As a quick update, I am working on a new text concerning the development of Christianity in Egypt that could be ready in a little while. In the first days following a new birth, replete with requisite sleepless nights (worse for Julie than for me), it is a little harder to write. In the meanwhile, I remembered this text I wrote following the Nag Hamadi incident which we published in Arab West Report, but I neglected to post it until now. It exemplifies part of our work which is a media critique of the local press, along with a personal reflection. I hope you enjoy.
The January 27th edition of Akhir Sa’a, an Egyptian weekly newsmagazine affiliated with the government, printed the bold headline “Expatriate Copts Encourage Egyptian Christians to Carry Weapons against Muslims and Security.” The story, complete with pictures of handguns, rifles, and peaceful demonstrations both inside and outside Egypt, commands immediate attention from the reader, especially given the charged sectarian atmosphere following the tragedy of Nag Hamadi, in which six Christians were gunned down randomly upon exiting Coptic Christmas Eve mass, January 6, 2010. This incident has drawn condemnation from all sectors of Egyptian society, but many Copts view it as but one more example in an extended progression of violence against their community. Though this aggression is unorganized, its perceived increasing frequency is causing great alarm. It has not, however, caused any domestic call to arms.
Expatriate Copts are a controversial topic in Egypt. Wealthier and more politically active than their compatriots in Egypt, many seek to lobby their adopted governments to put international pressure on Egypt to defend Christian well being. Through their bilingual websites they are able to inform both Western and Egyptian populations of Coptic issues, but from a position of advocacy, not news. Pope Shenouda has at times condemned their excessive reactions and demonstrations, which threaten to disturb the generally peaceful, though at times uncertain, attitude that prevails between Christians and Muslims, and between Christians and the government. At the same time, the results of their advocacy are popularly seen in many Egyptian Copts who rely on their foreign ‘reporting’ over a distrusted local press, which results in an increasing attitudinal divide between them and their perceived ‘Islamic’ neighbors and government. Naturally, Muslims and government are disturbed by the generalist and sensationalist characterizations of these expatriate Coptic websites, and an article which exposes their stridency is certain to sell copy.
The article itself appears to be fairly balanced, but builds only on one article and one comment to a different article, both posted on the website of the ‘US Copts Association’ – www.copts.com. The comment comes from an article written by Rafat Samir, who identifies himself as a human rights activist, lamenting the November 2009 attack on Christians in the village of Farshut, in which shops were looted and homes were burned. Significantly, he does not call for Christians to arm themselves in response. The Akhir Sa’a article, however, quotes from a comment posted to the article, which states:
It is necessary for Copts to arm themselves as quickly as possible, with immediate training also for women in the use of weapons. Priests must also carry weapons to defend themselves against Muslim attacks and those from the Islamic police. The only solution is that every Christian martyr be followed by the killing of ten Muslims.
In choosing this comment, the most vitriolic reaction among the fourteen comments posted, Akhir Sa’a selects simply the voice of a common man, but amplifies him as a representative of ‘expatriate Copts’. The second source for the magazine comes from an article written by Father Yuta, a pseudonym used by an otherwise unknown figure, who represents himself as a priest of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Though official church pronouncements have stated that this voice in hiding does not represent church opinion, he is a frequent commentator to the US Copts Association website. Again, the magazine references him as someone who is calling for general armament to meet the threat posed by atrocities such as Farshut and Nag Hamadi. Though his statements will be presented later, it is interesting to note that of the 104 comments which follow Father Yuta’s article, of those which present a clear opinion, nearly 75% speak against him. Below it will be clear why this is the case.
The magazine is wholly out of line in transforming these two voices into the general headline ‘expatriate Copts’, but it can posit an excuse in the tagline of the US Copts Association: Representing all Christians of Egypt. This, however, is clear exaggeration on the part of the website, for which neither expatriate nor Egyptian Copts bear responsibility. While the article fails to quote an official church representative about the personality of Father Yuta, it does quote Sameh Fawzy, director of Citizens for Development and a well-known Coptic commentator who declares,
This type of language bears no relation to Christian identity, which forbids the use of violence or the answering of violence with violence. Certainly it is not possible for Copts to interact with these ideas.
It is interesting to note that among the team which prepared the article was an attendee of our recent media workshop, which trained in the techniques of balanced and objective journalism. The article was structured fairly, giving space to all sides for expression. That this was an article at all, however, is an example of irresponsible reporting. One article and a reader comment do not equate to the general ‘expatriate Copts’ proclaimed in bold lettering. Though the headline may not have been under his control, he is making a mountain out of a molehill. The voices he presents are worthy to be highlighted, but expatriate Copts do not deserve to be lumped together with them.
There is little story here at all. Egyptian journalist Osama al-Ghazoly notes that Akhir Sa’a is among the least influential and least read newsmagazines, and in the month since publication there has been no development of the story whatsoever. Yet a stark headline such as this one demands attention, as well as arrest of the idea. The call is shocking and immediately prompted our office to call for an article in response.
