"Who will speak about your fighting, courageous martyrs? Who will be worthy to sing your glory? Who will be strong to continue your prayers and go, as you did, on the martyr's road?”
I asked myself a lot of these questions on the somewhat chaotic way back to Cairo. A chaotic road which crosses Egypt and separated the Nile to drive us away from the sprawling and unbreathable capital Cairo towards the green and popular Minya.
This poor but beautiful city regularly makes the headlines in Egypt because it is, despite its similar tranquility, one of the most dangerous places in the country. Indeed, in this region, Christians are almost as numerous as Muslims, and some observers even put forward the figure of "50/50" which makes Muslim extremists tremble and impose a kind of permanent terror on the Christians of the city and surrounding villages.
A poor city, therefore, dangerous for Christians and the scene last December of a machine-gun attack on a pilgrim minibus that killed 8 persons and seriously injured 14.
The Christians of the region are therefore torn between staying and defending themselves, sometimes at the cost of their lives, or leaving behind their wife and children in order to find a better paid job that will eventually allow them to leave Al Minya or even Egypt!
This is the choice made by 21 men, 21 Christians from the village of El Our, located 20 minutes from Minya and a few minutes from the city of Samalout.
20 Coptic Egyptians and 1 Ghanaian Christian who lived with his Egyptian brothers... they will never return to their village, their church and their family. In Libya, working in the gas and oil fields, they will be kidnapped by Daech in the middle of the night in February 2015, tortured and finally beheaded in orange clothes on a beach near Sirte. The video of the execution will travel around the world and will left its mark on millions of people: faces are serene, calm and strong. They are ready to join Jesus Christ, they are ready to die a martyr's death... What strength, what an example for us Christians of the West!
The bodies and personal belongings will only be found several months later and returned to Egypt and the Coptic Church several more months later... Thus, the body of Mathew, the Ghanaian, was only buried in the Coptic cathedral of El Our on September 25...
Thus, after recovering the martyred bodies and personal belongings so simple and beautiful at the same time, it was necessary to think about building a much larger place than the current parish of El Our. The government, despite the protests of the Islamists, did not give up and authorized the construction of a Cathedral and a parish complex to give the 21 martyrs a place of rest for eternity commensurate with their sacrifice.
This place was thus brought to become a place of pilgrimage and a place to visit in Egypt!
Arriving in the countryside of El Our, typical of Upper Egypt, one cannot miss the immense dome and the large bell tower of the brand new cathedral!
It also consists of a large parish complex and of course the mausoleum. Along the entire length of the church are lined up the coffins and recovered personal effects of the 21 martyrs.
The bodies are buried under the altar of the holy church and are accessible to the faithful and pilgrims who wish to pray and recollect, a fact that is extremely rare and usually impossible, as the Holy of Holies is closed in Orthodox churches.
On the altar many small words are inscribed on scraps of paper, prayer intentions, thanksgiving memos, so many testimonies of faith left there by Copts and visitors from all over the world who come here to see the 21 martyrs of El Our.
The atmosphere inside is at the same time sad, beautiful, heavy, heartbreaking and joyful... yes, all this is contradictory, but you have to come to Egypt, live and know the Copts to understand this very special atmosphere that governs the Coptic sacred places: these 21 dead are martyrs, they are with Christ, our Savior, so joy and life are just as present as the sadness of mourning and the loss of Christian brothers. Prayers intermingle with the laughter of the children, the cries of the women mix with the discussions of the men who show the coffins to their children.
The large cathedral of the 21 martyrs of El Our overlooks the small church. With its large dome and huge bell tower of more than 30 meters, the cathedral dominates the surrounding countryside and the popular suburbs of Samalout. It is a beacon in the night for the local faithful and the whole of Egypt, in the image of the acts of the 21 martyrs for the faithful and all Egypt.
The interior is sober apart from the very realistic stained glass windows which represent the 21 martyrs with real modern photos affixed to the stained glass windows. Here too, the atmosphere is twofold: helped by the birds inside the cathedral, the prayers of the parents fly away and the children play in the majestic church.
What can I tell you about this modern holy place? A holy place that is only 5 years old and already breathes the incense of holiness and the magnificence of the Christian martyr. How can I describe to you the indescribable bordered by the lush countryside on the banks of the Nile? How can I tell you about the lives of the 21 martyrs who, even when dead, breathe life more than ever because they are already consoled by God ?
The Copts are proud, noisy, prayerful, nostalgic, ready for martyrdom and always standing before the fate that is slowly flowing in the deserts of Egypt.
To the 21 Coptic martyrs of Libya, I say: we pray for the rest of your souls and for your families; give us the strength to be as strong and ready as you are.
We came here to give food packs and school supplies to the 21 families of the martyrs, we arrived impatient and anxious, we left with a light heart and bewildered, as if through their loved ones, their sacrificial testimonies resonated more vividly than ever. As if through the children running in the church and the infinite prayers of the faithful, the call of the martyr resounded even more strongly today and no longer as a distant memory of the persecutions under the Roman Empire.
Even today, the Coptic Church still sheds its blood for Christ. Even today it faces the Muslim Brotherhood, Daech, and many other Islamic fanatics... even today people die for Christ: the cathedral of El Our is the symbol, the heart of the Copts is the key, and their faith is the source.
Jerome, head of mission in Egypt.