Father Samaan Shehata, a 45-year-old Coptic Orthodox priest from the village of Ezbet Girgis in al-Fashn, Beni Sweif, some 130km south of Cairo, was murdered in Medinat al-Salam, a satellite town east of Cairo, yesterday Thursday 12 October 2017.
Fr Samaan, who was ordained in 1998 and was pastor of the church of Yulius al-Aqfahsi in Ezbet Girgis, leaves behind a wife and three children: a young man in his first year at university, and two small girls.
Cross carved on forehead
Fr Samaan was in Medinet al-Salam meeting the owners of an iron reinforcing bars business at their warehouse, to collect a donation for the needy in the Beni Sweif village. Accompanying him was his friend, Fr Pimen Shaker from Matai, Minya. After completing his task and before heading home, Fr Samaan discovered he had forgotten his mobile phone in the warehouse, so drove back to retrieve it. The chauffeur parked the car across the street from the warehouse, and Fr Samaan disembarked and headed there. An unknown man wielding a long dagger ran after him;the priest rushed to the warehouse for shelter, but a few steps before he could reach it he was overtaken by his attacker who fiercely pierced him with the dagger in the back. Fr Samaan stepped into the warehouse with the attacker on his heels. A few metres inside, the attacker dealt him a blow on the head. The blow brought down Fr Samaan who bled heavily; his attacker used the dagger to carve a cross on Fr Samaan’s forehead. Those around were stunned and terrified by the lightening scene, no one could rescuethe priest. The attacker quickly fled, but by that time the passers-by had grasped what happened and ran after him. They caught him some distance away and handed him over to the police.
The chauffeur, Girgis Kamel, said that Fr Samaan lay bleeding for more than an hour till the ambulance came. By then he had breathed his last.
Fr Pimen had not been on the scene of the crime; he was unscathed.
The official after-death report indicated that Fr Samaan had died owing to a longitudinal gash in the head, which led to fracture of the skull and extensive internal bleeding.
“Allah said to kill him”
The police identified the attacker as Ahmad Saeed Ibrahim al-Sonbati, an outlaw with a crime record. The dagger was found near the site where the locals caught him, wrapped in a newspaper. The neighbours say he was famous for his extremist attitude, frequently making jabs at Christians, verbally abusing them, andeven throwing stones at them.
According to lawyer Morqos Sawiris, Sonbati said during his questioning by the prosecution that he had not premeditated the murder of Fr Samaan whom he did not know. He said he had been preparing for a fight with the owners of a local juice shop at which he had worked for some time, and was lying in wait for them to cross that path, when he saw the priest passing by. “I sensed Allah telling me to go kill him,” Sonbati said, “And felt I would do good by that.” He said he wished to get rid of all kafara, meaning apostates or non-believers.
Beni Sweif Governor, Sherif Habib, sent a cable message addressed to the Coptic congregation in the governorate, also to Anba Stephanos, Bishop of Biba, al-Fashn, and Smesta; and Anba Ghabrial of Beni Sweif, mourning “the martyr Fr Samaan” whom he described as “a model of love, tolerance and giving”, praying for his soul to rest in peace, and for comfort to all who loved him.
Triumphal procession of martyrs
Pope Tawadros II, who had flown to Germany that morning to participate in an international conference on Christians in the Middle East, issued a statement that opened with the Bible verse, Revelation 12:11, “And they overcame him with the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life to death”. The statement went on to say that Fr Samaan, who was martyred while faithfully performing his pastoral duties, is now in the Heaven of joy. “Despite the deep pain his departure leaves us with,” the statement said, “we are comforted by his joining the triumphal procession of other martyrs, children of our Church, who over the ages and until thepresent-day, have laid down their lives for their faith.”
Father Samaan’s funeral service was held at Beni Sweif bishopric church. Anba Raphail, Secretary-General of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod, presided over the service. Three other bishops participated: Anba Stephanos; Anba Ghabrial; and Anba Aghathon of Maghagha and al-Edwa. A large number of the clergy attended, as well as thousands of the Coptic congregation.
Sentiments overflowed with pain and wrath. A fake piece of news, published by www.albawabhnews.comnews site to the effect that the Interior Ministry had announced that the killer was mentally deranged, had outraged Copts. They expressed their pain and anger so vociferously that Anba Raphail found it difficult to be heard. When he finally managed to calm down the congregation he gave a word that focused on “a number of messages we would like to send,” he said.
The first, he said, we address to the Lord Jesus Christ: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword. For your sake we are being killed all day long” (Rom 8: 36-39). He said that persecution and terrorism shall not shake our faith or our love for Christ.
The second message, Anba Raphail said, was to Fr Samaan. Again, the Bishop quoted the Bible: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony they upheld” (Rev 6:9). “We tell Fr Samaan: ‘Blessed are you! You used to stand [on earth] in front of the altar, now your soul is under thealtar with those slain for the Word.”
The third message was addressed to those who loved Fr Samaan and are pained by his murder: Anba Stephanos, Fr Samaan’s family and friends, and to all Copts the world over. “Please do not give Satan a chance to shake our love or faith. We should stand firm and realise that we tread a path full of peril till we reach the Kingdom of Heaven. Fr Samaan and all the martyrs have gone that way before us, and we too might tread the same path. But we are ready and willing, because that’s what our Christian faith and our clerical calling prepares us for.”
…The fourth: to the security authorities
Anba Raphail’s last message was to the security authorities in Egypt. “Since 1972,” he said, “terrorist acts and attacks against Copts have steadily escalated. Even though, admittedly, security measures alone cannot stem the tide of crime against Copts, these security measures have been severely flawed. Criminals are seldom caught; when some are caught they are frequently not brought to justice. This is practically a carte blanche for whoever wishes to commit crimes against Copts, since they can be sure there would be no retribution.
“But our lives are not cheap,” he said, “and crimes against us will not go unanswered. If there is no justice on earth, Heaven will exact justice.” He raised a strong warning: “Beware the justice of Heaven. We raise our case to Christ.”
13 October 2017