Regardless of the differing Christian stances toward self-defense, practical, social, and legal considerations all demand the condemnation of the call to armament. Copts represent less than 10% of the population of Egypt. These exceptional expatriate voices are calling for a general attitude of armed opposition toward both neighbors and government, and are urging wealthy expatriate Copts to fund the enterprise. Even if increasing, the acts of aggression against Christians almost always have an additional social interpretation, and represent isolated incidents from among thousands of peaceful villages. A general armament would likely be viewed by the population at large, living in peaceful coexistence if not complete social integration with Christians, as an act of aggression. Any exchange of violence would result in a bloodbath for the Copts. How much more so since the call is for Christians also to arm themselves against the government! It is the state which is best equipped to provide protection and equality of citizenship, yet these voices urge it to be viewed as the enemy.
It would be one thing to state that these voices call only for the use of weapons in self-defense, but even this is uncertain. Instead, Father Yuta states, in an article published on the US Copts Association website in Arabic, though noticeably absent in its English version,
I completely shoulder the responsibility before God, and I understand the Scriptures very well when I tell Copts that they have to respond strongly to Muslims’ attacks. Christianity prohibits its followers from attacking anybody; however, it does not prohibit them from defending themselves. Therefore I call on every Copt who finds himself before a Muslim who wants to assault or kill him, to kill that Muslim to defend himself. Similarly, if you find yourself before a Muslim trying to kill another Copt, you must hurry to prevent that Muslim from killing the Copt. If a Muslim attempted to burn a Copt’s home, Copts should put that Muslim’s home on fire. Every Copt should cooperate with the other Copts. If Muslims put a church on fire, then Copts should put the nearest mosque to that church on fire too.
Copts should not hide in their homes leaving Muslims to burn their houses! They should go out and defend their homes using all the means and possible weapons to defend themselves. If a soldier shoots a Copt, all Copts should attack all the security officers and take weapons to shoot the security officer and police officer of the highest rank in the site, because he is responsible for giving fire orders against Copts. If this happened no officer will give a shooting order against Copts, because the price will be so high.
And finally, if anyone is concerned that in these actions he will be sinning against God,
I tell all Copts of Egypt that there is no absolution and no blessing for he who does not defend himself and the life of his Coptic brethren who are attacked or assaulted by Muslims or by the Egyptian security apparatus. To all Copts in Egypt I say: You have the absolution and the blessing if you defend yourselves against Muslims. To those who fear punishment if they are killed attacking Muslims I say: If you think you are committing a sin then I carry it for you on the Day of Judgment, and hence you are innocent before God who gave us the power to bind and to release.
A case can be made that there is logic behind this call, but it appears to be far from a Christian ethic. While Christians are divided about the right and extent of legitimate self-defense, Father Yuta is advocating an eye for an eye, and more. Yet Jesus declared in Matthew 5 that an eye for an eye was no longer valid, commanding his followers to not resist an evil person, but to turn the other cheek. It is correct that Christians should not shrink back from attack, but Father Yuta puts forward his idea of resistance in neglect of Hebrews 10:32-39, which speaks directly to the situations Copts have faced in Farshut and elsewhere:
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
While no Copt should submit meekly to the confiscation of a home, abandoning completely the rule of law in a modern state, these verses praise the Christians in question for maintenance of their joy during their trials. It calls for perseverance, not resistance, for their confidence in eternal possessions will be rewarded regardless of the state of their temporal goods. In fact, undue attachment, signaled through resistance, is the very ‘shrinking back’ which Father Yuta proposes. It results in God’s displeasure, not approbation.
Yet a proper question is addressed to the US Copts Association: Why have you published such an opinion? In their mission statement, accessible from both the Arabic and English webpages, they state:
We would like to make it very clear that we aim to realize these objectives solely through peaceful and legitimate means.
Instead, in this article it is clear that Copts are called, when attacked, to vigilante collective retributive justice. This call runs counter to common sense, Biblical mandate, and the website’s own mission statement. It deserves an official retraction.
As stated earlier, the call to armament is not heard in Egypt; it is only uttered by the few, frustrated voices which operate within the confines of safety and freedom of Western democracies, or else behind the mask of anonymity. Though their advice is clear, their judgment is in question. Yet at the same time, they make clear to Copts in Egypt the path that lies before them. Armed resistance in international geopolitics can at times be understood for oppressed and occupied ethnic minorities, seeking freedom from a dominating power. This is not at all the description of the situation for Copts in Egypt. Coptic Christians and their Muslim neighbors are equally Egyptian, and national law regards all with equality, however uneven in occasional misapplication.
Yet even if the situation did reflect ‘oppression and occupation’, Copts would need to choose their greater identity. Would they wish to exist as a political—even military—bloc, seeking rights and protection in the carnal ways of the world? Or would they wish to live and behave according to higher ethical ideals, as would be expected in their identity as Christians? It is not suggested that these positions are absolutely exclusive; Christians maintain membership in two worlds, the temporal and the eternal, and life demands negotiation between the two. Yet whereas Father Yuta urges Egyptian Christians in one direction, spokesmen are necessary to urge the opposite response, toward peace, forgiveness, and love. Unfortunately, as concerns publications like Akhir Sa’a and other media, this alternate formulation of Coptic identity sells far fewer newspapers.