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[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”By Claire Evans” font_container=”tag:h6|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes” css=”.vc_custom_1526930792089{margin-bottom: 22px !important;}”][vc_single_image image=”99666″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]05/21/2018 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Twenty brown coffins adorned with white flowers slowly descended the ramp of a Libyan plane that had just arrived in Egypt. Waiting on the tarmac was a crowd of Coptic priests, including Pope Tawadros, standing alongside a robed choir. The sounds of bells and songs floated above the coffins, inside which were the remains of the 20 Egyptian Christians who were beheaded by ISIS three years ago.

The next day, May 15, the families gathered inside the Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Homeland to lay their loved ones to rest. The church was built in the village of Aour, where most of the martyrs are originally from, to commemorate their faith. When the church was built, the families had no expectation that the remains of their loved ones would ever be found. Even so, a special burial place was created.

The internment of their bodies inside the church was a surreal moment for the families. Bishri Ibrahim, the father of Kirolos, told Reuters, “Everyone stood beside the martyr that belongs to him and cried a little, but they were tears of longing, nothing more. We are happy and joyful that they have returned to the village. This is a blessing for the country and to all Copts all over the world.”

When the families originally learned of their relatives’ martyrdom, they were devastated. The 20 Egyptian Copts were kidnapped in two separate incidents. All had been working in Libya because of a lack of economic opportunity for Christians in Egypt. Christians regularly suffer from job discrimination and harassment due to being treated like second-class citizens.

The families, along with the rest of the world, learned of their loved ones’ execution through the media. Altogether, ISIS kidnapped 21 Coptic men: 20 Egyptians and 1 Ghanaian. ISIS published the execution through a propaganda video titled: A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross. The video showed the captives, in orange jumpsuits, being forced to kneel in the sand before their execution. Pictures were also published in ISIS’s publication, Dabiq.

The families’ emotions consisted of sadness, relief, and happiness. Bashir, whose two brothers were killed, explained to International Christian Concern (ICC) shortly following their execution, “We were living hard times during the period of the captivity of my brothers before their martyrdom; we were very sad and worried about them… [But] I was consoled when I heard the cry of Jesus when they were on the beach of the sea and the knives were put on their necks… I am very proud of my two brothers and their strong faith.”[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”“Everyone stood beside the martyr that belongs to him and cried a little, but they were tears of longing, nothing more. We are happy and joyful that they have returned to the village. This is a blessing for the country and to all Copts all over the world.”” font_container=”tag:h5|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes” css=”.vc_custom_1526931227957{margin-top: 50px !important;margin-bottom: 60px !important;padding-right: 20px !important;padding-left: 20px !important;}”][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1526930916926{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]

“His departure is very difficult for us,” said Kirollos, whose brother Mina was among those killed. “I love my brother so much and I hope to be with him now, [but] I’m sure that he is in a very good place in Heaven now with martyrs and saints; I envy him. I ask God to give us patience on his departure.”

The pain of having their loved ones blatantly murdered was only further deepened by the unknown of what happened to the bodies. It wasn’t until October 2017 that the Libyan authorities made a surprise announcement that the remains had been discovered buried in a mass grave along the shoreline.

Father Makar Issa, a priest at the Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Aour, told ICC at the time of the discovery, “Though this news carries something of sadness because of the renewal of events in the mind and thought of the families of the martyrs, it of course carries great joy and glory and [is] a great blessing to the whole church.”

When the families were notified about the discovery of the remains, the authorities promised that the return of the bodies would be imminent. Eight months filled with many empty promises by the authorities about a “speedy return” passed. “Our hearts are hungry to see the remains of our martyrs,” the brother of the martyr Yousseff told ICC during this time.

During the months of waiting, final preparations were made with great excitement at the Church of the Martyrs to receive the bodies. Father Makar Issa, a local priest, shared his happiness that the church “is ready to receive its martyred sons, the heroes who have lifted the head of the church and the head of the Christian faith in all the world up.”

The families were hopeful that the authorities would return the remains on February 15, the three-year anniversary of their deaths. Instead, the solemn occasion was marked with the official opening of the church. Finally, on May 14, the remains returned to Egypt. Having the remains home and laid to rest is a great relief to the families. “I will visit them every day at the church,” said one mother. “We thank all people who stood up with us.”

“Blessed are you, the contemporary martyrs, who kept your Christian faith and have received the greatest crown of martyrs,” said Bashir. “Now you shine like the sun in the kingdom of your Father.”

For interviews with Claire Evans, Regional Manager, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: [email protected]