World

Coptic Christian Village Mourns ISIS Victims in Libya

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ISIS militants beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in February; family members have been left trying to make sense of the grizzly act. The mother of 29-year-old slain laborer Samuel Abraham holds his picture. "We thank ISIS. Now more people believe in Christianity because of them. ISIS showed what Christianity is," she said. "We thank God that our relatives are in heaven." Jonathan Rashad

When ISIS militants beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in February, the dusty village of Al-Aour, about 150 miles south of Cairo, was particularly hard hit. Thirteen of the victims came from there, having traveled to Libya in hopes of making money to improve the lives of their families back home.

In the days after graphic video of the atrocity was released, the village echoed with the wailing of women and children. But through their grief, some managed to find comfort.

"I am happy for my relatives. They had faith in God. They had faith in Jesus Christ. And that is what matters," said Bishop Feloubes Fawzy, 43, who lost his nephew and four of his cousins."They died for their faith. They died for Christianity."

In memory of the victims, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-­Sisi announced plans to build a new church for their relatives in the village. "It will be named the Church of the Martyrs," said one of the relatives.

03_06_Coptic_02 "On the 28th of December 2014, we got a phone call from our friends informing us that they have been kidnapped," said Milad, right, a cousin who worked with two of the slain laborers, Gerges Samir, 20 and Malak Ibrahim, 25, in Libya and witnessed their abduction by ISIS. Milad and his cousins decided to go back to Egypt after the phone call, but were abducted days later along with 11 other Egyptian Christians. Gerges had traveled to Libya to earn money to pay for his brother's university. Jonathan Rashad

Milad Ibrahim, 27, said he had been working in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte and was present when masked gunmen seized two of his cousins from an adjacent dormitory. On January 3, around 2 a.m., he said, the men knocked down the door of a dormitory of Egyptian workers and announced: "We came for the Christians. Stay away."

Before a revolution ousted former Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, there were around two million Egyptian migrants in Libya. More recently, that number had fallen to about 750,000, and thousands have reportedly returned since the execution of the 21 men.

The 21 victims were migrant laborers who traveled 1,200 miles to Libya to find work, mostly in construction. Shenouda Shokry, 23, an Egyptian farmer who traveled to Libya twice for work, and a brother of one of the victims, said Egyptian workers initially have to pay an average of EGP 8,000 (around $1,050) to get a Libyan visa through an agency.

03_06_Coptic_03 Around 2,500 Christians live in the village of Al­-Aour, making up nearly half of the town's population. Thirteen of the victims came from this village. Jonathan Rashad

Most make the long journey by land. "My husband had a dream. He wanted to have a two-bedroom flat for the family," said the wife of one of the victims who left for Libya last year. “I strongly rejected his decision and told him I was worried about his safety, especially since he’s a Christian. He said he would die anyway if he didn't make the journey and manage to bring food for his four children."

03_06_Coptic_04 Bishop Felobous lost five relatives: nephew Kirollos Boushra, 23, and cousins Maged Shehata, 41, Youssef Shokry, 23, Abanoub Atiya, 24 and Hany Abdel­ Messih, 32. "Their leaving is painful. But we are not sad. We are proud of our martyrs," said Felobous. "Everything happens for a reason. I was very sad when I heard the news of the airstrikes lead by the Egyptian military against ISIS. God asked us to even love our enemies." Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_05 Magda, the wife of Hany Abdel-Messih, 32, hold his photo. "Before he went to Libya, he used to go to church on a daily basis. We lost him. We lost his love. We did not deserve him. He was an angel," said Magda. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_06 "Youssef was a farmer and a carpenter. He thought he would be a kind working in Libya. That party happened. He is a kind in heaven," said Tereza, mother of slain laborer Youssef Shoukry, 23. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_07 Villagers take photos of the victims' portraits at Al­-Aour church. Following the murders, Egypt began airstrikes on ISIS targets near its borders. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_08 Al-Aour church serves as a focal point in the village and a gathering place. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_09 "I was shocked when I heard the news. But I was definitely happy for my nephew. He's a martyr," said Bishop Botrous, uncle of slain laborer Mina Fayez, 23. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_10 Worshipers and relatives of the slain laborers chant at Al-Aour church. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_11 Wife and son of 26-year-old slain laborer Milad Makin. "ISIS thought they would break our hearts. They did not. Milad is a hero now and an inspiration for the whole world," said his wife. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_13 "Kirollos always wanted to be a bishop. He is even better now. He is a martyr," said Mona, mother of slain laborer Kirollos Boushra, 23. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_14 Mona said her son had served in the Egyptian military and had gone to Morocco and Libya after his service as a way to continue earning money and provide for his family. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_15 Like many in the village, the mother of Mina Fayez, 23, turned to religion to cope and regards her son as a martyr. "If you saw the video, my son was strong till the last breath. He was praying to Jesus," she said. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_16 The video of the mass execution has been circulated throughout the village, and the mood in the streets is one of mutual grief and solidarity, regardless of whether the mourners knew the victims. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_17 Milad, who saw ISIS fighters take his cousins and narrowly escaped himself, says he now lives with the grief of not being able to save them. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_18 The family of Tawadros Youssef, 42, sit with his picture. "My husband had a dream. He wanted to have a two-bedroom flat for the family," said his wife. "When he decided to go to Libya last year...I strongly rejected the decision," but he went anyway, feeling a need to provide for the family. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_19 Youssef's wife and four children aren't sure what they'll do now that he is gone. Jonathan Rashad
03_06_Coptic_20 ISIS remains a threat in the region, putting off work among the Christian Coptic laborers who depend on the seasonal income. Egypt has pledged to take the fight to the militant group, calling for the formation of an Arab coalition. Jonathan Rashad