Many Egyptian Christians wear their faith on their sleeve—literally. The cross tattooed on the wrist of Coptic Orthodox believers is a public display which marks their identity for all to see.
Such a quiet witness usually avoids reproach. But recently in Libya, radical Muslim militias detained dozens of expatriate Christians in Benghazi. Amid allegations that captors seared off such tattoos with acid, one Christian died from medical complications during the ordeal, and a Libyan church was repeatedly attacked.
Accusations of evangelism have been at the heart of a series of recent incidents of violence—including the first Coptic martyrs of the modern era—against Copts in Libya, Sudan, and Egypt. Which raises the question: Are Copts starting to recover their missionary heritage?
This article was co-written with a colleague from Sudan, who mentioned the following incident:
Last December, two Coptic Orthodox priests were arrested after baptizing a female convert from Islam. Since the arrests, stories about arrests of Westerners and other Christians attempting to spread the faith circulated in media linked to the state security apparatus, although the accuracy of the reports is hard to ascertain.
Though some Sudanese Copts have enjoyed business success under the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashir, other denominations have seen their churches destroyed either by mobs or by the state, which cites the breaching of planning laws. With the independence of South Sudan removing the great majority of the nation’s Christians, Bashir has promised a 100-percent Islamic constitution.
Tensions are high also in some Egyptian villages:
There are signs Muslims feel threatened in Egypt as well. Recently churches have been attacked in Beni Suef and Aswan over female converts to Christianity alleged to be hidden inside. Generally this is understood as a Muslim community effort to save face when a woman breaks community traditions or runs away with a lover. Others think true faith might have a role.
“It is an untold story that every now and then a Muslim can be convinced and convert to Christianity,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani. “It is always done secretly, but somehow here it became public. In Upper Egypt especially, this creates a social scandal regardless of the direction of the conversion.”
But far from politically and religiously sensitive conversions in Muslim lands, the Coptic Orthodox Church maintains missionary bishoprics in sub-Saharan Africa:
The reality is the Coptic Orthodox Church remains committed to planting churches—just not in the direction of Muslims. In the 1970s, Pope Shenouda consecrated the first of two bishops for service in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, 65 churches serve more than 400,000 Copts in Kenya, Zambia, Congo, and other nations.
“The early riches of the Orthodox tradition are spreading again in Africa,” said Antonious Marcos, appointed missionary bishop to Kenya in 1976 and now based in South Africa. “Our church is a missionary church, because it was started by a non-Egyptian: John Mark.”
This was a very interesting article to research and write, showing a side of Coptic Christians often not well known in the West. As for the question in the title, are they recovering their evangelistic impulse: Well, they are accused, it seems some are, and reality is just as murky as with Christians around the world.
Please click here to read the full article on Christianity Today.
February 18, 2013 may prove a monumental day in the modern history of Egyptian Christianity. Heads of the five largest denominations – Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican – created the Egyptian Council of Churches. Since the dawn of Catholic and Protestant missions in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Egypt’s Christians stand united.
“I believe history will record this day as we celebrate the establishment of a council for all churches of Egypt,” said Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which boasts approximately 90 percent of all Egyptian Christians. “I think such a step was delayed for years.”
The rest is a brief summary, in which participants actively deny any political role for the council, closing instead with these words of faith:
“The Lord has answered prayers which have been offered for thirty years,” said Baiady. “Our diversity must become a source of richness rather than a struggle.
“Unity is built on fruitful, humble love which favors the other over the self.”
Please click here to read the whole article, containing quotes also from the Catholic and Anglican representatives. It is a good step, a formal admission to the unity asserted by most Christians I know here.
From my recent article on Christianity Today, published online on January 10, 2013:
The stakes have been raised for Christian satellite broadcasting in the Arab world.
On November 28, a Cairo court sentenced to death Nakhoula Basilli Nakhoula and six other Coptic Christians—who all live outside Egypt—for their alleged roles in producing The Innocence of Muslims. The film, which mocks the Prophet Muhammad, prompted violent protests worldwide.
