'Darkness can always be broken by the light of Christ': Coptic bishop hails return of bodies of 20 Christian martyrs beheaded by ISIS

The lead coptic bishop in the UK has hailed the 'bittersweet' return of the bodies of 20 Egyptian Christians beheaded in Libya by ISIS in 2015. 

Bishop Angaelos, the coptic orthodox archbishop of London, said the men, whose execution on a beach was filmed with them wearing orange jump suits and sent around the world, was designed to intimidate and humiliate Christians but actually became a mark of resilience and forgiveness.

Bible SocietyBishop Angaelos praised the courage of the martyrs and the forgiveness shown by their families.

'They will, for the remainder of my life, be an inspiration and an example of true, simple and faithful witness in the midst of what can sometimes be an unaccepting, cruel and brutal world,' Bishop Angaelos said in a statement on Tuesday night. 'Their witness has shown that darkness can always be broken by the light of Christ that can indeed shine through each and every one of us.'

The bodies of the 21 men, including one Ghanaian and 20 Egyptian Copts, were discovered last October after the area where they were buried was recaptured from the militant Islamist group.

Islamic State took control of Sirte in 2015 and lost the city late last year to local forces backed by US air strikes.

The head of the Coptic Church in Egypt, Pope Tawadros II, was at the airport to receive the remains, which were brought in coffins from Misrata, Libya.

'This is indeed a bittersweet occasion for the families of these brave men, their communities, the broader Coptic Orthodox Church, and Egypt as a whole, who saw them brutally and publicly executed before the eyes of the whole world for their Christian Faith,' said Angaelos, paying tribute to the martyrs.

'Not only were their actions courageous, but their families subsequently presented a gracious message of Christian love and forgiveness, amidst their personal grieving and loss, that moved the world,' he said.

'This historic event also provided an opportunity for a deep and genuine unity among the Christian Church worldwide, and amongst all people of Faith and none, who rejected the inhumanity of this very public crime that violated every understanding of the dignity and sanctity of life as we know it,' he added.

'We pray protection for all those around the world who continue to be persecuted for their Christian Faith, religious affiliation, or for any other reason, for those who remain abducted and their families as they anxiously await news, and for a change of the hearts and minds of those who continue to perpetrate these and similar crimes around the world. We also pray for those receiving their fathers, sons and brothers today, and for the repose of our brothers, the Libya martyrs.'

A church dedicated to their memory has been built in al-Our, near Samalut in Egypt's Minya province, the home of 13 of the Libyan martyrs.

Coptic Christians represent about 10 per cent of Egypt's majority Muslim population. The community has been subject to intense attacks in recent years, particularly from Islamist fundamentalist groups.