“Mina, come back. Come back to me. I’ll open the door to welcome you, just like I welcomed your brothers back home. For 45 days, I cried and prayed that he’d come back alive. Then, when he was martyred, I would see him in my dreams. He wanted to come back home. I’m grateful that his body will be in Al-Ur again soon.” Mina Fayez Aziz smiles as she says those words.
Since her son was executed along with 20 other Coptic young men and African Christians in Libya by armed men affiliated to the Islamic State in February 2015, she has preferred to be known as Um al-Shahid (the mother of the martyr).
In Al-Ur, a village near the town of Salamat in Minya, which was the hometown of 13 of the 21 Copts killed in Libya, families still await the return of their loved ones’ remains, just as Um al-Shahid does. As Copts around the country celebrated the Epiphany, which marks the baptism of Christ, there is only mourning in Al-Ur.
On September 28, 2015, the office of the Libyan General Prosecutor announced that the man who planned and filmed the execution of 21 Christian men in Sirte, the footage of which was published on on February 15, 2015, had been arrested and that he had led the authorities to the burial place of the victims. Photos of bodies dressed in orange jumpsuits similar to those that appeared in the video of the execution were published.
“The world won’t be big enough to contain my joy when they come back. Even if it’s just their clothes, or any little thing, just something to make me feel like my child is here with me.” Um Mina is sitting in front of a large sculpture of her son dressed in the alb, a type of church vestment worn by deacons, as she tells me excitedly about the promises that General Prosecutor Nabil Sadeq made that procedures to get the bodies returned would be handled quickly, that he would continue to pursue investigations in coordination with his Libyan counterpart. Yet, almost three years later, families are still waiting.
And even with the time elapsed, for the families of the victims, it’s as if it all happened yesterday. They tell the story to one another each day and with every new development, they revisit the details.
“Every day, I watch the video that shows their shoes and clothes and bodies, and I look for Mina. I watched the video of their execution too even though the others tried to stop me. I insisted I had to see it. When I heard them invoke Jesus’s name, I asked God to forgive the people who killed them. We’re grateful to them, though, because they sent our boys to heaven,” Um Mina says.
On a chain around her neck, there’s a photo of her son Mina. She looks at the photo as she holds it in her hand and speaks. “You might think I’m tough, looking at me now, but I’m not. The littlest thing upsets me. But I’ve had to be tough for Mina. God has given me strength. They broke our hearts, but God reached inside of us and restored us.”
At Bashir Stefanos’s house, his mother, who lost two of her sons, Samuel and Beshoy, sits in the living room beside a glass cabinet in which she placed her deceased sons’ things and waits for their bodies to be returned. “Every day, I imagine that someone is knocking at the door and says, ‘Mom, open up!’” she says. “I’m proud of my children, and I’ll be even prouder of them when their bodies are returned.”
“Martyr’s mother” or “martyr’s wife” are the labels that mothers and wives in Al-Ur took on after the incident. Their real names fade away, as is the case for most women in Upper Egypt who say goodbye to their own names after the birth of their first son. They become known as “um, or mother, of so-and-so”, so-and-so being the family’s first son, even if daughters have come first. The women’s own names, which had accompanied them in their lives before they were wives and mothers, are forgotten.
Women also stop wearing any color when a close family member dies. “I’m not wearing black out of sadness,” Um Mina says. “Sadness is in your heart, not in your clothes. But women have to wear black. My son, Kirollos, said to me, ‘Mom, promise me that when the bodies are returned, you’ll stop wearing black.’ I told him I’d dress in white if I get Mina back.”
The houses of the victims’ families are clustered together in a square. Most of them are related either by blood or marriage. In the house of Maged Suleiman Shehata, I find Um Samuel, who lost six members of her family, including her husband. She dresses in black like the other women in the village who are related to the victims. “I was in a horrible state. Six men from my family were martyred. My cousins, the martyrs Kirollos, Abanob, Hani and Makram; my second cousin, the martyr Yusuf; and my husband, the martyr Maged.”
She remembers what life was like for her and her husband, who wanted to educate their children despite his limited means. “Before he went to Libya, he was earning LE40 a day, and all he cared about was making sure the children got an education. Our daughter Fifi is in the fourth year of her languages degree at university. Our son Samuel is in his second year at university. And our daughter Mirna is in middle school. I thank God and I pray that he will help me see them complete their educations as their father would have wanted.”
The victims’ family members had very different reactions to the news of the execution.
“When we watched the video and saw that they were martyred after saying, ‘O Jesus, our savior,’ we felt this intense consolation and calm. I’m even happier now that I heard their bodies are coming back home. We pray to God to help them finish their journey and to bring them home.” The wife of Maged, one of the men killed, interrupts her account with a moment of silence and a smile, before continuing. “When an old person dies, we won’t watch television for a year, but ever since the day of their martyrdom, the televisions have been on in our houses, and our hearts have been filled with joy. We don’t know what to make of ourselves. But, of course, we do miss them. We miss their voices, their laughter.”
Some family members fainted and had to be taken to hospital, but Um Kirollos turned heads in the village, as, when she saw the video of her son and 20 others being executed, she started ululating. Her husband and the neighbors tried to calm her down because she was shouting, “My son’s a martyr! I’m the mother of a martyr!” They still talk about it in the village to this day, and she still talks about the events with passion and excitement.
“If my son shouts and says Jesus’s name, of course, I’m going to cheer for him. If he’d denied his faith, then he wouldn’t be my son. If my son had come back alive because he’d denied Jesus, then I’d have been upset and it would mean that this womb of mine that carried him is impure.” Um Kirollos smiles widely as she recounts the details of her son’s death, which she considers a mark of pride.