Nakhoula is relatively safe since he and the Way, the satellite channel that broadcasted the film, are based in the United States. But the sentence drew attention to how such channels have proliferated in recent years, seeking to present the gospel to Arab Muslims by—in part—directly criticizing Islam.
“Since satellite TV is widespread across the Middle East and is uncensorable, it is obviously a key way to make the good news of the gospel available,” said Terence Ascott, CEO and founder of SAT-7.
Please click here to read the whole article, which includes testimony from Egypt based religious broadcasters SAT-7 and Coptic CTV, as well as internationally based Coptic Logos TV, and Life TV.
The location can make a difference. While the legal consequences vary from nation to nation, Islam as a religion highly discourages conversions away from the faith – certainly public ones. There is a range of response; some advocate death, others social estrangement, and some say (quoting the Qur’an, not necessarily definitively) there is no compulsion in religion.
I am comfortable with the fairness and objectivity of the article, and every source spoke on the record. But based in Egypt where almost everything religious is highly sensitive, there is one element of the story beyond my control – the title.
Every magazine takes the prerogative to title an article according to their best understanding of audience marketing. After all, it is the title which draws the reader to the content. I always suggest a title; sometimes it is accepted, sometimes it is discarded. Generally there is collaboration on the matter. Usually the choice of final title doesn’t make very much difference to me, and most often their wording is best.
This article originally was published in print, that is, for local distribution in the US market only. This means it would exist largely away from any local Egypt sensitivities.
But it was also purposed to publish online eventually. This means the article is open and available to all. The sensitivities remain.
My original suggestion was: ‘Broadcasting the Gospel in Arabic: For Christians or Muslims?’ One suggestion along the way, which I liked best, was: ‘Target Audience’.
In the print edition the final choice was: ‘Carrot or Stick?’ with a subtitle of ‘Broadcasters debate best way to reach Muslims’. And online the title became: ‘How Should Christian Broadcasters Evangelize to Muslims?’
I think these titles somewhat miss the point, because much of the existing Arabic language religious broadcasting is produced for the Christian audiences of the Middle East. Even the channels which speak more directly about Islam are watched extensively by Christians, featuring testimonies, for example, of Muslims who have become Christians. For a community in regional numerical decline, such ‘proof’ that their religion is truly from God is comforting amidst the challenges of being a minority.
Therefore, the balance necessary in choosing a title is certainly tricky. Each publication has its own standards and religious convictions, but for the evangelical audience of Christianity Today, it is a given that the message of Jesus is for all – including Muslims. Of course media should give them exposure of and invitation to the teachings of Christianity, in their own language.
Meanwhile, for most in Egypt, it is Islam which should draw the converts. It is anathema that a Muslim might leave Islam to any religion at all, and many are offended when others try to encourage the process. As the article points out, this is even more so when the attempt directly criticizes Islam or Muhammad.
Christianity Today also has another article on the subject, which highlights some navigating a middle ground. It is an interview unlikely to fully please either the Christian or the Muslim.
In America, religion is largely a private matter, with religious ideas being free game on an open market. One should respect the convictions of an individual, but religions themselves are subject to ridicule, criticism, indifference, allegiance, support, belief, or robust apologetic – as the case may be. Most Americans accept this as good and natural.
In Egypt, religion is largely a public matter, with religious ideas protected to preserve social harmony. One should allow, almost begrudgingly, an individual to harbor divergent views in his heart, but the religions themselves – at least concerning Islam and Christianity – are from God and not to be questioned. Most Egyptians accept this as good and natural.
In this light, the title options chosen for the article come from a very American perspective, designed to draw the most readership. My favored titles strive to be as neutral, yet descriptive, as possible. The content is the content, accepted by both. Hopefully all who read will get a fair picture of what is at stake.
From my new article on Christianity Today, published December 28, 2012:
Egyptian Christians spent this year’s Advent season awaiting more than the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Christmas Day dawned with Copts still processing the rushed passage of a new Islamist-backed constitution and its implications.
Days before voting began on the hastily completed charter—which, despite only 33 percent turnout and accusations of fraud, passed December 25 with 64 percent of the vote—more than 10,000 Christians gathered at an interdenominational prayer vigil in Cairo’s famous “Cave Church.”
