ROME – Pope Francis on Monday released a video praying for 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by Islamic fundamentalist on a beach in Libya in 2015.
“I hold in my heart that baptism of blood, those twenty-one men baptized as Christians with water and the Spirit, and that day also baptized with blood,” Francis said, in a video posted on Twitter, a rarity for the leader of the Catholic Church, who has over 40 million followers in several languages.
“They are our Saints, Saints of all Christians, Saints of all Christian denominations and traditions. They are those who have blanched their lives in the blood of the Lamb, they are those… of the people of God, the faithful people of God,” the pope said.
The world was horrified when the Islamic State group released a video in February 2015 which showed the beheading of 21 men – 20 Coptic Christians, along with a Ghanaian Christian companion – who were dressed as prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits and handcuffs.
As they were killed, the men were praying to Jesus.
Their bodies were recovered in October 2017 after one of the perpetrators was caught by the Libyan authorities and revealed their location. The remains of the Egyptian Coptic Christians were repatriated to Egypt on May 14, and their plane was met by Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
In the video released Monday Pope Francis said that the 21 men had gone to work abroad to support their families. They were “ordinary men, fathers of families, men with the illusion [desire] to have children; men with the dignity of workers, who not only seek to bring home bread, but to bring it home with the dignity of work. And these men bore witness to Jesus Christ.”
“Their throats slit by the brutality of Isis, they died saying: ‘Lord Jesus!’, confessing the name of Jesus,” Francis said. “It is true that this was a tragedy, that these people lost their lives on that beach; but it is also true that the beach was blessed by their blood. And it is even more true that from their simplicity, 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.”
The pontiff went on to thank God for the witness of these courageous men, and to thank the Holy Spirit for giving them the strength and consistency to confess their love for Jesus Christ to the point of shedding their blood for Him.
Francis, who’s set to visit Iraq March 5-8, a country where Christians were victims of genocide at the hands of ISIS, thanked the bishops and priests of the “sister” Coptic church, which raised these men and taught them to grow in the faith. He also thanked the mothers of these 21 men who “nursed” them in their faith in Christ.
“I thank you, twenty-one saints, Christian saints of all confessions, for your witness,” Francis said in the video. “And I thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, for being so close to your people, for not forgetting them.”
The Coptic Church declared the murdered men to be martyrs, and their feast day is observed on February 15.
Although not officially proclaiming them saints, Pope Francis also called the men “martyrs” in the days following their death.
“Their only words were: ‘Jesus, help me!’ They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christians,” the pope said on Feb. 16, 2015.
“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a witness that cries out to be heard. It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians!” Francis added, while speaking to a Protestant delegation from Scotland. “The martyrs belong to all Christians.”
In a message sent to Tawadros two months later, Francis said, “Today more than ever we are united by the ecumenism of blood, which further encourages us on the path towards peace and reconciliation.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma