VATICAN CITY (HPD) — The Vatican has formally recognized 21 Coptic Orthodox workers who were beheaded by Islamic militants in Libya as martyrs with their own holiday, a significant new ecumenical gesture aimed at forging unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Pope Francis announced the registration of the 21 workers, most of them Egyptians, in the Roman Martyrology, the compendium of saints celebrated liturgically in the Catholic Church, during an audience on Thursday with the Coptic Orthodox pope.
During the audience, Francisco kissed the relics of the 21 young people that Theodore II offered him as a gift.
Islamic State militants beheaded workers on a beach in Sirte, Libya, in February 2015. A gruesome video of their executions was released online, shocking Egyptians and prompting the Cairo government to stage punitive attacks against extremist targets in Libya.
The men’s bodies were recovered in 2017 and returned to Egypt, where a church was built in their hometown to honor them.
“These martyrs were baptized not only in water and spirit, but also in blood, a blood that is the seed of unity for all the followers of Christ,” Francis told Theodore II during the audience at the Apostolic Palace.
The inscription of the Coptic Orthodox martyrs in the Catholic liturgical calendar, Francis pointed out, “is a sign of the spiritual communion that unites our two Churches.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian denomination in Muslim-majority Egypt and was founded by the Apostle Saint Mark in Alexandria in the first century.
It is one of the Eastern Orthodox Churches with which the Vatican maintains relations and a process of dialogue that began 50 years ago with the historic meeting in the Vatican between Saint Paul VI and the predecessor of Theodore II, Shenouda III.