Please click here and here for more information about this prayer gathering. But the article continues:
“Morsi has not kept his promises to be a president for all Egyptians when he had a chance to do so, and he is losing credibility,” said Ramez Atallah, president of the Bible Society of Egypt. “When the leader is not working for consensus, it makes it very hard for anyone else to do so.”
Yet Atallah still advises Christians to remain politically active while grounding their expectations in the necessary dual perspective of Christianity.
“We must be good citizens,” he said. “This panic is not justified in our faith, even if it may be justified in terms of politics.
And here is a section on liberal ‘hope’ for political reversal in the midst of anticipated economic difficulty:
But as liberals have consistently failed to win at the polls, some place a morose hope in Egypt’s expected financial difficulties to aid their parliamentary campaign.
“There is an economic disaster coming,” said Michael Nabil, an Egyptian accountant. Since the revolution, Egypt has lost more than half of its foreign currency reserve fighting inflation and devaluation. “This will affect the situation negatively for the Muslim Brotherhood and give the opposition more credibility,” he said.
I had hoped to write this week’s Friday Prayers for Egypt about the economy, but was unable to. Perhaps after the climax of the constitution nothing this week seemed so urgent for prayer. That is not true, of course, but like many in Egypt, I feel somewhat drained, and this week was a week of recovery. Western Christmas celebrations helped.
The main issue for the prayers would have been the feared coming economic collapse. It may well happen, but is also tinged with manipulative rumors that seem almost designed to produce a panic.
Finally, a quote on what seems a very proper perspective for Egyptian Christians:
“There is no connection to political stability and the success of the gospel,” said Atallah. “In fact, the opposite might be true: People depend more on God in difficult times.”Maybe God will use the Muslim Brotherhood to do his will in Egypt, even if we don’t want them to be in charge,” he said.
Please click here to read the entire article on Christianity Today.
Addressing the nation in a televised interview Thursday, President Mohamed Morsi welcomed the sudden completion of Egypt’s draft constitution after months of gridlock.
Amid public outcry against his decision last week to grant himself immunity from judicial review, Morsi praised the constitution’s speedy completion as a necessary step in order to end the nation’s transition to democracy and reestablish separate executive, legislative, and judicial authority.
He also dismissed questions about the legitimacy of the document, especially given the withdrawal of Christian and many liberal members of the assembly drafting it.
“The withdrawal of the church from the constitutional assembly is nothing to worry about,” Morsi said. “It’s important to me that they be part of it, but not to worry.”
The article features the voice of Rev. Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, one of the church’s official representatives who withdrew from the constitutional assembly. His perspective is given on the more controversial articles, including the role of sharia law, the Azhar, and society in determining both law and social morality.
Please click here to finish reading at Christianity Today.
Gaber Saleh, a 16-year-old revolutionary activist, was killed in confrontations with police in Tahrir Square last Sunday. That same day, Islam Massoud, a 15-year-old Muslim Brotherhood member, was killed in clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi in Damanhour, a city in the Nile Delta.
The deaths reveal a nation deeply divided by the decision of Morsi last week to appropriate all governing authority until a new Egyptian constitution is completed and a new parliament elected. Protests have broken out throughout the nation; Tahrir Square has once again filled to capacity. Many of Egypt’s judges have decried the attack on their independence, with the two highest appellate courts joining others in a nationwide strike.
The nation’s Christians are firmly in the opposition camp.
At least officially, Egypt’s Christians are not calling to depose Morsy:
“This is a national issue, not a Christian one,” says Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt and a former member of the constitutional assembly.
“As Christians, we are not calling for the downfall of the president. And we do not fight against the authorities. As a church, we ask only for a suitable constitution for Christians and Muslims.
“But normal people have the right to be in the squares.”
Some, if not many, might hope for it, but the outrage is directed primarily at his constitutional declaration. It has led a vice president to resign from his administration:
Morsi’s opposition is not just in the street. Samir Marcos, Morsi’s vice president for democratic transition and the most prominent Coptic member of his administration, has resigned.
