“They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christian,” Pope Francis said at the Vatican, condemning the killing of 21 young Coptic men at the hands of Islamic State (IS) affiliates in Libya. The Copts, who had been in Libya for work and had been kidnapped by the Islamist group in two separate incidents, met their death in a heinous manner. A video posted by IS Sunday 15 February showed the 21 men in orange jumpsuits being led along in a row on a beach, each accompanied by a masked IS man in black. The Copts were made to kneel and were simultaneously beheaded. One militant, not in black, addressed the camera in English explaining that the beheadings were in retaliation against the “hostile Church of Egypt”.
The video sent shock waves through Egypt. In a televised address President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi declared a seven-day period of national mourning; condemned the “abhorrent act of terrorism”; condoled Egypt, the Church, and the families of the victims; and promised revenge. “Egypt reserves the right of retaliation, and with the methods and timing it sees fit for retribution,” he said.
The dawn hours of Monday 16 February saw the Egyptian Air Force start a series of airstrikes against IS sites in Derna, Libya, targeting camps and weapons storage sites. A military spokesman announced the airstrikes had achieved their targets and the warplanes had safely returned to base camp. Muhammad Higazy, spokesman for the Libyan army said the first Egyptian air strikes killed 46 IS fighters, among them three leaders, but no civilians whatsoever. Photographs of injured children aired by al-Jazeera were exposed by Libyan officials to be old photos shot during earlier instances of the civil war in the country. The airstrikes did not stop Monday, but continued the following days with more casualties reported among IS.
A security source said Egypt was considering sending elements of its special anti-terrorism task Force 999 Combat group to Libya to assist the Libyans fight terrorism.
The retaliatory airstrikes represent the first time Egypt has acknowledged taking foreign military action since 1991. It means the army has now opened a second front against IS-affiliated fighters; the first is the eastern front in the Sinai Peninsula where Islamist militants gained a foothold in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 and the consequent rise of Islamists to power. Once the Egyptians in their millions revolted in June 2013 and the Islamist regime was overthrown, the country has been battling the Islamist Jihadis in the peninsula.
On Tuesday, President Sisi appealed to the international community for collaborated intervention in Libya, urging the UN Security Council to adopt such a decision. “There is no other choice,” President Sisi said in an interview with French radio Europe 1. “Taking into account that the Libyan people must agree that we act to restore security and stability.”
This is not the first time the President demands some kind of intervention in Libya which has been mired in conflict ever since the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. He has repeatedly sounded warnings against the spread of terrorism and alerted the West that it would come to their own land. Egypt’s ambassador to the UK has warned the IS threat is “coming closer to Europe”, and claimed there has been a collective failure to “snuff out” the terror organisation. Large swaths of the land of Libya are now under IS control, and there are two governments. The Prime Minster of the internationally-recognised regime in Tubruk has supported Egypt’s airstrikes.
International intervention, however, never materialised. Apart form the retaliatory airstrikes by Egypt, Monday 16 February carried news that United Arab Emirates F16 fighter jets based in Jordan had successfully struck oil refineries under control of IS, in an attempt to dry up sources of funding for the terrorist group.
The President gave orders to the government to impose a blanket travel ban to Libya, effective also for Egyptians who have Libyan spouses. The Salloum crossing on the Egypt Libya border was open only for Egyptians crossing from Libya. The President ordered an airlift of Egyptians wishing to leave Libya; the first day after the decisions saw some 600 Egyptians head home, with the numbers rising. The government had repeatedly issued travel warnings against Libya in the past months, but this was the first actual ban.
As Egypt observed the mourning period, condolences flowed in. The White House, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande and the UN Security Council were among the first to condemn the killing of the Copts, describing them as “despicable and cowardly, savage, cruel and barbaric”. Condolences also flowed from other heads of States worldwide. In Egypt, cabinet ministers, political parties and coalitions, rights groups, women groups, and professional syndicates all issued statements of condolences and condemned the beheadings. Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb and Egypt’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa visited the Pope Tawadros II to offer their condolences.
The Council of Egypt’s Churches issued a statement in which it offered condolences to the entire homeland. The statement said: “We leave it to the Divine Judge of the whole world to work justice”, and said the Church was praying for all Egypt, the unity of her people, and peace for her lands.
