The Copts beheaded by Daesh in Libya in February 2015 have come home to their final resting place.
The wrenching pain and agony that overcame Copts three years ago appeared to have no antidote. Twenty of their young men had been brutally beheaded for their faith by Daesh in Libya. Egypt’s heart ached at the heinous crime. Especially with those who lost loved ones, grief swamped the soul.
Bit by bit, divine comfort set in. The Coptic Church declared the beheaded Copts martyrs of faith, a church was built to honour their names, and the Church decided to mark 15 February—the date the beheading was made public—as an annual feast to celebrate modern-day martyrs. The tidal wave of grief was stymied.
No one could have imagined however, that the grief would turn into joy: pure, unalloyed, proud joy. Yet this was the fact on 15 May 2018 when the bodies of the heroes of faith came home to their final resting place. Between 15 February 2015 and 15 May 2018 is a long story, one worth telling and documenting.
It all started with the Libyan Arab Spring in 2011. Islamist jihadi groups rose to the height of power and wielded terror all around the Middle East; they consolidated, and vowed allegiance to Daesh, also known as the Islamic State (IS) or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which grew to be especially powerful. In Libya, Daesh captured large swaths of territory, imposed rules based on Islamic teachings, and hounded their “favourite” prey: Christians.
Especially hard for Copts
Libyan activist and journalist Malek al-Sharif explained to Watani in January 2015 that the Islamist militias which held sway over Eastern Libya had escalated terrorist operations against individuals on religious identity.
“There are two million Egyptian workers in Libya,” Mr Sharif said, “50 per cent of them are Coptic and are in real peril.” Despite official warnings by the Egyptian government against travel to Libya, many Egyptians had gone in search of livelihoods.
Following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Mr Sharif said, operations against Copts began in Benghazi. Some 100 of them were caught and charged with preaching Christianity, a Coptic doctor was killed, two churches in Benghazi were burned, and seven were tortured and shot to death and their bodies cast on the beach.
When Copts started fleeing Benghazi to Sirte, he said, the targeting of Copts moved to Sirte. In December 2014, a Coptic doctor, his wife and teenage daughter were killed when gunmen broke into their Sirte home at dawn. Other Copts were kidnapped while attempting return to Egypt.
“For Copts,” Mr Sharif said, “there is no safe exit out of Sirte. To the east, Benghazi is dominated by Islamist militias. To the west there is Tripoli which is riddled with perilous outlaw activity.” The battle against Egyptians was especially significant, he said, since Egypt had in July 2013 rid itself of the Muslim Brothers who had risen to power on the wings of the 2011 Arab Spring, and opted instead for a secular State.
In Egypt 2015, the joy of Coptic Christmas which comes on 7 January turned to chilling fear and worry when news circulated that 13 Coptic men had been kidnapped in Sirte. Thirteen had been preparing to return to their families in Samalout, Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, to celebrate Christmas. They were seized by Islamist militias in Sirte on 3 January. Seven others had been captured when Islamists broke into their home a week earlier. There was no news of their whereabouts or of anything concerning them. Their families in Egypt were dead worried.
On 15 January 2015, Watani visited the villages of the kidnapped Copts, and talked to their families. [https://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/what-happened-to-the-copts-in-sirte/12946/] Watani described their lives as “on the verge of destitution. Their homes, which are similar to one another, contain very little furniture, all of it ramshackle. Some have little more than a small rug or bed. Lighting is dimmed to conserve electricity. Each house has one or two small rooms with an adjoining shed for poultry and livestock: the houses line narrow alleyways. The villagers live from hand to mouth; they work hard for their livelihood, which scarcely ever exceeds EGP30 (then equivalent to USD4.5) a day. They might work for a day and be without employment for another two, so finding work in Libya, despite the unrest there, was not for them the worst of choices.
“When not working, the villagers customarily sit in front of their houses to chat, there being little to do in the way of entertainment. However, on the day Watani visited the village there was no chatting; everyone sat in despondent silence broken only by anguished cries of women and weeping of children whose fathers had disappeared in Sirte.”
Copts in Libya
The Coptic workers had been kidnapped in IS-controlled territory over which the Libyan government had 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. It did not help that the Islamists saw Egyptians as their bitter enemies and Copts as their favourite prey.