One idea floated now is that his powers could be submitted to a referendum, or yield to a referendum on a rushed constitution:
This might also create a scenario where a weary public votes “Yes” in the constitutional referendum to follow, simply to end the deadlock and restore stability. In the process, liberals and Christians fear, the public would accept a flawed and religiously tinted constitution.
Of course, either way the people vote, a deadlock might continue. The Muslim Brotherhood will hold a rally on Saturday to support the president, whereas they previously canceled a competing protest out of fear for “bloodshed.”
“In order to save Egypt from going back to square one—dropping into chaos and nearly civil war—we have to think of a compromise,” said Sidhom. “But I fail to see how or where.”
Please click here to read the whole article at Christianity Today.
In another blow to Egypt’s democratic transition, representatives of the Muslim nation’s three main Christian bodies jointly decided to end their participation in writing a new constitution.
“The constitution … in its current form does not meet the desired national consensus and does not reflect the pluralistic identity of Egypt,” said Bishop Pachomious, acting patriarch for the Coptic Orthodox Church. The announcement was made one day before Pope Tawadros II assumed the papal throne of St. Mark, the gospel writer.
A primary complaint is over the role of shari’ah. Article Two of Egypt’s 1971 constitution, as well as the current draft of the new constitution, enshrines the “principles” of shari’ah to be the primary source of legislation. Pope Tawadros does not dispute the article as currently defined—including its designation of Islam as the religion of the state. But all churches reject its expansion.
“They left Article Two as is, but then added another article defining the principles of shari’ah.”
Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.
Four and a half months into Mohamed Morsy’s presidency, much of Egypt’s democratic transition is still on hold. Parliament remains dissolved. A new constitution is still pending, beset by legal challenges. In this political limbo, Morsy has appropriated even more power than former dictator Hosni Mubarak enjoyed before the January 2011 revolution.
However, alongside Morsy in this limbo is Samir Marcos, a Coptic intellectual serving as assistant president for democratic transition.
This is the opening of my new article on Christianity Today, discussing if it was wise for him to join an Islamist administration, and, if he will have a real voice. Please click here for the full article, featuring diverse Coptic answers to these questions.
“We told him, ‘Accept the position and be involved in the administration, and we will be behind you and support you. But if you feel you are being marginalized and not listened to, resign and make this clear to everyone,'” said Gaziri.
Of course, others disagree.
“The Muslim Brotherhood’s reputation in the international community will improve with him there, but Copts will not gain anything,” said Mamdouh Nakhla, head of the Word Center for Human Rights. “It is very difficult to change the regime from the inside.”
But I appreciate this perspective:
“The most unwise thing to do would be to refuse working with the administration due to its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “Despite our different perspectives concerning the civil state, we must maintain at least the minimum of dialogue so that we can work together for the good of Egypt.”
It is well and good to play politics, and Christians, like all people, can disagree about how to play it properly. But at the end of the day, the defining criteria must be to do what is right, even if others will take advantage.
There are degrees of right and wrong, so one must be very careful before rejecting the political stance of another. For someone like Nakhla, who is convinced the Muslim Brotherhood is a hypocritical, power hungry organization, it can certainly be ‘right’ not to aid or abet them.
Still, for good or for ill, they are currently entrusted with running the state for the good of the country. Succeed or fail, all citizens must work for the same aim. I believe Marcos is doing well.
While Americans prepare to elect their next president on Tuesday, Egyptian Christians are leaving this Sunday’s choice for their highest leader up to a higher power: God.
On November 4, one of three final candidates will succeed Pope Shenouda III, the beloved “pope of the Bible” who died in March, as the 118th patriarch of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church. But in contrast to the “group consensus” method used to select Roman Catholic popes, the casting of lots will determine whether Bishop Raphael of Cairo, Bishop Tawadros of Beheira, or Father Raphael Ava Mina, a monk from the Monastery of St. Mina near Alexandria, becomes the next spiritual leader of Egypyt’s 8 million Orthodox Christians.
This excerpt is from my article describing the papal selection process for Christianity Today. Please click here for the article in full.
