Held in Turkey on charges of espionage and terrorism, facing a life sentence for doing the work of the church, American Pastor Andrew Brunson’s dramatic release was the work of high-powered diplomacy and prevailing prayer
On a warm winter morning in early February, a series of grainy video images from a Libyan beach stunned an entire Egyptian village and devastated dozens of impoverished families.
The eerie images showed a line of towering, black-clad men gripping a line of 21 prisoners in the bright orange jumpsuits now the trademark execution garb for Islamic State captives.
American journalist James Foley had appeared in the same orange gear in summer 2014 as Islamic State thugs brutally beheaded him in a Syrian desert. A month later, fellow American reporter Steven Sotloff’s execution video surfaced online as well.
But the Egyptians on the Libyan beach carried two distinctions: Here were the first captives outside Syria and Iraq that Islamic State terrorists would behead publicly. And here were Christians who would die proclaiming the faith in Christ their captors condemned.
On the cloudy beach, each somber man kneeled before a hooded terrorist, as each executioner gripped a prisoner’s shoulder with one hand and clutched a knife in the other. A caption scrolled across the screen: “People of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church.”
One of the terrorists unleashed a rambling diatribe: “Recently you have seen us on the hills of al-Sham and on Dabiq’s plain, chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross delusion for a long time. …
“O crusaders, safety for you will be only wishes. … The sea you have hidden sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in—we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.”
Moments later, the executioners wielded their knives against the necks of their captives.
The victims were calm: No outbursts. No cries. Instead, the men gazed up, and prayers tumbled out in whispered final words: “Ya Rabbi Yasou.” Translation: “My Lord Jesus.”
In the final images, the Mediterranean Sea appeared to turn red with their blood.
HUNDREDS OF MILES EAST, in the small Egyptian village of Al Our, the cries were more piercing.
As television stations began showing parts of the video footage posted online, the implications were horrifying: Thirteen of the slain Coptic Christians came from this single village.
Some experts suggested elements of the footage—the militants’ striking height, the beach background, the bloody water—had been digitally manipulated. But they didn’t dispute the beheadings were real.
The men had left for Libya months or even years earlier, seeking work to support their families in the impoverished village 150 miles south of Cairo. In January, Islamic State militants kidnapped the men from a boardinghouse in Libya. A surviving witness said the invading terrorists demanded others show them the rooms of the Christians.
The militants posted photos online of the 13 captured men and eight others they had kidnapped in December. Seven were from other villages in Egypt. One was from Ghana.
In Al Our, families agonized and waited. When news arrived of the mass execution, the February day grew wrenching: A local priest told reporters that screams poured from every house and every street.
A few days later, at a mass funeral without coffins, families displayed pictures of their slain relatives, and hundreds of villagers mourned. One father cried, “I’m very sorry, my son, because I did not have enough money to keep you from going to this place.”
Another father recounted how his son went to Libya to earn enough money to start a family, but met a different outcome: “He left to marry heaven, where he’ll meet Christ.”
Malak Shoukry said he watched his brother, Yousef, die in the video. “I heard him calling, ‘O Jesus,’ as he was beheaded,” Shoukry told NPR. “I’m proud of him. He is a martyr for Christ.”
Meanwhile, a Coptic bishop from the United Kingdom sent written condolences to the grieving families and a biblical reminder to all those staring down the threats of the Islamic State: “Life is but a vapor.”
EVER SINCE THE ISLAMIC STATE, also called ISIS or ISIL, burst onto the international scene last year, the extremists have murdered thousands of people in Iraq and Syria while driving out whole populations of Christians and other religious minorities from ancient homelands. They’ve abducted women and young girls, raping and brutally enslaving them.
In October, Islamic State terrorists claimed responsibility for downing a plane filled with Russian tourists leaving an Egyptian resort, calling it retaliation for Russian airstrikes in Syria. On Nov. 13, the group boasted of its deadliest operation outside the Middle East or Africa: the massacre of 130 people in Paris.
The extremists have slaughtered Muslims refusing to pledge allegiance to the terror group and Parisians enjoying a night on the town. But they’ve specifically targeted Christians for extinction.
Indeed, a month after the Egyptian executions, ISIS militants replicated the horrifying scene: Terrorists released a video showing the shooting and beheading of at least 30 Ethiopian Christians held captive in Libya. The footage addressed “the nation of the cross,” and a narrator declared: “We swear to Allah, the one who disgraced you by our hands, you will not have safety, even in your dreams, until you embrace Islam.”
