egypt).

Why do this project? Zaki told me:

I was profoundly moved to write Son of the 11th Hour because of the grace with which the martyrs faced their final moments. They did not beg or falter; instead, they embraced their fate with a serenity that seemed to transcend their surroundings. As they knelt, looking up at the sky, their actions seemed to echo the biblical notion that ‘faith is the hope in things unseen.’ To them, the end of their earthly lives was not an end but a passage — a continuation of a legacy rooted deep within the cradle of civilization, where belief in life after death has ancient ties and where early Christians were known as the “Blue Bone.”

Through this film, I hope to fortify the faith of our viewers. By witnessing such unwavering faith, we gain perspective on our own trials, which, in comparison, might then appear minute and manageable. Films have the power to etch such profound truths into our memories, serving as lasting reminders of resilience and hope.

Son of the 11th Hour should further resonate with contemporary audiences by portraying its characters as modern-day martyrs (a term often associated with ancient Roman persecutions). The film delves into the darkness of radicalization, exploring the tragic misbelief held by some that acts of terror are services to God — a stark reminder of Christ’s warning that there would be those who “kill you and think they are offering service to God.”

Ultimately, this film is an invitation to witness, reflect, and perhaps alter our understanding of faith, sacrifice, and the human capacity for resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Blue-Collar Workers, Heroes of Faith

Most of the 21 men, Zaki said, were “proud, hardworking men of simple but strong faith” who came from the same poor village in Egypt — which happens to be in the region where the Holy Family hid for three years when Jesus was a toddler. Most of the men were the oldest sons of their respective families, in their twenties or early thirties. And that meant their families looked to them for help and support, “because that’s what you do, you take care of your family when you’re the older brother, and many people can rely on you.”

Due to a lack of work, around 2013, they left their loved ones — parents, young wives, children, etc. — to work in Libya and send money home. The last time their families saw them was around Christmas of 2014. Family members told Zaki they would Skype with the men and see their surroundings — small, candlelit rooms with religious icons and crosses on the walls. They would often talk about how excited they were to be going home to Egypt for the holiday.

Son of the 11th Hour – Trailer from Raouf Zaki on Vimeo.

Then, sometime before Christmas, ISIS abducted them and threw them into an abandoned underground prison. Zaki says they spent 40 days in that dungeon, being tortured. Initially, the terrorists offered to release them for a ransom.

When it became clear that they’d already sent whatever money they had to their families in Egypt, ISIS gave them a second option: openly renounce Christ as the Son of God, proclaim the shahada, and become Muslim. When they staunchly refused this, too, the terrorists “exposed them to a lot of tortures,” Zaki says — for example, by tying their hands behind their backs and hanging them on doors all night.

When all else failed, ISIS decided to execute them and videotape the incident as a recruiting tool — to inspire more like-minded Muslims to join the growing “caliphate.”

‘What You Meant for Evil, God Turned to Good’

However, Zaki said this “backfired” and rather worked to God’s greater glory:

Instead of instilling fear, the video showcased the remarkable courage and composure of the martyrs, which not only strengthened the faith of viewers around the world but also drew widespread admiration. The families of the martyrs — widows, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters — appeared on television, forgiving their captors and praying for them. This profound act of forgiveness was bewildering and inspiring to people of all faiths, turning a narrative of terror into one of hope and resilience.

Of particular interest is the mysterious and touching story of the only non-Coptic martyr, a black man from Ghana. Very little is known about him — he may even have originally been Muslim — but the information Zaki gathered suggests that while he was imprisoned alongside them, he was so inspired by the Copts’ defiance that he ended up converting and casting his lot in with theirs. That’s why the lead executioner chose the Ghanan to be his personal victim.

Please Support The Stream: Equipping Christians to Think Clearly About the Political, Economic, and Moral Issues of Our Day.

When an imprisoned ISIS terrorist’s confession led to the discovery of the men’s remains nearly two years later, Egypt claimed its 20 sons, but no one from Ghana came to claim the unknown martyr’s remains. They lay there for a year, until the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt claimed and buried them alongside the other martyrs, making him an “honorary Copt.”

Zaki said he wrote the screenplay through the eyes of this Ghanan man because he “presented a profound mystery that captivated my imagination”:

Unlike the 20 Coptic men, whose stories and sacrifices have been documented and honored, the Ghanan man’s tale remains largely untold. This gap in the narrative intrigued me, sparking questions and possibilities that seemed ripe for exploration through film.

Rumors suggested that ISIS initially did not intend to kill him but made a last-minute decision to include him in the martyrdom, executed personally by the group’s leader. This unique and harrowing twist in his fate raises haunting questions: Was there a change of heart, a moment of defiance, or perhaps a deeper story that led to such a personal act by the leader?

In the film, I envisioned his story as one of choice — a theme universally resonant and particularly poignant in his context. The narrative explores the idea that sometimes, the most defining choices are those that cost us everything. His journey, as I have imagined it, challenges viewers to reflect on the power and price of conviction, making his perspective not only unique but central to the thematic core of the film.

One of the most amazing things Zaki encountered while shooting Son of the 11th Hour was the forgiveness the martyrs’ families extended to the men who murdered them. Theirs, he said, is “a faith beyond comprehension … . The amount of forgiveness they have in their hearts is unbelievable.”

Will This Powerful Film Find the Funding to Get Completed?

But Zaki has also experienced many setbacks — “enemy oppression” and “spiritual battles” as he called them — in his effort to make this film a reality. Some of the film has already been shot (see the trailer here). Without proper funding, however, Zaki — who is working with a tiny budget — said he would be unable to turn this much-needed story of modern-day martyrdom into a feature film for widespread viewing. As of now, only 25% of filming has been completed. He needs an additional $300,000 in donations. Zaki said he is also offering investing opportunities with a 50/50 profit-sharing margin for larger donations (contact him directly at [email protected]). To learn more about the film and watch some scenes, click here. The Catholic Talk Show also did a comprehensive interview with Zaki here.

 

Raymond Ibrahim, author of Defenders of the West and Sword and Scimitar, is the Distinguished Senior Shillman Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and the Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

 

Updated May 13, 8:50 a.m. CDT.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Like the article? Share it with your friends! And use our social media pages to join or start the conversation! Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MeWe and Gab.

Inspiration
Military Photo of the Day: E-2 Hawkeye Launches
Tom Sileo
More from The Stream
Connect with Us