It is an exciting day for Coptic Christians; may God honor their faith and grant them wise leadership. Two other angles to note:
First, all observers declared the election process prior to the lot was very organized, clear, and transparent. A limited pool of around 2,400 electors brought the number of candidates from five to three, of whom the lot will fall on one.
Some remarked the church wanted to present a picture of democracy and order that has so far escaped the Egyptian transition. Yes, for both parliament and president, democracy has been present and the lines to vote have been orderly. Yet the church has bent over backwards to ensure its election majors on the key missing ingredient in Egypt: transparency.
Second, if indeed there is transparency in selecting one of these three names, it presents an unmistakable spiritual picture of leadership to Egypt. One liberally-minded Muslim friend questions the reality of the lot, saying there is no way any large institution can leave their top leadership position to chance. He believes Bishop Raphael will be chosen; tomorrow we will see.
I am not sure how to interpret this spiritual picture, if indeed the blindfolded child has three separate names from which to draw. Yet given the wrangling, ambition, and conspiracy that has surrounded the Egyptian presidential contest – with unmistakable religious overtones – the church is saying: We trust in God.
As always, statements must be modified. The church is not saying it is a model for the Egyptian state. On the contrary, if anything, it is a rebuke by contrast. As a church we can be clearly spiritual in our leadership selection, but we are all Christians. The state, as a mixed polity, should be clearly secular.
If this is the lesson offered by the church, it is received. But it is not received with full transparency. The final choice is for God, and the election from five to three was by an accredited election. But the movement of candidates from seventeen to five was not particularly transparent. Twelve candidates were removed by a committee, and among these were the most controversial and polarizing figures.
Of the five that remained, three were of a similar disposition, while two were monks who were largely unknown. Please read the article to learn a little more of this disposition, but if the election from five and the lot from three will result in a similar pope no matter the candidate, where is the transparency?
By and large, Copts are very happy with their choices, so there is no need to complain. Furthermore, the church is not a democracy and should not be held to the standards of modern revolutionary conventional wisdom.
But on what basis were other candidates removed? Perhaps, simply, spiritual wisdom? This is not the same as transparency, on which democracy rests. Democracy can be transparent yet produce an unwise choice. But spin this differently, and the question is necessary: Is an appeal to spiritual wisdom simply a justification for paternalistic arrogance?
Now extend this question to Egypt, as President Mubarak did: Is Egypt ready for democracy?
Countless non-Islamists might look at the results and wonder, for they dare not articulate contrary to holy democratic principle, ‘No’. Democracy demands faith in the people, who can be rather fickle and easily manipulated.
Meanwhile, countless Islamists recognize ‘faith in the people’ as idolatry. They demand the coming constitution state clearly that sovereignty belongs – not to the people as currently written – but to God.
In the above, three models are presented: the reception of a system from God, the full sovereignty of people, and the paternalism that allows choice along a spectrum. Where does wisdom lie?
As I stated, I am not sure how to interpret the lessons from the papal selection process to the Egyptian society at large. I sense, however, the observations are poignant. I only wish for their proper translation.
Alexandria, Egypt, was once a lighthouse for Christianity, emanating from the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Now it is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more conservative Salafi Muslims.
So a Christian opening a cultural center for Muslim and Christian artists in Alexandria—within the walls of an Anglican church—demonstrates a stroke of boldness in a city where some 23 Coptic Christians were killed in a church bombing on New Year’s Day 2011.
“For many Muslims,” says Nader Wanis, founder of the Corners for Creativity cultural center, “it was the first time in their life they [had] entered a church. They were astounded we let them in; then they go and invite others.”
Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.
This article was very fun to research and write; it was a nice break from politics and the challenge of understanding what is happening in Egypt.
‘This is Our City’ is a new feature of Christianity Today, highlighting Christians who are working not just for the good of their church or the good of their faith, but the good of the whole city. It focuses on six American locales – Portland, Richmond, Detroit, New York, Phoenix, and Palo Alto – and then a ‘7th City’ which can draw on good examples from anywhere.
So when I heard about this particular cultural center in Alexandria, I inquired if Christianity Today was interested in highlighting an international effort.
