Denver Newsroom, Feb 15, 2022 / 16:00 pm (CNA).
A British human rights campaigner on Tuesday commemorated the seventh anniversary of the martyrdom of 21 men, known as the Coptic martyrs, by the Islamic State.
On Feb. 15, 2015, the Islamic State released a video online, showing masked fighters beheading the men as they knelt on a Libyan beach wearing prison-style orange jumpsuits. The Egyptian government and the Coptic Orthodox Church later confirmed the video’s authenticity.
In October 2018, authorities found a mass grave believed to contain the bodies of the 21 men, who had been kidnapped in Libya where they were likely seeking work opportunities.
Lord Alton of Liverpool praised the bravery of all 21 of the men, and highlighted in a particular way the solidarity shown by the lone non-Egyptian, Matthew Ayariga, who chose to be killed rather than abandon his friends. Though Matthew was not a Coptic Christian, and the jihadists told him he would be freed if he rejected Christ, he reportedly responded by saying, “Their God is my God.”
“Matthew, in this extraordinary act of love and solidarity was willing to give his liberty and his life rather than walk away from his Coptic brothers. It stands as a rebuke to us all who remain silent in the face of the persecution of 250 million Christians worldwide,” Lord Alton wrote.
“His act of extraordinary solidarity shames so many of us when we consider our tepid response – often based on political expediency, institutional considerations, or trade and business – to the persecution which is experienced by religious and ethnic groups the world over – discrimination that morphs into persecution; then persecution which morphs into crimes against humanity; and then ultimately into the crime above all crimes, genocide.”
Soon after the video’s release the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is an Oriental Orthodox Church which rejected the 451 Council of Chalcedon, announced that the men would be commemorated as martyrs in its Church calendar. Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II canonized them as saints.
A Coptic Orthodox church dedicated to the 21 Martyrs of Libya was opened in the village of al-Our in Egypt in 2018. That village was home to 13 of the martyred men, and in 2020, Matthew was buried in the church along with his 20 Coptic friends.
Lord Alton has served in the U.K. parliament since 1979, first as a Member of Parliament, and in the House of Lords since 1997. He frequently speaks out on Christian persecution, as well as on the persecution of minorities such as the Uyghurs in China, for which China has sanctioned him in retaliation.
“During visits to Egypt and more recently to Iraq – in the cradle of civilisation and the cradle of Christianity – I have met members of the ancient churches whose own deep faith and gentle love and extraordinary dignity stands as a rebuke to those who persecute, defile, abduct, rape, and even murder them,” Alton wrote.
“Elsewhere I have seen, too, how Muslims – such as the Uyghurs and Rohingya – and people of all faiths and, indeed, of none – can be on the receiving end of other hateful ideologies – such as that of the Chinese Communist Party,” he wrote.
Christians in Egypt have historically faced violent persecution. Notably, on Palm Sunday in 2017, two Islamic State suicide bombings at Coptic churches in Egypt claimed the lives of 47 people. During the pandemic, Coptic Christian women and girls have reportedly been abducted and forcefully converted, and some Christian communities have experienced a deprivation of resources.
In a May 10, 2021 letter to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II, Pope Francis said that the Coptic martyrs’ deaths had touched the lives of Christians around the world. That day in May has become an annual celebration of fraternal love between the Catholic and Coptic Orthodox Churches.
“Thanks to their powerful witness, many Christians in our world have come to realize that the ranks of the martyrs include not only saints of the early Church depicted in ancient icons, but also men and women of our day, our contemporaries. They too are saints, saints of every Christian tradition,” Francis wrote.
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