On the first anniversary of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) slaughter of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya, Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill denounced in a joint declaration the systematic persecution of Christians throughout the world.
On February 12, 2015, jihadists from the Islamic State terror group slit the throats of those 21 Coptic Christians. Three days later, the terrorists released a five-minute video showing the brutal beheadings of the captives, with a caption that described the victims as the “people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.”
In their declaration, the two religious leaders noted that in many countries of the Middle East and North Africa, “whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated.”
“Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed,” the declaration stated.
The statement also called to mind the emptying of the Middle East of Christians in the very cradle of the faith, at the hands of Islamic radicals who have driven them from their homes.
The statement read:
It is with pain that we call to mind the situation in Syria, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East, and the massive exodus of Christians from the land in which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the Apostles, together with other religious communities.
In the home of the Islamic State, Christians have been killed by the thousands, and millions of others have been displaced.
“Thousands of victims have already been claimed in the violence in Syria and Iraq, which has left many other millions without a home or means of sustenance,” the text reads.
In a heartfelt plea, the two men called upon the international community “to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East,” while also expressing their compassion for the “suffering experienced by the faithful of other religious traditions who have also become victims of civil war, chaos and terrorist violence.”
A year ago, Pope Francis condemned the jihadist slaying of the 21 Coptic Christians, proclaiming them martyrs killed out of hatred of their Christian faith and predicting that their martyrdom would unite Christians who have been divided for so long.
The Pope noted the only words uttered by the men before dying: “Jesus, help me!”
“They were killed simply because they were Christians,” he said. “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants,” the Pope continued. “They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.”
Drawing inspiration from their witness, the Pope urged Christians to work harder toward unity.
“As we recall these brothers and sisters who were killed only because they confessed Christ,” he said, “I ask that we encourage one another to go forward with this ecumenism that is emboldening us, the ecumenism of blood.”
“The martyrs belong to all Christians,” he said.
In their declaration Friday, the Pope and Patriarch united in proclaiming a similar message. They said:
We bow before the martyrdom of those who, at the cost of their own lives, have given witness to the truth of the Gospel, preferring death to the denial of Christ. We believe that these martyrs of our times, who belong to various Churches but who are united by their shared suffering, are a pledge of the unity of Christians.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.