Few will forget the graphic images of the mass beheadings of 21 men in a video ISIS released and paraded online around the world. After a three-year wait, the families of these 21 martyrs have finally received their loved ones’ remains–a homecoming they had hoped for but never thought they would see.
“I feel a sense of pride and joy now that they [the bodies] returned to us,” said Fifi Maged Suliman Shehata, the daughter of martyred Christian Maged Suliman Shehata. “None of us could imagine that their bodies would come one day; we had lost the hope of their return. But God is good, and we thank Him so much for their return. It is a great blessing for all of us.”
The coffins were transported to the village of Al-Our in Minya province to the Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Homeland, dedicated to the victims and their resolve to follow Jesus. The church was inaugurated on February 15, 2018–the day of the three-year anniversary of the men’s deaths–in anticipation of receiving their remains.
Yesterday, the families gathered at the church, where the remains of the 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians (Copts are the native Christians of Egypt) were placed in one large coffin to be buried in the chapel. Thirteen of the martyred men came from Al-Our; seven others were from other villages in Minya. Along with the 20 men from Egypt, one Ghanaian Christian also died that day. His body was handed to the Ghanaian Embassy in Libya.
Families of the martyred Egyptians, more than 40 area priests and residents of Al-Our and nearby villages came together in a morning mass to celebrate the return of their loved ones. The Governor of Minya, the province’s Security Director and some local members of the Egyptian Parliament were also present.
The families of the victims described their mixed feelings to World Watch Monitor. Maleka Ayad, the widow of one victim, Tawadros Youssef Tawadros, said she felt both sadness and joy during the ceremony: “We feel inner peace because we are sure that all of our martyrs went to a good place in Heaven. They were simple and humble people on Earth and they have become great in Heaven now. They have lifted the heads of all Christians up and we are proud of them.”
Ebtsam Noshi Lamei, the widow of another of the victims, Samuel Alham Wilson, told World Watch Monitor: “I’m very proud of my husband Samuel because he was martyred on the name of Jesus Christ and he didn’t renounce the faith.” She added: “He honored me, his sons and Christianity.”
Malak, the father of one of the men, shares a reminder that the deaths of his son and the 20 other men reintroduced modern-day martyrdom on a worldwide scale. “We only knew martyrdom from films, but martyrdom was reintroduced and it strengthened our faith because these people, these martyrs, lived among us.”
The families and church leaders expressed their gratitude to Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the Egyptian and Libyan governments for their efforts in bringing home the victims’ remains.
Libyan authorities announced the discovery of the men’s remains last October. Forensic samples were taken from them and sent to Egypt to be compared with DNA samples taken from relatives of the 21. After scientists concluded that the bodies were indeed those of the martyred group, the head of investigations at the Libyan Attorney General’s Office ordered on May 5 that the remains of the victims be transferred to Egypt.
Father Maqar Issa, a priest at the Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Homeland, admitted he had doubted that the bodies would be recovered. “We had no hope that their bodies would be found after they were executed. We feel a great pride and happiness for their return to us. We congratulate ourselves, all Egypt and the families of the martyrs on their return to their homeland and church. And we congratulate the martyrs on getting the crowns of the martyrdom.”
Another priest, Father Youssef Ayad Attia, described the day of the bodies’ return as one “engraved in history with golden letters.”
‘People of the Cross’
The 21 victims were captured in two separate abductions by armed militants on December 29, 2014 and January 3, 2015. Islamic State forces had first confirmed what religion was written on their ID cards before taking the Christians hostage and letting Muslims go free.
In the days and weeks leading up to their deaths, ISIS captors reportedly tortured the men who had traveled the 1,200 miles to Libya to find work and support their families. Militants attempted to coerce them to deny Jesus in return for their lives. They all refused. In fact, during the barbaric execution, the men repeated the words, “Lord Jesus Christ.”
On February 15, 2018, ISIS released a graphic video depicting the mass beheading of their captives, titled: “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” Video subtitles described the Christians as “people of the Cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.”
Libya officially confirmed it had found the bodies of the beheaded Christians in October. The 21 men were discovered close to where they were executed on a beach in the coastal city of Sirte.
Pray With Grieving Families
Father, we pray with the families and friends of these men who died for You. We pray with their widows, their parents, and the children of these men. We ask You to surround them with His comfort and assurance that He weeps with them–and that they will see their loved ones again. We pray for provision for their families and that the Body of Christ in their local villages would extend grace and mercy throughout this time of mourning. And God, we pray that You would pour out Your strength on these families–moving in unseen ways in their lives and their children’s lives. We thank You for the eternal legacy these men left and give You all honor and praise.