“My father is in heaven”
The Egyptian Christians executed by ISIS in Libya have long been venerated as martyrs –Aid to the Church in Need visited their children
The images of the 21 Christians who were beheaded in February by so-called Islamic State terrorists have left a deep imprint on the memory of Christian Egyptians. No-one can forget the pictures of the men in orange overalls kneeling before their masked, black-clad murderers on a Libyan beach. The video released by the Jihadists ruthlessly shows every detail of their brutal execution. The men, who were living in Libya as guest-workers, have long been recognised as martyrs and highly revered by their Coptic Orthodox church. This week work began on digging the foundations of a church in the martyrs’ honour. Egypt’s President Sisi – himself a Muslim – ordered its construction. It will be built in the Coptic-Orthodox diocese of Samalout, from which most of the martyrs came. Apart from Matthew, a Ghanaian, all of them were Egyptian.
Bishop Paphnutius is bishop of Samalout. “We are extremely proud of our martyrs,” he said as he welcomed employees of the international pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need to his diocese, a roughly three-hour drive south of Cairo. “Although they were forced to kneel before their executioners, they were the stronger. Their murderers were the weaker, despite their weapons. Why would they have concealed their faces otherwise? It could only have been because they were afraid,” he insisted. “Our sons by contrast were very strong and called on our Lord until their very last breath.”
Bishop Paphnutius interprets their martyrdom spiritually. “The church has always known that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. That is no different here. And it will remain so until the end of time,”he said. “From Alexandria to Aswan, throughout Egypt, Christians have been strengthened in their faith. Moslems from all over have also told us that they are proud; they say that our martyrs have shown that we Egyptians are very strong. Their death fills all of us, Christians and Moslems, with pride.”
The bishop recalled the anxious time between the guest workers’ kidnap and their execution. “We prayed for fourteen, fifteen days that they would not renounce their faith. Indeed, they could have converted to Islam and thereby saved their lives. Nevertheless, they chose Jesus in the knowledge it would mean death.”
The men could not be buried. “ISIS said that the dead bodies of our martyrs were thrown into the sea.” This, according to the bishop, was an act of revenge by the Jihadists for how the Americans had also thrown the body of the Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden into the sea in 2011. Bishop Paphnutius does not feel hatred towards the murders, however. “We follow the example of Archdeacon Stephen in our attitude to the executioners. He asked the Lord for forgiveness for his killers because they knew not what they did.”
Yet the crime’s repercussions are still felt today. After all, the martyrs have left widows and children behind. “Thanks to generous donors, we are able to provide for the surviving dependants,”stated Bishop Paphnutius.
The employees of Aid to the Church in Need were able to meet some of the children who had lost their fathers. The strong testimony of faith of their fathers is being passed to the children. They are calm and composed when speaking about their fathers. 14 year-old Ingy Tawadros is one of the three children of the murdered Tawadros Youssef Tawadros. Of him it is reported that he had experienced a lot of difficulties in Libya because of his name, which was easily recognisable as Christian, and that he had often been asked to change it. “If you change your name, you are ultimately also changing your faith,” he said in rejection. Next to Ingy sit her two little brothers. The younger one is six at most. “I am proud of my father,” she says. “Not just for my own sake, but because he has honoured the whole church. He did not deny his faith. That is something wonderful. We pray for the perpetrators that they may be converted.” Yet, however much the children bear the loss of their fathers in faith, some have tears in their eyes when talking to us. “My father is in heaven,” says another girl. “But I am still sad, because that is such a long way away.”
His Holiness Pope Tawadros II announced the inclusion of the 21 Coptic New Martyrs of Libya in the Synaxarium of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Every year, they will be commemorated on 8 Amshir in the Coptic calendar, which corresponds to 15 February in the Gregorian calendar, the same day as the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.