Image: Coptic church in Egypt – The Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Homeland in Al Aour

“We only knew martyrdom from films, but martyrdom was reintroduced and it strengthened our faith because these people, these martyrs, lived among us.”

Malak is the father of one of the 21 Christians killed by Islamic State militants on the Libyan coast. Few will forget the graphic images of the mass beheadings in a video released and paraded online around the world.

February 15, marked the third anniversary of the deaths of 20 Coptic Christian men from Egypt (Copts are the native Christians of Egypt) and one Christian man from Ghana—all martyred for their faith. The day is also the inauguration of a new church, The Church of the Libyan Martyrs, dedicated to the lives of these men and their resolve to follow Jesus.

In the days and weeks leading up to their deaths, ISIS captors reportedly tortured the men who had traveled the 1,200 miles to Libya to find work and support their families. Militants attempted to persuade them to deny Jesus in return for their lives. They all refused. In fact, during the barbaric execution, the men repeated the words, “Lord Jesus Christ.”

Image: The bodies of all 21 victims are expected to be reburied in the church.

A Unique House of Worship in Al Aour

Strengthened by visibly seeing and hearing the faith of their martyred loved ones, family members responded quickly. Only three months after the video released, they initiated the building of a church in honor of all 21 men. This house of worship, they proposed, would be built in Upper Egypt’s Minya province in the tiny agricultural village of al Aour (155 miles south of Cairo)—the area where 13 of the martyred Egyptians lived.

Although Egyptian President el-Sisi authorized the building of the church and reportedly said the church must be built in honor of the martyrs, construction in an area that is 70 percent Muslim has met ongoing resistance. From the start, families were immediately met with protests from Muslim extremists. An angry mob descended on the community’s current church, chanting that they would never allow construction of the new church to begin.

Enter the Egyptian government, which donated the equivalent of more than half a million dollars to the church’s construction. The plot of land was donated by the village. The church is unique in several ways. Never before has a Christian church been built in this spot. In Muslim-majority Egypt, where more than more than 170 Coptic Christians have been killed in the last year, the building of churches is highly restricted. The country comes in at No. 17 on the 2018 World Watch List for both radical Muslim persecution resulting in violence (the smash), as well as social pressures interfering with jobs, schools and churches (the squeeze).

The Seed of the Church

Despite the loss of 13 members of their community, the new church and its inauguration have bolstered the faith of the local Coptic Christian community.

For Fifi Shehata, the daughter of Maged, the church building is a visible symbol of her father’s faith and how God has carried her family.

“I am proud that my father is on the pictures in the church. It’s a big honor. At first, it was hard to deal with the fact that our father was martyred,” she says softly to World Watch Monitor, “but later we felt comforted by God.”

Image: Malak, father of Malak Farag Ibrahim Saeed, who died as a martyr in Libya in 2015

Malak looks beyond the senseless killings and shares an eternal perspective. His words reflect hope, reminding us of second-century Christian author Tertullian’s famous observation: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

“To be honest, I was happy when I saw my son in the video,” he told World Watch Monitor, “because then I knew the place he had gone to. And when I saw he died with the name of Jesus on his lips, I was very proud. I rejoiced!”

Malak says his own faith, as well as the faith of the whole Christian community in Egypt, has grown as a response to the evil carried out on Sunday, February 15, 2015. Indeed, his insights are proven. Our partners in Egypt continue to share that the church is growing as a result of persecution,  as increasing numbers of Muslims leave Islam and turn to Christ.

He is thankful for this church being built in the name of all 21 martyrs: “That is even better,” he says. “The faith of all of us grew.”

The wife of 29-year-old martyr Samuel Abraham echoes Malak. Only a week after learning her husband was one of the 21 men, she told Vice News: “ISIS thought the killing of our relatives would destroy us. It did not. It revived us.”