“Our God Is Stronger Than Persecution”—Egyptian Widow Shares Courageous Message a Year After Attack

May 29, 2018 by Lindy Lowry in Africa

[Above photo: Marco and Mina in front of their father’s truck they rode in on the way to the monastery the day they were attacked.]

A year ago on May 26, 2017, gunmen opened fire on vehicles carrying Coptic Christians on their way to a monastery in the Minya province of Egypt. Twenty-nine Christians died; at least 23 were wounded. The dead included children, older adults and laborers. The attack was claimed by ISIS. 

An Open Doors contact recently visited with Hanaa Youssef Mikhael, the widow of one of the laborers who was killed that day. Ayad Habib Tawadros Youssef and his two sons, Marco (14) and Mina (10) and six other workers were traveling in a pickup truck on their way to Saint Samuel Monastery when they were attacked by Islamic extremists. As a skilled laborer, Ayad had planned to take his young sons on a trip to the monastery to show them his work. The two boys saw their father killed before their eyes after he refused to deny Jesus.

Below, Hanaa remembers that day and shares with us what life has been like for her family over the past year without Ayad.

The day, Friday, May 26, 2017, started with a 6 am phone call for Ayad. For more than 20 years, Ayad worked as a skilled laborer making bells for Saint Samuel Monastery in Upper Egypt’s Minya province. The day would be hot, working in the heat of Egypt’s western desert. The workers wanted to get an early start to avoid the 80-degree temperatures typical of this time of year. Ayad took his two young sons, Marco and Mina, with him to show them his work and teach them his trade.

Ayad Youssef was a skilled laborer who worked on the bells for Saint Samuel Monastery in Egypt’s Minya province.

Hanaa knows the route to the monastery well. She knows how long it takes to get there from her village and the area when cellphones no longer work on the unpaved road. That morning, she called Ayad and Marco several times, checking in.

“I used to do that every time they were going to the monastery—until their mobiles were unavailable,” she says. “I knew then that they were driving in the area that has no signal close to the entrance of the monastery.”

The last time she talked to Ayad was 7:40 am.

An hour later, her cell phone rang. It was her husband’s number. But it wasn’t Ayad.

“Marco was on the phone and was crying and said to me that they were attacked and his father is in a critical condition,” Hanaa says. “I told him we would come quickly.”

Driving a caravan of five pickup trucks and her nephew Ehab’s microbus, Hanaa, Ehab, her brother-in-law and other relatives rushed to the monastery. The first thing they saw on the unpaved desert path was a two-car police checkpoint. Quickly, they told officials they had victims there and kept driving. Only then did police call an ambulance. Ehab’s microbus was faster than the trucks so he drove ahead.

The next thing Hanaa saw was Ehab returning with Ayad. Hanaa got out of the truck and sat beside her husband. She wasn’t prepared for what she would see.

“I was shocked to find my husband soaked in blood,” she remembers. “It was a very terrible view.”

An ambulance met the microbus en route. On the way to the hospital, medics tried to resuscitate Ayad and treat him.

“He passed away before reaching the hospital,” Hanaa says, adding that the ambulance arrived two hours after the attack. “If they had arrived quickly, the life of my husband maybe could have been rescued.”

Thirteen hours after Ayad left for work, Hanaa received her husband’s body from the hospital morgue. 

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“My Father Said ‘No, He Would Not Convert’”

Later, Marco and Mina shared with their mother the details of what had happened.

One by one, the men were forced to step out of the car.

The family of Ayad shared with an Open Doors contact after the attack in the family’s home in Upper Egypt.

“The terrorist shouted he had to convert to Islam,” Mina told his mother. “But my father said no. Then they shot him.”

Then the gunmen discovered Marco and Mina hiding behind a bench. One of the gunmen shot at the boys but missed. Another attacker said, “No, let them live to tell the story.”

The men left. The boys stood in the midst of the bodies.

“We didn’t know what to do,” Marco says. “We wanted to get help, but we didn’t have mobile reception.

Marco looked at his younger brother. Mina’s whole body was trembling, in shock by what he’d just witnessed. A Christian passerby taking two victims from the attack stopped when he saw the two boys and Marco put his little brother in the car, sending him to safety. He knew he had to find a phone.

“I never drove a car before, but I got in the pick-up truck so I could find a place to call our mother.”

Marco could barely hit the pedals and didn’t come up far above the steering wheel. But, miraculously, he drove the car to a place where they could use the phone. Then he drove back. Ayad laid on the road, bleeding. Mina puts his little hands on his chest, “This is where they hit them,” then he taps his legs, “And here as well.” “And in his arms,” Marco adds.

“My father was still breathing,” says Marco. “He couldn’t talk anymore, but he wiggled his fingers, signing us to go away. But I didn’t want to leave him there.” He tried to lift his father to put him in the pick-up truck, but it didn’t work; his body wasn’t strong enough to lift him.

“They were so scared,” Hanaa says.

The attacks came only a few weeks after ISIS bombed two churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, killing more than 40 Christians. But Hanaa says she had no previous fear of attacks. For more than 20 years, Ayed had traveled the road to the monastery without incident, sometimes coming home very late at 1 or 2 am.

