21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya
Martyrs
BornOne from Ghana, others from Egypt
Died15 February 2015[1]
Southern Mediterranean Sea Coast, Sirte, Libya (murdered by the Islamic State)[2]
Cause of deathDecapitation
Resting placeVillage of Al-Our, Samalut, Minya, Egypt
Venerated inOriental Orthodoxy
Catholic Church
Canonized21 February 2015, Cathedral of the Martyrs of the Faith and Homeland, Al-Our, Samalut, Minya Governorate, Egypt by Pope Tawadros II
Major shrineChurch of the Martyrs of the Faith and Homeland, Samalut, Egypt
Feast15 February (Gregorian calendar)
8 Amshir (Coptic calendar)
Attributes
Patronage

On 12 February 2015, the Islamic State (IS) released a report in their online magazine Dabiq showing photos of 21 Egyptian Christian construction workers that they had kidnapped in the city of Sirte, Libya, and whom they threatened to kill.[3] The men, who came from different villages in Egypt, 13 of them from Al-Our, Minya Governorate,[4] were kidnapped in Sirte in two separate attacks on 27 December 2014, and in January 2015.[5] A video was subsequently released showing their murder.

This was not the first time that Egyptians in Libya had been the subject of abuse for political reasons, a pattern that goes back to the 1950s.[6]

In 2014, a militia group in eastern Libya declared its affiliation with IS and then took over parts of Derna in late 2014. People allied to the group claimed responsibility for attacks across the country, including the Corinthia Hotel attack in January 2015.[7][8]

On 19 April 2015, IS released another video in which they murdered about 30 Ethiopian Christians.[9][10][11][12][13]

The victims, all but one being members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, were formally declared saints and martyrs in February of 2015 by Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria. In 2023, Pope Francis announced that the 21 Coptic men murdered by IS would also be commemorated by the Catholic Church and listed within the Roman Martyrology in what was described as a major ecumenical decision.[14] The martyrs are commemorated on 15 February (civil calendar) in both churches.

Video

On 15 February 2015, a five-minute video was published by Al-Hayat, an Islamic State multi-language media wing, showing the beheading of the captives on a beach along the southern Mediterranean coast. A caption in the video called the captives the "People of the Cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian Church".[5] In the video, the leader was dressed in camouflage, while the other terrorists were dressed in black. The victims were all dressed in orange jumpsuits, as in many previous IS videos. The leader declared in North American English:

All praises due to Allah, the strong and mighty, and may blessings and peace be upon the one sent by the sword, as a mercy to all the worlds [Prophet Muhammad]. Oh people, recently you've seen us on the hills of Al-Sham [Greater Syria] and on Dabiq's Plain, chopping off the heads that had been carrying the cross delusion for a long time, filled with spite against Islam and Muslims, and today we're on the south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message: Oh crusaders, safety for you will be only wishes. Especially when you're fighting us all together, therefore, we will fight you all together, until the war lays down its burdens and Jesus, peace be upon him, will descend, breaking the cross, killing the swine, and abolishing Jizya, and the sea you've hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden's body in, we swear to Allah, we will mix it with your blood.[15]

In the moments before the beheadings (3'25" to 3'32" of the video) an edited audio clip records a number of them crying out "Ya Rabb Yesua!" (Arabic: يا رب يسوع, lit.'O Lord Jesus!') and the caption reads (Arabic: يذكرون معبودهم ويموتون على شركهم, lit.'They supplicate what they worship and die upon their paganism'),[15][16] suggesting that they had been given a chance to convert to Islam but refused it: for this reason, the Coptic Church proclaimed them martyrs. During the beheading of the captives (3'32" to 3'40" of the video), a part of an Islamic State acapella chant, "Qariba..Qariba" (Arabic: قريبا..قريبا, lit.'Soon..Soon') was playing in the background of the video, with an edited audio clip of the captives yelling in agony. After beheading the captives (3'40" to 4'15" of the video), the acapella chant continued to play and a message appears on the screen: (Arabic: هذه الدماء النجسة بعض ما ينتظركم، ثأرا ل (كاميليا) وأخواتها, lit.'This filthy blood is just some of what awaits you, in revenge for Camelia and her sisters.')[15][16] This was referencing Camelia Shehata, a Coptic Egyptian woman and wife of a Coptic priest who Islamists believe had converted to Islam and was detained by the Coptic Church because of it; she later denied the claim. In the final part of the video (4'15" to 5'01" of the video), the speaker declares "and we will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission, the promise of our Prophet, peace be upon him," pointing his knife toward the sea, while the captives' blood pooled into the Mediterranean coast.[8] As in other IS videos, the captives wore orange jumpsuits, intended as a reference to the attire of prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.[8] The group of killers identified itself in the video as the Tripoli Province of IS.[8] The leader of the squad performing the killings was identified as a Libyan expatriate who goes by the nom de guerre Al Qaqa'a Ben Omro.[17]