They were. Bangkok, Thailand was first to the pole, but I am glad to help Egypt get the silver medal.
My article on Morsy’s victory was originally published at Christianity Today on June 25, 2012.
In the most democratic elections since 1952, the people of Egypt have freely chosen their leader. And for the first time in history, that leader is a native-born Islamist.
Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood captured 51 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating his rival Ahmed Shafik (widely perceived as the candidate of the former regime) who gathered 48 percent. Jubilant crowds in Tahrir Square celebrated into the night, though for diverse reasons.
Many rejoiced at the triumph of the candidate of Islam, one who had pledged to implement Shari’ah law. Others, nervous at the prospect of Muslim Brotherhood rule, nevertheless exulted in the triumph of the revolution, first deposing Mubarak and then defeating his former minister.
Some, though not likely in Tahrir, quietly exhaled at a democratic election and rotation of power, hopeful these gains will not be reversed.
Meanwhile, at a Christian retreat center outside of Cairo, a number of Coptic women shed tears of despair over their community’s future, as they huddled around a television and watched Morsy be proclaimed the winner.
Some of the men tried to find the positive…
Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today
Egyptians vote today, but I am having trouble deciding if I wish or am able to make a prediction (especially after the last disaster). I think probably I will, but my mind is still spinning from recent events, so in all likelihood I’ll wait until tomorrow and gauge the mood after day one.
In the meanwhile I can share with you some articles published elsewhere in advance of the run-off elections.
This weekend, Egypt will choose as its president either Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood or Ahmed Shafik of the former Hosni Mubarak regime. (That is, unless fallout from a high court’s invalidation yesterday of the nation’s parliament cancels the election.) Few Egyptians are excited about these choices—including many of the nation’s Copts.
But who are the Copts? Generally understood as “the Christians of Egypt,” Copts comprise Orthodox, evangelicals, and Catholics who total 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people. (Egypt also has a sizeable population of Christian refugees from Sudan.) Both the euphoria and disappointment of the Arab Spring have brought these branches of Christianity in Egypt closer together as a community.
However, defining the Copts concretely is more difficult, explains Mark Nygard, director of graduate studies at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (founded in 1863 by American Presbyterian missionaries).
“Copts are the historical Orthodox Church of Egypt. It is a fuzzy term, but strictly speaking it refers to those under the pope’s authority,” he said.
Click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.
From Christian Century: Asking if Copts did, and now will, vote for the old regime candidate.
Coptic Christians, who constitute about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, were in a unique position to influence the first round of the presidential elections on May 23–24, the first election ever in Egypt without a predetermined outcome. It appears that they sided primarily with a representative of the old regime.
The top two vote-getters were Ahmed Shafik, who was appointed prime minister by Hosni Mubarak in a last-ditch effort to save his position, and Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. With Morsi and Shafik set to compete in a runoff election June 16–17, the election seems drawn as a competition between the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi and Shafik each advanced with about 24 percent of the total, edging out Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished third. Sabahi is a long-standing opposition figure and a moderate socialist and Egyptian nationalist. As the centrist candidacies of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa waned, Sabahi’s popularity exploded, especially among the youth, including many Copts. Fotouh is a former Brotherhood member who sought to be a bridge between Islamists and liberals. He attracted some Copts until receiving the endorsement of ultra-conservative Salafi groups, which scared many away. Moussa is a former foreign minister who fell out of favor with Mubarak, which increased his credibility. He attracted Copts who were sympathetic to the revolution but wary of drastic changes.
Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, estimated that about 60 percent of Christians voted for Shafik, 30 percent for Sabahi, and 10 percent for Moussa. As the votes were counted, one Sabahi campaign activist lashed out at Christians, claiming that they killed the revolution. He was quickly quieted down.
Yet is the charge true? Did Copts vote solidly for the most counterrevolutionary candidate? One must also ask: Did they feel the threat of the Brotherhood compelled them to make this decision?