In Samalout, Minya, some 200km south of Cairo—the hometown of the beheaded Copts—Anba Pavnotius, Bishop of Samalout said he was considering holding funerary prayers for the deceased even without their bodies being there.
Minya Governor Salah Eddin Ziyada accepted condolences at noon on Monday at the church of Mar-Morqos (St Mark) in Samalout.
Monday morning, President Sisi headed to St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, to offer condolences to Pope Tawadros. It did not escape the attention of Egyptians that this visit came after the military had announced news of the first successful airstrike against IS targets. In a country where tradition runs strong that no condolence may be accepted for the death of a family member who was killed till after the killing has been avenged, the timing of the President’s visit carried telling significance.
“Our strength is in our unity,” the President told Pope Tawadros. “Our entire populace is hurting because of the brutal killings, but trials and tribulations make us more solid, more strong. We will avenge the blood of our sons.”
“The military response has redeemed all Egyptians,” the Pope said as he warmly thanked President Sisi.
Tuesday morning saw Pope Tawadros say Holy Mass at St Mark’s for the souls of the martyrs. He praised their staunch faith, their strength in the face of death, and said they had made their choice to stick to their faith until death, choosing Heaven and relinquishing earth. “We also pray for their killers,” he said.
The President ordered the building of a church in Samalout, Minya, from which the beheaded Copts came, to be consecrated in their name.
No demands in exchange of the Copts
The 21 Copts were abducted in Libya on two separate occasions, only one week apart. Thirteen of the hostages were kidnapped in Tripoli in early January when masked Islamists broke into the housing unit where they boarded, asked about the Christians living there, and seized them. The other seven were kidnapped a week earlier in Sirte while on a bus heading home to Egypt. They were singled out from among the other bus passengers; the Muslims were allowed to go on with their trip whereas the Copts were taken captive.
Even though the families and friends of the victims had at one point protested that the government was not doing enough to get their sons released and brought home, there was in fact next to nothing the Egyptian authorities could do about the plight of the Copts. The Coptic workers had been kidnapped in IS-controlled territory over which the Libyan government has no authority, so attempts to resolve the crisis through official channels came to nothing. The Egyptian authorities tried to recruit the help of non-official Libyan sources and tribal elders on the Egypt-Libya border to mediate a safe exit for the Copts, but with no success. Noteworthy is that the Egyptian government had for months repeatedly issued warnings against travelling to Libya or working there without official papers.
Since IS has a notorious worldwide record in extremism, brutality, and terrorist crime, and had made no demands whatsoever in exchange of which it would have released the Copts, it was absolutely far-fetched that official intervention may have borne fruit.
IS said that its arm in Libya had captured “the Coptic crusaders of Egypt” in revenge for persecuted female Muslim converts who, according to IS, were “tortured and murdered” by the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Islamist group was referring to two Coptic women, Wafaa’ Qostantine and Kamilia Shehata whom the Islamists claim had converted to Islam but were forced by the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church to go back to Christianity. The stories go back to the years 2004 and 2010 respectively; in both cases the women were married to Coptic priests and left home owing to domestic problems. After public outcries at their disappearance and allegations of their having converted to Islam, the women re-appeared and publicly denied having converted, a fact confirmed by the absence of any official conversion papers. Yet Islamists claimed the women had converted and the Church was holding them against their will, a claim belied by the fact that the Coptic Church has never been known to force anyone into the Christian faith or to hold anyone at all whether willingly or against their will. IS also alluded to an attack in 2010 against a Catholic Church in Baghdad in which 58 Christian worshippers lost their lives, which the group said was in retribution for what the Coptic Church was allegedly doing against Muslim women converts in Egypt.
Scores of Copts living and working in Libya have been killed. In a crime that raised public agony and outrage, a Coptic doctor and his wife were killed and their teenage daughter kidnapped when masked men broke into their home in Sirte last December. The body of the daughter was later found with two bullets in her chest and one in the head.
Last year, the bodies of seven Copts were found near the city of Benghazi.
