Tomorrow, Saturday 28 March, marked the arbaieen of the 20 Coptic men who were beheaded by IS in Libya last month; the video showing the beheading was aired on 15 February 2015 but the actual date of the beheading is unknown. The arbaieen, literally forty, is the date which commemorates 40 days since a death and has been marked by Egyptians since ancient times when it had to do with the process of mummification. It is still a persistent tradition today.
The Coptic Church and congregation regard the men beheaded by IS as martyrs, since it is no secret that they could have saved their lives had they rejected Christianity, meaning that they died for their faith. Pope Francis said that much, that they were killed for the sole reason of being Christian. In the Bible Jesus says: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” (John 15:13).
The martyrs will be commemorated in churches throughout Egypt by mentioning their names in Holy Mass, asking for peace for their souls. Bishop of Samalout Anba Pavnotius will preside over Mass for that purpose in Samalout, joined by other bishops and clergy. The bishopric has printed a booklet which features data and stories on the martyrs and their families.
Last Tuesday the Union of Evangelicals in Egypt held a commemoration of the martyrs at the town hall theatre in Minya. Minya Governor Salah Ziyada attended, as did a number of public figures and Coptic and Muslim clergy. The event featured Coptic and Muslim religious chanting by the Karouz ensemble and Ali al-Hilbawi. The evening closed with prayers for Egypt.
Church consecrated to the martyrs
Pope Tawadros II has said that the Coptic martyrs beheaded by IS will be included in the Coptic Synaxarium, making its most recent entry. “No ‘End’ has been written for the Synaxarium,” the Pope said. “It is still open to this day, and will cite those who laid down their lives for the faith.”
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi declared that he would licence a new church to be built and consecrated to the most recent martyrs in the Coptic Church. A Coptic businessman who required his name to be kept anonymous purchased a plot of land 1 feddan 14 kirats wide (1 feddan = 24 kirat = 4200 square metres) in the martyrs’ home village of al-Our in Samalout, Minya, for the purpose. The prominent Minya Coptic activist Magdy Melek said that the price of the land has been paid in full, and that the Church was in the process of officially registering its ownership of the land. Once this step is completed, Mr Melek said, the architectural and construction drawings of the new church will be submitted to the local authorities for approval. The new church project includes the building of a church, a community service centre, a library, a guesthouse, and a shrine for the martyrs.
Commemorating with icons
Coptic artists have always been quick to express their sentiments regarding events taking place within their community, especially those that impacted their faith. Given that the Coptic Church has, since its first days in the first century, offered so many martyrs in the name of Christ—to the point that the Coptic calendar begins in AD284 and is called the Calendar of the Martyrs—those martyrs hold a position of honour in Coptic icons.
The most recent martyrdom in the Coptic Church has been the 20 beheaded by IS in Libya. Coptic artists lost no time in commemorating them in icons. Among these artists have been Victor Fakhoury, Wagdy Habashy, and the Egyptian-American Tony Rizk.
The three paintings depict the beheading; each artist with his own vision. The common factor among the three, however, is that the paintings draw on the Christian faith.
The souls under the altar
The painting by Fakhoury, a modern Coptic iconographer, provides a fascinating composition that exudes calmness and serenity in the security that God is the all-protector. In his distinguished Coptic style, Fakhoury depicts the Cross with a winged motif behind it that resembles the wings of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis, and also calls to mind the Bible verse in Malachi 4: “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings.”
Jesus Christ is on the Cross with the ‘Crown of Thorns’ on His temples, extending His arms in protection of His children. The Crucified Jesus is surrounded by two angels, one on the right and one on the left.
In the lower half of the icon, Fakhoury depicts the 20 Egyptian and one African martyrs, all robed in white—a symbol of their pure hearts—with red crosses on their chests. They stand underneath the altar, in reference to the verses in the Biblical book of Revelation 6: “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.”
Pure and bright
In the painting by Rizk the martyrs are on their knees, dressed in the sunny, bright colours of orange and red. Their eyes look up to Heaven where the Lord Jesus is depicted in a luminous circle, receiving their souls for eternal life. Twenty-one crowns of martyrdom are ready for the angels to place on their heads. The sea behind them is coloured red by the martyrs’ blood. The red fades into purple and blue as the scene recedes into the background.
The composition of the painting is colourful harmonious and skilful, although Rizk is no iconographer. It is obvious, however, that he is influenced by the style of the Coptic icons hung in Orthodox Churches.
The composition of the third painting by Wagdy Habashy is dominated by a backdrop coating of a golden white colour that reflects purity and serenity, and brush touches of red and blue.
The Lord Jesus is depicted on His throne, embracing the joyful souls of the martyrs; “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34).
The paintings reflect more than one dimension: those of faith, beauty, and sublime human values. Such emotional creations contribute towards promoting awareness among the younger generations, and at the same time emphasise the role of the artist to replace violence and destruction with wisdom and beauty.
We pray for our beloved Egypt. “Lord, have mercy. Help Egypt and protect her during these fierce, stormy times. May the prayers of the saints and martyrs intervene to bring to Egypt the peace that passes every understanding.”
27 March 2015