LEICESTER, United Kingdom – After the bodies of 20 Coptic Christians killed by the Islamic State in Libya were returned to Egypt on Monday, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Great Britain said their deaths “provided an opportunity for a deep and genuine unity among the Christian Church worldwide.”
The world was horrified when the Islamic State group released a video in February 2015 which showed the beheading of 21 men – 20 Coptic Christians, along with a Ghanaian Christian companion – who were dressed as prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits and handcuffs.
As they were killed, the men were praying to Jesus.
Their bodies were recovered in October 2017 after one of the perpetrators was caught by the Libyan authorities and revealed their location. The remains of the Egyptian Coptic Christians were repatriated to Egypt on May 14, and their plane was met by Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
(The body of the murdered Ghanaian Christian was not taken to Egypt.)
“This is indeed a bittersweet occasion for the families of these brave men, their communities, the broader Coptic Orthodox Church, and Egypt as a whole, who saw them brutally and publicly executed before the eyes of the whole world for their Christian Faith,” said Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London.
“While this public spectacle was intended to humiliate our brothers in Libya and intimidate their families, their Church, and Christians around the world, it actually became an opportunity for an incredibly valiant witness by those who accepted their deaths so bravely while calling on their Lord and Savior to their last breath,” the archbishop said.
“Not only were their actions courageous, but their families subsequently presented a gracious message of Christian love and forgiveness, amidst their personal grieving and loss, that moved the world,” he continued.
The Coptic Church declared the murdered men to be martyrs, and their feast day is observed on February 15.
Although not officially proclaiming them saints, Pope Francis also called the men “martyrs” in the days following their death.
“Their only words were: ‘Jesus, help me!’ They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christians,” the pope said on Feb. 16, 2015.
“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard. It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians!” Francis added, while speaking to a Protestant delegation from Scotland. “The martyrs belong to all Christians.”
In a message sent to Tawadros two months later, Francis said, “Today more than ever we are united by the ecumenism of blood, which further encourages us on the path towards peace and reconciliation.”
Angaelos, in his remarks on Tuesday, noted that the “historic event” of the martyrdom of the 21 Christians “provided an opportunity for a deep and genuine unity among the Christian Church worldwide, and amongst all people of Faith and none, who rejected the inhumanity of this very public crime that violated every understanding of the dignity and sanctity of life as we know it.”
The archbishop said their deaths “represented a turning point for many and an awakening for the world.”
“They will, for the remainder of my life, be an inspiration and an example of true, simple and faithful witness in the midst of what can sometimes be an unaccepting, cruel and brutal world. Their witness has shown that darkness can always be broken by the light of Christ that can indeed shine through each and every one of us,” Angaelos said.
The bodies of the murdered Copts were scheduled to be buried in Egypt’s Minya province, which was home to the majority of those killed.