Minya, Egypt, Jul 19, 2016 / 12:08 am (CNA/EWTN News).- For Christians in Egypt, the possibility of martyrdom is not a remote one.
“It is something they concretely feel, it is part of their Christian life,” Father Paolo Asolan, an Italian priest who recently visited Egypt, told CNA. “And for a mother and a father, the fact that one of their sons can become a martyr is always a great gift.”
The Islamic State’s beheading of 20 Coptic Christians and another man shocked the world in February 2015 when video of the murders on a Mediterranean beach became public. The other man was a non-Christian who reportedly professed belief in the Christian God before his death.
During a recent trip to Egypt, Fr. Asolan met the family of one of the Coptic Christians. He visited the village of al-Our in the north-central Egyptian province of Minya. From this province came 13 of the 21 people beheaded.
Al-Our is a small farming community of some 6,000 Muslims and Christians, located about 90 miles from Cairo.
There the priest met the family of Milad Makeen Zaky, who was the first martyr seen praying in the video.
“I was struck by the fact that, before he died, he was praying the name of Jesus,” Fr. Asolan said. “He died speaking the name of Jesus, and that was the very last act of a life that witnessed Jesus in every moment.”
This faithfulness to Christ, Fr. Asolan added, is proved by many details in his life.
“When the Islamic State militants came to seize him, Milad had just finished his daily one-hour meditation over the Sacred Scriptures… at the beginning of the day, he always spent at least one hour reading the Gospel,” the priest recounted.
Fr. Asolan heard from Milad’s mother several anecdotes about his life. She said that it was “as if her son was preparing her for his martyrdom.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church has proclaimed the 21 men to be martyrs. Their beheading shocked Egyptian society.
Fr. Asolan said that “a church for the martyrs” is being built in al-Our. It is completely funded by the Egyptian president, a noteworthy fact because the construction of a new church is highly restricted. It requires specific authorization from the president’s office, which the priest said is “often difficult to obtain.”
Egypt’s Coptic Christians represent between 10 and 20 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million.
Fr. Asolan is a professor of pastoral theology at the Pontifical Lateran University. He said that the faith of Coptic Christians is based on the twin pillars of monasticism and martyrdom.
“Travelling through Egypt, there are many burials of martyrs. These same Christians used to tattoo a cross on their wrist,” he said. I felt peace knowing that they died as martyrs in the name of Christ,” says Bashir Estefanous Kamel, 32, whose two younger brothers and one cousin were among the victims. Kamel says he watched the video depicting the men’s execution as soon as it was available. “Of course, the first reaction was sadness at being separated from family.” Like tens of thousands of other Egyptians, Kamel’s brothers, Bishoi Estefanous Kamel, 25, and Samuel Estefanous Kamel, 22, had gone to Libya in search of work they could not find at home. Even in recent years of turmoil, Libya’s oil-based economy continued to draw workers, especially from Egypt’s poorer regions. In al-Our, average residents earn between $3 and $4 a day. “It’s a hard life,” says Bashir Kamel. “If you don’t work all day, you don’t eat at night.” Both brothers had completed two years of university, earning diplomas in industry and agriculture respectively, but could not find gainful employment in Minya. A few months after completing his mandatory military service, Samuel followed his older brother to Libya, where they worked as laborers in the city of Sirt, living among other Egyptian workers. The night of the release of the execution video, the village priest, Father Makar Issa went from house to house in an attempt to comfort the families. “There was wailing in every street, every alleyway,” he says. “People were shocked.” According to Issa, his congregants’ sorrow gave way, within days, to a kind of joy expressed at the men’s martyrdom. On the third day after the video, people gathered in the church. “The women were congratulating each other,” he says. As they left the church, women ululated.
