As the world reacts with shock and horror at the recent immolation of a Jordanian pilot at the hands of the Islamic State, it is well to remember that this particular form of savagery has a long history in Islam and under the state.
The image to right is of Sidhom Bishay, a Coptic Christian who was immolated in 1844 by local authorities for reportedly “insulting Muhammad,” the prophet of Islam. Today deemed a saint for his martyrdom — he was tortured and eventually immolated with burning tar for refusing to renounce Christ and convert to Islam — his face and body appear frozen in the same position he died in (he turned his head away from the pouring tar and his raised shoulders are indicative of the initial shock of feeling molten tar on his head).
A summary of Sidhom Bishay’s story follows (thanks to Michele A. for researching and translating):
Sometime in March 1844, Bishay was on his way to church located in the Damietta cemetery when a Muslim donkey-driver ran into him and started scolding the Copt for not knowing his “dhimmi” (inferior) status and giving the Muslim driver the right of way. As crowds gathered around, the Muslim driver falsely accused the Christian of insulting Muhammad in order to “get even” with him for not “knowing his place.”**
Further incited by a local imam, the enraged mob beat and kicked Bishay and dragged him along the street until his face was a bloody pulp.
A few days later, they brought him before Khalil Agha, the governor of the city. In the presence of the judge, Bishay was asked to abjure Christianity and embrace Islam under pain of death. He refused and was condemned to receive 500 lashes followed by execution (recall Sudan’s Meriam Ibrahim for a recent and similar sentencing). In front of the governor, Bishay was beaten with shoes and dragged across a staircase until his facial bones were crushed.
All the while the mob was shouting ” Kill him! Burn him!” According to a 19th century manuscript referring to the incident, that martyr for Christ experienced many tribulations before finally being smoldered to death in tar.
On the fourth day, his persecutors returned and stripped him naked, mocked him, and paraded him through the streets of town dressed in sheepskin. They covered his body with mud and his head with a dirty cloth. Then they fastened cuts of meat with iron clips around his hips and tied two hungry dogs and a cat to let them fight each other and bite at his flesh. After that, they made him ride a buffalo upside down. The crowd cheered as he crossed town as if he was an animal being led to slaughter.
The man “never lost his patience but kept invoking the Virgin and Christ,” say Coptic chroniclers.
Finally, boiling tar was poured all over his head and face and he was left outside the door of his home. His family attempted to nurse him, but he died five days later on March 25, 1844. During these five days, members of Damietta’s Christian community locked themselves inside their homes for fear of attacks by enraged mobs.
Sidhom Bishay was subsequently canonized by the Coptic Orthodox Church. His body rests today in a glass-fronted shrine in the Cathedral of Saint Mary in Damietta — a stark reminder that burning “infidels” alive is not something new to the Islamic world.
** See pgs. 135-145 of Crucified Again to see how this sort of “retribution” –falsely accusing Christians of “blasphemy” in order to get “even” with them whenever they fail to behave submissively — is still a common practice today, especially in Pakistan.