In wake of ISIS atrocity, sadness and optimism mingle for Egypt's Christians

"The prevailing sentiment is that Egyptians have been attacked. That is important. It shows that we are all Egyptians, regardless of our religion."

By Oliver Maksan

ASSIUT, Egypt—The Coptic Orthodox Church quickly recognized the 21 Coptic faithful beheaded by ISIS in Libya as martyrs who will be included in calendar of saints. A question arose whether the Catholic Coptic Church would give them the same status. The answer is a firm “yes,” Bishop Kyrillos William Samaan told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

The prelate, who heads the Catholic Coptic Diocese of Assiut, in Upper Egypt, noted that “Pope Francis himself recognized them as martyrs. They were killed because they were Christians. The victims were full of faith right up to the end. They remained faithful to Jesus. Their last words were words like: Lord Jesus, have mercy! And so they are true martyrs—for us Catholics as well.”

The tragedy triggered significant reactions on the part of Egyptian authorities. “Christians were particularly moved by the president‘s visit to the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros to express his condolences,” said the bishop.

Egyptian Christians

“The governor of the province from which most of the martyrs came authorized the construction of a large church in their memory—at the state‘s expense. Additionally, their home village was renamed in their honor and is now known as the Village of the Martyrs. The Prime Minister himself visited the town, and the grieving families were promised a sum of money. This has comforted people. Egypt is on the path of renewal.”

Orthodox and Catholic Copts alike are hopeful these gestures of solidarity will make a lasting contribution to Christians being able to shed the status of second-class citizenship and further expedite the cumbersome application and approval process involved obtaining permission to construct new churches. Local opposition to such projects by militant Muslims remains fierce in many places.

While the bishop reported on Muslims’ expression of sympathy for the victims’ families, there have been sharp reactions in the opposite direction as well. One sheikh signalled his approval of the beheadings and some Egyptian media, the bishop reported, justified ISIS in the killing of “Christian sheep.”

However, the bishop insisted that, overall, “the murders have brought Muslims and Christians closer together. The prevailing sentiment is that Egyptians have been attacked. That is important. It shows that we are all Egyptians, regardless of our religion.” This was also the note struck by Egyptian President Fattah el-Sisi when he made his surprise visit Jan. 7, 2015 to the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo to mark the Orthodox celebration of Christmas.

The bishop explained: “Many people had hoped for this, but no one had seriously expected that the Egyptian head of state would actually visit the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo at Christmas time. President Sisi did this and spoke from the heart, proclaiming, ‘We are all of us Egyptians, both Christians and Muslims. Period.’ His visit was a powerful symbol.”

“You have to understand the background against which it took place. For in fact there are many radical Muslims who say that Muslims should not congratulate Christians on their feasts; that this is un-Islamic. The Christmas visit by the president was the answer to these notions. I would say that this is a turning point in the history of the Christians in Egypt.”

ACN photo: Christian joy in Egypt

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