Coptic Christians in the diaspora are reeling after the Islamic State group released a video showing the murder by beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. On social media, the hashtag #CopticLivesMatter, patterned after #MuslimLivesMatter following the killing of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has arisen to condemn the attacks. Some churches are hosting prayer services for the victims, whom they call martyrs, while other faith leaders have expressed concern over future attacks directed at their people.
“Generally speaking, our community is horrified, but responding with great faith,” a Coptic priest from the Diocese of Los Angeles told International Business Times in an email. He asked not to publish his name for religious reasons. “When these extremists massacre our brothers and sisters for their Christian faith, they mistakenly believe they are weakening the church, but in reality, they are granting us victory. Martyrdom represents the highest form of imitation of Christ and unites us in a unique way with Him.”
The ancient religious minority, one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, numbers somewhere between 6 million and 11 million members in Egypt (the numbers are controversial and disputed) and 1 million outside the country. It split from the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches over theological differences in A.D. 451, when Egypt was still part of the Roman Empire. Two hundred years later, the Arabs conquered Egypt, and the Copts have lived under Muslim rule ever since.
After the Egyptian Revolution brought President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, Coptic Christians were attacked for welcoming the 2013 military coup that overthrew him. A congressional hearing revealed at least 11 Coptic Christians were killed and 200 churches, religious structures and homes were vandalized during that period.
In Libya, a country that hosts many Egyptian migrant workers, the Coptic community faced violent attacks from militias both during and after the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. In 2013, dozens of Coptic Christians said they were tortured inside a detention center in eastern Libya. Last year, seven Egyptian Copts were executed in Benghazi and a 13-year-old Coptic girl was abducted and killed. The 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians executed by ISIS last week were kidnapped in two separate operations in January and December.
The latest atrocity has some Coptic Christians in the diaspora fearful of similar violence. In Australia, Bishop Anba Suriel sent a text message to Prime Minister Tony Abbot saying his community was “now under threat from ISIS sympathizers.” He told the Australian newspaper Monday that he was discussing ways to increase police presence at Coptic churches across the country.
For Father Bishoy L. Mikhail of St. Antonious & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in East Rutherford, New Jersey, security is not an issue. Rather, he is trying to help his community grieve the slain. His church will be hosting a three-hour prayer vigil on Monday night. Other churches, including the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Mark in Jersey City, will be fasting and praying for the 21 victims during the Great Lent which began Tuesday.
“These events only serve to strengthen the Christians and grow our faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ,” Mikhail told IBTimes in an email. “We have witnessed our brothers facing martyrdom with courage, praying and saying ‘Lord Jesus help me' while facing certain death. The stories of these martyrs are no longer just kept in historical manuscripts; they are now videotaped for the whole world to see how these pillars of faith face death courageously.”
In the United States violent acts against Coptic Christians are rare. One of the most recent incidents took place in 2005 when four members of an Egyptian Coptic family were bound, gagged and stabbed to death in their Jersey City home. Edward McDonald was convicted of felony murder charges and sentenced to 300 years in prison.
More typical trials for American Coptic Christians are nonviolent forms of discrimination or plain ignorance based on dress and appearance.
“Sometimes our children in the schools are perceived as ‘coming from a terrorist countries,’ not differentiating between the places and the acts,” Mikhail said. Coptic clergy who wear traditional black cassocks and grow their beards are sometimes mistaken for Muslims and Jewish rabbis as well.
“We are … pointed out as Arabs and not Christians. So we are treated as second-class citizens and murderers,” Father Mauritius Anba Bishoy, a Coptic priest at St. John the Beloved Monastery Patmos in Canadensis, Pennsylvania, told IBTimes. It’s “only when we show our cross … on our necks and proving our Christianity are we treated with a bit more respect and an open ear.”
For now, Coptic Christians in the diaspora are remaining united in wake of the recent attacks.
“Those innocents risked their lives in Libya to provide financial support to their families,” Mikhail said. "We grieve with their families and share our support, because according to the teaching of the Bible and the church we are one body.”