A video released late on 15 February shows Islamic State militants brutally beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who had previously been abducted from the Libyan city of Sirte, where they had been living as migrant workers. The five-minute footage shows the hostages being led, handcuffed and in single file, by armed militants, masked and dressed entirely in black. A chilling caption spells out the charge against them: "The people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church".
On 4 January, 15 masked gunmen went door to door of a residential complex at 2.30 a.m., separating the Christian residents from the Muslims, and leading away several Egyptian Christians. The incident took place only a few days after seven other Egyptian Christians were also abducted as they tried to leave the same city, on 31 December.
The video footage shows the Egyptian Christian hostages kneeling in a line, hands tied behind their backs, and wearing orange jumpsuits. A masked jihadist stands behind each of the hostages. Forced to lie face down, the men are beheaded simultaneously.
IS militants threaten Christians all over the world
Speaking in North-American accented English, one of the jihadists warns, "All crusaders: safety for you will be only wishes, especially if you are fighting us all together. Therefore we will fight you all together until the world lays down its burdens and Jesus, peace be upon him, will descend, breaking the cross, killing the swine and abolishing jizya…The sea you have hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden's body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood".
The eschatological reference to Jesus descending refers to Islamic beliefs (based on a traditional hadith recorded in Sahih Bukhari Volume 3, Book 34, Number 425) that in the End Times Jesus will return to earth to destroy all Christian symbols (the cross) and Christian food (pork), and abolish the jizya tax that Christian minorities paid to their Muslim rulers in return for protection and the freedom to practise their faith. The implication is that the unprotected Christians would then have to convert to Islam or be killed.
Pointing north, he says, "We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission". According to Muslims, Muhammad prophesied that Constantinople would be conquered by Muslims, and that Rome would fall later. These two cities were considered centres of the Christian world at the time of the prophecy.
Baghdad church attack and 21 killings justified by a lie
The Islamic State online magazine Dabiq, Volume 7, released on 12 February, declares that the kidnappings of these 21 marked five years since an Islamist attack on a church in Baghdad in which 100 people were killed. This apparently referred to the attack by five suicide bombers on a Catholic church in Baghdad on 31 October 2010, which killed at least 58 people and injured up to 70 more. That attack, claims the report, avenged the alleged torture and killing by the Egyptian church of Christian women who had converted to Islam.
The Dabiq report refers particularly to Camilia Shehata and Wafa Constantine, the wives of Egyptian church leaders who were alleged to have converted to Islam and been held captive by the Egyptian Church in 2010 and 2004 respectively. After his wife went missing in July 2010, Camilia’s husband reported it to the police, afraid that Islamists might have kidnapped her. In fact, she had gone to stay with relatives for a few days after an argument with her husband. Ever since, Islamists have spread the false allegation that she had been held against her will by the Coptic church after choosing to convert to Islam, despite the fact that the court threw out the case of Camilia Shehata stating that they had failed to provide proof to support the claim of her detention. She also publicly denied the Muslims' claims. Neither tortured nor killed, as the Islamists alleged, their cases have been used as justification for the Baghdad church attack and now also for the murders of the 21 Egyptian Christian hostages.
Islamic State crosses into Egypt
"At that time ," explains the Dabiq report, "the Islamic State was distant from Egypt and so could not easily target the Coptic crusaders there… Therefore, the Islamic State leadership decided to target the Catholic Christians of Baghdad so as to teach the taghut [tyrant] of the Copts – Shenouda [Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church until his death in March 2012] – that the price of Muslim blood is costly and so accordingly, if his church persecuted any Muslimah [Muslim woman] in Egypt, he would be directly responsible for every single Christian killed anywhere in the world when the Islamic State sought its revenge… So more than one hundred crusaders were killed and injured by just five brave istishhadiyyin [those trained for martyrdom] from the Islamic state. And the different Christian churches had no one to truly blame but Shenouda for the deaths of their brethren…"
The report goes on to explain that five years after "the blessed operation in Iraq, Allah (ta'ala) granted the Islamic state expansion to Libya, Sinai, and elsewhere, allowing it to easily capture the Coptic crusaders, the followers of the dead Shenouda and the supporters of the taghut Sisi [the Egyptian president]".
Praising the work of the kidnappers, the publication states, "it is important for Muslims everywhere to know that there is no doubt in the great reward to be found on Judgment Day for those who spill the blood of these Coptic crusaders wherever they may be found".
According to the U.S. Copts Association, a further 21 Egyptian Christians were abducted on Saturday (14 February), this time fishermen working in the city of Misrata, in Libya. And late on 16 February, another 35 Egyptians living in Libya were kidnapped from various areas under the control of Ansar Al-Sharia and Islamic State, according to the Libya Herald. Every year, thousands of Egyptians migrate to Libya, hoping for the chance to work towards a better life.
Fourteen of those killed in Sunday's video originated from the same impoverished village of Al-Our, 125 miles south of Cairo. Identifying their relatives in the online images, men in the community covered their heads with dust and mud; the women slapped their faces as they wailed in sorrow. Egypt's President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has declared a seven-day mourning period across the country. Launching air strikes against Islamic State weapons caches and training camps in Derna, Libya, the day after the killings took place, President al-Sisi promised "to avenge the bloodshed and to seek retribution from the killers".
Egyptian Christians react to their bereavement
As Egyptian Christians come to terms with their bereavement, they take comfort in the willingness of these ordinary men to remain faithful to God, even to death. One young Christian woman said, "When I saw these young men praying as they were being prepared for execution and then many of them shouting 'O Lord Jesus' as their throats were being slit, I realised that the Gospel message can still help us to hold on to the promises of God even when facing death!"
Although the video was evidently designed to incite hatred between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, Ramez Atallah, General Director of the Bible Society of Egypt, says that the Egyptian Christian community has been comforted by the "sympathetic and caring response of Muslims all over the nation". The Egyptian Prime Minister visited with the relatives of the men who were killed, even sitting on the floor as he shared with them his condolences. "All this", says Ramez Atallah, "sends a clear message that Christians are considered an integral part of the fabric of Egyptian society."