Five years ago this month, ISIS executed 21 Christian men on a beach Libya. Their masked executors stood in all black behind the men, who knelt in a line wearing orange jumpsuits. After the Islamic State released a video of their murders, images of this massacre of Coptic Christians reverberated around the world.
While this particular act of violence caught the attention of millions around the world, Egyptian Christians have long experienced persecution, says Archbishop Angaelos, who serves in London.
“The interesting thing is, we live it with a sense of resilience, but we have never fallen into a state of victimhood or triumphalism,” he said. “We realize that it is the cross of Christ. …It's not the end of the road because there is a resurrection that comes after the cross and the empty tomb. And so it is in that hope that we continue to live. And it's in that hope that we continue to carry that cross, knowing that it will be removed from us.”
Archbishop Angaelos, who still remembers the day he learned of the news, joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Daniel Harrell this week to discuss why this act of persecution so greatly impacted the global church, the identity of the only non-Egyptian martyr, and whether the church will experience the same decline as it has in the rest of the Middle East.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #200
What are some of the distinct characteristics of Coptic Christianity?
Archbishop Angaelos: So the word “Coptic” just means Egyptian. Your listeners will be more familiar with churches, like the Russian Orthodox church or Greek Orthodox church, and the Coptic Orthodox church is just the Egyptian Orthodox church—that's why I always used the term “orthodox” as well within the title.
Christianity was established in the first century by Saint Mark, the evangelist, and writer of the second gospel, and there has been an unbroken presence of Christian life and witness in Egypt since then.
Currently, the church represents about 15% of the population of Egypt, which is about 15 million. Tragically, all those 15% of the Christian in the population of Egypt now represent about 80% of all Christians in the Middle East because there's been such an exodus of Christians from other states across the Middle East.
The Coptic Orthodox church is a scriptural church, using the Old and New Testament. It is a sacramental church—we have liturgies, we have sacraments. It's a very traditional church, relying on the writings of the fathers. It really is much more familiar than I think many people would account for if they're following in the mainstream traditional church.
Can you take us back to five years ago this month, and how you ended up hearing about this story of these 21 Coptic Christians?
Archbishop Angaelos: I remember the day very, very vividly. It was a Sunday. It was the 15th of February. I had had a liturgy in the morning and had various services and was on a pastoral visit in London.
During the course of the day, we were getting information from various sources. The foreign ministry in Egypt had issued something about these men having been killed. And then they took it back. and there was a bit of back and forth. I was calling our office in Cairo, trying to get the full picture.
And then that evening I received a call from a news network that said, “Well, you know, these 21 were killed?” And I said, “No, no. We've been hearing all that. Nothing's confirmed.” They said, “No, we have the video. It's now confirmed.” And they asked me to come in for an interview, and I remember leaving immediately and going for that interview.
As I was going there, I felt there was so much tension around the issue. So I pulled my car over and wrote a very simple tweet saying that there was a video released of the execution of 21 Christians in Libya, we're praying for their families and, and I put a hashtag in the end, #FatherForgive.
I went into this interview and then was invited to another interview. And for some reason, people actually held on to the forgiveness point: “Here is the Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox church, 20 of whose brothers had died and their friend, a Ghanaian, and yet he’s speaking about forgiveness.” In the 24 hours that were to follow, I think I did about 35 interviews back to back between television, radio, press, and a lot of it focused on the forgiveness point.
And I just think that that that was a way of expressing our spirituality and theology. We're a church that is very rooted in its martyrdom. You know, we start our Coptic calendar in 284 A.D., which was the reign of Diocletian, under whom we suffered the worst wave of martyrdom in Egypt. And so it's not something that's new to us. But this was a very visible, contemporary manifestation before the eyes of the whole world.
When congregations would hear this reminder of our call to forgive and love our enemies, was there a sense of unity that came around that? Or did the congregations themselves resist to some extent, given just the horror that that was committed?
