January 23, 2018

Last-minute martyr’s final moment inspires

Islamic State militants lead Ethiopian Christians along a beach in Libya in April 2015. PHOTO: CNS

The town of al-Our is 250 km south of the Egyptian capital Cairo. It is deep inside the Nile River Valley. But for the river, it would be just a dusty desert town. The Christians who live there still harbour fresh memories of two terrible events which scarred so many lives.

Their church dedicated to Our Lady is the centre of prayer and community life for the 2,500 Coptic Christians who live there.

Last year a hostile armed mob from a neighbouring town attacked and sacked the church. As rocks rained down many were injured as they attempted to defend their place of worship.

The young men defending the church and many families could not attend the solemn ceremony in the nearby provincial centre to mark the 40 days since an even more terrible event had been revealed.

Thirteen young men from al-Our had gone across the border to find work in Libya to help support their families at home in Egypt.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord: A still from an ISIS execution video. PHOTO: CNS

They, along with seven other fellow Coptic Christians, were kidnapped and held ransom by ISIS. A worse fate awaited them.

They were drafted into a propaganda film by their captors who denounced them as followers of the Cross. They were told that if they publicly renounced the faith and accepted conversion to Islam they would live. None did.

The world learned their fate when ISIS released their names and its horrifying video of their martyrdom, lined up and kneeling before their executioners.

But there were not 20 but 21 who professed their belief in Jesus Christ by their deaths that day. Who was the other man who died on that beach near Sirte? Gradually, in print and by word of mouth, Christians around the world came to know his story and learn his identity.

One such passing-on of his name and his spirit came in a sermon preached in Vienna by Cardinal Schönborn for members of Aid to the Church in Need who were attending the General Council from around the world.

It was May and the Cardinal had recently returned from a visit to Egypt where he met his friend, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II.

Neighbours and friends of the relatives of Egyptian men said to have been killed in Libya attend Mass at a church south of Cairo and pray in front of a banner with pictures of the victims. Source: CNS

As spiritual leader of the Coptic Church he had proclaimed them martyrs to be revered in Egypt and throughout the Christian world. His Holiness has just visited us in Australia.

Cardinal Schönborn recalled his visit to the town of al-Our where he met the families of the 13 young men who had died.

Among those who came to meet him were women and children who had lost their husbands, sons and fathers on that terrible day in Libya. Despite it all, there was great joy and pride among them.

But of all the stories he heard, the most remarkable concerned the extra man whom no one seemed to know. Even the executioners had no name for him. He was from the other side of Africa far from Egypt.

He came from West Africa. He had been travelling for work in Libya. He was kidnapped by ISIS and his friends did not hear of him again until they saw him on the television.

The news reports showed a clip of the 21 before their deaths on the beach. His friends identified him from the pictures. His name is Matthew Ayairga from Ghana.

He was not Egyptian and not a Christian and could not renounce his faith. Yet he did proclaim it. He was told by the executioners he could leave but he stayed.

Asked why, he said: “Their God is my God. I will go with them.” These scenes were witnessed and recorded on film and used in order to terrify the Christians of Egypt.

But instead it inspired them. The President of Egypt announced that the government would build a church in al-Our to commemorate the 21: the Church of the Martyrs of the Faith.

Some fanatics from the next town, on hearing the President’s announcement, opposed the building of a church and attacked al-Ours.

Too often such persecution goes unchecked by the Egyptian police and security forces. The Copts are no small minority.

Today there are 10 million making up over 10 per cent of the population of Egypt which is largely Muslim.

They have lived in cities, villages, monasteries and hermitages throughout the Nile Valley since apostolic times, and for five centuries before Islam came to what is now Egypt.

Notwithstanding the historic presence of Christianity throughout Egypt and promises of support from the President, the Church suffers greatly at the hands of extremists.

Catholics in Australia can support the Christians in Egypt. The best means is by prayer to our God and Matthew Ayariga’s God joined in the Communion of Saints. A practical means is giving alms.

Aid to the Church in Need through its Projects Department sends donations to the persecuted and forgotten Christians throughout the world.

As a footnote, the community leaders met. The church building would go ahead. But the site would be moved from the entrance to the town to a less prominent site.

Like Matthew’s faith, the cross atop a church can still be a scandal to its enemies.

For more information, or to make a donation, visit www.aidtochurch.org

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