Orthodox Church UK
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Orthodox Church (Europe)
Media and Communications Office
‘Working together for those alone’
Martyrs' Day 2023 marked with a special contribution from
The Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire on behalf of
His Majesty King Charles III
16 February 2023
On 15 February, the anniversary of the martyrdom of the 21 executed by ISIS in Libya in 2015, the Coptic Orthodox Church worldwide commemorates the lives of its contemporary martyrs. ‘The 21’ as they have now been recognised, were 20 Coptic Orthodox Christians from Upper Egypt, with the 21st being their Ghanaian friend, Matthew. Contemporary Martyrs’ Day presents an opportunity to celebrate the lives of these and others who faithfully lived their Christian Faith until their last breath, while also providing a platform to raise awareness and advocate for all those who are persecuted solely for their faith or belief.
This year’s online event on 15 February 2023 saw contributions from His Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, Mr Robert Voss CBE CStJ, His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, Papal Legate to the United Kingdom and Founder and Director of Refcemi, The Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro, Fiona Bruce MP, Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Mervyn Thomas CMG, founder of CSW and Chair of the UK FoRB Forum, Gareth Russell, Founder and Director of Jersey Road PR, His Grace Bishop Hovakim, Primate of the Armenian Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, Nadine Maenza, President of the International Religious Freedom Secretariat and The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark. The event was moderated by Dr Ewelina Ochab, Deputy Director of Refcemi.
His Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, Mr Robert Voss CBE CStJ, said the following in his contribution:
“It is an absolute honour for me to be here this evening to join you for Contemporary Martyrs’ Day, a very important day in many calendars, and particularly with the theme of this year being ‘Working together for those alone’. On behalf of His Majesty, may I say thank you for this discussion and for inviting me. This is very much in line with the themes that His Majesty has identified for this, his Coronation Year; four themes, two of which are community and diversity. Of course, he and the rest of the Royal Family share a deep concern for those who suffer, and those who suffer alone.”
Going on to speak about his family’s history of facing religious persecution, and losing many Jewish relatives during the Nazi reign in Germany, The Lord-Lieutenant went on to say in closing remarks:
“They suffered for exactly what you have been talking about, purely for their belief, for the fact that they were Jewish, so I very much empathise with what has been said tonight. I think we as a people have a responsibility to stand together, to commit ourselves to tolerance and respect so that the seeds of hatred cannot find root throughout the world. Sadly, as we have heard, that is not the case at the moment, but I hope and pray that one day those seeds will not germinate, and we will not have to sit here and talk about such genocides.”
His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, Founder and Director of Refcemi, said in his remarks:
“Today is incredibly important for us because it is the commemoration of the martyrdom of ‘The 21’, 20 of them Coptic Orthodox, and their Ghanian friend, Matthew. Although that horrific event was one of great pain, it has provided us with a focus, not to foster anger or a need for retaliation or vengeance, but to use that pain as a source of strength, and to speak for others.
Whether we are speaking about the Bahai’s in Iran, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Yazidis in Iraq, the Uyghurs in China, the Shabak in Afghanistan, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, the plight of our Jewish sisters and brothers in the Holocaust and even until today, or Christians in Pakistan, Nigeria, China and around the world; there is still much pain and much suffering, and much for us still to do.”
The Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro, who authored ‘The Independent Review of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Response to Christian Persecution’, said:
“It is quite right that this event, Contemporary Martyrs’ Day, should become a fixture in our calendar, not as something we give the nod to annually, but to remind us daily of the urgency of addressing this issue.”
The Bishop of Truro spoke of Freedom of Religion or Belief violations worsening around the world since the Review, and commented on ways that His Majesty’s Government is still working on implementing recommendations from the Review.
He gave particular thanks to Fiona Bruce MP, Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, for her determination to see that the recommendations from his Review are implemented, and went on to say:
“A commitment to Freedom of Religion or Belief is not a ‘nice to have’ in today’s world. It is not some kind of fluffy extra additional to the hard world of realpolitik, not at all. It touches upon and highlights some key issues in today’s world, such as the rise of fundamentalist, nationalistic and authoritarian regimes of all kinds the world over. Regimes whose treatment of vulnerable minorities is often nothing short of appalling and whose actions threaten not only the lives and livelihoods of those minorities but also to threaten to destabilise international order, increase insecurity, including food insecurity as we’ve seen in this last year, and make it all the harder to address big ticket global items such as climate change.
Indeed I believe that the wholesale denial of Freedom of Religion or Belief is just such a ‘big ticket item’ and I hope and pray that this event will sensitise us once again to the vital importance of all of us; governments, Churches, other faith groups, civil society, and individuals, addressing it with the seriousness and the urgency which it undoubtedly requires.”
Fiona Bruce MP, Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), who is Chair of the International Alliance of 42 countries committed to promoting and protecting FoRB and championing it across the world, said the following in her address:
“For many of us who have lived our lives here in the United Kingdom, we consider that the principle of opposing persecution is one that is worth fighting for, even though it may not be something that we have personally ever experienced.
I have the privilege of working with colleagues from many countries in Central Europe, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia, Romania, Hungary, and others. For my colleagues from countries such as the ones I have mentioned, it is much more than a principle. Persecution for them has been a lived reality. Concerns about it becoming so once more are very, very real.
She went on to say:
“Of course one of the freedoms for which we fight is Freedom of Religion or Belief; a freedom that the people of Ukraine feel particularly acutely about, having historically endured so much repression under communist rule, and that is the same for my colleagues from several of the countries I have referred to.
Persecution and discrimination are realities for many people I work with: for them, their families and their friends who have known and lived it. It is a particularly acute concern now as we see what is happening in Ukraine today.