“I am certain it had a positive effect, not a negative effect,” says Issa. “In the month and a half when the people were kidnapped, the whole congregation was coming to the church to pray for their return, but in their prayers later on, they asked that if they died, they die for their faith, and that’s what happened. The congregation is actually growing, psychologically and spiritually.” 7 of the martyrs had been “garbage children”, spiritual children of Mama Maggie Cabron
MAMAMAGGIE, THE MOTHER TERESA OF CAIRO
The brutal beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIS terrorists shocked the world. But almost as worldview shattering was the strong faith of the victims, even in the face of certain death. Now we know where their faith may have came from.
Her name is Mama Maggie. She's a Coptic Christian who, though she has never taken formal vows, is known as the Mother Teresa of Cairo. For two decades she has served the children in Egypt's slums through her organization, Stephen's Children, named after the first century Christian martyr.
Seven of the men who were beheaded came out of her schools. Five of them she knew by name.
BACKGROUND TO MIRIAM
As far as I can tell, Miriam begins her youtube life as a 10 year old Assyrian Christian girl from Qiraqosh in Iraq, a refugee from ISIS, a Catholic of the Chaldean Church, involved, I suspect, with the Charismatic Renewal.
The mass flight and expulsion of ethnic Assyrians from Iraq is a process which initiated from the beginning of Iraq War in 2003 and continues to this day. Leaders of Iraq's Assyrian community estimate that over two-thirds of the Iraqi Assyrian population may have fled the country or been internally displaced since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 until 2011. Reports suggest that whole neighborhoods of Assyrians have cleared out in the cities of Baghdad and Basra, and that both Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups and militias have threatened Assyrian Christians. Following the campaign of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in northern Iraq in August 2014, one quarter of the remaining Iraqi Assyrians fled the Jihadists, finding refuge in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Fall of Mosul and the Ninewa Plain
Main articles: Fall of Mosul, Northern Iraq offensive (August 2014), and Assyrians in Iraq
After the fall of Mosul, ISIS demanded Assyrian Christians in the city to convert to Islam, pay tribute, or face execution, by July 19, 2014. ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi further noted that Christians who do not agree with those terms must “leave the borders of the Islamic Caliphate” within a specified deadline. This resulted in a complete Assyrian Christian exodus from Mosul, marking the end of 1600 years of continuous Christian presence. A church mass was not held in Mosul for the first time in 1,800 years.
ISIL has already set similar rules for Christians for other cities and towns, including its de facto capital Al-Raqqah. However, on 29 March 2016, ISIL issued a decree preventing Christians from leaving one of its cities, Al-Raqqah.
ISIS had also been seen marking Christian homes with the letter nūn for Nassarah (“Christian”). Several religious buildings were seized and subsequently demolished, most notably Mar Behnam Monastery.
By August 7, ISIS captured the primarily Assyrian towns of Qaraqosh, Tel Keppe, Bartella, and Karamlish, prompting the residents to flee. More than 100,000 Iraqi Christians were forced to flee their homes and leave all their property behind after ISIS invaded Qaraqosh and surrounding towns in the Nineveh Plains Province of Iraq.
In early November 2014, a horrifying “price list” for Yazidi and Christian females surfaced online. While human rights NGO Defend International immediately verified the document's authenticity, UN official Zainab Bangura didn't confirm it to be genuine before August 2015.
On 23 February 2015, in response to a major Kurdish offensive in the Al-Hasakah Governorate, ISIL abducted 150 Assyrians from villages near Tell Tamer in northeastern Syria, after launching a large offensive in the region.
According to US diplomat Alberto M. Fernandez, of the 232 of the Assyrians kidnapped in the ISIS attack on the Assyrian Christian farming villages on the banks of the Khabur River in Northeast Syria, 51 were children and 84 women. “Most of them remain in captivity with one account claiming that ISIS is demanding $22 million (or roughly $100,000 per person) for their release.”
On 8 October, ISIL released a video showing three of the Assyrian men kidnapped in Khabur being executed. It was reported that 202 of the 253 kidnapped Assyrians were still in captivity, each one with a demanded ransom of $100,000.