The Coptic Church, the Egyptian government, and the Libyan parliament[18] confirmed the deaths.

Later, when one of the perpetrators of the operation was arrested, he admitted in the investigation that the slaughter had taken place at the beach opposite Al Mahary Hotel in Sirte.[19][20][21][22][23]

Aftermath

The president of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced a seven-day period of national mourning and called for an urgent meeting with the country's top security body.[24] In a televised address, el-Sisi declared his country reserved the right to retaliate.[8] He also reiterated an offer to facilitate Egyptians' evacuation from Libya and imposed a travel ban on citizens to Libya.[8] Officials from Al-Azhar, a prominent mosque and learning center in Egypt, also condemned the incident.[25] The killings were also addressed particularly by the United Nations Security Council, French President François Hollande and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.[26][27] Pope Francis telephoned Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences. At an ecumenical meeting with the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Pope Francis stated "They only said 'Jesus help me ...' The blood of our Christian brothers is testimony that cries out. Be they Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it doesn't matter: They're Christian!"[28] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary provided €500 of financial support for each of the victims' families. Péter Szijjártó said "Hungary cannot be a bystander of the continuous attacks against Christian communities in the Middle East."[29] The Obama administration was criticized for referring to the victims simply as Egyptian citizens rather than Christians, the express reason for their murder.[30]

Egyptian airstrikes

Main article: February 2015 Egyptian airstrikes in Libya

At dawn on 16 February, the Egyptian military conducted airstrikes on IS facilities in Libya.[5] The airstrikes targeted IS training locations and weapons stockpiles.[31] All military aircraft returned safely to base.[31] The Libyan Air Force also conducted strikes in Derna, occupied by an IS affiliate since 2014.[31] About 40–50 militants and 7 civilians were reportedly killed.[31][32]

Veneration

On 21 February 2015, seven days after their death, Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria canonized the 21 Coptic martyrs as saints in the Cathedral of the Martyrs of the Faith and Homeland in Samalut.[33]

On 11 May 2023, Pope Francis met with Pope Tawadros II during general audiences to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Coptic Orthodox-Catholic agreement at Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. In his speech, Francis announced that he intends to add the 21 martyrs to the Roman Martyrology. He said "these martyrs were baptized not only in water and the Spirit, but also in blood, with a blood that is a seed of unity for all followers of Christ. I am pleased to announce today that, with Your Holiness' consent, these 21 martyrs will be included in the Roman Martyrology as a sign of the spiritual communion uniting our two Churches."[34]

During the audience, Tawadros II gave Francis relics with a small statue of the 21 martyrs and an egg-shaped coptic icon of the Holy Family. Upon receiving the relics, Francis said "I will try to make an altar in one of our basilicas in honor of the martyrs."[35]

They are venerated as saints and martyrs both in the Oriental Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, and their feast day is celebrated every year on 15 February of the Gregorian calendar. The commemoration falls on the feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple which is 8 Amshir of the Coptic calendar.

