Across Egypt, a gruesome pattern has developed marking the beginning of a significant religious occasion: Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL) fighters attack and murder as many Coptic Christians as possible. Before Christmas and on Palm Sunday, suicide bombers entered churches killing sixty-seven worshippers, attacks in Sinai killed seven and forced hundreds to flee the peninsula. On Friday, a day before the beginning of the Holy month of Ramadan, a bus with Coptic Christians on their way to the Monastery of St. Samuel was ambushed; their death toll stands at twenty-nine.
For months now IS has promised to escalate attacks against Egypt’s Christians and urged Muslims to avoid Christian gatherings and Western embassies. The tally is over one hundred new martyrs in a span of six months. In a meeting with Catholic leaders, Pope Francis observed that "today there are more Christian martyrs than in ancient times, than in the early day times of the church."
The attackers had asked the passengers on the bus if they were Christian. Yes, they were Coptic Orthodox Christians from the Minya province on their way to the Monastery of St. Samuel. Then the IS fighters gave them pamphlets with Koranic verses explaining the meaning of fasting during Ramadan and told them to accept Islam by reciting the Shahada, the profession of faith.
The Coptic passengers knew a thing or two about fasting (they fast on average 200 days a year) and refused. They were born Christian and would die Christian. Twenty-nine, all the men and some of the women and children were shot. Twenty-four were wounded. Before leaving, the attackers robbed the victims of their possessions.
Muslim radical future martyrs confronted defiant Christians who see martyrdom as part and parcel of their faith. In the words of Thomas, Coptic Bishop of Qusiya, to die as a martyr means “to carry your cross and follow Christ.”
The horrific event played out on a desert road leading to an area where during the first centuries hermits in search of God lived solitary lives far from Roman persecution. The monastery stands on the spot where according to tradition a monk named Samuel lived for fifty-seven years. During his long life he defied the odds surviving imprisonment, beatings and torture. His captors tried to make him worship the sun and break his vow of celibacy. They failed. At the place where the current monastery stands, Samuel’s spiritual powers attracted many followers; today he is considered a martyr in spirit. His relics continue to attract the faithful who come for prayers and contemplation.
Every monastery in Egypt has a similar story and serves the Copts as a reminder that being a martyr is the highest possible Christian calling. According to Bishop Thomas, it is not just defying the enemy outside yourself, but also the enemy within; one’s sins and vices. Monks and nuns give up everything the world has to offer. This makes them spiritual martyrs. It is a recurring theme in Coptic sermons and speeches.
For centuries martyrs who shed their blood for the Church were remote figures who had lived in the early centuries. However, the 2015 beheading of 21 Copts in Libya was a turning point. On TV, Copts witnessed the victims (who happened to hail from the Minya province) call out “Ya Rabb, Ya Yasu,” My Lord Jesus” at the moment of their death. Christians all over Egypt felt inspired to deepen their faith.
It shifted the frame of reference. Now Copts see themselves as potential martyrs. Even the Muslim President al-Sisi calls the victims of bomb attacks martyrs.
Sitting in his kitchen in the USA, digital artist Tony Rezk witnessed the beheadings as well. Shaking with anger and frustration, he realized this could have been a scene straight from the early centuries of Christianity. Those heroes of faith are depicted on icons, so he decided that these men were worthy of the same honor. The image he created has become a prime symbol for each Copt killed by Muslim radicals.
Copts who make up around ten percent of the Egyptian population, are accustomed to regular waves of harassment, violence and humiliation. In the area of Minya, alone, 117 cases of sectarian violence were counted since 2011. The pervasive attitude across Egypt is that Copts are secondary citizens. Radical Muslim sermons are laced with anti-Christian rhetoric. Recently, the undersecretary in the Egyptian Ministry for Religious Endowments, Sheikh Abdul Jalil publicly denounced Christians as infidels and followers of corrupt doctrines. His superiors demoted him and banned him from preaching in mosques, but the word was out and in fact, he expressed an idea that was engrained in the minds of many Egyptian Muslims.
Stealing the scant possessions of the passengers seemed low but fit a pattern that started in a place called Fayoum; less than seventy miles from the attack. It is now understood to be one of the birthplaces of the Islamic State. In the Egyptian newspaper al-Masri al-Youm, journalist Ahmed Elderiny details how a village in this quiet rural governorate could produce one of the most violent ideologies Muslims have ever witnessed. It started with an engineer called Shawki al-Sheikh and led to Helmis Hashim, the current mufti of IS who produced the fatwa that allows IS to behead its opponents.
During the 1980s, Shawki launched what is now understood to have been a “pilot IS.” He called for the Caliphate to be reinstated in Fayoum. He was considered a “knight;’ a shining star in the universe of extremist Muslims. He gained a following by preaching a message of extreme violence that involved attacking and robbing Christians. According to Elderiny, Shawki’s followers, “plundered everything, once they were sure of the people’s loyalty. They stole the geese, ducks, and goats that were being raised in the streets, relying on a fatwa by Shawki himself.” The Fatwa declared everybody who did not belong to his group to be an unbeliever. After the Egyptian army killed Shawki in 1990, they found piles of luxury items and cash in the houses of his followers who had all started out poor. These goods were mostly robbed or extorted from Christians.
The men who attacked the bus this past week followed a well-trodden path as laid out by Shawki and brought to perfection by the current IS. They might have succeeded taking Coptic lives and goods. But while meant to decimate the Christian community, each attack gives the Copts new life. Churches across Egypt are fuller than ever. Many stress that there is no other way than to forgive. When interviewed by an Egyptian journalist who called the attackers “criminals” and “terrorists,” one of the heavily wounded survivors, Mrs. Samia, answered: “May God bless them and protect them”.
After each attack Copts regain strength drawing courage from the martyrs, the old and the new ones, as one day they themselves might be forced to join that heavenly troupe.