Two days after a video was released showing self-proclaimed Islamic State forces in Libya beheading 21 Egyptian workers — among them, 13 Minya residents — the village of Our is shrouded in black.
All day, women move from one house to another giving their condolences, while priests pay visits to the households of the victims and hold continuous sermons in the Virgin Mary Church at the center of the village.
There is sadness in the village, but also a sense of submissive acceptance. A swift official response to the beheadings came in the form of Egyptian airstrikes on alleged Islamic State holdouts in Libya, along with soothing sermons on martyrdom by religious authorities, which has left families in a state of tearful gratitude.
The Coptic Orthodox Church mourned the victims in a statement issued on Sunday, and asserted its confidence in the state and its officials, whose role was obvious from the start, the statement said.
The victims’ families, however, had repeatedly protested the government’s slow response to the crisis ever since the kidnappings took place two months ago.
In January, the families held a press conference in Cairo complaining that the Foreign Ministry and other officials had not yet taken steps toward resolving the crisis, and had kept them in the dark about their kidnapped relatives.
The crisis began on December 29, when seven Egyptians returning home from the Libyan city of Sirte were kidnapped by Islamist militants. Five days later, 13 more Egyptians were abducted from their houses in the same city.
The news of the beheadings came in excruciating stages. The Islamic State first released pictures of the victims lined up on the beach and dressed in jumpsuits. Three days later, the video of their beheading was broadcast online.
Following the confirmation of the deaths, anger has subsided, and loss has presided over the village of Our.
Only one of the relatives mentions the slow official response, speaking in hushed tones as he adds that, nonetheless, the people of the village are wholeheartedly with the government.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher on Coptic rights at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), says that the state’s response to the crisis changed at this point, and the quick moves that followed quelled the anger.
Hours before the beheading video was released, officials met with some of the hostages’ families in Cairo and promised to issue a special LE2,440 pension to each household.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave a speech declaring that Egypt reserves the right to respond to this violation of its citizens.
The next day, the Egyptian military announced airstrikes targeting purported Islamic State holdouts in Libya. The commander of the Libyan Air Forces asserted that the strike killed 50 Islamic State members, including some of the group’s leaders.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb and other officials came to the village of Our on Monday to pay their condolences. Mehleb verbally approved the residents’ request to build a church in the village in commemoration of the deaths, so that the families “feel that the victims didn’t die in vain,” Mehleb claimed.
Emad Maher lost a cousin, a nephew and two in-laws in the tragedy. In the small village with a custom of intermarriage, most residents are tied by family bonds. But despite his loss, Maher is grateful for the state’s response.
“Sisi has avenged them; he has done more than what was required. The moment we learned the news, [we felt that] he avenged our children right away,” says Maher.
Providing work for the youth could save them from perilous travels in which they face many risks, including death, Maher says. But he insists that it’s not the right time to blame the state.
“We don’t want to ask anything from the state now. It already has plenty of sorrow and a heavy mission. We want work for our youth, but later on, when things stabilize,” Maher explains.
Our is a small village that survives on agriculture. Men traditionally engage in seasonal labor that earns them roughly LE15 a day, according to residents. They often go for days without finding a job, and this is what prompts them to travel for work, even if it is laden with risk.
Abanob Abdel Messih — whose 30-year-old brother Hany, a father of four, was among the victims — mildly reproached the government for giving his brother a visa to go to Libya eight months ago, given the danger.
As for why his brother took this risk, Abdel Messih says, “He had to throw himself to his death to avoid what’s more bitter,” pointing to Hany’s lack of income and inability to provide for his family.
But with teary eyes, Abdel Messih echoes the words of his fellow villagers.
“It’s the first time that Sisi strikes a foreign country. It’s a source of pride for us and for all Egyptians,” he says.
Abdel Messih carries the video of Hany’s death on his phone out of pride for his brother’s composure and strength until the last minute.
The stricken village has welcomed the soothing discourse of the church, which is also largely in support of the state. This rhetoric has framed helplessness with spirituality and hope.
During his speech at the memorial held in the cathedral, Pope Tawadros II said that the speedy military response mollified the people’s pain and cemented the Armed Forces’ position as protector of the nation.
Amr Ezzat, a researcher in the field of freedom of belief at EIPR, contends that the church’s alignment with the state is a natural byproduct of Islamist extremism.
In recent decades, the church has been a bastion for the Christian community and its overall moral authority. This crucial position has at times turned the church into a proxy for the state and a defender of its policies, as several scholars have noted. The church has, for example, encouraged Christians to forget about the tragic deaths of 23 Copts under the wheels of military tanks in front of the Maspero building in downtown Cairo in October 2011.
In an interview with a Spanish newspaper, Tawadros II said that it is not wise to discuss the Maspero massacre given the challenges currently facing the state.
Ezzat explains that the church has a strong hold on its following, especially in Upper Egypt and in rural areas. In similar situations involving sectarian unrest, the church, large Coptic families and security forces tend to coordinate in order to contain anger and any potential agitation, Ezzat adds.
In Our, the families say they have found solace in the fact that their loved ones died as martyrs for their religion and country. Priests giving continuous sermons in the village church have reiterated this belief.
“This is a tragedy that is not really a tragedy. In our sorrow, there is happiness, and in our grief, there is peace,” one priest said to a packed congregation.
The priest commended the strength of the victims, romanticizing their deaths and likening them to saints in Coptic history.
“Their strength exceeded that of their killers. Not a hair on their heads was shaken,” he said, shortly before adding, “We thank President Sisi because he knows how to bring back the dignity of Egyptians.”
Ultimately, the church’s discourse, echoed by the people, justifies sacrificing the individual for the nation.
Araoz Nassif, the aunt of slain Youssef Shoukry, 24, speaks about her nephew from the house where he lived with two brothers, two sisters and his mother. The unfurnished house consists of two rooms made of bricks. Shoukry traveled in order to build himself another house where he could get married and settle, she explains.
Nassif says that the current crisis takes precedence over personal loss.
“We are not angry for those who died. We’re concerned for our country,” she asserts. “Egypt is being targeted, but it will never be like Libya and Syria.”