Just days after 21 Christians’ beheading in Libya swept through headlines, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church announced on Saturday that they would join its official calendar of saints.
The grisly murder led many in the Middle East and in the West to call them martyrs -- examples of Christian grace in the face of hostility and persecution. While the Coptic Church has a standard waiting period of 50 years before considering a candidate for sainthood, the overwhelming amount of video evidence led its leader, Pope Tawadros II, to make a historic exception. (RELATED: Who Were ISIS’ Egyptian Christian Victims?)
The move was accompanied by an icon, a formal religious image depicting the 20 Egyptians and one Ghanaian who died at the hands of ISIS extremists. The picture, created by American Coptic artist Tony Rezk, depicts them receiving crowns of martyrdom from Jesus as they wear their orange prison jumpsuits and kneel on the beach where they were killed.
According to the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, they will be recognized annually on Feb. 15, the day the video of their deaths became public. In the Coptic Church’s calendar, based on that of ancient Egypt, it is called the 8th day in the month of Amshir.
Today’s news cycle is rarely so fast to enter the official observances of a church whose roots date back to the Apostle Mark. But the lurid intensity of the beheadings, and their omnipresence in the media, have led Christian leaders and congregants worldwide to highlight the tragedy’s religious worth.
Last week also saw a video in which a man, identified as a brother of two of the victims, said that “ISIS helped us strengthen our faith” and prayed for their murderers on live television. (RELATED: Beheading Victims’ Brother Prays For ISIS On Live TV [VIDEO])
Bishop Angaelos, a major Coptic cleric from the U.K., echoed those words in Washington, D.C. on Friday, saying that “we cannot start to hate” the terrorists for their actions, since “hatred corrupts.” Instead, he affirmed, “I pray for and forgive the perpetrators.” He spoke during a meeting with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, in the office of a nonprofit called In Defense of Christians.
IDC has been active for just under a year in its work to elevate the cause of protecting Arab Christians, during which time it has especially emphasized Iraqi Christian refugees forced from their homes by ISIS. Its leaders and advisers are predominantly Catholic, though it advocates for all the region’s Christian communities.
American Protestants have also responded to the tragedy. Over a dozen U.S. evangelical and nondenominational groups registered the website 21martyrs.com on Thursday. The site features a two-and-a-half-minute video describing their death as part of a larger trend of worldwide Christian persecution, which was shown in thousands of churches on Sunday morning. In many places, churches paused for a “moment of silence” for the 21 men.
The site also proposes a 40-day prayer cycle for the “persecuted church,” roughly matching to the 40 days of Lent — not a widespread observance among American evangelicals, but one that some have embraced in recent years.
Funders of the project include Q Ideas (a Christian “learning community”), Focus on the Family, the Barna Group and media outlets Christianity Today, Leadership Journal and World Magazine.
And in Egypt, where some 95 percent of Christians are Coptic Orthodox, evangelical publishers have distributed over a million tracts in the wake of the event. The Bible Society of Egypt has seen the national wave of sympathy for Christians as an opportunity to spread the Gospel, according to Christianity Today.
In an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation, the U.K.’s Bishop Angaelos pointed out that the victims “were dehumanized by their oppressors, and used as an object to make a point.” While touched by the “immense amount of concern” he had received for his slain brethren, he said he was “very wary of them being used to make a political point” by those unfamiliar with the Copts and their church.
Angaelos also told TheDCNF that Pope Tawadros’ announcement would be confirmed at the next meeting of the church’s Holy Synod, a gathering of bishops, at which time the 21 men would officially be recognized as saints.
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