Saturday, 26 May 2018

A Witness Unto Death:

Bodies of Christian Martyrs Returned to Egypt

Barnabas Fund

Last week the bodies of the 20 Egyptian Christians martyred by Islamic State (IS) in Libya in 2015 were returned to Egypt. This is a very poignant reminder of IS’s activities, their systematic killing and their brutality. A total of 21 people were beheaded by IS including one Ghanaian. According to a video of the incident posted by IS, the martyred wore orange jumpsuits and were brutally murdered at a beach location in Sirte, an IS stronghold at the time. Their bodies were recovered when the area was recaptured from IS in October last year and eventually forensically identified by doctors.

These 20 were among the many displaced Egyptians who risked their lives trying to find work in an increasingly lawless and chaotic Libya, in the aftermath of Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall in 2011. Many hundreds of Christian families have since fled their homes in North Sinai in Egypt, fearing for their lives after IS issued death threats against all Christians in the region early in 2017.

Many Christians will have been moved by Foxe’s Book of Martyrs account of martyrdoms such as Tyndale, who was strangled and burnt at the stake, in obedience to Christ during the Reformation. It is difficult to imagine their suffering and faithfulness “unto death” (Revelation 2:10) in the Western church today, where Christians still enjoy relatively unrestricted freedom of belief and worship. The notion of “sacrifice” as part of Christian life has become abstract and perhaps more connected with giving up time, money, resources or personal comforts in Christian service.

Egyptian Christians often call martyrdom a “second baptism”.
They consider it a glorious privilege, welcoming it and embracing it as a blessing from God. One of the 20 Egyptian martyrs in Libya could easily have escaped death. His name was one more commonly used by Muslims than by Christians. So when the IS militants separated the Muslim and Christian migrant workers, on the basis of their ID documents, they placed him with the Muslims. But he spoke up and protested that he was a Christian and wanted to go with his Christian brothers. He surely knew that he was in all probability going to his death, but it was death for Christ and therefore he chose it.

Martyrdom is an everyday reality in Egypt, connecting with the story of Christianity from its very beginning. In an age of cynicism and materialism, the 20 Egyptian martyrs, together with Ghanaian believer Matthew Aryga killed with them, remind us that some Christians are still willing to pay the ultimate price for their faith.

The past two weeks have seen many Christians die in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. On Sunday 13 May, in Surabaya on the island of Java, a family of suicide bombers targeted early morning services at three churches of different denominations killing 13. Their names are unrecorded and unknown to the wider world. Even the numbers receive little or no public mention. But they are known to God.

Martyr, from the Greek word “martus” used in the New Testament, is translated “witness”. It is used in Scripture in the senses of a witness at a judicial trial, the witness of the people of God in a general sense and, lastly, to all witnesses who have sealed their testimony with their own blood. The apostles were eyewitnesses to Christ’s life, atoning death and resurrection, whereas the martyrs of Christ, past and present day, are His “blood witnesses”. We are all called to be witnesses, whether in death or in life.

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