21st victim

After the beheadings, the Coptic Church released the martyrs' names, but there were only 20 names. In the video, the 21st victim was of Black African descent, in contrast to the others, who were ethnic Copts. It was later learned that the 21st victim was named Matthew Ayariga and that he was from Ghana (a few sources say he was from Chad).[36][37][38][39][40][41][42]

It is most likely that he was already a Christian, because sources reported that he said "I am a Christian and I am like them".[43] In October 2020, Christian News Now reported that "Ayariga was a Christian migrant worker from Ghana".[44] In the book The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, Martin Mosebach, who traveled to Egypt to meet the families of the martyrs, also states that Ayariga said "I am a Christian".[45]

However, according to some unnamed sources, he was not originally a Christian, but saw the immense faith of the others, and when the terrorists asked him if he rejected Jesus he reportedly said, "Their God is my God", knowing that he would be killed.[46][47]

When the remains of the 21 bodies were found, the bodies of the 20 Egyptians were returned into Egypt.[48] On September 29, 2020, Ayariga's remains were received in Egypt by the new church in Al Our,[44][49] the Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Homeland, a shrine built in honor of the martyrs.[50] The family members of the other martyrs "expressed their joy at the return of the remains of the martyr [Matthew Ayariga]", saying "Our joy is complete."[44] Majid Shehata, a daughter of one of the martyrs, said, "It was a surprise to all of us that we see the remains of the martyr Matthew inside the Church of the Martyrs, and this is a long-awaited news and all the families are in great joy and we thank God for having responded to us in the return of the martyr."[44]

Return of the remains

After the expulsion of the IS fighters from Sirte, government authorities announced they had found the place where the bodies of the martyrs were buried. This was done after the government authorities and the Libyan army arrested one of the terrorists who was present during the slaughter.[51][52][53] The Libyan Attorney General ordered cooperation with the Egyptian authorities to send DNA samples from the families of the martyrs to be compared with DNA samples from the remains.[54][55][56]

Later, it was ascertained that the remains belonged to the martyrs after comparing the families' DNA samples sent by the Egyptian Forensic Medicine Authority with the DNA samples taken from the remains by the Libyan Forensic Medicine Commission.[57][58][59][60][61][62]

On 15 May 2018, the remains of the 20 Egyptians were returned to the Church of Martyrs of the Faith and Homeland cathedral which was built for and named after them in Martyrs' Village (formerly Al-Aour, Al-Awar, or Al-Our; Egyptian Arabic: قرية العور), Minya governorate.[63] A special shrine was built in which the remains were laid so that people can visit them. Churches and monasteries' bells were rung all over Egypt when the remains arrived at Cairo International Airport from Misrata Airport in Libya;[citation needed] celebrations of the return of the remains to their homeland. They were received by Pope Tawadros II, a large number of priests, Ambassador Nabila Makram, the Egyptian minister of immigration and Egyptians affairs abroad, and other state officials at the airport.[64][65][66] A mass was held, presided over by Bishop of Samalut Anba Baphnotius.[67][68][69][70][71][72][73]

One year later, on 25 July 2019, the Coptic Church officially requested the Libyan Embassy in Cairo ship Ayariga's body to Egypt. Anba Pavnotios dispatched an official delegation to meet Chargé d'affaires of the Libyan Embassy, Fawzy al-Mabrouk Tantoush.

The delegation included the priests of the Cathedral of the Martyrs of the Faith and Homeland in Al-Our, Friars Marcos Atef and Epiphanius Yunan, Nevine Ragy, General Manager of Schools and Projects of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Samalut, and Nader Shukry, Member of the board on the Church of the Martyrs of the Faith and Homeland, and coordinator of crisis management for the martyrs' families. The Libyan Embassy's social attaché Hussein Al-Bashir Shafsha also attended the meeting.

The Egyptian delegation handed Tantoush a letter from Anba Pavnotios requesting that the body of Ayariga be brought to Egypt "to be joined with his Coptic brothers in their final resting place". The Metropolitan said the Church would give all the necessary legal pledges and guarantees to honour the rights of all parties should his country ask to have him back.[74]

In 2019, the Libyan government agreed to transfer Ayariga's body to Egypt.[75] His remains were transferred to Egypt and laid to rest with the other martyrs at the end of September 2020.[76]

Names

Source: [79]

Book

The lives of the martyrs have been detailed in a book by Martin Mosebach called The 21 – A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs.[80]

See also

References

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