February 2020 marks five years on an event which, for sheer atrocity, remains painfully etched in the collective memory of Copts. On 15 February 2015, video footage posted by Daesh, also known as the Islamic State (IS), showed 20 Coptic men and one Ghanaian in orange jumpsuits, lined up on a Mediterranean shoreline in Sirte, Libya. Behind each stood another man, masked and in black, who beheaded the Christians one by one. The victims were mostly submissive, only one displayed mild resistance; the only words they uttered as they died were: “Oh Lord Jesus!”
The Copts were migrant workers in Libya. They had come from poor villages in Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, in search of livelihoods. When Islamist militias affiliated to Daesh seized large swaths of land in post-Arab Spring Libya, they persecuted Christians there. Those coming from Egypt came in for more than their fair share of persecution; Daesh desired to get back at Egypt which had in 2013 overthrown the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime that had come to power on the wings of Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring.
The 21 Christians beheaded in Libya were declared martyrs of faith by the Coptic Church, since they chose to die rather than deny their faith; they came to be known as the Libya Martyrs. The anniversary of the Libya Martyrs is marked on 15 February. The date has been assigned by the Coptic Orthodox Church a Feast Day for Modern-Day Martyrs, Copts who died for their faith during the 21st century.
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The remains of the martyrs now rest in a shrine inside a church built in their honour in al-Our in Samalout, Minya, some 240km south of Cairo. Al-Our is the home village of 13 of the martyrs; the other seven came from other nearby Minya villages.
The martyrs’ remains had been flown to Cairo in 20 coffins on 15 May 2018, after they were found by the Libyan authorities in September 2017, and identified through DNA testing. They were received at Cairo Airport by Pope Tawadros II who said Thanksgiving Prayers, and a deacon procession that chanted joyous songs of the Resurrection.
The bodies were then moved to al-Our where they were placed in a special shrine at a church built in their honour. The church was built by Egypt’s Armed Forces, by order of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi who aptly named it the “Church of the Martyrs of Faith and the Homeland”.
The Copts were sorry that the body of the Ghanaian martyr Matthew Ayariga was not put to rest with his Egyptian companions. In July 2019, when no one had claimed him, an Egyptian delegation representing Anba Pavnotius met officials at the Libyan Embassy in Cairo and requested that his body be brought to rest in the shrine at al-Our church. The Libyans promised they would seriously consider it once political conditions in Libya stabilised.
Christ’s open arms
Five years following their gruesome beheading in Libya in 2015, the Libya Martyrs now have a museum to their name, and a memorial depicting them under the open, all-embracing arms of Christ the Lord in Whose name they laid down their lives.
Anba Pavnotious, Bishop of Samalout, is preparing to mark their anniversary on 15 February in an afternoon event that would witness the unveiling of their memorial and the opening of their museum. Senior officials and public and media figures have been invited to attend; Church figures including bishops and priests, also the families of the martyrs would be sure to participate in the event.
Once Anba Pavnotius arrives at the church grounds and is welcomed by the traditional deacon procession and Coptic chants, he will head to the Memorial of the Martyrs to unveil it.
The five-metre high, five-metre wide sculpture by Girgis al-Gawly, professor of Sculpture at Minya University, occupies the place of honour before the church entrance. Made of concrete, it depicts the 21 kneeling martyrs as they appeared in the video of their beheading, with Jesus Christ standing behind, embracing them with His open arms.
Dr Gawly says the sculpture took three months to complete, and was done upon a suggestion by Anba Pavnotius.
The Bishop should then open the Libya Martyrs’ Museum which showcases a ‘panorama’ of their martyrdom documented in photographs and texts in the Arabic, English, and French languages. The panorama includes everything about the martyrs’ kidnapping and beheading; their bodies arriving at Cairo Airport then home to al-Our. It shows the coffins in which their bodies were flown to Cairo, their passports, the orange jumpsuits they wore when they were beheaded, the ropes that were knotted around their hands, and a few belongings found in their pockets.
Site of beheading
A few weeks ago, the Libyan Army liberated Sirte on a shoreline of which the Christian martyrs had been beheaded. The Libyan police was able to identify the exact spot where the beheading took place; they had in October 2017 found the grave where the martyrs had been buried, but not the site of the beheading. Once the site was identified, it was filmed, showing features identical to the video footage posted by Daesh, down to details of the scattered rocks on the ground and the palms that appeared in the last shot of the video when Abu-Amer al-Gazrawi, the terrorist who described the massacre, appeared in a short clip speaking in English.
The Libyan police chief officer said: “In this place, a horrible crime was committed by Daesh, a massacre of 21 Christians in 2015, carried out in full brutality. Yet, today, in this very place, we assure everyone that this beach will be nothing but a place of safety, peace, mercy, goodness, and joy.”
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