21 Coptic Christian martyrs honored

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Coptic Christians being marched to their deaths

The relics of the 21 Coptic martyrs killed by ISIS, in Libya in 2014/2015 were venerated inSt Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on their feast day of 15 February.

The veneration was held at an ecumenical prayer service marking their first official feast day in the Catholic Church.

The evening vespers at the Vatican commemorated the 9th anniversary of the martyrdom of the 20 Coptic Orthodox men and one Ghanaian. Cardinal Kurt Koch, the prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity presided over the ecumenical prayer in the Choir Chapel of St Peter’s Basilica. A Coptic choir provided the music for the liturgy.

Following the prayer service, the documentary “The 21: The Power of Faith,” was screened by the Vatican Film Library. The 50-minute film was was produced by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The Coptic Church had designated 15 February, the date in 2015 when a horrific video of the beheading of The 21 was aired by Daesh, as an annual feast to celebrate them and all modern-day martyrs of the faith.

The 21, of whom 20 were Egyptian Coptic migrant labourers in Libya, and one was Ghanaian, were beheaded for their faith as they knelt in orange jumpsuits on a beach in Sirte, Libya. The last words they all uttered was a soft prayer: “My Lord Jesus Christ”.

The bodies of the 21 were found in a mass grave in Libya in October 2017, together with their orange jumpsuits. They were identified by DNA testing, and the 20 Copts were in 2018 returned to Egypt, to the village of al-Our, Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, the home village of 13 of the martyrs. They were were buried in a special shrine in a church at al-Our built in their honour in 2018 by the Egyptian State and Coptic Church. Given that no one had claimed the body of the Ghanaian martyr, the Coptic Church, in response to wide demand by the Coptic congregation, asked the Libyan government for the body to be brought to Egypt to be buried next to his fellow martyrs. The Church pledged to hand the body over to any official claimant through official channels. The body was shipped to Egypt in 2020, and is buried in the shrine of the 21.

Pope Francis had added The 21 to the Roman Martyrology, the Church’s official list of saints, in May 2023 when he met Pope Tawadros II, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, who was then on an official visit to the Vatican. The event marked ten years on the first visit of Pope Tawadros to the Vatican, and 50 years on the first visit of a Coptic patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, to the Catholic Church since the great schism at the Council of Chalcedon AD451.

During his 2023 visit to the Vatican, Pope Tawadros had given Pope Francis relics of the martyrs: parts of the orange jumpsuits that had been soaked in the blood of the martyrs.

“Today we hand over part of their relics, dipped in their blood shed in the name of Christ for the Church, so that they may be remembered in the martyrology of all the churches of the world, and know ‘we too’ are ‘surrounded by such a multitude of witnesses,’” Tawadros said.

“Precisely because the saints are one of the main pillars of our churches, beginning with the apostles Peter, Paul, and Mark,” he said, “we now write in the martyrology of the churches the new martyrs who have guarded the faith and bore witness to Christ, who did not lose heart in the face of torture and passed on to us a living example in martyrdom.”

Pope Francis reiterated: “These martyrs were baptised not only in the water and Spirit, but also in blood, a blood that is the seed of unity for all of Christ’s followers.”

The feast of the martyrs, referred to as The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya, is celebrated on 15 February in both the Coptic Church and the Catholic Church. — Watani Net