Crime on identity
In an interview with Libyan writer and activist Malik al-Sharif published by Watani International on 18 January 2015 under the title Islamist show of force, Mr Sharif explained the complicated situation in Libya, the Islamist alliances there, and the regions controlled by IS: Sirte and Derna, and part of Tripoli. In these regions, the Libyan flag has been replaced with the flag of al-Qaeda which is now raised over all official buildings in the region. IS, he said, is also in control of a number of airports, including Sirte, Tripoli and Misrata, as well as Sabratha coast port. The Libyan government controls only the east of Libya (850km off the Egyptian border), till Kufra in the south, but not Derna.
“There are two million Egyptian workers in Libya,” Mr Sharif said, “50 per cent of them are Copts and these are in real peril.”
But why are Copts especially targeted? Watani asked. “Apart from the fact that the Islamist militias commit crimes on religious identity,” Mr Sharif explained, “they also seek to tell President Sisi that ‘we are fighting you everywhere’.” They wish to send a message that, after the overthrow of the MB regime in Egypt in July 2013, President Sisi and the current secular regime are incapable of protecting Egyptians.
Areas of agony
A wave of profound grief, horror, and wrath engulfed Egypt on Sunday evening as TV channels and online news sites aired the video of the beheadings. Egyptians—Muslims as well as Copts—were shocked and appalled at the sight of the gruesome crime, but nowhere was the grief more overpowering than in the home villages of the victims. For weeks their families had hoped against hope for a breakthrough that would bring their sons home; now the glaring, brutal reality of their loss made the women faint with heartbreak and the men sob uncontrollably. The sight of the orphaned children, widowed wives, and old parents who had lost their sons turned the entire villages of al-Our, al-Gebali, Dafash, Samson, al-Sobi and Menbal in Samalout into areas of agony.
The government announced it was paying each family a monthly pension of EGP1,200 and compensation of EGP100,000, and was exempting the children from schooling fees.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab visited the families of the bereaved in their homes and spent time comforting them.
The general sensation on the street in Egypt is a feeling of redemption at the successful airstrikes against IS; men and women felt that Egypt’s dignity has been upheld. A Baseera poll revealed that 85 per cent of Egyptians approved the airstrikes.
Ironically, the Salafi Daawa issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the Chapel Hill incident of almost a week earlier in which three Muslims were killed by their neighbour in North Carolina, but absolutely disregarding the beheading of the 21 Copts by Islamists in Libya. The statement comments on Chapel Hill by saying: “The world never saw such hatred and killing throughout its history, since the demise of the Islamic caliphate and the rise of western civilisation.”
The courage with which the 21 Copts faced death, and the audible prayers they uttered as they died acted as an enlightening inspiration to Christians. It is no secret that Islamists demand of their Christian captives to convert to Islam at peril of death; the fact that the 21 Copts were being executed by IS meant they had all refused to convert. After the initial wave of grief, Egyptian Christians saw the inescapable parallels between the beheaded Copts and the martyrs of the early Church. Bible verses and messages that extoll their faith and their willingness to die for it inundated the social media. Comfort seeped in; peace rolled like a river.
Anba Raphaeil, Secretary General of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church wrote: “The killing of Christians will not terrorise us; it will strengthen our faith. Strength lies not in violence and killing, but in sustaining the pain and suffering of captivity, the threats, torture and brutal death while unshakingly adhering to the faith. Faith cannot be forced by terrorism or fear, real faith is that which a person adopts by conviction and free will, and adheres to even at the cost of death.”
18 February 2015
Names of the 21 Copts beheaded in Libya
1. Milad Makeen Zaky
2. Abanoub Ayad Attiya
3. Maged Soliman Shehata
4. Youssef Shukry Younan
5. Kyrillos Shukry Fawzy
6. Bishoy Estefanous Kamel
7. Samuel Estefanous Kamel
8. Malak Ibrahim Sinout
9. Tawadros Youssef Tawadros
10. Girgis Milad Sinout
11. Mina Fayez Aziz
12. Hany Abdel-Messih Saleeb
13. Bishoy Adel Khalaf
14. Samuel Alham Wilson
15. Ezzat Bishri Naseef
16. Lucas Nagati
17. Gaber Munir Adly
18. Essam Baddar Samir
19. Malak Farag Abram
20. Sameh Salah Farouq
21. Unnamed worker from al-Our village