The ISIS war against 'the people of the cross'

Isis | The Egyptians beheaded by Islamic State militants were family men who died for their Christian faith
by Jamie Dean
Posted 2/17/15, 03:25 pm

When 21 Egyptian Christians knelt before their Islamic State executioners on a Libyan beach, the condemned men wearing orange jumpsuits were already acquainted with grief.

Most hailed from a handful of poverty-stricken villages in Egypt, where Christian communities face harassment, threats, and difficulty finding jobs to provide for growing families.

Take 40-year-old Majid Suayman Shihata: The oldest of the Coptic Christians beheaded by Islamic State terrorists had traveled to Libya to earn money to provide for his elderly mother and three children, according to Egypt’s al-Yawm al-Sabi newspaper.

Or consider 24-year-old Luqa Najati, a newlywed working in Libya to build a life for his family in Egypt. Najati didn’t know his wife was pregnant when he left to search for work. He never met his infant daughter.

Two brothers—Bishoy and Samuel Stephanos—were saving for their weddings. Samuel Wilson was working to buy a home for his wife and three children. Twenty-six-year-old Samih Salah Shawqi left behind a wife and baby daughter.

But family ties meant nothing to the black-clad Islamic State militants wielding knives at the necks of their victims in a video released Sunday. The terrorists killed the men because they were Christians, with a caption on the gruesome execution footage declaring: “The people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church.”

Despite the clear declaration of war against Christians, the Obama administration offered generic condolences. A White House statement condemned the murder of the 21 “Egyptian citizens,” but never mentioned their Christian identity.

The omission follows of a longstanding pattern of White House officials downplaying the radical Islamist agenda of jihadists wreaking havoc across the Middle East.

Meanwhile, thousands of Christians poured into the Coptic church in al-Our village some 125 miles south of Cairo to mourn the deaths. Thirteen of the 21 murdered Christians came from the rural village in Minya province.

Minya is the same province that endured Islamist riots after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in August 2013. During a rampage of Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers, rioters burned dozens of Coptic and evangelical churches and businesses, including the storefront of the Bible Society of Egypt in Minya.

By Monday, mourners filled the Church of the Virgin Mary in al-Our, streaming past photos of the village’s 13 sons cut down in their youth. The church’s pastor was blunt about the terrorists who executed the men.

“They are monsters,” he told Reuters. “They are holding unarmed people who were going to bring bread for their families.”

Over the last decade, Libya has attracted more than a million migrants seeking to provide bread for their families. Many hailed from Egypt, where a languishing economy sent citizens in search of jobs in oil-rich Libya.

The dynamic soured in 2011, as Libyans ousted former dictator Muammar Qadaffi, and the country splintered. As terrorist groups gained power and territory, working in the war-torn country became a dangerous prospect. Thousands fled, but as many as 150,000 migrant workers have remained.

On Monday, the Egyptian government said it would facilitate airlifts to evacuate Egyptians remaining in Libya, though such efforts have proved difficult in the past.

The evacuations come as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered airstrikes in Libya in retaliation for the Egyptian executions. Two days of strikes have reportedly targeted Islamic State strongholds in Libya and killed dozens of militants.

President al-Sisi—a Muslim—also declared seven days of mourning in Egypt for the murdered Christians, and visited the Coptic cathedral in Cairo to express his condolences. The move comes as al-Sisi has taken notable steps to express solidarity with oppressed Christians in Egypt, and to call on fellow Muslims to condemn radical Islam.

For Christians remaining in Egypt, some say tensions have eased under al-Sisi’s leadership, but entrenched discrimination against evangelicals and Copts remains an ongoing reality.

When I visited Cairo in 2012, evangelicals met regularly in local churches, but some spoke in hushed tones when I asked whether they had considered leaving Egypt. Most wanted to stay, and said the Christian presence in Egypt was important. But some said they knew dozens of evangelicals who had already left.

Still, worship was robust at a Sunday morning service, and tones weren’t hushed as the congregation of Egyptian and foreign Christians sang hymns together in English. During a closing song, the call to Muslim prayer rang out from a nearby mosque, as the Christians inside the church sang: “No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand. Till He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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