Libya’s Ambassador to Cairo, Fayez Gebriel, expressed anxiety about Copts in Libya, saying that the problem with Egyptian labourers was that they did not travel alone but with members of their extended families, brothers and first and second cousins, all of whom lived together, meaning that the gunmen could easily locate them.
The date 15 February came with conclusive news of the kidnapped Copts, and with it shock and heartbreak. That day, Daesh posted on its online publication, Dabeq gruesome video footage of 21 Christians in orange jumpsuits lined up on what looked like a beach in Sirte. Twenty among them were the missing Copts. The 21st was an African, it was said he was Ghanaian. Behind each stood a masked man in black holding a knife. In a chilling scene, the Christians were made to kneel, and were beheaded in front of the camera, to Islamic slogans in the background. The Copts were submissive to their fate, the only words they uttered were: “Oh Lord Jesus!”
One militant, not in black, addressed the camera in English explaining that the beheadings were in retaliation against the “hostile Church of Egypt”. IS said that its arm in Libya had killed “the Coptic crusaders of Egypt”.
The video footage shook not only Egypt but also the entire world. World leaders condemned what they described as a heinous crime, and Pope Francis summed it when he said: “They were killed for the simple fact that they were Christian.”
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.
The dawn hours of 16 February saw the Egyptian Air Force start a series of airstrikes against IS sites in Derna, Libya, targeting camps and weapons storage sites. 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 [as was alleged by al-JAzeera]. 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 continued the following days with more casualties reported among IS.
The retaliatory airstrikes represented the first time Egypt took foreign military action since 1991.
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 only 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.
On 17 February, Pope Tawadros said 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. “We pray for their families; we also pray for their killers,” he said.
The President ordered the building of a church in the village of al-Our from which 13 of the 20 beheaded Copts came, to honour their name. He said it would be built by the Armed Forces, and suggested for it the name: Church of the Martyrs of Faith and the Nation.
The agony … and the comfort
Profound grief, horror, and wrath engulfed Egypt, but nowhere was the grief more overwhelming 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; but 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 Samalout villages into areas of agony.
The courage with which the 21 Christians 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 Christians were being executed by IS meant they had all refused to deny their faith. 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 willingness to die for it went viral on social media. Comfort seeped in; peace rolled like a river.
Anba Raphail, 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 threat, torture and brutal death, while unshakeably and with free will adhering to the faith, even at the cost of death.”
Pope Tawadros II 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.”
Coptic artists were quick to express their sentiments. 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—martyrs hold a position of honour in Coptic icons.
The martyrdom of the Copts in Libya was depicted by artists Victor Fakhoury, Wagdy Habashy, and the Egyptian-American Tony Rizk. The three paintings drew on the Christian faith.
Full details about the paintings were reported on our 27 March 2015 post:
New site; bigger church
As though the pain of losing loved ones were not enough, the Copts of al-Our had to face the stinging fanaticism of fundamentalist Muslims in the village. In response to President Sisi’s initiative, a Coptic businessman purchased a piece of land in al-Our on which to build the church, and Samalout Bishopric was in the process of legalising ownership of the land.
On the last Friday in March 2015, following Friday noon prayers, fundamentalists in al-Our waged a demonstration against the Copts and the planned church. They pelted the Copts’ houses with stones, burned a Coptic-owned car, and screamed Islamic slogans as they shouted: “By no means shall a church be built here”. Even after the police brought the situation under control and peace reigned, they were so adamant in rejecting the idea of the new church that some solution had to be found.
Finally, an agreement was reached with the Copts that the new church would be moved outside the village, to be built on a piece of land owned by Samalout bishopric and lying at the eastern border of the village.
On 1 April 2015, the foundation stone for the new church was laid. The Copts were happy since the new site allowed for a bigger church. The construction department of the Armed Forces started erection works.
The Cardinal’s visit
The story of the Egyptian martyrs of faith travelled around the world. October 2016 saw Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of the Catholic Church in Austria, pay a visit to Egypt upon an invitation by Pope Tawadros. Cardinal Schönborn had on many occasions displayed his love for the Coptic Church which, in turn, dearly loved and appreciated him.
