During our stay in Maghagha for Coptic Christmas, we got to see Christian reactions first hand as the news about the killings in Nag Hamadi began to spread. We discussed this somewhat in our reflections on Day One and Day Two of our Christmas celebration. There was shock, discouragement, and resignation. Sadly, many Copts believe that they lack the necessary concern of the authorities to prevent such atrocities, and even to respond by arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators.
I do not wish to comment about the validity of these perceptions, but they are widely held. One of the results is that many Copts suffer from a disengagement with society; having been let down so many times they are reluctant to participate anew, and put no trust in government to intervene positively. Though these reactions can be seen as natural and potentially legitimate, it can also be said that this will lead to only further rupture between Muslims and Christians, and between Christians and the state. Many Copts recognize this, and are fervently urging their fellow believers to re-engage.
In the wake of such despair it is difficult for many Copts to find a positive vision. We were fortunate, however, to be staying in the home of one such priest. I asked Fr. Yu’annis (John in the Coptic language) what he would do if he were a priest in Nag Hamadi. He answered in three parts, addressing the government, Muslim leaders, and the Christian community. A summary of the conversation which followed has resulted in a report, and is now presented here…
During the Coptic Christmas celebrations I had the opportunity to stay with my family in the home of Fr. Yu’annis in Maghagha. Fr. Yu’annis is a priest for the Coptic Orthodox Christian community in Qufada, but maintains his residence in Maghagha, the seat of the bishopric, about fifteen minutes away by car. We were able to witness with him the events of January 6, in which gunmen waited in ambush outside a church in Nag Hamadi, Qena, and shot dead six Christians as they exited Christmas mass. One Muslim police officer was also killed in the attack.
Fr. Yu’annis has been a longstanding friend of Arab West Report, which has noticed his exceptional manner in relating to government officials and Muslim neighbors. He has been instrumental in securing permission to build or expand over twenty churches in the bishoprics of Maghagha, Beni Mazar, and Mattai, during a time in which many Egyptian Christians complain of difficulties in this regard. Based on this background, I asked Fr. Yu’annis what he would do if he were a priest in Nag Hamadi. How should a Christian leader respond to such a violent act against the community?
Fr. Yu’annis answered in three parts. The first and immediate action would be to go to government officials, ask questions, and listen. These would include the governor, mayor, and leaders of the police force. He would ask them, simply, what they plan to do about this. He would not interfere, but he would continue to inquire. It would be hoped that through these interactions he might craft good relationships with these officials, but also signal to them that he is following the events and will not let the matter drop. Ultimately, authority and responsibility lie in the hands of the government, and it is best to remain in good communication with all its representatives.
The second action should be directed toward Muslim community leaders, including the mosque preachers but not limited to them. The point here is not to level accusations but to strengthen relationships. Even so, a rebuke could be in order, though it must be properly delivered.
Fr. Yu’annis remembered the Biblical story of David, after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed by sending him to the front lines of battle. God sent to him the prophet Nathan, who told him of a poor villager whose one sheep was taken from him to be slaughtered for the guest of his rich neighbor, even though this man had many sheep of his own. David was outraged and ordered that this man be taken and put to death. Nathan replied promptly, “You are the man!” David was caught in condemnation through his own words and made conscious of his sin, for which he then repented.
Though the parallel is not complete, this is the manner with which Fr. Yu’annis would approach Muslim leaders. Nathan came to David as a friend; so would Fr. Yu’annis approach the Muslims. Nathan refrained from displays of anger and outright accusation; Fr. Yu’annis would similarly recognize the futility of such an effort. Instead, like Nathan he would ask a question: If we had done this to you, killed your worshippers exiting a mosque, what would be your response toward us? In seeking to help these leaders understand the event from the perspective of the other, he would also seek to establish their own claim of responsibility for the climate in which this atrocity was committed. Accepting this responsibility, he hoped, might lead not only toward initiatives of rapprochement, but also toward personal and community repentance.
Finally, Fr. Yu’annis would direct his third action toward the Christian community. He would urge the people toward patience and forgiveness, but would also give a harder command. Though it would be easy to retreat in frustration at the tensions present between the two communities, the Christians of Nag Hamadi must resist this temptation. Instead, they must make certain to preserve the normal and natural relationships they have with individual Muslims of their community. Where these do not exist Christians should be active to craft them. The atrocity was committed by one to three individuals, who may or may not have been connected to other elements in the area. Regardless of a possible wider scope, they do not represent the majority Muslim sentiment, which would condemn this crime. If Christians retreat, however, they would give Muslims cause to doubt them, and where there is little relationship, there is little concern. Instead, by preserving and strengthening the relationships that do exist they send a powerful statement of community unity in the face of difficulty and potential sectarian strife.
Fr. Yu’annis was powerfully affected by the events at Nag Hamadi, and as we discussed them and listened to the incessant media reporting from which it was impossible to turn away, his eyes welled up with tears. Not only were these for families torn asunder, but also for a community which appears about to suffer the same fate. In such cases, it is far better for policy to be determined by sadness than by anger; may his thoughts also be conjured by the priests of Nag Hamadi.