Matthew’s song, Pope Francis commemoration, Sydney memorial
On 4th Feast of Modern-Day Martyrs, 6th anniversary of Libya Martyrs:
The date 15 February 2021 marks the 4th Feast of ModernDay Martyrs, also known as Feast of Contemporary Martyrs, an annual feast assigned by the Coptic Orthodox Church to celebrate Christians in Egypt killed in the 21st century on account of their faith.
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The date 15 February was chosen since it marks the day in 2015 when video footage was posted on the Internet by Daesh, also known as IS ( Islamic State), showing the beheading of 20 Egyptian men and one Ghanaian in Sirte, Libya. The Egyptians came from Samalout in Minya, some 250km south of Cairo; 13 of them from the village of al- Our, the other seven from nearby villages. The video footage showed them lined up in orange jumpsuits on a Mediterranean shore in Sirte where they were one by one brutally beheaded by black- clad masked executioners. The last words each of the martyrs uttered were a quiet “Oh my Lord Jesus”, or “Lord, have mercy on me”.
The 21 Christians beheaded in Libya were declared martyrs of faith by the Coptic Church, since they chose to die rather than deny Christ; they came to be known as the Libya Martyrs. The anniversary is marked on 15 February, and coincides with the Feast of Modern-Day Martyrs.
The remains of the martyrs now rest in a shrine inside a church built in their honour in al-Our.
The martyrs’ remains had been flown to Cairo in 20 coffins on 15 May 2018, after they were found by the Libyan authorities in September 2017, and identified through DNA testing. They were received at Cairo Airport by Pope Tawadros II who said Thanksgiving Prayers, and a deacon procession that chanted joyous songs of the Resurrection.
The bodies were moved to al-Our where they were placed in a special shrine at a church built in their honour. The church was built by Egypt’s Armed Forces, by order of President AbdelFattah al-Sisi who aptly named it the “Church of the Martyrs of Faith and the Homeland”.
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The relics of the Ghanaian martyr Matthew Ayariga were brought to Egypt from Libya upon formal request by Anba Pavnotius, Metropolitan of Samalout, in October 2020, with a pledge to hand the relics over to his family or country should they ever ask for them. Anba Pavnotius had made the request in response to persistent demands by the people of al-Our to have
Matthew, as they fondly call him, rest alongside their martyrs.
This year, under the sponsorship of Anba Pavnotius, an anthem was sung for the first time to commemorate Matthew and sing a praise to him. Under the title of “The loveliest of tales”, the song was posted in video footage on social media, performed by Fr Menassa Samir and Mariam Girgis to lyrics written by Mina Magdy. The video starts with Anba Pavnotius welcoming Matthew’s relics in Egypt to join the martyrs of faith in their church in al-Our. The words of the song describe the martyr as: “Oh good-hearted dark-coloured guy ...”, words commonly used by Egyptians to describe themselves. https://www.facebook.com/bosha.rasky posts/3801713793218223
The church at al-Our has become a pilgrimage site for Egyptians and non-Egyptians who wish to be blessed by the martyrs. Their feast is celebrated according to the time honoured Egyptian tradition of holding “spiritual awakening” evenings of prayer, praise, Bible readings, and sermons during the two weeks leading to the feast day. On the feast day, Mass is celebrated to commemorate them.
Because of the spread of COVID-19 this year, Anba Pavnotius had to cancel the spiritual awakening evenings which are usually well attended; it would have been very difficult to manage the crowds or control their numbers. But the eve of the feast was marked with a Vespers incense service, and Mass was celebrated for them on their feast day. Both the service and Mass will be restricted to the Metropolitan, priests and deacons, and a limited congregation.
“On their feast,” al-Our priest said, “we pray to the Lord to lift the pandemic from the whole world, and for churches to reopen and resume service and activities.”
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On their feast day, 15 February, the Catholic News Agency wrote that Pope Francis praised the courageous witness of the 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians killed by IS in 2015, calling them “saints of all Christians.”
In a video message for the “Day of Contemporary Martyrs”
Pope Francis said, “I hold in my heart that baptism of blood, those 21 men baptised as Christians with water and the Spirit.
“I t hank God our Father because He gave us t hese courageous brothers. I t hank t he Holy Spirit because He gave t hem t he strength and consistency to confess Jesus Christ to t he point of shedding t heir blood. I t hank t he bishops, t he priests of t he Coptic sister Church which raised t hem and t aught t hem to grow i n t he faith. And I t hank t he mothers of t hese 21 men, who ‘nursed’ t hem i n t he faith,” he said.
“These men had gone to work abroad to support their families: ordinary men, fathers of families…” the Pope noted in his message. “They are our saints, saints of all Christians, saints of all Christian denominations and traditions.”
Pope Francis said that: “from their simple but consistent faith, they received the greatest gift a Christian can receive: bearing witness to Jesus Christ to the point of giving their life.
“I join the holy faithful people of God who in their simplicity, with their consistency and inconsistencies, with their graces and sins, carry forth the confession of Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Pope Francis’s video message was sent to an online event organised by the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of London to commemorate contemporary martyred Christians.
“Let us pray together in memory of these 21 Coptic Martyrs,” Pope Francis concluded, “may they intercede for us all before the Father. Amen.”
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Coptic modern- day martyrs have been also honoured in Sydney where a memorial was erected for them at the church of St Mary and St Marina as early as 2009. The memorial is in the form of a pharaonic style obelisk made of aluminium sheets, on which the names of hundreds of martyrs are inscribed in golden letters. Owing to the steady increase in the number of martyrs since then, the church added two boards next to the obelisk that carry the names of the more recent martyrs.
The obelisk carries words by Pope Shenouda III, patriarch from 1971 to 2012, which he said in the wake of a court verdict acquitting suspects in the murder of Copts owing to lack of evidence and conflicting testimonies of witnesses. The Pope’s words: “We appeal to God alone, who told Cain ‘The sound of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.’ We await Heaven’s justice.”