Archbishop Angaelos: Well, actually, I think that set the pace. I think that was the first thing released by the church about what had happened. And I genuinely think it set the pace for everybody else and everything else. And because it was accepted so overwhelmingly, it reminded people that that is how we should be acting.
It's very instinctive for us as Coptic Christians. We've lived persecution over centuries. But the interesting thing is, we live it with a sense of resilience, but we have never fallen into a state of victimhood or triumphalism. But we realize that it is the cross of Christ, we are carrying it. It's not the end of the road because there is a resurrection that comes after the cross and the empty tomb. And so it is in that hope that we continue to live. And it's in that hope that we continue to carry that cross, knowing that it will be removed from us.
The Christian message is a powerful one. You know, the world tells us now that it's weak, that it's time has passed, it has no place in the world. But in actual fact—whether it's in Egypt or Sri Lanka or Kenya or Nigeria—in every place where we've seen Christian persecution and martyrdom, it has been a real testimony of power.
And that is what we can give to the world. That even with that backdrop, we do not, cannot, and will not hate. Our hearts cannot be changed by what we're experiencing.
Obviously, outside the church, this act of persecution was treated a little bit differently. How was it inside the church?
Archbishop Angaelos: It really affected everybody. One of the things which was of greatest effect wasn't just what those men did, it's what their families did. Because people who would speak to the families would hear families who had not only heard of their sons, brothers, uncles, fathers being killed, but actually seen them with their persecutors, dehumanizing and humiliating them in that way—or at least that's how they saw it in their eyes. And yet they spoke of it with such strength and such honor and also such forgiveness. And when we have the immediate families reacting that way, then it sets the mood for absolutely everybody else. And it allows everyone to share in the power and the liberation of that forgiveness.
How are those families today, five years later? Where are they now?
Archbishop Angaelos: They're still the same. You made mention earlier of the book written by Martin Mosebach. Martin is a traditional German Catholic who had seen the picture of the martyrs on a Catholic magazine. He was so moved that he went to Egypt and lived amongst their families. And he himself said that when he went into their homes, he expected to see grieving, mourning families. But actually he saw families that were proud, who almost had shrines to their loved ones, and who were loving and forgiving and resilient.
And that's what he depicted in his book, and that's what we've seen depicted throughout every time their story is mentioned. You know, this video was supposed to intimidate. I think out of all the ISIS videos—although I haven't seen very many—this was their most effective one because they really went completely above and beyond to produce it in such a way that it highlighted the even. But in actual fact, that backfired. Because it showed the power of these men kneeling.
And I remember reflection I had literally the week after when I was in the U.S., and asking, “Where was the power? In these young men who were kneeling down so honorably and so peacefully and with such resilience and grace? Or in the big men with big swords who had to cover their faces to remain anonymous?” And so it really changed the understanding of power dynamics. And it showed that at that moment of supposedly weakness and brokenness, the prayer that they offered made them infinitely more powerful.
Was there a particular story of any of the men that resonated with you?
Archbishop Angaelos: I suppose the one that still sticks in my mind very much is Matthew, who is the Ghanaian friend. So there were 20 Coptic Christians and a young man called Matthew—who either was already Christian or he came to faith as he lived with them, but regardless, he died with them.
In the shrine that has been set up in the church dedicated to them, they have artifacts of their on display, and there is one empty space for Matthew. Because Matthew apparently didn't have any family or anyone who claimed him. And so we are actually working with the Ghanaian High Commission to see if he can be repatriated to Egypt to be with his brothers.
As I said, the 21 were laborers. They were working to support very poor families and very poor villages. They didn't go as missionaries. They didn't go as ministers or pastors. They didn't expect to be witnessing in any way. And yet they were captured, they were held for a long period of time by the caliphate. They tried to break them and tried to make them convert. And that wasn't possible.
