This past week 21 Egyptian men working in Libya were kidnapped by ISSIS terrorists and executed. They were murdered because they were Coptic Christians. They were forced to kneel in the sand and beheaded. Their martyrdom took place a few days prior to Lent.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality. Ashes are placed in the sign of the cross upon the forehead with these words: “From ashes you come and to ashes you will return.” It is a somber day that reminds the faithful to be humble before God and to remember that from God we come and to God we will return.
From what I’ve read about Coptic Christians, this martyrdom is but one in a long series of persecutions over many centuries. The word ‘Coptic’ means ‘Egyptian’. The Coptic Church was planted by Saint Mark sometime between 40 – 60 A.D. For the last 50 years, Copts which comprise 6 million people or approx. 10% of Egyptian society have been routinely harassed by some from the religious majority while the government has often turned away from protecting them. Copts can rarely build or repair their churches, it is difficult to find employment and often have limited access to public education.
Yet the Coptic churches are full to overflowing with people and passion for their faith. In the suffering of Jesus upon the cross they see their own suffering. In the words of Jesus they find the capacity to persevere and to forgive: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”.
In the West, particularly in Europe and increasingly in the United States many churches stand empty or near empty. Faith when practiced is often squeezed into a busy schedule one option among many. But for the persecuted Coptic Church the faith of the people is foundational to who they are and where their hope is to be found. For the Copts martyrdom is not something they seek but also not something they run from. For the Copts the Spirit of God that was alive in the life of Jesus is also alive in their gathered life.
This Lent I pray that I too may have a measure of the Coptic faith. For all Christians may we too have the clear sense that God’s Spirit and the Spirit of the Risen Christ is with us.
A comfort to the families who lost loved ones to ISSIS is their sure knowledge that the Christ who suffered and overcame even the cross was with their loved one’s when they died. Oh, to be in the presence of such a faith.