The Vatican

21 Libyan martyrs to be recognized by the Catholic Church

On Thursday, May 11, 2023, Pope Francis received in audience Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the meeting between St. Paul VI and Shenouda III.

Loreto Rios-May 11, 2023-Reading time: 4 minutes
Coptic martyrs

The 21 Coptic martyrs before they were killed ©CNS photo/Social media via Reuters TV

After speaking privately, Pope Francis and Tawadros II exchanged gifts. Among them, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church presented Francis with relics of the Coptic martyrs of Libya, killed in 2015. After the Holy Father's speech, they retired to the Redemptoris Mater chapel to pray together.

Commemoration of the 1973 meeting

The Pope began his speech by quoting the phrase with which Paul VI received Shenouda III in 1973: "This is the day the Lord has made: let it be our joy and our gladness" (Psalm 118:24), and then pointed out that "on the ecumenical journey, it is important to always look ahead", and stressed the importance of moving forward, while remembering, on the path towards unity.

The Holy Father also emphasized that the 1973 meeting began a historic stage in relations between the See of St. Peter and the See of St. Mark, since it marked the first meeting between a Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Patriarch of Rome. "It also marked the end of a theological dispute dating back to the Council of Chalcedon, thanks to the signing of a memorable joint Christological declaration on May 10, 1973, which later served as inspiration for similar agreements with other Eastern Orthodox Churches," he explained.

An ecumenical path

He also recalled that the meeting led to the creation of the International Joint Commission between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church, which in 1979 adopted Principles to guide the way to unity, signed by St. John Paul II and Shenouda III, in which it was recalled that "the unity we envisage does not mean the absorption of one by the other or the domination of one over the other. It is at the service of each one to help him to live better the specific gifts he has received from the Spirit of God".

The Pope thanked the Coptic Orthodox Church for its commitment to this dialogue and its support for the Coptic Catholic Church, which has been concretized in the creation of the National Council of Christian Churches in Egypt. The Pope also recalled that it was Tawadros II who proposed to him in 2013 to celebrate every May 10 the "Day of Friendship between Copts and Catholics", which has been observed every year since then.

Recalling a Coptic icon from the eighth century that depicts Jesus Christ with the monk Mena of Egypt, the Pope noted: "This icon is sometimes called the 'icon of friendship,' because the Lord seems to want to accompany his friend and walk with him. In the same way, the bonds of friendship between our Churches are rooted in the friendship of Jesus Christ himself with all his disciples, whom he calls 'friends' (cf. Jn 15:15), and whom he accompanies on his journey, as he did with the pilgrims to Emmaus".

The martyrs of Libya

The Pope also remembered the martyrs, thanking especially His Holiness Tawadros II for the gift of some relics of the Coptic martyrs killed in Libya on February 15, 2015.

In the foreground, the chest with the relics of the martyrs of Libya ©Vatican Media

They were kidnapped in Libya in January 2015 by the Daesh terrorist group. Subsequently, the killers disseminated the video of their beheading on several jihadist portals, with the title "Message to the Nation of the Cross, written in blood". In the video it can be seen that the men die saying "Lord Jesus". However, the video, which was meant to intimidate, gave courage to their families: "If the killers had imagined what it would mean for the Coptic Church, they probably would not have done it. Far from intimidating us, it gives us courage. It offered us the document of the heroic fortitude of the martyrs and the demonstration of the strength of their faith through prayer in their last moments of life," said the Metropolitan Bishop of Samalout (source: Religion in Freedom).

The group was composed of 20 Copts and a Ghanaian, Matthew Ayariga, who was not a Christian. He had come to Libya looking for work and, before the kidnapping, lived and worked with the Copts. However, he is included in the martyrology because, when the terrorists asked him if he rejected Jesus, he replied, "Your God is my God," even though he knew they were going to kill him for it (source: Aid to the Church in Need). There is a book on the Coptic martyrs, available for the moment only in English and Italian, with interviews with their families.

The Pope announced that they will be recognized as martyrs also by the Catholic Church: "These martyrs were baptized not only in water and the Spirit, but also in blood, a blood that is the seed of unity for all followers of Christ. I am pleased to announce today that, with the consent of His Holiness, these 21 martyrs will be included in the Roman Martyrology as a sign of the spiritual communion that unites our two Churches."


In another ecumenical gesture, the Pope also used the term Theotokos, "she who has begotten God" or "Mother of God," to refer to Mary. It is a Greek word by which the early Christians designated the Virgin Mary and which was approved by the Council of Ephesus in the 5th century.

It is therefore a term that the Catholic Church shares with the Coptic Orthodox Church. "May the prayer of the Coptic martyrs, united to that of Theotokos, continue to make the friendship between our Churches grow, until the blessed day when we can celebrate together at the same altar and commune with the same Body and Blood of the Savior, 'so that the world may believe' (Jn 17:21)," the Holy Father concluded.

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