One year ago Hanaa, a 42-year-old Egyptian mother of four, took a phonecall that changed her and her family’s life forever: her son called to say he and his brother had just seen their father shot by Islamist militants.
On 26 May 2017 a convoy of Copts was travelling to the Monastery of St. Samuel in Minya, 170 miles (270km) south of Cairo, to celebrate Ascension Day. Among them were Ayad and his sons, Marco (14) and Mina (10).
“I remember it was a very hot day, so my husband and two sons left early for work in the monastery. They were working on the church bells there,” remembers 42-year-old mother-of-four, Hanaa.
Their convoy was stopped on the desert road by eight to ten gunmen. They ordered the Copt men to give up their valuables, then all, who would not confess Islam, were shot. Some 28 Copts were killed. The boys were spared “to tell the story”.
“I was having breakfast with my daughters when the phone rang,” Hanaa continues. “It was my son calling from his father’s phone. He was crying. He told me they had been attacked and that his father was in a critical condition.”
“I went as soon as I could, together with some family. The ambulance was late, so my nephew Ehab put Ayad in the back of his minivan. My husband was soaked in blood, it was a terrible sight. On the way to hospital Ayad was transferred to the ambulance, but it was too late: he died on the way.”
Hanaa’s grief was immeasurably deep. But, she said, “along the way God comforted me through the many visits of priests and people who stood with me.”
The support was also good for her 14-year-old son, Marco. Hanaa says he was encouraged by it, and has been very brave like his late father. He is doing well at school, she says. “[He has] started to go to the monastery to make church bells in his father’s place. He has a strong relationship with God. He always goes to church, especially since his father’s death.”
But she worries for Mina. “My big concern is for my youngest son, Mina,” Hanaa admits. “This incident has had a huge negative impact on him. He’s always afraid, especially to go anywhere on his own, even to the bathroom. He also can’t sleep alone, so sleeps next to me.”
The situation for Copts in Upper Egypt has become increasingly difficult. Islamic State released a propaganda video in February last year, vowing to wipe out Egypt’s Coptic Christians and “liberate Cairo”.
Egyptian Christians have long complained that the government does not take their security concerns seriously. For their part, officials blame violent incidents on foreign-influenced extremists.
But Hanaa said: “Even though we are very much persecuted here in Upper Egypt, we love our Muslim neighbours. Because our religion is based on love and our God is a God of love. Having experienced this harsh persecution myself hasn’t changed my view: I still pray for Muslims and love them. Our Lord is stronger than their persecution.”
Nonetheless, the loss of her husband is real. “Ayad wasn’t only my husband. He was my friend and a brother and a father to me. He was everything for me in this life. He was very kind and honest, a man of God, and I am proud he stood by his faith until his last breath. If he could say something to his attackers, I think he’d say: ‘I forgive you and pray that God forgives you, touches your hearts and open your blind eyes to see His way.’ And I would fully agree with him.”