This past Monday, February 15, Pope Francis released a video message regarding the 21 Christians whom the Islamic State (ISIS) had beheaded on a beach in Sirte, Libya exactly five years earlier. He said, “I hold in my heart that baptism of blood, those 21 men baptized as Christians with water and the Spirit, and that day also baptized with blood. They are those who have blanched their lives in the blood of the Lamb.”
The Holy Father recalled that they were average men who did an extraordinary thing. “They had gone to work abroad to support their families [editor’s note: 20 were from Egypt, one from Ghana]: ordinary men, fathers of families, men with the desire to have children; men with the dignity of workers, who not only seek to bring home bread, but to bring it home with the dignity of work. And these men bore witness to Jesus Christ. Their throats slit by the brutality of ISIS, they died saying: ‘Lord Jesus!’, confessing the name of Jesus.
“It is true that this was a tragedy, that these people lost their lives on that beach; but it is also true that the beach was blessed by their blood. And it is even more true that from their simplicity, from their simple but consistent faith, they received the greatest gift a Christian can receive: bearing witness to Jesus Christ to the point of giving their life.
“I thank God our Father because He gave us these courageous brothers. I thank the Holy Spirit because He gave them the strength and consistency to confess Jesus Christ to the point of shedding blood. I thank the bishops, the priests of the Coptic sister church which raised them and taught them to grow in the faith. And I thank the mothers of these people, of these 21 men, who ‘nursed’ them in the faith: they are the mothers of God’s holy people who transmit the faith ‘in dialect,’ a dialect that goes beyond languages, the dialect of belonging.”
Our pope, via the Internet, was also in communication with the Coptic Church’s Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria and with the Church of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, in this message, but he stressed that he was “above all join the holy faithful people of God who in their simplicity, with their consistency and inconsistencies, with their graces and sins, [as they] carry forth the confession of Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ is Lord.”
He thanked the martyrs for their witness to Christ “And I thank You, Lord Jesus Christ, for being so close to Your people, for not forgetting them.”
The Lord Jesus is always close to us — God the Son became man, endured poverty and exile in Egypt, worked with His Own hands, wandered without a home, and was tortured and died so as to be able to raise us up with Him. These 21 migrant workers understood this and would not renounce Christ so as to have a few more decades of life here on this earth. They knew that Christ, through the triumph of His cross and Resurrection, had something infinitely better for them.
We know so much about what these men endured because ISIS released a propaganda video of their deaths, entitled, “People of the Cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.” The leader of the killers spoke in English in the video and made reference to other earlier killings of Christians by ISIS in Syria. Regarding those Syrian martyrs, the killer referred to them as “heads that had been carrying the cross delusion for a long time, filled with spite against Islam and Muslims, and today we are sending another message: Oh crusaders, safety for you will be only wishes, especially when you’re fighting us all together, therefore we will fight you all together until the war lays down its burdens and Jesus, peace be upon Him, will descend, breaking the cross, killing the swine.” We Christians need to remember that Muslims do believe in Jesus as a prophet and the people of ISIS expect Him to return and do this.
The lead killer then said that the beheadings were done at the beach, since “The sea you’ve hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.” Of course, these poor men had nothing to do with the United States’ killing of bin Laden, but they were made to pay for it.
The speaker ended his diatribe by saying, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.”
We don’t know if that will ever happen. It’s not as if Rome has never been under powers hostile to Christianity — we lived under 300 years of persecution by the Roman Empire, then under occasional harassment by heretical emperors. In more recent centuries, the Church in Rome had to live under Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler, as well as living in the shadow of the Mafia. The evil of our own members is even more scandalous than anything some outside power could bring upon the Church, since it is an anti-witness to Christ, the polar opposite of what those men professed on the beach in Libya. They had next to nothing, but they had Christ, while churchmen, entrusted with Christ in the Sacraments and with caring for Christ in His people, turned away from Christ for the nothingness of evil.
As we begin Lent, let us ask God to help us grow in that faith which has been nurtured in us by others and see how we can witness to it as these simple men did.