Four years after the so-called Islamic State released a propaganda video showing the beheading of 21 abducted Coptic Christians in Libya, aid workers and politicians continue to highlight the dangers facing Christians in the Middle East and across the world.
On Feb. 15, 2015, a video was released showing IS fighters beheading Egyptian workers,as they knelt on a Libyan beach wearing prison-style orange jumpsuits. The Egyptian government and the Coptic Church later confirmed the video’s authenticity.
Edward Clancy, director of outreach for Aid to the Church in Need USA, told CNA that the killing of the Coptic martyrs helped to bring the issue to Christian persecution into focus for the wider Western culture and media, and spurred an outpouring of donations for charitable aid.
“It definitely brought the Christian persecution to the forefront and put it on page one,” Clancy told CNA in an interview Feb. 15.
Soon afterward the video’s release. the Coptic Church announced that the men would be commemorated as martyrs in its Church calendar. In October 2018, authorities found a mass grave believed to contain the bodies of the 21 men.
“Seemingly every day at that time there was a story of something going on, whether it was the fall of Raqqa; the enslavement of women; obviously the killing of the Coptic martyrs. And all of these did bring this [issue] into focus, and people did respond. Obviously it touched a lot of people’s hearts, and because of that they were very generous,” Clancy said.
Aid to the Church in Need has been working to help persecuted Christians since its founding in 1947. Clancy told CNA that while the public martyrdoms brought the dangers facing persecuted Christians to wider attention, Aid to the Church in Need had considered the issue a core concern for some time.
“I wouldn’t say that the videos changed much as far as [ACN’s priorities] go; our commitment to the Christian community there was as high before and after;” Clancy said.
“And that was because we saw the existential threat to the Christian communities by what was going on, by the violence, by the terrorism…The videos strengthened our resolve, I guess, to say we’re not going to let this happen.”
To this day, Clancy said, ancient Christian communities in the Middle East are at risk of disappearing. In Syria alone hundreds of thousands of Christians have been driven from their homes in places like Nineveh, Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.
Last December, a mass grave of 34 Ethiopian Christians was unearthed. That grave is believed to contain the bodies of Christians killed by IS forces in a propaganda video posted on social media in April 2015, two months after the first video was released.
That video, similar to the first one, appeared to show the Islamic State members shooting and beheading the Ethiopian Christians, who were all wearing orange jumpsuits, on a beach.
Clancy told CNA that ancient Christian communities in the Middle East remain at risk of disappearing. In Syria alone hundreds of thousands of Christians have been driven from their homes in places like Nineveh, Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.
“We’ve been able to support $55 million in aid over the years in Iraq and probably about $40 million in Syria in different programs to help keep the Christian communities alive,” Clancy said.
“Unfortunately though, even with all of those efforts, there’s been a great decline in the number of Christians. Iraq is down to about 20% of its Christian population as compared to 2000. And Syria’s down probably something like 40% since that time too.”
Clancy highlighted the continued dangers faced by Christians all over the region and the world, and noted the moral imperative on the international community to remember and support them.
“For us here in the United States, in the West, in the sort of ‘safe world,’ we actually take for granted that our faith is part of our lives. There, it’s part of their lives, but it could also be a reason for their death. So we should do our best to pray for them, to be aware of what’s going on and to support them by financial means and also for advocating on their behalf in the public arena.”
Clancy highlighted the recent announcement that the United States would withdraw troops from Syria as a source of fear among some in the Christian community. The move, he said, raised anxiety that terrorist forces might be emboldened by the decision.
“I think we have to be fair enough to say that when there’s a need for [military] protection that we should do it,” he said.
“It’s really all dependent on international governments, on the United States, the West, Europe, to stand up and say we’re not going to allow Christianity to die there. As Catholics, we can’t be afraid to say that, ” Clancy said.
One such advocate in the United States is Arkansas Congressman French Hill, who introduced a resolution Jan. 16 supporting the religious freedom of Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Hill’s resolution called on the Egyptian government to “end the culture of impunity” with which Christians were attacked and to “make examples by arresting, prosecuting, and convicting those responsible for attacks on Christians.”
“We forget that it’s not wrong to say that Christians belong [in the Middle East] and Christians should stay there. That’s what I always ask people to remember,” Clancy said.