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Who Were ISIS’ Egyptian Christian Victims?

A video emerged Sunday in which Islamic State-affiliated extremists beheaded 21 Egyptian Christian hostages, raising worldwide shock and outrage.

And it seems as if, in the rush to cover Egypt’s subsequent airstrikes on ISIS in Libya, the Christian victims have been otherwise overlooked.

ISIS captured the hostages in a series of attacks in December and January on the coastal city of Sirte, where the beheadings likely took place. The actual date of the executions is unknown; images from the video had begun to spread several days before its release in full.

The victims were Coptics, members of Egypt’s ancient Christian church which traces its roots to the apostle Mark, centuries before Islam entered the country. Today’s Coptic community constitutes about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, with a robust diaspora presence abroad.

In recent decades, Copts have become increasingly marginalized by social hostility and inadequate government protection. Scandals erupt with regularity in Egypt, in which Copts are accused of exerting undue influence on their Muslim neighbors.

In the video, and in a recent issue of its English-language online magazine Dabiq, ISIS referred to several recent cases in which Copts allegedly forced Egyptian Muslim women to convert, calling the community “the hostile Egyptian church.” The magazine claimed credit for an infamous 2010 attack on a Baghdad church, calling it retribution for several forced conversions in Egypt. (Cairo is over 800 miles from Baghdad as the crow flies.)

Libya contained over 2 million Egyptians as of last September, many of them working in construction and other day-laborer fields. Continued violence and instability in the country has led Egypt to set a travel ban and try to evacuate its citizens, but only a fraction has successfully left the country.

Since the video surfaced, Egypt has promised renewed efforts to return the rest home safely. But it may face challenges in doing so since it, like many countries, has evacuated its diplomats from Libya.

The video is the first for the ISIS Libyan affiliate, apparently confirming its level of direct coordination with the group’s leaders in Iraq and Syria.

The video also contained direct threats against other Christian targets, including the Vatican in Rome. The majority of Copts belong to the locally-ruled Coptic Orthodox Church rather than the Catholic Church, but in a speech on Monday Pope Francis declared that “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants,” saying that all Christians who die for their faith are united by the “ecumenism of blood.”

The phrase “ecumenism of blood” has become a common refrain for the pope, whose reign has seen unprecedented Christian bloodshed in the Arab world.

Egyptian news site Al-Youm Al-Sabi reported from Minya Governorate’s village of Al-Aor, home to several of the victims, where wedding celebrations were canceled and the streets filled with the cry, “our houses are ruined, who will we live for?”

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who has carefully tried to improve relations with Copts and church leaders, made a speech Sunday night promising to extend government support to the victims’ families and retaliate militarily against ISIStargets in Libya.

Follow Ivan Plis on Twitter

 

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