For Sidhom, the choice has become clear. “The revolution is now in the hands of political Islam, and Copts must make a bitter choice to support the civil state. I expect Moussa’s supporters will easily shift to Shafik, but how will we be able to convince the youth, who were so dedicated to the revolution, to do so as well?”
Click here to continue reading at Christian Century.
Finally, for any Spanish speaking readers of this blog, please click here to access the Deia newspaper from Spain which is following the Coptic perspective on elections, and interviewed me in the process.
On February 28, 2012 the leaders of the Evangelical Churches of Egypt met with the Muslim Brotherhood, and produced a document delineating the shared values of both organizations.
About a month ago I posted the text of this agreement online. Today, my article was published on Christianity Today, drawing out from leaders on both sides the substance of what exactly was agreed upon. Please click here to read it on their site.
Seventeen evangelical signatories are listed; perhaps the one most surprising comes at the very end.
Rev. Rifaat Fikry is the pastor of an evangelical church in Shubra, a densely populated suburb to the north of Cairo well known for its high concentration of Christian residents.
Rev. Fikry is well known for his strident anti-Islamist stance. In fact, it is this very posture which involved him in the dialogue in the first place.
President of the Evangelical Churches Rev. Safwat el-Bayadi and Vice-President Rev. Andrea Zaki first contemplated the quiet invitation of the Muslim Brotherhood, issued through Dr. Rafik Habib. Habib is a controversial figure in evangelical circles. He is the son of Rev. Samuel Habib, founder of the Coptic Organization for Social Services – one of the largest charity and development groups in the country.
He is also a vice-president in the Freedom and Justice Party, the political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Coptic community of Egypt is very wary of Islamists, fearing an agenda they believe will result in their marginalization and loss of citizenship rights. Knowing full well the sentiment of their flock, Bayadi and Zaki turned to Fikry as the best exemplar and most informed of those who could express Coptic fears through an evangelical lens.
They asked him to write a letter to the Brotherhood detailing every concern, complaint, and consternation. After review, Bayadi and Zaki placed their names on the document, and sent it to the Brotherhood through Habib.
As the original author, it was only appropriate for Fikry to attend the subsequent meeting. He was especially interested to sit face to face with Brotherhood leaders, to ask them the questions at the heart of his opposition. During the sessions, he did so, with boldness.
In the end, Fikry was very pleased with the document. His main complaint lies in the Brotherhood’s rejection of referencing international treaties on human rights. MB leaders were concerned this could open the door to an acceptance of homosexuality, but Fikry argued nothing of the sort. His concern was for religious rights principally.
Even as the meeting ended, Fikry maintained an anti-Islamist stance. He was skeptical; after many months he finds confirmation that the Brotherhood simply used the evangelical churches for political gain.
But he is not regretful. Fikry is clear that he will sit for dialogue with anyone. The lasting value in the meeting comes not only from the agreed upon document, but also from the beginning of relationship. Though this has not continued in subsequent months, it still exists. If Islamists reach to power – a proposition Fikry finds very unlikely – these relationships could be invaluable. If not, they are valuable all the same.
They enable a man to say his piece, and to hear an answer directly.
As the evangelical churches and Muslim Brotherhood agreed, this is part and parcel of citizenship.
The only question, for Fikry especially, is of implementation. Even so, fear thereof should not preclude the effort.
On the contrary, such fear demands it.
Note: Christianity Today also published a feature text on Egypt and the responses of Christian leaders to the transition period. Please click here for access, and click here for the article on the MB-Evangelical agreement.
Posting to the blog has been a little scarce these days, after a furious run-up to the elections. The good news is that the writing focus has been directed to publications seeking coverage, and the first of these was published this afternoon at Christianity Today. I hope another one will come due next week, but for now, please enjoy this preview, and if it grabs you click below to conclude the reading on their site.
After a year of new forms of political engagement, why do Copts still face the same ‘bitter choice’ of old regime vs. Islamists?
Despite the best efforts of Christian and Muslim revolutionaries, the first free presidential election in Egypt’s history has resulted in an all-too-familiar choice: old regime vs. Islamists.
