JERUSALEM — Christian and Jewish leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere are united in their condemnation of the Islamic State group’s execution of 21 Egyptian Copts who were kidnapped in Libya.
The Christians’ deaths were confirmed Sunday, after ISIS released a video showing them being beheaded on a beach. It was broadcast on an ISIS-linked website.
On Tuesday, Pope Francis offered Mass in the chapel of the St. Martha guesthouse for the 21 victims, whose funerals were held the same day, according to Vatican Information Service.
A day earlier, in a phone call to Pope Tawadros II, the patriarch of the Coptic/Orthodox Church, Pope Francis “assured him of his prayers and, today, the day of the victims’ funerals, joined spiritually in the prayers and the suffering of the Coptic Church in the morning Eucharistic celebration,” the Vatican said.
During a meeting with a Scottish ecumenical delegation, the Pope solemnly recalled what were reportedly the victims’ final words, when they knew death was imminent.
“They only said, ‘Jesus help me. …’ The blood of our Christian brothers is testimony that cries out. Be they Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it doesn’t matter: They’re Christian!”
Some of the strongest language against the gruesome attack has come from Church officials in the Middle East, where intensifying violence against Christians has spurred fear and emigration.
“We are outraged. There are not enough words in the dictionaries to describe such barbarism,” Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem told the Register.
The only consolation, Bishop Shomali said, “is that the Arab countries and numerous Muslims [living there have] condemned what happened.”
In Jerusalem, Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and its Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding, told the Register that Jews around the world feel “horror and distress” at the brutal killings. “How could we not?”
In a separate statement, AJC Executive Director David Harris urged greater international resolve and cooperation to confront and destroy ISIS.
“Certainly, defeating ISIS is not the job of any one country alone, but requires the active collaboration of the U.S., Europe, Japan, Arab nations and other like-minded countries,” said Harris. “In the region, Jordan and Egypt, responding to direct attacks by ISIS on their own citizens, have taken important actions that others in the Arab world should emulate, making clear that ISIS is their enemy, too.”
A statement on Monday from the Middle East Council of Churches also expressed the “pain that grieves the hearts of all Christians, and all inhabitants of the Middle East, at the sight of these barbaric crimes that all religions condemn.”
The council emphasized that the “innocent victims” were murdered “simply because they believed in the glorious teachings of Christ, in the one God and Creator of all, the path of love, the spirit of peace and brotherhood among men, according to the example of Abraham, the prophets and apostles.”
The council said that what is happening to Christians “is a serious violation of international law and human rights, as well as all international conventions. The council sees the arrival of a dangerous demographic change in this region, where the monotheistic religions were born, especially in a climate where innocent people no longer feel safe because of terrorism.”
Egypt and Lebanon
Church leaders in Egypt, who have sometimes accused the government of turning a blind eye to Muslim attacks against Christians in that country, praised the government for swiftly dispatching the air force to attack the Islamic State group’s strongholds in Libya.
“This tragedy,” said Father Hani Bakhoum Kiroulos, Coptic Catholic Patriarchate secretary, “is uniting the entire country, Christians and Muslims. If their aim was to divide us, they have failed.”
His Beatitude Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, the Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, offered his condolence to the families “of these martyrs who gave their lives for the faith,” Fides news agency reported. Patriarch Sidrak also thanked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sissi and the Egyptian government “for giving an immediate response to this act of terrorism.”
The government’s decision to bomb jihadist bases in Libya “demonstrated that, for the Egyptian government, its citizens are all equal and that Egypt is suffering as a nation from the bloodthirsty delirium of the terrorist,” Father Kiroulos said.
In Lebanon, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri — the son of Rafic Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated in 2005 — called the murders a “bloody” attack by “demons,” Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper reported.
Said Hariri, “No words can adequately express the extent to which we condemn the carnage witnessed on Libya’s coast, [which] claimed the lives of 21 Egyptian citizens.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.