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May God Forgive the Killers - Imitating the Coptic Martyrs

Forgiveness Sunday

Fr. Luke A. Veronis

“May God forgive the killers. We don't have hatred towards them. This is Christianity. God forgives the sinners. So shall we."

These are the words of Fifi Shehata, whose father Maged was one of the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS back in 2015. This horrific act of violence, seen by hundreds of thousands of people on the internet, takes on new meaning when we see a family member processing it from a truly Christian perspective.

"My father died like a lion. He did not bow his head down. ISIS has no religion or mercy. I am now from the city of the martyrs. [13 people from one city in Egypt were killed.] The city of the brave lions. May God forgive the killers. We don't have hatred towards them. This is Christianity. God forgives the sinners. So shall we.”

The gruesome martyrdom of these men could be a story taken from the ancient Lives of the Saints which we read every day in our Church Calendar. And like St. Stephen, the first martyr who asked God to forgive his murderers, we see these Coptic martyrs calling on their “Lord Jesus Christ” in their last breath of life. And even their family members are able to say “God forgive the killers.”

Beshir Kamel, the brother of two of the other men beheaded by ISIS, was grateful the terrorist group did not edit out in their internet video clip his brothers’ declaration of faith in Christ before their murder. "Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way. This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us."

When asked if he could forgive ISIS, he shared what his mother said. "My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [her son’s murderer] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entering the kingdom of heaven… Dear God, please open their eyes to be saved and to quit their ignorance and the wrong teachings they were taught."

The Coptic Orthodox Bishop Feloubes Fawzy, who lost his nephew and four of his cousins in this massacre, stated, "I am happy for my relatives. They had faith in God. They had faith in Jesus Christ. And that is what matters. They died for their faith. They died for Christianity." And the Coptic Church officially declared these 21 men canonical martyrs of the faith, who names are read in their Church Calendar every February 15th!

We continue to hear unimaginable horrors coming from the ranks of Boko Haram and other Islamic extremist groups every day, and we must pray for the people being persecuted and suffering for their faith. We all need to offer material support to organizations that are helping the victims and their families. And we must push our government, and the world leaders, to stop this evil.

Yet along with all of these concrete steps, we also must do something else very important. We must learn from these martyrs and their families! As we begin our journey of Great Lent – a time when we are called not only to reassess our own faith, but to strive to nourish our faith to a new level, to a deeper and more serious commitment in following Jesus Christ and His teachings  -  let us find inspiration from these contemporary martyrs. Let us learn from their courage, their faith, and their resolve!

We call the Sunday before Great Lent FORGIVENESS SUNDAY. In today’s Gospel lesson, we have a very clear guideline on how to begin our journey of Great Lent tomorrow. “Forgive one another, as our heavenly Father also forgives us.” Forgiving one another, including our enemy, lies at the center of our Lenten journey. We can’t hope to draw closer to God if we aren’t willing to draw closer to one another. When the Pharisees and religious leaders of Christ’s time followed strictly the fasting, tithing, and prayer rules of their day, Jesus still condemned them by saying, “You have neglected the weightier matters of the law, which are justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done without leaving the others undone.”

Forgiving one another - even those who hurt us and even those who kill us - is what distinguishes Christianity from many other religions. Christ calls us to love our enemy, bless those who curse us, turn the other cheek, and show mercy to those who don’t deserve it!

Since forgiveness plays such a central role in our Lenten Journey, we have to ask ourselves, “Do we carry hatred, or bitterness, or anger, or resentment, or hurt and pain, that hinders us from forgiving someone else? If so, we need to confess that today, and try to open our hearts for God’s Spirit to heal us and guide us in reconciliation. It may not be easy, and maybe those who have done wrong don’t even want to be reconciled. Yet, we cannot even begin, no less travel far, in our Lenten journey, if we don’t at least try to forgive and be reconciled with one another! We must forgive others, as God has forgiven us!

When we stubbornly refuse to forgive the other, we place ourselves in quite an arrogant predicament. How dare we ask for God’s mercy when we won’t show similar mercy to others? Our Lord Jesus exposed this hypocrisy in His story of the King and the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). “You wicked servant,” the King reprimanded the slave who begged and received mercy from the king, only to go out and show no mercy to his fellow slave. “I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?”

Let me speak bluntly to each of us in this Church – How dare any of us not forgive someone else?!? Who are we not to forgive? Do we not forgive others, even as we seek forgiveness from God? If we are not willing to forgive someone else, then we shouldn’t say the Lord’s Prayer. Or at the very least, revise the Lord’s Prayer and say, “Our Father, who art in heaven... do NOT forgive us our trespasses, as we do NOT forgive those who trespass against us.”

Remember, we don’t forgive others because they necessarily deserve to be forgiven; we forgive others because God has first forgiven us! If God’s love and mercy dwells richly in our own hearts and lives, then this divine grace will automatically flow from us towards others, it will act as the impetus for us to forgive others!

As Orthodox Christians, our goal in life is to open our hearts to God and unite with Him; to cultivate the mind of Christ within; to die to ourselves and have Jesus live in us; ultimately, our goal is to become one with God. And as we become more and more united with the Divine, His Spirit should live within us. And the Holy Spirit will fill our hearts with the ability to forgive.

May we all begin our Lenten journey with forgiveness in our hearts for all people, and may we continue in this divine spirit throughout the 40 days of Great Lent, into Holy Week and Pascha, and continuing throughout our lives!

And when we have difficulty forgiving, think about those Coptic Christian martyrs. Think of their families, and their willingness to forgive “because this is Christianity. God forgives the sinner. So shall we.”