ON THE evening of 15 February last year, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Britain, Bishop Angaelos, finally heard confirmation of what had been rumoured all day: 21 people — 20 of whom were Copts — had been murdered by an Islamic State (IS) affiliate in Libya.
He was on his way to a TV studio, but he pulled over and sent his first ever personal message on Twitter. It ended with: “Father forgive” — an unconscious (as it turned out) echo of the message etched on to the wall of the shattered Coventry Cathedral by its Provost, after German bombs destroyed it during the Second World War.
“I did not know the story of Coventry Cathedral when I sent that tweet,” Bishop Angaelos said last Friday. “But I was touched by it afterwards, when I heard it from the Bishop of Coventry.” He went on to say that, a year after the martyrdom of the Copts, he hoped that what had taken root in post-war Coventry — an international ministry of peace and reconciliation — might also be the fruit of the deaths of his churchmen and their colleague.
“It’s important for us to follow a Christian model. This is where it matters: when the world sees us acting as Christians at the most difficult times.”
The 20 Copts were migrants from Egypt who had been captured a few months earlier by an IS group while working in Libya (News, 20 February 2015).
Their steadfast faith in the face of imminent death was remarkable, Bishop Angaelos said. “I’m proud of them as Christians who have faith and have witnessed. Our Church has officially recognised them as martyrs. Seeing their actions, even in their final moments, where they were faithfully uttering the name of Jesus, was really inspirational.”
The murders were a turning-point, he said, as the world finally woke up to the nightmare faced daily by Christians and other religious minorities across the Middle East. IS intended the killings to serve as bloody propaganda to terrify their enemies; but, in fact, they had served to foster greater solidarity.
“There was an immense reaction all over the world, starting in Britain,” the Bishop said. He had received calls of condolence from both the Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales, shortly after the video of the beheadings was posted online.
But, as time has passed and the myriad other crises around the world have flared up again, the international community has forgotten the Copts’ martyrdom, and “taken its eye off the situation”, he said.
“We still see people abused, whether they are Christians or Yazidis, Westerners or Middle Easterners,” Bishop Angaelos said. “I can honestly say I don’t feel any more need to act because they might be Coptic Christians as opposed to Iraqi Yazidis. The sanctity of life is the sanctity of life.”
Wherever there are vulnerable communities under threat from violent extremists, there must be international support, he said. Although the British public and Government had been very generous — £963 million had been given in aid to the Middle East since 2011 by the Government alone — more needed to be done.
As vital as humanitarian aid was, it could not solve the longer-term problems, Bishop Angaelos argued; and neither could military intervention. A political peace deal was needed, not least as Europe could no longer continue to absorb the millions of displaced people as refugees.
He was touched by the reaction to the deaths, he said. “But it teaches us that we need to keep our eye on what happens.”