The terrorists have warned that Christians must submit to their rule—and pay their tax—or convert to Islam. The penalty for refusal is death. In reality, for those who can’t flee, sometimes the only options are conversion or execution.
The videotaped beheading of 21 men in orange jumpsuits on a Libyan beach in February—and 30 more a month later—served as gruesome demonstrations of the Islamic State’s aspirations to extinguish “the people of the cross,” and as a warning to those who defy them.
The Christians’ willingness to embrace death rather than deny Christ served as a glorious display of the courage of many who have faced the lions' den and held fast until the end.
For their courage, even unto death, WORLD recognizes all Christians martyred by the Islamic State as our 2015 Daniels of the Year.
IN THE RURAL VILLAGE OF AL OUR, becoming a martyr was once a distant concern to Egyptian men desperate for work.
Over the last decade, Libya attracted more than a million migrants seeking jobs in the depressed region. Many came from Egypt, where a series of political revolutions and a languishing economy drove impoverished citizens to search for work in oil-rich Libya.
That dynamic collapsed in 2011, as Libyans ousted former dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and the country splintered. Thousands fled as terrorist groups gained power and territory, but as many as 150,000 migrant workers remained in the war-torn nation.
Among the remnant: the 21 men who would be kidnapped by ISIS terrorists and never return home. But long before their abductions, these men already were acquainted with grief.
Christians have long faced oppression and discrimination in Egypt, especially low-wage workers who face difficulties finding jobs. Most of the men hailed from poor villages in Minya—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 in Minya, including the storefront of the Bible Society of Egypt.
For the executed men, providing for their families remained a driving ambition, even if it drove them to Libya.
Take 40-year-old Majid Suayman Shihata: The oldest of the beheaded captives had traveled to Libya to earn money to provide for his elderly mother and three children, according to an Egyptian newspaper, Al-Yawm Al-Sabi.
Luqa Najati, 24, was a newlywed working 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.
Bishoy and Samuel Stephanos—two brothers—were saving for their weddings. Twenty-six-year-old Samih Salah Shawqi left behind a wife and baby daughter.
The mother of Yousef Shoukry, 24, begged him not to go to Libya, fearing the increasing dangers. But he was determined to work. His mother told the Huffington Post her son’s faith gave him courage, and remembered him saying: “I have one God—He is the same here and there.”
Copts are one of the most ancient branches of Christianity in the Middle East. And though they historically have had significant doctrinal differences with Roman Catholics and Protestants, many of the martyrs’ families testified of their faith in Christ.
Though it’s impossible to know the doctrinal views of all the executed men, it’s clear that ISIS militants targeted them for their Christian identity. In the end, the men refused to recant Christ and called on Him in their moments of death.
In at least one case, faith may have come in the final moments. Mathew Ayairga was the lone non-Egyptian among the 21 captives. MidEast Christian News identified Ayairga as a construction worker from Ghana.
The persecution news agency BosNewsLife reported the execution video showed militants asking Ayairga: “Do you reject Christ?” Ayairga replied: “Their God is my God.”
ACROSS EGYPT, responses in Christian villages ranged from rage to reconciliation.
Some relatives called for swift justice against the attackers, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered airstrikes against militant targets in Libya. The Muslim president declared seven days of mourning in Egypt and visited the Coptic cathedral in Cairo to express his condolences.
U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the executions, but didn’t acknowledge the religious nature of the attacks on the men he called “Egyptian citizens” instead of Egyptian Christians.
The omission followed a long-standing pattern of the Obama administration downplaying the radical Islamist agenda of jihadi terrorists wreaking havoc across the Middle East.
Daniel Philpott, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, told The New York Times: “When ISIS is no longer said to have religious motivations nor the minorities it attacks to have religious identities, the Obama administration’s caution about religion becomes excessive.”
Back in the village of Al Our, some bereaved families focused on both grief and gratitude.
Beshir Kamel, who lost two brothers in the beheadings, appeared on an Arabic Christian television station, thanking the militants for not editing out the men calling on Christ at the moment of their deaths.
“Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way,” Kamel told the host. “This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.”
Meanwhile, Christians from surrounding towns and cities looked for ways to bless the grieving families in Minya.