In Cairo, Pope Tawadros welcomed Cardinal Schönborn at the St Mark Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, where they exchanged courtesies and paid a visit to the shrine of St Mark in the crypt of the Cathedral. The following day, the Cardinal headed to
al-Our which he had expressly wished to visit. Cardinal Schönborn praised the Egyptian administration’s decision to build a church there, and was extremely impressed when Anba Pavnotius, Bishop of Samalout, informed him that the church was scheduled to open before yearend. He said he thought it would have taken years to complete.
The Cardinal met the martyrs’ families who, despite being poor villagers, came eagerly to greet the Austrian bishop and talk of the loved ones they had lost on account of their Christian faith. He prayed for the families, blessed them and asked for their blessings. As he left, he remarked that this visit was among the highlights of his trip to Egypt.
A bombshell dropped on 29 September 2017 when the Libyan Interior Ministry announced that the bodies of 20 Copts and one Ghanaian beheaded by Daesh in Sirte in 2015 had been found and taken out of their burial site. The headless bodies were found with chained hands, in the orange jumpsuits and shoes the men had been wearing when they were beheaded. The Copts’ bodies, the Ministry said, would be shipped to Egypt once all the necessary paper work and procedures, including DNA testing, were done.
Libyan Public Prosecutor Assistant al-Sadiq al-Sour said that it took a series of complicated procedures to catch one of the militants involved in the crime: the cameraman who videotaped the beheading. The arrested militant, who “had observed and overseen the incident,” gave the Libyan authorities all details about the killings, and informed about where the victims’ bodies were buried. He said the terrorists who executed the crime came from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Chad. His testimony involved the details of the beheading; he said only one victim had resisted but was quickly overpowered by his killer; the others had all been absolutely submissive to the fate that awaited them. A number of professional cameras, he said, were used to film the beheading, under direct supervision of the top IS men in the African region, in order to “terrify the whole world”.
Egyptians in general received the news of the return of the bodies with poignant comments on social media, many stressing that the presence of the bodies of the martyrs in Egypt would bring the land and nation indescribable blessings.
In the village of al-Our, the families of the martyrs received the news with a mixture of renewal of grief for the loss of their loved ones, and joy at the prospect of bringing back their bodies for burial at the church built to honour them. The church had just been completed and a shrine built there for the martyrs. Initially, it would have held their photographs; “but now,” the villagers said, “it will house their blessed bodies. The martyrs’ families were beyond themselves with amazed elation at the timing of the events: that the bodies should come home once the shrine was ready to receive them.
“It concerns all Egypt”
15 February 2018 marked the first celebration by the Coptic Orthodox Church of the Feast of Modern-Day Martyrs. In al-Our, Anba Pavnotius consecrated the church of the Martyrs of Faith and the Nation.
The dominant sentiment was one of pride and joy; pride because the martyrs chose to die rather than deny their faith, and joy because Egypt gave them the honour they deserve.
The father of Milad Makeen Zaky, one of the martyrs, smiled as he told Watani: “I feel the agony that burned in my heart ever since Milad died has finally subsided. Now I am happy he will be put to rest here.”
Zaky’s mother said she felt the Lord had given her abundant comfort without which she could never have borne the pain of losing her son. She expressed gratitude to President Sisi for his decision to build the church. “As its name suggests, our sons’ martyrdom does not concern us alone, it concerns all Egypt.”
The mother of two martyrs, Bishoi and Samuel Stefanous, expressed her happiness at the church built in their name. “I am certain they are now in Heaven where they intercede on our behalf before the Divine Throne,” she said.
The 20 bodies of the Coptic martyrs were brought home on 14 May 2018; an aircraft carrying their bodies landed in Cairo airport in the evening. Pope Tawadros II was on hand to receive them, accompanied by Anba Pavnotius and a number of bishops and high-ranking Church and State officials. The bodies, which were identified through DNA testing, were placed in 20 coffins, each carrying an engraving of the name of the man whose body it holds. They were taken down from the aircraft to a deacon procession awaiting them on the ground singing the joyous chants of the Resurrection. The Pope welcomed the bodies with prayers of thanksgiving and praise.
The bodies arrived at al-Our in the early hours of 15 May, and were laid in church for Midnight Praise and Mass the following day. They were received by the villagers in al-Our with an ecstasy of joyous ululations and songs of praise written expressly for them. Their families and fellow villagers were elated at their loved ones’ homecoming; a feeling of collective relief and joy filled al-Our.
After Mass, the martyrs were laid in their final resting place.
16 May 2018