Vatican hosts veneration of relics of 21 Coptic martyrs of Libya on first feast day

Coptic icon of the 21 Martyrs of Libya Credit Tony Rezk CNA 5 13 15JPG Icon of the 21 Martyrs of Libya. | Credit: Image courtesy of Tony Rezk, via

The relics of 21 Coptic martyrs killed by ISIS in Libya will be venerated in St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday evening at an ecumenical prayer service marking their first official feast day in the Catholic Church.

The evening vespers at the Vatican will commemorate the ninth anniversary of the martyrdom of the 21 Coptic Orthodox men who were beheaded by the Islamic State on a beach in Sirte, Libya, on Feb. 15, 2015.

Pope Francis added the 21 Coptic martyrs to the Roman Martyrology, the Church’s official list of saints, last May as he met with the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Tawadros II.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, the prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, will preside over the ecumenical prayer at 5 p.m. in the Choir Chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica. A Coptic choir will provide the music for the liturgy.

Following the prayer service, the Vatican Film Library will host a screening of a documentary about the martyrs, “The 21: The Power of Faith,” a film produced by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The martyrdom of the 21 men, who were mostly from Egypt, was filmed by the Islamic State and released as an online video showing masked fighters beheading the men as they knelt on a Libyan beach wearing prison-style orange jumpsuits.

The Egyptian government and the Coptic Orthodox Church later confirmed the video’s authenticity. In October 2017, authorities found a mass grave containing the bodies of the 21 men, who had been kidnapped in Libya where they were likely seeking work opportunities.

A Coptic Orthodox church dedicated to the 21 Martyrs of Libya was opened in 2018 in the village of al-Our in Egypt, a village that was home to 13 of the martyred men.

The Coptic Orthodox Church declared the 21 Coptic Christians as martyr saints within only a week of their murder in 2015 along the Libyan coast. 

Pope Francis’ inclusion of the martyrs in the Roman Martyrology in 2023 marked a significant moment in ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is the largest Christian denomination in majority Muslim Egypt.

The Roman Martyrology is an official list of the saints and blesseds, including martyrs, recognized in the liturgy of the Catholic Church. The list is ordered according to the Church’s calendar of feast days.

“These martyrs were baptized not only in the water and Spirit, but also in blood, a blood that is the seed of unity for all of Christ’s followers,” Pope Francis said at the time.

The feast of the martyrs, referred to as the 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya, is celebrated on Feb. 15 in both the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church.

During the Coptic leader’s visit to the Vatican last year, Tawadros II gave the pope the relics of the martyrs’ blood that will be used in Thursday’s liturgy.

“Today we hand over part of their relics, dipped in their blood shed in the name of Christ for the Church, so that they may be remembered in the martyrology of all the churches of the world, and know ‘we too’ are ‘surrounded by such a multitude of witnesses,’” Tawadros said.

“Precisely because the saints are one of the main pillars of our churches, beginning with the apostles Peter, Paul, and Mark,” he said, “we now write in the martyrology of the churches the new martyrs who have guarded the faith and bore witness to Christ, who did not lose heart in the face of torture and passed on to us a living example in martyrdom.”

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