Ramez Atallah of the Bible Society of Egypt said staffers joined with other Christian groups to perform service projects in the affected villages. They built homes for families in need and provided vocational training so villagers wouldn’t have to travel abroad for work.
The Bible Society also distributed tracts with Scripture passages, including verses from Romans Chapter 8: “As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
Samuel Tadros, a Coptic Christian and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., said the martyrs’ deaths had brought encouragement to Egyptian Christians living all over the world.
He noted the men had lived simple lives of poverty and would have been unlikely to be remembered in other circumstances. “But at the moment of truth they stood to the challenge,” said Tadros. “And they stood tall.”
In the shadow of death
“I am Assyrian Christian Ashur Abraham, from the village of Tel Tamer, Jazira.”
“I am Assyrian Christian Basam Essa Michael, born in 1976, from the village of Tel Shamiram, Tel Tamer.”
“I am Assyrian Christian Abdulmasih Enwiya, born in 1997, from the village of Jazira district of Tel Tamer.”
The three men kneeled, facing the camera, each reciting his name and place of birth. As they did, their hair and orange jumpsuits rustled in a stiff breeze, the wind causing the video to blur for seconds. But the scene came back into focus as three militants wearing black hoods stood behind each of them, raised a pistol, and shot simultaneously, killing each man with a bullet in the head.
The trio fell forward, collapsing. With the dead men’s blood spreading in dark red pools over the dry ground, three more Assyrian Christians appeared behind them, also kneeling. This time each recited his name as the others had done, but the last, Martin Tamraz, ended this way:
“We are here and there are dozens of us. Our fate is the same as these,” and he paused, pointing at the three dead Assyrians lying in front of him while staring at the camera. “If you do not take proper procedure for our release, we realize the inevitable fate.”
The killings took place Sept. 23, seven months after Islamic State terrorists captured the men, along with about 250 other Christians. All were taken in late February during overnight raids of their villages along Syria’s Khabur River. The terrorists released some of the hostages—the latest a group of 37 mostly older men and women, set free on Nov. 7. Reportedly, their families or Assyrian leaders paid a ransom.
But ISIS militants continue to hold 168 Khabur River residents, in addition to hundreds of other kidnapped Syrians. The three in jumpsuits were the first to be shown publicly executed, but Christians have been facing death at the hands of ISIS and its militant affiliates since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. Today’s captives may be tomorrow’s martyrs, and those still living display courage by refusing to renounce their faith in order to obtain earthly relief.
When Islamic State fighters overran Mosul and Nineveh Plains in Iraq in mid-2014, more than 120,000 Christians fled their homes. In 2015, with the militants controlling at times a third of Syria (including nearly all of Hasakah province, where the villages are located) and nearly a third of Iraq, what’s perhaps most startling about the Khabur River residents and others like them is their determination to stay—that dozens of Assyrian villages remain inhabited by Christians at all. Months after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a new Islamic caliphate with the June 2014 takeover of Iraq’s city of Mosul, why would any Christians want to remain?
“I was born there,” one of the Khabur River residents said when I asked him that question a few days after the raids. “My father, my grandfather too. It is our place, where we live, where we have our churches, our life.”
“Kory,” who asked not to be identified to protect his family and neighbors, escaped the Feb. 23 raids with his wife and three children, along with his brother and his wife and their two children. ISIS fighters captured Kory’s sister, 38, and her whole family. They also captured a cousin and the cousin’s whole family. When Kory tried to reach him by calling his cell phone, an ISIS militant answered, told him never to call again, and hung up.
On the night of the raids, Kory and his family watched as ISIS militants tried to blow up a bridge across the Khabur River and shot at policemen who attempted to stop them. When the sounds of trucks and gunfire retreated with the early dawn light, the family escaped with only the clothes they were wearing, taking taxis from town to town until they reached the Iraqi border. They crossed the border on foot and found refuge in Dohuk, one of the northernmost cities in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kory owned a restaurant in Tel Tamer, but it had been closed for three years, since the start of the war. “Now everyone is gone,” he said. When I asked if he hoped to go back one day, his wife, seated beside him on the sofa, shuddered and clutched her shoulders, shaking her head. “It is safe here, but we do not know what comes after,” Kory said.
In 2010 before the war, there were 75,000 Christian families living in the Aleppo and Hasakah provinces near Syria’s border with Turkey. By 2013, their numbers had dropped to 50,000. As of 2015, according to Syrian Orthodox Church leaders, only 1,900 Christian families remain in the region.
