Twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians were slaughtered on a beach in Libya a week ago. And even in his mourning, the brother of two of them gave thanks.
Beshir Kamel, brother of both Bishoy Astafanus Kamel, who was 25, and Somaily Astafanus Kamel, who was 23, thanked their murderers for not editing out the name of their Savior when disseminating the video of their beheadings.
Appearing on an Arabic Christian television station, Kamel said that the families of the men, laborers who were working in Libya in order to provide for their families — 13 of them from the same small, impoverished village — were congratulating one another. “We are proud to have this number of people from our village who have become martyrs,” he explained.
Who would have an ounce of gratitude at such a moment? The answer: one who has hope — hope of something real and eternal.
It sounds crazy to a modern secular society, one that tends to view religious faith as sentiment, comfort, and milestone ritual.
Kamel said: “Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way. This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.” And he relayed what his mother had said, when asked what she would do if she ever met the man who had beheaded her son. “My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [him] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s no mere sentiment, comfort, or ritual. While it’s unlikely that the Kamels’ mother will face that day, Christians throughout the world have the ability to take action.
In his response to the news from Libya, His Grace Bishop Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, explained: “While it may seem illogical or incomprehensible, we also pray for those who have carried out these horrific crimes, that the value of God’s creation and human life may become more evident to them, and in this realization, that the wider effects of pain brought by this and other acts of brutality may be realized and avoided. We pray for an end to the dehumanization of captives who become mere commodities to be bartered, traded, and negotiated with.”
The 21 Coptic Christians were killed because they were Christians, and some people — some of those most intimately affected by this evil — were responding as Christians.
After committing himself to pray for those who suffer, Bishop Angaelos reminded Christians of the lesson of the witness of the 21 — a number that became a standard avatar on Twitter in the wake of the murders.
There are geopolitical considerations and action to be taken in that sphere; there are charitable works to ontribute to; but there is also a lesson in what it is to be truly Christian that often seems the stuff of legend to us today, even as fellow countrymen of ours have dedicated their lives in radical sacrifice to love of God and service flowing from that love. As Bishop Angaelos put it: “In the midst of this sorrow, however, we must continue to dig deeper for the joy that comes from an understanding that this life is but a ‘vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away’ (James 4:14), and that true glory and joy are found in an eternal life prepared for all those who live in and for love and peace.” He continued: “It is only through this understanding that we can continue to live according to the words of I Peter 3:15 as demonstrated in the life and witness of the Coptic Church and her children over centuries, ‘. . . always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you. . . .’”
Besides fundamental matters of human rights and freedom, this is why cultures benefit from having Christians in their midst; this is why it is so urgent that they not be eradicated from the birthplace of Christianity: Christians who take their faith seriously are leaven.
Pope Francis emphasized this as he celebrated morning Mass for the Coptic martyrs: “They were killed simply for the fact they were Christians.” He echoed a theme of his own journey to the Holy Land last year: “The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard.” He went on to say, “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, or Protestants. They are Christians!” And he added, “The martyrs belong to all Christians.”
The Christianity of the men who were martyred for their faith, is “the most important aspect of the story,” said Samuel Tadros, the author of a book on Christians in Egypt, Motherland Lost, and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “ISIS gunmen chose these men from among other Egyptians living there because they were Copts,” he said. “This was no random choice. ISIS holds deep hostility to say the least towards Middle Eastern Christians. Its goal is quite simply the eradication of their existence.”
The evil done to Milad Makeen Zaky, Abanub Ayad Atiya, Maged Solaiman Shehata, Yusuf Shukry Yunan, Kirollos Shokry Fawzy, Bishoy Astafanus Kamel, Somaily Astafanus Kamel, Malak Ibrahim Sinweet, Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros, Girgis Milad Sinweet, Mina Fayez Aziz, Hany Abdelmesih Salib, Bishoy Adel Khalaf, Samuel Alham Wilson, Ezat Bishri Naseef, Loqa Nagaty, Gaber Munir Adly, Esam Badir Samir, Malak Farag Abram, Sameh Salah Faruq, and one other man from the village of Awr is the most important news story of the pre-Oscars week, on a day that included an NBA All-Star game and Saturday Night Live’s 40th-anniversary show. Would we would give it nearly as much attention. God have mercy on us if we don’t.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.