For Coptic Christians, threat of martyrdom is part of daily life
By MATT HADRO
Washington D.C., Feb 22, 2015 / 04:37 pm (CNA/EWTN News) - The brutal murder of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya at the hands of ISIS last week is shining a light on the reality faced by many of Egypt’s Christians on a daily basis.
“These 21 victims, they were not the first and they will not be the last. There is a flowing river of Christian blood in the Middle East,” said Mina Abdelmalak, one of the organizers of a D.C. candlelight prayer vigil outside the White House on Ash Wednesday.
The prayer vigil commemorated the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded last week by the Islamist terror group ISIS. The Christians had been working in Libya to support their families back home. They were abducted by ISIS in December and January.
In an internet video published by the extremist group, the Copts were marched along the Libyan coast and then murdered, with the video title “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.”
The video caught the attention of the world, garnering significant media attention and responses from world leaders.
While this act of martyrdom was heroic and newsworthy, several Coptic priests stressed that for many Christians in Egypt, the threat of death for the faith is a daily reality that goes unnoticed by the rest of the world.
“Most people living in those areas, really every day they live by the grace of God,” explained Fr. Anthony Messeh of the St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church in Arlington, Va.
“They’re not as shaken by these things as we are, because they count every day as a gift from God.” Their public faith could mean “the end of their life,” he told CNA.
One local Coptic Orthodox priest in attendance at the Washington, D.C., prayer vigil voiced both fear and hope in response to the Libya massacre.
“We are afraid about the spreading of the devil all over the world,” said Fr. Domadious Rizk of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Fairfax, Va. “The only thing can face this devil is Christ Himself.”
“We believe that the Lord will overcome all this darkness and spread it away,” he said.
Rural Egypt, where many of the Christians hailed from, is no friend of Christianity, Fr. Messeh said. While he has not lived in Egypt, the conveyed the situation there from accounts of those who had.
The plight of the Copts was “very bad” under the rule of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, he said.
Now, the situation has “officially” improved with the new president, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who has said and done the right things. However, many Christians are still persecuted, especially in the rural areas where they are very much a minority.
The differences between Egypt and the U.S. are striking, Fr. Messeh said, and the hardship for Christians in Egypt is difficult for Americans to truly grasp. Faith for the Copts is everything, “a life that they’re willing to lose for the sake of their faith.”
This is why the “extreme bravery” of the Coptic martyrs is so compelling, he said. “They’re doing the stuff that we’re preaching.”
“For us, you can get by with a Sunday-only faith,” he explained. “They can’t, because every day of their life they see in front of them the decision to follow Christ does impact the grades they get in school, it impacts which customers will come to their stores.”
And in some cases, their public faith is met with death.
The video of the beheadings shook his Virginia parish, Fr. Messeh admitted.
“It shook us up because it kind of put all those stories that we hear about, it kind of put it in pictures,” he said of the beheading video circulated by ISIS.
“Somehow this one really struck a chord with everyone, even people who have no connection with Egypt whatsoever.”
A Church united in prayer over the killings will only be strengthened, Fr. John Farag of St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Cabin John, Md., told EWTN News Nightly on Wednesday.
“Copts live on prayers,” he remarked, explaining that the people are relying upon prayer and solidarity.
Local Coptic parishes will hold prayer services this weekend for the martyrs. Bishop Paul Loverde of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington even reached out in condolence, Fr. Messeh revealed, and offered to do a joint prayer service with St. Timothy and St.Athanasius parish. It was a gesture Fr. Messeh “really appreciated.”
He also thanked Pope Francis for offering a memorial Mass for the slain Coptic Christians earlier this week.
The Pope mourned their deaths and hailed them as martyrs, also praying especially for Patriarch Tawadros of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard,” Pope Francis said on Feb. 16. “Their only words were: 'Jesus, help me!'”