Martin Mosebach is the author of “The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs.” Walter Mayr, Rome correspondent of German magazine Der SPIEGEL recently interviewed Mosebach, and has authorized CNA to publish a translation of that interview.

Walter Mayr: Mr. Mosebach, your book "The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs" is about those Coptic Christians who were beheaded on a Libyan beach in 2015 by ISIS henchmen. Why did you choose this subject matter?

Martin Mosebach: The subject matter came to me when I saw a picture of one of those decapitated heads - it was a face expressing a peculiar peace, a peculiar trance. The picture then did not let me go and I decided to describe what the life of these 21 men was like before they were beheaded. And so I just headed out, I went to Upper Egypt and tried to learn more from the social circle of those executed.

What makes this particular case special for you, compared to other atrocities committed by ISIS?

Terrorist attacks are usually directed against people who have not been asked about their stance on religion. But these people were questioned by ISIS after over 40 days of imprisonment; and they stood by their religion, making this a less common case. After all, terror actually is predicated on the fact that it can strike anyone who can be called "innocent." By the way, most ISIS victims are Muslims. Here, the victims, Christian Copts, were asked at gunpoint: "Do you stand by what you believe?"

Where did you see the entire video for the first time and how can one endure watching it?

I first saw the entire video, the unabridged version showing the actual decapitation, on the laptops of the relatives of the murdered. In El-Or, in Upper Egypt. In the cowshed, so to speak, or in the houses of the families. On YouTube you can now find a sanitized version. But there, in the community of brothers, the cousins, the fathers, this is considered with composure. And with pride. They will point to their relatives in the row of the beheaded, to their brother, and say, "this is our Samuel, this is our Abanoub."

Is that what fascinated or astonished you most at the behavior of the victims and later of the bereaved?

I went to Upper Egypt with the image in mind that we have in the West of persecuted Christianity in the Middle East. Instead I encountered a strong, growing, large, determined church full of people who in no way appeared to be pushed up against the wall, but instead really perceived the martyrdom as a great triumph, just like in the first Christian centuries.

By "Growing Church" you mean to say that the number of Coptic believers is growing?

In any case, it is much larger than what we read about here in Germany, where there is talk of eight or nine percent of the Egyptian population. Although that also would be quite a lot of people, given there are 90 million Egyptians. The Coptic bishops, however, assert that the number is closer to 25 percent of the population. There are no official statistics though, as that is not in the state's interest.

What is the everyday life of the Copts in Al-Sisi's Egypt like?

There is persecution, there is also legal disqualification, a Copt can not obtain a leadership position, can not become general, broadcasting director, university rector, minister, and a Muslim may not obey a Copt. But that does not prevent this group from forming a state in the state, a community that holds its head up high. After all, there is no other place that the Copts could go - they have to stay, this is their home, they are the actual descendants of the Pharaohs. The Turkish approach of yesteryear, to completely dispel the Armenians and the Greek, can not work with this number of people. When I'm in a Coptic church, I don't get the sense of being in an underground community. The churches built after Mubarak's fall are huge, and the towers are sometimes higher than the minarets of the mosques.

Could the troubled Catholic Church, which you so often criticize, learn from the Coptic Christians?

Yes, that it could: namely, that one must proclaim the Faith, instead of hiding one's cross on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, like Cardinal Marx did - a Copt could not do that, because he has his cross tattooed on the back of his hand, between his thumb and forefinger. The Jews were forced to wear the Star [of David] in Germany, the Copt fashions himself his own cross.

Whilst working there, did you ask yourself how you would behave, if you found yourself in such a situation?

But of course one asks oneself the question. I realized that this is a challenge I too would have to face. Whether I would live up to it is another matter.

What role does Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi when it comes to the Copts and religious conflicts in general?

This man is not to be envied for his office.

Are you being serious?

He ousted the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood representative, President Mursi, now there is a military dictatorship and, among the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, seething rage over this act of violence against a democratically elected head of state. This anger is also directed against the Copts, many of whom of course do rely on the dictatorship, since Mursi wanted to largely deprive them of their rights.

That sounds like Sisi is the lesser evil for the Copts.

Yes, but he makes himself the mortal enemy of a large part of his own people. For example, in the village of El-Or, the construction of a cathedral for the Copts was personally promoted by Sisi himself. He also personally attends mass at Christmas, Easter, as well as requiems. He is trying to stabilize things, trying to keep a lid on this explosive pressure cooker.

You are likely to draw criticism from conservatives that your book avoids pointing out the perpetrators clearly enough, given how it eschews the "Islamic State" stereotype.

Islamism was less interesting to me in this particular case. What mattered to me was the role of martyrdom. It is inseparable from the Christian message.

Anian Christoph Wimmer translated this interview from German.