But Matthew was very much of one mind with them all. It looked almost like it was rehearsed. There was such a uniformity about all of them, and just in their glances to each other, you could see that they were ministering to each other as well.
When I saw that video and there was the big burly man in the middle of this big knife pointing at the camera and calling us, the nation of the cross, the Coptics, that we were the favorite prey—just to give you some back backdrop, in Egypt, it's a tradition to have usually a cross tattooed on the inside of your wrist. It's just something that some say go back to the days of persecution when people were marked for their faith, but now it's been an act of witness and worship.
I didn't have one because I grew up in Australia, but I thought if these men could actually do what they did, then I also want to pay my own homage to that. And through the inspiration, I actually had one of those small tattoos done. And I've told that story in so many places and I've gone back in a years’ time and I've had evangelicals and Catholics and other non-Orthodox saying, “I was so inspired. I went and did the same thing.” So five years later, and these men are still inspiring generations.
The Coptic Orthodox Church has set aside the 15th of February as the commemoration of the contemporary martyrs of our church—because since then, as you might know, we've had bombings of churches and shootings, we've had people who have been targeted as they're going on pilgrimages to monasteries, and it's not going to end because we know that that's the cross we carry. But that day, marked by those men in Libya, has become a day that the whole church commemorates all our contemporary martyrs who have lost their lives and who, unfortunately, will continue to lose their lives.
Our faith is costly. It’s something that is precious, it is life-giving, it brings us hope and promise, but it's costly because it is counter-cultural. It is counter-intuitive. It goes against the very grain of many things that we see in today's society and today's world. This one act really brought the church together, which is a wonderful thing.
While persecution and martyrdom is a reality of our faith, it is not something that we are called to seek. Our understanding is that Coptic Orthodox Christians are currently leaving Egypt. Can you talk more about this?
Archbishop Angaelos: Some have left, of course—reports say that around 200,000 or 300,000 over the past probably eight or nine years. But when you're speaking about 15 million, that's a very small proportion.
A lot of the people who left did so because they wanted to establish a life for their children abroad. We have a very active church in the lens of immigration. Our biggest presence would be in North America between the United States primarily, but also Canada, and then Australia, and throughout Europe, throughout the Gulf.
But we haven't had the mass exodus that we've seen from other places. For instance, if you look at Iraq, Christians there are now about 10% of what they were six or seven years ago. And in Libya, they're almost nonexistent. I think in Syria, about half the populate Christian population has left.
Christians in Egypt don't necessarily want to leave because they have such a connection with their churches, their heritage. It's a big gathering. It's a living church. It's thriving, it continues to witness, it has a strong monastic movement, it has a strong scriptural foundation, and Christians in Egypt see themselves as indigenous people of Egypt. They were there from the middle of the first century with the preaching of Saint Mark, and we have continued to live in witness there since. So we don't necessarily want to leave. And even if some people do leave, the massive bulk that is there is not planning on going anywhere anytime soon.
Does the government in Egypt offer protection to Coptic Christians?
Archbishop Angaelos: The government is doing what it can. But we're not looking for protection. We're looking for equal citizenship. We don't want to be protected. We don't want to be treated differently to anyone else.
I think there has been a very clear Islamization of Egypt over the past probably 70 years. This all started in the mid-’50s with the first revolution, and there was a move from a religious yet culturally secular Egypt to a very Islamized Egypt—which has actually affected Muslims even more than Christians because we have records of Christians and Muslims living very well together before that stage, but there almost seemed to be a new way of living a different kind of Islam that became a much tighter mold. And if you didn't fit in that mold, then you stood against the way.
The government at the moment is trying to rectify some of that. But we remain hopeful that if we stay faithful, then things will change around us.
To what extent has the Coptic church been successful in helping immigrant communities stay plugged into their faith?
Archbishop Angaelos: We're not by any means void of the challenges that are faced by all communities, but I think we have two very important things that have helped us.
