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Coptic martyrs give us strength

During Lent we pray, fast and give alms to help us focus on the mercy and love of the Father and to weaken our attachment to sin so that we can rise anew with Jesus at Easter. The recent murder of 21 Coptic Christians by the Islamic State is the ultimate example of this kind of sacrifice, and should inspire us to deepen our own resolve this Lent.

Details about the men who were killed in Libya are continuing to emerge, and as they do, the testimony of their faith is inspiring courage and greater faith.

Seventeen of the Copts were from the village of Salamut, three others were from nearby villages, and one man was from the African country of Chad. Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, explained to Vatican Radio that the man from Chad converted to Christianity because of the faith he witnessed in the Coptic Christians who were kidnapped with him.

“He found his faith when he saw the face of the other Egyptian Christians, he didn’t want to leave,” he said. “He wanted to be a martyr like them.”

The faith of these Coptic Christians was simple. In fact, Father Greiche suggested that they were illiterate and could not read the Bible. But as they were being executed, some of the men can be seen in the video saying, “Lord, Jesus Christ!” with their last breath.

Pope Francis reacted to the news by declaring, “It makes no difference whether they are Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.”

The horrible tragedy has also united Egyptians. While Copts have been oppressed in Egypt for decades, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi responded to the killings by visiting St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral, declaring seven days of national mourning, and ordering military strikes against the Islamic State.

He has also lifted a de-facto ban on building new Christian churches and a spirit of fraternity between Muslims and Christians has begun to grow. Before these brutal murders, many Coptic Christians would have been surprised at such a show of support. The witness of martyrs can accomplish great things and move even the most hardened of hearts.

Here in the Archdiocese of Denver, we also can show our support by continuing to pray for Christians being persecuted for the faith and by financially supporting organizations that are helping refugees.

We can also reflect on our own love for Christ and his Church. Would we be ready to declare, “Lord, Jesus Christ!” with our dying breath? The courage and strength to stand up for the faith are forged over time through trials, and even through failures. Yet when we keep the eyes of our hearts fixed on Jesus, all things are possible.

Let us use this Lenten season of sacrifice and conversion to grow in the strength of the Lord and the power of the Spirit, so that we can testify to him, no matter what the cost. In doing so, we will rise with him at Easter!

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila is the eighth bishop of Denver and its fifth archbishop. His episcopal motto is, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5).
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