Egyptian martyrs bring orthodox, Catholics closer together

In 2015, when they were murdered on a Libyan beach in Sirte by the Islamic State, the 20 Egyptian and one Ghanaian Christians became symbols of the persecution that radical Muslims were carrying out against followers of Jesus all over the Middle East. Now, eight years later, they have also become a symbol of ecumenism and friendship between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church, which have been officially separated for more than 1500 years.

During a visit to Rome by Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Francis announced: “These martyrs were baptized not only in water and the Spirit, but also in blood, blood that is a seed of unity for all followers of Christ. I am pleased to announce today – with the agreement of Your Holiness – that these 21 martyrs will be included in the Roman Martyrology as a sign of the spiritual communion that unites our two Churches.”

An icon depicting the Egyptian martyrs

The Sirte Martyrs will be celebrated on February 15, the date of their deaths, on both calendars, making them the first saints to be honored by both Churches since they split following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.

Twenty of the new martyrs were known to be Orthodox Copts. The religious affiliation of the 21st, who was from Ghana but was kidnapped at the same time as the Egyptians, has never been ascertained, though his name, Matthew, indicates he was probably raised as a Christian and it is said that, when asked by his executioners, he insisted that he was a Christian, and not a Muslim.

The men were kidnapped in early 2015 by members of the Islamic State in Libya, where they were working. They were given multiple opportunities to renounce their faith, to save their lives.

“We prayed for 14, 15 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,” said Bishop Paphnutius of Samalout, the home diocese of most of the martyrs, during a visit by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in October 2015. “From Alexandria to Aswan, throughout Egypt, Christians have been strengthened in their faith. Muslims 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 Muslims, with pride.”

In a more recent interview with ACN, the mother of two brothers, Samuel and Beshoy, 22 and 24-years-old, who were among the 21 killed, said: “I’m the mother of martyrs, I’m proud of them. They intercede for me and their father in heaven.” Asking that she be identified as “mother of martyrs,” she said she is praying for ISIS followers, calling on “God to give them the light and open their eyes to the truth and the good.”

The shrine in Egypt which is dedicated to the martyrs has been documenting miracles attributed to their intercession, and its caretaker, Father Abu Fanus Unan told ACN that many people were baptized and became Christians because of their example. “The Coptic Church survives thanks to the blood of her children,” the priest said.

—Felipe d’Avillez