That is why I am so delighted to be able to tell you today that the next Ministerial on Freedom of Religion or Belief will be held in the Czech Republic. That will provide an opportunity for us to remember how real it is when a regime seeks to dehumanise its people as the communists did, and we must ensure never happens again in our lifetimes.”
Mervyn Thomas CMG, Chair of the UK FoRB Forum, and Founder President of CSW, said:
“I would like to say on behalf of everybody, particularly at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, how important it is that we continue to mark this day every year.
In our work for upholding the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief around the world, we come across many individuals and communities who face a litany of egregious violations, ranging from threats and harassment to physical violence and imprisonment; then there are those who pay the ultimate price for their faith, too many to name, and every case heart-breaking for their families and loved ones.”
He went on to speak about harrowing religious persecution endured by people in Nigeria and India, and concluding by saying:
“CSW will continue to challenge governments that fail to uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief and intersecting rights for their citizens at every opportunity. At the UN and other international fora, wherever we can raise our voices on behalf of martyrs everywhere, we promise that we will.”
Gareth Russell, Founder and Director, Jersey Road PR said:
“The story of the 21 has now reached a global audience but there are many similar stories that remain untold or under-told. For a while we heard the stories of those suffering for their faith in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, but as is the nature of the news cycle, those stories dominate for a time, but are quickly forgotten when demoted by the latest domestic political scandal or natural disaster.”
Speaking of the importance of fostering a collaborative approach when religious groups and NGOs seek to engage the media, he went on to say:
“So long as charities advocating for FoRB choose a territorial approach, the potential for media breakthrough will always be limited. But in laying down brand equity, fostering meaningful partnerships and sharing media relationships and opportunities, those NGOs will build an ecosystem of stories that, over time, will educate and inform those currently unaware of the atrocities being carried out on those who stand up for their own beliefs around the world.
By harnessing the power of the social ecosystem and by unifying around the same causes, profiling a consistent narrative, and doing so over a sustained period, the core message of FoRB and the stories of those who are showing immense heroism in the face of intense persecution can be told.”
His Grace Bishop Hovakim, Primate of the Armenian Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, spoke about historical religious persecution faced by his community under communism, and drew a link to modern day freedom of religion or belief violations, saying:
“It is very troubling when we witness the same things happening now in other regions, globally in the world, but also with my people in Nagorno Karabakh. You may hear about it in the media every now and then, but history is repeating itself. Armenian monuments are being destroyed, and 120,000 Armenians are now under siege. Southern Armenia is constantly under threat.
The challenge for us all in the FoRB community is to take action and address these issues. Where there is injustice against anyone, it has to be considered an injustice against all, and we do not have to differentiate between people.
Nothing seems to be changing, it feels as if the world is silent and there is a lot of discrimination, but not enough focus on the needs of some who are persecuted versus others. This is our reality, but I pray and hope that through this kind of meeting and forum that we can increase awareness and help people.”
Nadine Maenza, President, International Religious Freedom (IRF) Secretariat, and former Chair of USCIRF, said:
“There is so much division in the world today, but the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief is one of those issues that crosses religious and partisan lines. It really is one of those issues for which we can come and work on together. I really do believe that working together is that key to how we are going to change the trajectory of religious freedom conditions, so I appreciate this meeting; this opportunity to bring us all together now.”
She went on to speak about her work in IRF:
“Our focus is on building infrastructure to support and serve the religious freedom movement, so we are setting up regional secretariats to help run roundtables. The roundtables that really work are run by people in the country, they are very much grassroots driven, so it is about how we support them. They need to bring civil society together with religious communities and government in a way that is sustainable and helps serve the movement in their countries.”
The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark, spoke about the importance of collaboration for minorities who are persecuted, and said:
“Minorities under pressure become small minorities and small minorities can do little to protect themselves so our response has to be one of solidarity, that one of looking unflinchingly at the suffering of our sisters and brothers.
That is why joining in prayer and finding fellowship with those who find themselves on the receiving end of hate, and our martyrs who have gone before us and have shed their blood for us, is so important. It is a privilege to be with you here today.”
Dr Ewelina Ochab, Deputy Director of Refcemi, who recently returned from a fact-finding trip in Iraq (with IBAHRI and City Law School), reminded all that stories no longer in our news feeds must not be forgotten by those advocating, saying:
“We have almost forgotten about the atrocities carried out by Daesh, because other stories have taken the space, and so we must continue advocating on behalf of those persecuted, whether it happened yesterday, the day before, five or ten years ago. We must continue to advocate on behalf of all those who suffer persecution for their religion or belief.”
His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, concluded the event by saying:
“Thank you all. This has been such a rich evening of fellowship. I am so thankful for your presence here and for your partnership and your fellowship. Today is indicative of what Refcemi does, it provides a platform, a means of collaboration, and a space for us to stand and speak together. We must continue to work together for those who are alone.”
Video footage from the event will be made available online via www.Youtube.com/Refcemi
‘Refcemi’ The Coptic Orthodox Office for Advocacy and Public Policy: www.Refcemi.org
The Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO Support for Persecuted Christians: https://christianpersecutionreview.org.uk/report/
15 February 2015: Statement following the brutal murder of Coptic Christians in Libya https://copticcentre.blogspot.com/2015/02/statement-by-hg-bishop-angaelos.html
6 March 2015: HRH The Prince of Wales and The Archbishop of Canterbury support appeal for families of those brutally murdered in Libya https://copticcentre.blogspot.com/2015/03/hrh-prince-of-wales-and-archbishop-of.html