In May two Islamic State militants kidnapped Catholic priest Jacques Murad, the prior of Mar Elian, a fourth-century monastery near the Syrian town of Qaryatain. Murad had housed at Mar Elian hundreds of displaced Syrians, including 100 children under age 10. In August the terrorists returned, attacking Mar Elian and other churches and taking 260 Assyrian Christians hostage. They bulldozed the monastery.
The Qaryatain captives were held in an underground dormitory along with Murad. Every day the militants pressured the Christians to convert, but none did, Murad told Fides News Agency.
“The Christians were often questioned about their faith and about the Christian doctrine, and they did not convert to Islam despite much pressure,” he said. “This experience of trial strengthened the faith of everyone, including my faith as a priest. It is as if I have been born again.” The militants released Murad on Oct. 11 but continue to hold the other Qaryatain captives.
Lifetime achievement: Armando Valladares
I used to conclude each journalism history course at the University of Texas by reading a speech Armando Valladares gave in 1988 when he was Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Valladares spoke of Fernando López Toro, a Cuban political prisoner who killed himself because “total ignorance and indifference from the rest of the world” made him think “our sacrifice was useless.” My point to students: Fidel Castro put López Toro in prison, but American journalists who defended or at least ignored Castro’s evil kept him there.
Valladares, now 78, knew that evil firsthand. From 1960 to 1982 Valladares suffered through—as he later said in speeches and in his memoir, Against All Hope—“eight thousand days of hunger, of systematic beatings, of hard labor, of solitary confinement, of cells with steel-planked windows and doors, of solitude. Eight thousand days of struggling to prove that I was a human being. … Eight thousand days of testing my religious convictions, my faith, of fighting the hate my atheist jailers were trying to instill in me with each bayonet thrust.”
Those jailers were killers. Night after night during the 1960s, Valladares in prison heard the last words of those whom Che Guevara ordered to Execution Wall: “Viva Christo Rey,” Long live King Jesus, they shouted, before bullets silenced them. The jailers were also brutal toward the living. After Valladares had three broken bones, guards beat him with thick twisted electric cables, which felt “as if they were branding me with a red-hot branding iron, but then I experienced the most intense, unbearable, and brutal pain of my life. One of the guards had jumped with all his weight on my broken, throbbing leg.”
When I interviewed Valladares in Miami on Nov. 6—see “Armando Valladares: Mind games”—he said, “I never asked God to take me out of jail. I asked him for the strength to be able to go through this. I never asked God to take me out because I knew there was a purpose for it. I started seeking God more and each time came out stronger than ever. I never remember being in solitary confinement alone: I always felt God’s presence.” Valladares is also grateful to his wife Marta, who led what became an international campaign for his release.
Each year for the past 18 we’ve awarded our Daniel of the Year award to a person (or several) who glorified God by sacrificing fame, fortune, and sometimes life itself. But Hollywood hands out both annual Oscars and Lifetime Achievement Awards, and this year so does WORLD. We honor Valladares for standing up for Christ and also giving us words of warning: “America is founded on the principle that rights come from God. They precede the state and they cannot be usurped. If America begins to cede that principle, it will be signing its own death certificate.”
Valladares ended Against All Hope by quoting Fidel Castro’s claim in 1983 that Cuba has “no human rights problem … no tortures here. … In 25 years of revolution ... a crime has never been committed.” Leading U.S. journalists generally accepted this, and at one party those who never would have worn a swastika took turns joyfully putting on a Cuban army cap. Some later excused their behavior by saying Castro had overturned a previous dictatorship, that of Fulgencio Batista, but Valladares exposes that equation: “In the history of the world there has never been a more horrific dictatorship than the dictatorship of communism. Think of two bank robbers: One has robbed five banks, and the other 40 banks.”
Recognizing Valladares seems particularly appropriate in a year when, to use Valladares’ words, “Pope Francis received tyrant Raúl Castro in an ambience of mutual smiles and cordiality, shaking his bloodstained hands and asking the communist chieftain for prayers. This is a chilling and appalling scene before God and history, and one that will indelibly mark the current pontificate.” Valladares also criticized President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for offering the Castro brothers hugs rather than treating them as thugs.
Listen to Jamie Dean discuss this year’s Daniels of the Year on The World and Everything in It.