Families of the 27 Egyptian Coptic Christians workers kidnapped in the Libyan city of Sirte, hold pictures of their kidnapped relatives as they ask for their release, in front of the U.N. office in Cairo January 19, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-LIBYA, originally transmitted on February 16, 2015.

Pope Francis condemns Islamic State's executions of Christians in Libya

Families of the 27 Egyptian Coptic Christians workers kidnapped in the Libyan city of Sirte, hold pictures of their kidnapped relatives as they ask for their release, in front of the U.N. office in Cairo January 19, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Families of the 27 Egyptian Coptic Christians workers kidnapped in the Libyan city of Sirte, hold pictures of their kidnapped relatives in front of the U.N. office in Cairo January 19, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-LIBYA, originally transmitted on February 16, 2015.


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis on Monday (Feb. 16) denounced the brutal slayings of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya by militants linked to the Islamic State, saying "they were assassinated just for being Christian."

"The blood of our Christian brothers is a witness that cries out," Francis said in off-the-cuff remarks during an audience with an ecumenical delegation from the Church of Scotland.

The pope, switching to his native Spanish, noted that those killed only said “Jesus help me.”

"Be they Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it doesn't matter: They're Christian! The blood is the same: It is the blood which confesses Christ," Francis said. He said their deaths bore witness to "an ecumenism of blood" that should unite Christians, a phrase he has used repeatedly as the Islamic State continues its bloody march.

The pope telephoned the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, to show his profound solidarity in the sorrow of the Coptic Church for the barbaric assassination by Islamic fundamentalists. He assured him of his prayers and also said  he would unite himself spiritually with the prayers of the Coptic Church at his morning Mass Tuesday (Feb. 17) when the men are to be buried.

The Islamic State militants released a video late Sunday (Feb. 15) purporting to show the mass beheading of the Christian hostages, who had been held for several weeks.

In the video, one of the militants points northward toward Italy, some 500 miles across the Mediterranean Sea, and says, "We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission."

Nerves were already on edge in Europe following the terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris last months and over the weekend in Copenhagen.

But Vatican officials have downplayed any immediate danger and say that Vatican and Italian security forces are monitoring the situation.

The Vatican also said Francis called the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, to offer his "sorrow of the Coptic Church for the recent barbaric assassination of Coptic Christians by Islamic fundamentalists."

KRE END GIBSON