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Coptic Christians keep their faith in face of trauma

Fayza Estephanos, an Egyptian Copt Christian in her home in Virginia, holds a poster showing her two brothers who were murdered by Islamic State militants in Libya in 2014. (Laura Kelly)

By Laura Kelly

This article originally appeared in the August 31 edition of The Washington Times.

Fayza Estephanos knows exactly how long it has been since she learned that two of her brothers were among 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians kidnapped and beheaded by the Islamic State in 2015 — three years, six months.

Speaking through an interpreter at her home in Centreville, Virginia, the 43-year-old asylum-seeker from Egypt works hard to tamp down her emotions as she tells how her brothers never renounced their faith, even under torture, even under the threat of a horrific death. Her own faith, she said, was tested between the time her family first heard of her brothers’ abduction and watched a videotape of their slaughter on a Libyan beach.

“I spent two days in the hospital. I was unable to talk or utter a word because of the shock,” she said. “That was the situation. My brother, father, sister — the same thing. The shock was not just our family. It was 13 families from the same village that went through the same thing. Every household had this shock.”

Ms. Estephanos, who lives with her husband and five children in Centreville, belongs to a small sect of Christians persecuted across the Middle East. Today, she finds strength among a tight-knit community of Coptic exiles and immigrants, many of whom work to help the besieged ethno-religious minority in Egypt.

Christians account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s 97 million people, and about 90 percent of those Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Copts have their own language and observe a separate liturgical calendar. In Egypt, while a recognized minority, they are victims of routine discrimination.

Abduction, torture and killing are among a host of abuses the Copts endure in Egypt and the Middle East.

Nermien Riad is the founder of Coptic Orphans, a Virginia-based nonprofit that runs several scholarship and mentoring programs for Coptic children in Egypt. She says the Copts’ sense of identity and commitment to religion strengthen their community and leave it vulnerable to attack.

Fayza Estephanos holds up a photo of her brother Samuel with her infant daughter. Samuel, along with their brother Beshoy, were kidnapped in Libya and murdered by Islamic State militants in February 2014 for being Christian. The video of their beheading was shared online as part of the terrorist groups propaganda. (Laura Kelly)

“Although a vulnerable community, they have shown incredible courage and strength through reliance on their faith,” Ms. Riad said. “The Christian reaction is that it’s our Lord who will protect us.”

Coptic Orphans also is part of an effort supporting the Coptic people to receive the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize in acknowledgment of the community’s nonviolent stance. The group said a person or group that wishes to remain anonymous has nominated the Copts for the prize.

The Washington Times was unable to confirm that information because the Norwegian Nobel Committee does not divulge the identities of nominees.

Human rights observers say Copts in Egypt suffer frequent attacks by Muslim mobs that aren’t brought to justice, despite visible support from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and government efforts to rebuild dozens of churches destroyed in sectarian violence.

“In the past five years, there have been over 500 sectarian attacks on Copts,” Samuel Tadros, a researcher at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, testified to a congressional subcommittee in July. “Most of these attacks are in the form of mob attacks in villages, driven by attempts to deny Copts from building a church or as punishment for perceived insults by the community.”

Mr. el-Sissi has engaged in public displays of Coptic solidarity. After the 2015 beheading of Copts in Libya, he ordered retaliatory strikes on Islamic State training camps there and helped transfer the Copts’ bodies and paid for a church dedicated in their honor in the village of Al-Our, where 13 of the 21 slain men had lived.

Critics say such gestures are meaningless. Christians are not allowed to assume leadership roles in the government, military, justice system or universities, and they remain vulnerable to discrimination and attack.

‘We spent 45 days in torture’

A 2016 law to encourage government authorization of churches — more than 3,000 are unlicensed — instead has put a target on Christian communities to be attacked, religious freedom advocates say.

“This law, meant to make the process for licensing church’s easier for the Copts, has actually resulted in more sectarian violence and closure of more churches than before,” said Sara Salama, the legal adviser at Coptic Orphans.

Her assessment is echoed by the State Department’s 2017 International Religious Freedom Report, which noted 19 cases that year of assault or sectarian tension related to churches and church services, often in unlicensed buildings.

Recalling her life in Egypt, Ms. Estephanos said Muslims and Christians got along until 2011, when the North African country slipped into economic turmoil and sectarian tensions rose. Her younger brother Beshoy traveled to Libya for work, and her brother Samuel followed after he completed his compulsory army service.

They lived near Sirte with more than a dozen other men from Al-Our, she said. In December 2014, Islamist terrorists kidnapped seven Copts on their way home to Egypt for the holidays. Both of her brothers said they needed to stay in Libya to find out what happened to the men and might not make it home for Christmas celebrations on Jan. 7.

Fayza Estephanos remembers her two brothers murdered by ISIS 

When Ms. Estephanos‘ phone rang at 4 a.m. one early January day, it was the start of a waking nightmare. A cousin, also working in Sirte, had survived a kidnapping attempt, but his nephew, along with Beshoy and Samuel, were taken by masked men.

Her brother Beshir came to tell her the news, but he was sobbing so hard that she had to slap him to get him to control himself. He said he didn’t have the strength to tell their mother, so she went in his stead. Her mother knew instantly that something was wrong.

“I told her, ‘My children are fine, but what I’m about to tell you is in God’s hands,’” Ms. Estephanos said.

The family later learned that the kidnappers were members of the Islamic State, proclaimed in a horrific video in which the victims in orange jumpsuits were lined up on a Libyan beach, knives at their throats, while the terrorists declared them enemies for their Christian beliefs.

“We spent 45 days in torture,” she said of the time from when her family learned of the kidnapping and the release of the video on Feb. 15, which the Coptic Orthodox Church declared as the day of the victims’ martyrdom.

In her Virginia home, framed posters hang high on a wall. They are Photoshopped pictures of martyrs, ubiquitous in communities across the Middle East, where death by violence based on religion or identity is ever-present.

In one poster, her brothers stand in white robes with red sashes among the 19 other men. Another shows her brothers ascending to heaven with Jesus Christ. Ms. Estephanos said it took a while to overcome her anger at God but she and the Copt community used their faith to find comfort.

“The important thing is love for Christ, love for God. God provides comfort. He is the one who heals the wounds,” she said.

She is not sure when she will be able to return to Al-Our, but she said she would love to see her mother again and pray in the church dedicated to the memory of her brothers and the other martyrs.

This article originally appeared in the August 31 edition of The Washington Times.

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