Bishri, Um Kirollos’s husband, lacks his wife’s resilience. He appears weak and surprised at the pleasure his wife expresses. He interjects to speak bitterly about the loss of his son. “We’ve been consoled by heaven, it’s true, but my health has deteriorated since Kirollos was martyred. I can’t believe he’s gone. I can’t take it. We’re human beings. I don’t understand where his mother gets her strength. His death has taken a toll on my health. I used to do the work of two men in the fields, and now I can barely leave the house. I know martyrdom is part of Christianity, I’ve spent my whole life hearing about it, but this is the first time any of us has seen it with our own eyes. Do you think it’s easy to see your son being slaughtered and then to just carry on living like before?”
Like him, Um Bashir remembers how she “was upset and I confronted God.”
“I said, ‘Why would You do this to us, Lord? What did we do to deserve this?’ But afterward I thanked Him, because He answered our prayers and they affirmed their faith,” she says.
As tragic as their deaths were, the women in the village insist that the hardest part of all was the 45 days during which the men were held hostage and their families had no news of them. The women spent those days visiting the Church of the Virgin Mary in the hundreds to pray with a pastor. They attended services and prayed for their loved ones to be returned to them alive, but they ended each prayer with the supplication, “O God, keep them firm in their faith.” They don’t deny that they feel pain, but they hold fast to the consolation of belief.
Over the past year and a half, the victims’ families from Al-Ur have become one with their sadness. The fact that their sons were slaughtered because of their religion was too much for them to comprehend—as they themselves often say. That is, until they became swept up in a wider mourning that has followed the death of dozens of Christians at the hands of Islamist militants, beginning with the bombing of St. Peter and St. Paul Church in December 2016 through to the blackened houses of individual families across different governorates in the country. Buses have frequently set out from Al-Ur to take villagers to pay their respects to grieving families, the last of these was to the family of Father Saman Shahata who was killed on Thursday, October 12, 2017 in Marg.
There was also the forced relocation of Christians from Arish to Ismailia in February 2017 after six Christians were killed in a single week and threats were received, ostensibly from Islamic State militants, that any Christians remaining in Arish would be killed. This was followed by the Palm Sunday bombings, when 18 people were killed at St George’s Church in Tanta and St Mark’s Church in Alexandria on April 9, 2017. This was in turn followed by the killing of 29 Christians who were on their way to visit the Monastery of Saint Samuel in Minya on the morning of May 26, 2017.
“I rarely left Al-Ur before, maybe only on church trips. But after my son was martyred, other Christians were martyred, so we began going to pay our respects and to sit with them and talk. We help one another with our grief,” Um Bashir explains.
The villages in Upper Egypt meld into one another. There are no borders separating them, just signs announcing their names. Often, it is the simplest of landmarks that mark one village from another, like a bridge or a turning at the end of a market or some other landmark that the people agree marks the end of one village and the beginning of another, something to guide strangers by.
“Don’t ask anyone for directions to the Church of the Martyrs. Just say you want Al-Ur village so that you don’t get trouble from anyone.” That’s the advice I received from a young man on a motorbike whose upper arm was covered with a large tattoo of the Virgin Mary.
From a distance, before the entrance to the village, a large white church appears in the middle of the fields. It seems to be a new building. It isn’t even completely finished. It is the Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Country, a memorial to the victims whose construction was ordered by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2015.
The president’s decree that a church be built in the western quarter of the village was not welcomed by Muslim villagers. After Friday prayers on March 23, 2015, they marched to the Church of the Virgin—the only church in the village—and surrounded it. “No church in our village!” they shouted, before damaging the outside of the church and setting fire to a car belonging to a Christian.
The people who protested against the building of a new church weren’t just Muslims from the village, but Muslims from neighboring villages as well, who came to join them after Friday prayers, Abed, the security guard at the Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Country tells Mada Masr.
Police broke up the protest, but on the same day everyone who’d been taken into custody was released without charges. The Christians who’d been assaulted for attempting to protect the church from the protesters were forced to withdraw their complaints. They were also forced to comply with the demands made by Muslims during a reconciliation session chaired by the Governor of Minya General Salah Ziyadah that the new church be built outside the village on land owned by the church.”
“They told us to knock down the Church of the Virgin and to build the new church in its place, even though the president was the one who decided to build a new church and gave us LE16 million to do it. But they insisted that they’d never allow there to be two churches in the village, and so eventually the patriarch agreed to build the church outside the village,” Abed says.
The population of Al-Ur numbers more than 5,000, most of whom are Coptic Christians. The village has two mosques and only one church, which is the Church of the Virgin. This church, according to Abed, serves the Christians of the village as well as those in three other neighboring villages: Subi and Wasila, which don’t have their own churches, and Dabbus, which has a church that was shut down by the police after the Muslims in the village objected to services taking place there.
Abed makes the point that there had never been any trouble between the village’s Christian and Muslim communities before the young Coptic men were murdered in Libya; the arrival of journalists and government officials at Christians’ homes to put a spotlight on their suffering; and the president’s decision to build a new church.
An additional church or not, the village has become marked by the death of these 13 Copts. The streets were renamed with the names of the victims. When you ask directions to someone’s house, people will say, “It’s next to Maged the martyr’s house” or “Next to Samuel the martyr’s house.” That’s how the lanes in the village came to carry the names that will preserve the victims’ memories.