15 February 2016
One year ago a video was released by so-called Islamic State showing the beheadings of 20 Egyptian Christians and one Ghanain believer. The following evening SAT-7 received a remarkable phone call of forgiveness from the brother of two of the slain men. In his tribute to the murdered men, Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, reminds us that “the greatest opportunity to do good is where there is greatest evil”
For decades we have witnessed the systematic intimidation, persecution, abduction, and even execution of Christians and minorities in the Middle East, but the horrific murder of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya 12 months ago had a significant and marked effect on millions around the world; it seemed that even evil had a line it should not cross.
The Egyptians and their friend from Ghana who were brutally murdered, were not statesmen, religious leaders, activists or spokesmen; but ordinary men from Egyptian villages working to support their families. Those who took their lives sought not only to victimise and disempower them, but to be triumphalist and instil fear in them and in the hearts and minds of all who witnessed this crime. What resulted however was a vision of honour, dignity and resilience demonstrated by these 21 men as they faced the final moments of their lives, with their heads raised, and their lips calmly, powerfully, and defiantly uttering their Faith. They indeed did “…not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28).
An even stronger and more inconceivable message of forgiveness came from their families and communities. They rejected the temptation to become bitter, angry and vengeful, and inspired the world with their gracious and courageous sentiment. Speaking proudly of the resilience of their fathers, brothers, and sons, who had captured the attention of the whole world, they also uttered their forgiveness for those who had so brutally and needlessly taken their lives, and who sought to rob them of their dignity.
Over this last year, the persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East has been relentless. We have seen communities forced to leave their historic homelands and places of heritage that they had been an instrumental part of for generations. We are witnessing an unprecedented brutality which includes abductions, decapitation, people burnt and buried alive, sold into slavery, women sold as sex slaves and children either sold or recruited as child fighters. These crimes are a polar opposite to the civilisation that we should have reached in the life of equality and freedom that we both seek and advocate for around the world. This shows what can happen when we are not vigilant.
What we are now seeing played out in the Middle East has not happened overnight, but has come after generations of the alienation, marginalisation and persecution of Christians and minority groups throughout the region. Boundaries are challenged and pushed and when there is no repercussion they are pushed further. The phenomenon starts with people being denied daily justice and equality in society, they are then deemed irrelevant and inconsistent, in the eyes of some, with what the region should be, and finally they are persecuted, displaced and sometimes even killed.
We must continue to look at the Middle East and indeed every place where there is persecution and not only condemn that persecution but work to restore the basic God-given rights and freedoms that we should all be able to live, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). The 21 Egyptian Christians and 30 Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians, along with the thousands who have died at the hands of those who seek to instil terror, are far too many.
While the picture is bleak, as a Christian I know that the greatest place for light is in darkness, and the greatest opportunity to do good is where there is greatest evil. In seeing all that we have over the last year in the Middle East, it has also given rise to so many examples of bravery, generosity, faithfulness, and a powerful witness of good. We must continue to advocate, to stand for what we believe God has given to us as humanity, to be powerful in the face of injustice, generous in the face of atrocity, forgiving in the face of hatred, reconciliatory in the face of conflict and light in the presence of any darkness.