“We didn’t expect what happened to happen that day,” she says.

‘He Is an Amazing God’

For Hanaa, the last year has been a testament of God’s love and comfort through the Body of Christ. When asked, she is open about the early days after Ayad’s death but focuses, instead, on God’s strength and provision in the midst of senseless loss.

“In the beginning after I lost my husband, I was in a very bad situation and I grieved very much,” she says. “But I then felt the work of God with me in my life. God has comforted me through the visits of many priests and ministers to me. Many people have stood with me after my husband passed away. God has encouraged me in these hard times through the encouraging words of the priests and ministers who visit me. Every time they talked to me, I felt that God talked to me [from the words on] their tongues.

The Lord is good. He has stood with me and comforted me. He has met our physical needs since my husband passed away. He loves us so much, He is an amazing God.”

Hanaa and her sons feel and express admiration for Ayad and his refusal to deny Christ.

“I’m very happy for my husband that he got the crown of martyrdom and went to a good place in Heaven. He kept the faith ‘till the last breath of his life. He refused to renounce the faith and died in the name of Jesus Christ. He has lifted up my head, I’m very proud of him.”

For oldest son Marco, now 15, Ayad’s death has strengthened his walk with God, Hanaa says. He is following in his father’s footsteps, working in the monastery making bells just like his dad did.

“Marco is very comforted and encouraged,” Hanaa says. “He is very brave like his late father. And he has a strong relationship with God. He always goes to church, especially after the death of his father. The death of his father has [brought] him very close to God. He prays constantly and [excels] at Bible study. I thank God for him.”

However, young Mina, 11, remains traumatized, stifled by fear. Since the attack and witnessing his father’s death, Mina sleeps on Hanaa’s chest every night.

“He is always afraid,” she says. “He is afraid to get out anywhere alone. He is afraid to go the bathroom alone and asks me to go with him. Please pray for him.”

Being a Christian in Egypt Today

Over the last year, the Coptic community in Egypt has been under siege as ISIS militants and Islamic extremists have targeted and killed Copts in numerous attacks, including the deadly attack on Mar Mina Church in Cairo in late December 2017. More than 200 Christians have died for their faith in the last 12 months. The everyday climate for Egyptian Christians is volatile and continues to rise with division between Christians and Muslims becoming increasingly prominent and intense, especially where she lives in Upper Egypt, says Hanaa.

“We (Christians) are very hated and persecuted nowadays because of our faith. The Muslims don’t prefer to buy from our shops and don’t want to deal with us because they consider us kafar (indidels).”

She cites Jesus’ words to His disciples in John’s Gospel, describing the modern-day persecution she and other Christians are walking through:

“And that is happening nowadays,” Hanaa says. “When those terrorists kill us, they think they offer a service to God because they believe we are kafar.

Hanaa says that the Coptic community remains peaceful and tolerant, following the call of Scripture: “We deal with all people in a good way. We love them because our religion is based on love and our God is the God of love. Our Bible asks us to love all people, even our enemies, and pray for them.

“These attacks against us haven’t changed the way we deal with Muslims; we still love them, pray for them.”

A memorial to the martyrs of the Christians who died in the May 26, 2017 attacks in Egypt hung in the streets.

Ayad’s Message to the World

Throughout Egypt’s Coptic Christian community, forgiveness is a common, life-giving thread. Persecuted Christians, including families of martyred believers, are quick to offer forgiveness, understanding its power to redeem and restore life.

Ayad understood that power well.

“If my husband was alive, he would say to his attackers, ‘I forgive you and I pray that God forgives you and touches your hearts and opens your blind eyes to see His way,” Hanaa says, adding that Ayad was a very peaceful, tolerant person, a man of God.

“My husband Ayad wasn’t only my husband, he was a friend, a brother and a father for me,” she says. “He was everything for me in this life. He was a very kind and honest person. He was forgiving and loving. He loved all people, and all people love and respect him. He was a very humble man. He never quarreled with anyone and was known for being trustworthy.”

A priest at Saint Mary Coptic Orthodox Church where Ayad’s family worships echoes Hanaa’s words about her husband’s character.

“The martyr Ayad was a very good and honest person. He served the Lord with all honesty in his life on earth,” says Father Kyrillos ElKmosos Shenouda. “He had a strong relationship with God. He has become one of the martyrs of truth because he refused to renounce the faith.”

Father Shenouda also offers messages of forgiveness and love to the men who martyred Ayad and the other 28 men a year ago.

“I send them a message of love,” he says, citing Jesus’ words in Luke 6: 26-28. “We only speak the language of love as the language of love is higher, stronger and more powerful than the language of fear, murder and terror.

 Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ forgave those who crucified and flogged Him while He was on the cross. So we forgive those terrorists and pray for them…”

They are the same messages Hanaa has for those who took her husband’s life: “I also want to say to those who killed my husband I forgive you and pray for you that God lightens your hearts and guide you to His way, the way of salvation.”

Through your support, Open Doors partners are helping Christians in Egypt with trauma counseling, relief and aid, biblical training and much more.  

PRAY FOR Ayad’s Family: