Religion & Liberty Online

Explainer: 21 Egyptian Christians Beheaded in Libya

islamic-state-beheads-christiansWhat just happened in Libya?

Islamic State (IS) released a video on Sunday that appeared to show the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya. The footage showing the deaths of the Egyptian martyrs appeared on the Twitter feed of a website that supports IS.

In the video, militants in black marched the captives, dressed in orange overalls, to a beach the group said was near Tripoli, the capital of Libya. The victims—all men—were forced down onto their knees and then beheaded.

A caption on the five-minute video read: “The people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church.” Before the killings, one of the militants stood with a knife in his hand and said: “Safety for you crusaders is something you can only wish for. . . The sea you have hidden Sheikh Osama Bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.”

The militant speaker then pointed northward and said, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.”

The video is one of the first showing beheadings by IS affiliated group outside their core territory in Syria and Iraq.

Why were the Egyptian Christians in Libya?

According the Jerusalem Post, despite the increasing chaos in Libya, thousands of Egyptians have traveled to the region over the past four years in search of jobs. The 21 Christians were workers kidnapped by IS in December and January from the coastal town of Sirte in eastern Libya, an area now under the control of Islamist groups.

Who is Islamic State?

Islamic State is the name of the group formerly called ISIS (aka ISIL) that currently controls about a third of Syria and Iraq. They are the group that during the Iraq War was often referred to as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Islamic State is an abbreviation of “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (the group is actually called “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” but most western media translate “Levant” as “Syria.”). The group claims it is an independent state with claims to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It was established in the early years of the Iraq War and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004.

IS has been responsible for the persecution of Christians and other minority religious groups in Iraq and Syria. 

Why is Libya lawless?

Libya has been unstable since the overthrow of the country’s military dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi. After taking power in 1969, Gaddafi ruled the country until he was ousted in October 2011 during the Libyan civil war. In his absence, a number of armed militant groups—up to 1,700—have fought for control of the country’s power and wealth.

Libya has two rival governments: Libya Dawn, which controls much of western part o the country, including Tripoli, and Ansar al-Sharia which controls the city of Benghazi and was behind the 2012 attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Who are the Coptic Christians?

The word Copt is derived from the Greek word for Egyptian. After the Muslim conquest of Egypt, it became restricted to those Egyptians adhering to Christianity. Approximately 12 percent of the Egyptian population—roughly 12 million people—are Christians. Egypt’s Copts are considered the largest community of Christians in the Middle East.

The majority of Copts belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. About 800,000 are divided between the Coptic Catholic and various Coptic Protestant churches. According to tradition, the Coptic church was established in Alexandria by St. Mark the Evangelist circa AD 49, during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius.

What has been the reaction of Egypt?

The Egyptian government declared a seven-day mourning period and President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi addressed the nation late Sunday night, pledging resilience in the fight against terrorism.

“These cowardly actions will not undermine our determination,” said el-Sissi. He also said his government reserves the right to seek retaliation. “Egypt and the whole world are in a fierce battle with extremist groups carrying extremist ideology and sharing the same goals.”

In a related statement, the Coptic Church called on its followers to have “confidence that their great nation won’t rest without retribution for the evil criminals.”

On Monday Egypt launched airstrikes against IS weapons caches and training camps in Libya. A spokesman for the Armed Forces General Command said the strikes were “to avenge the bloodshed and to seek retribution from the killers.”

“Let those far and near know that Egyptians have a shield that protects them,” it said.

What has been the reaction from the U.S.?

The White House Statement issued a “Statement by the Press Secretary on the Murder of Egyptian Citizens.” The statement condemns the “despicable and cowardly murder of twenty-one Egyptian citizens in Libya by ISIL-affiliated terrorists.” But while it offers condolences to the families of the victims and support for the Egyptian government, the statement makes no mention of the victims being Christians or that the martyrs were targeted because of their religion.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).