The first is that we, for the past hundred years, have had a very strong Sunday school movement. And that has contributed significantly to how our children, the young people are served by the church. And out of the Sunday school movement, we then also have a very strong youth ministry, so we keep young people engaged. So that continues to be the case, and I think is incredibly effective and powerful. Of course, you know, it's not a 100% success rate. We have failures like everybody else. We have challenges like everybody else. We need to continue to be relevant like everyone else, but I think that works to our favor.
The second is because of the persecution we've lived, our culture is very transferable. And so when we're here in England, we do a lot of what we do in English. We're not bound by a culture. We don't have a sacredness of language, so we can quite easily pray everything we pray, do everything we do in English. I personally lead a monthly, all English Coptic liturgy in the center of London that is filled by Copts and non-Copts alike. In our services, we will have English liturgies. Our retreats, our conferences, our spiritual days are all done in English. And so that again, helps us to be relevant and to remain engaging and engaged with our young people.
As a church that is now based around the world, how that potentially changed that leadership structure?
Archbishop Angaelos: It hasn't. We have a hierarchical structure, we are a synodical church. Unlike the Roman Catholic church, for example, where the Pope is the head of the church and everything revolves around the Pope, as an Orthodox church, we have a Holy Synod, which is the council of all bishops, and there are about 130 of us around the world now. Each diocese, or geographical area, is entrusted to a Bishop, and the Bishop becomes the ultimate authority in that diocese in terms of teaching and doctrine. So even with countries outside of Egypt, that structure hasn't changed.
The thing that has changed, which is interesting is that while the proportion of Coptic Christians outside of Egypt is 10%, they are served by about 30 to 35 bishops, which represent about 25% of the synod. So there is a focus on those communities outside. And that's just because we are more spread out. We are more sparsely distributed in certain areas and so we need more pastoral care and oversight and ministry.
What lessons are you carrying away from this season that would be helpful for the rest of us as we seek to live out our faith?
Archbishop Angaelos: Well, the lesson I know as a Christian is that no matter how long, or how dark, or how cold, or how oppressive the night is, it's always followed by dawn. There's always the other side of the transgression, there’s always the other side of the peril. And we are in the hands of a mighty God, who not only created us but loves us even onto death and gives us resurrection.
I say sometimes to people that, if we're talking about persecution in the contemporary setting, Christianity has outlived empires and nations and rulers and authorities and yet we're still here with the message of our Lord Jesus Christ and his life giving us direction.
And I don't mean that in a triumphalist way because there's nothing worse than an arrogant and smug Christian—it's not becoming, it's not gracious—but I mean that just as part of who we are. That is the reality of who we are, and that is the reality of knowing our strengths, but not flaunting it in a way that becomes ungracious before others.
I suppose in today's day, with all the international charters and laws and human rights agendas and religious freedom movements, I think we are a little bit surprised to still see so much persecution. But as followers of Christ, knowing this is our cross, we're not surprised, because we know that the message of Christ is offensive to some. I don't intentionally try to offend by living my faith faithfully, but it is offensive to some, and that brings about all kinds of reactions.
Could you give us a couple of ways that our listeners to pray for the Coptic church today?
Archbishop Angaelos: So most of all pray for your brothers and sisters. The Coptic Orthodox church is not just a foreign, exotic part of a faraway country. Your sisters and brothers in the Coptic Orthodox Church are also members of the body of Christ as your listeners are. And I think that's the way we shouldn't pray for each other as people who are distant or remote, we pray for each other as sisters and brothers.
Secondly, we pray for people who suffer daily struggles of illness and loneliness and mental health and poverty and disempowerment and marginalization and alienation. We also pray for people who are intentionally marginalized, mainly because of their faith, who are paying that price, and then for those who pay the ultimate price with their lives and then for their families who suffer that void, but also live so faithfully afterward.
And finally, I would ask you to pray for our church, like any church, that we can stay faithful and resilient and relevant in serving our flock and then serving the whole world.