The nation’s Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission confirmed on Monday that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy advanced to the run-off election against Ahmed Shafik, former president Hosni Mubarak’s last-ditch appointee as prime minister during the revolution’s early days. Both candidates gathered nearly 25 percent of the vote. Only a few percentage points behind was Hamdeen Sabbahi, whose late surge as the revolutionary choice was not enough to displace Egypt’s traditional combatants.
The majority of Copts voted for Shafik, according to Mina el-Badry, an evangelical pastor in Upper Egypt. “Not from love, but to oppose the Islamists,” he said, “because [Shafik] is from the army and will know how to run the transition, and because he is clear and firm in his word and decision.”
Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Coptic newspaper Watani, also sees the necessity of Christians supporting Shafik. “The revolution is now in the hands of political Islam,” he said, “and Copts must make a bitter choice to support the civil state.”
Yet many Copts wonder why this bitter choice has returned.
Click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.
Just a short post today to direct to the article I contributed to Christianity Today on why the death of Pope Shenouda is also mourned by Egypt’s Protestants. If you click on the link above today you will see it highlighted as the lead story. Afterwards, please click here for the permanent link.
I hope the article will help the largely evangelical American audience better understand Coptic Christians, and the great affinity between the two communities. May they pray for the church here during this period of mourning, and for wisdom, in selecting a successor.
Here is the article opening:
Pope Shenouda, the controversial yet beloved head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, passed away on Saturday after 40 years of leading and reforming the ancient Christian sect. His death complicates the uncertain position of Orthodox believers—who represent 90 percent of Egyptian Christians—now that Islamists have surged to leadership following Egypt’s revolution last January.
Coptic Protestants respected and appreciated the pope.
“Shenouda was a pope of the Bible,” said Ramez Atallah, head of the Bible Society of Egypt. “We are the fifth-largest Bible society in the world because [he] created a hunger for the Scriptures among Copts.”
Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, described Shenouda’s commitment to interdenominational understanding. “I have known him since before he was pope, and we served together on the Middle East Council of Churches. He would meet with us for hours and listen to our views.”
Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.
While noting irregularities, former US president Jimmy Carter, through his Carter Center for promoting democracy, has judged the elections to be “acceptable.” When the first post-Mubarak parliament opens session today (January 23) its composition will be 72 percent Islamist.
The celebrated chant of Tahrir Square – “Muslims and Christians are one hand” – has given way to sectarian politics in which liberal parties, favored by the great majority of Copts, received a crushing defeat.
The Democratic Alliance, dominated by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood, has won 46 percent of the seats. The more conservative Salafi Nour Party has captured 24 percent. A handful of smaller Islamist parties add another 2 percent. Liberal politicians, who were once hopeful, are reeling from their losses. Coptic Christians are left pondering their murky future.
Today, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed article about risks to freedom that observed, “Especially critical is protection for Copts, the canaries in Egypt’s coal mine. The fate of Egypt’s democracy—and the chances for the emergence of non-Islamist options—will rest on whether this millennia-old community, as well as an array of other groups, feels comfortable in the new Egypt.”
Amin Makram Ebeid, a Coptic intellectual and author, summarizes four primary Coptic responses:
A minority, though sizeable, is planning to emigrate.
The largest group is looking for spiritual, perhaps even mystical solutions.
A smaller party is dedicated to stay and fight for their rights, especially in securing a non-Islamist constitution, which according to the national referendum in March is the provenance of parliament.
Finally, there is a group that is looking to cooperate with Islamists, provided Copts do not lose their identity in the process.
Paula Magdy, a 24-year-old volunteer librarian in a Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, illustrates the group seeking spiritual solutions. “We pray to God to save us, but I am not afraid. Up until now we have not been sure about anything. Maybe they have won elections, but we will win the war?”
Fawzi Khalil, a pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Church also estimates most Christians fall into the spiritual solution category, with only about 10 percent actively participating in shaping the political outcome for Copts.
Standing their Ground
Emad Gad is one of the 10 percent, representing the group wishing to stay and fight. He is a Coptic leader in the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, winning a parliament seat in the north Cairo district. Naturally, he offers political perspective.
“We don’t fear the result of elections because there were many violations that skewed results. In any case, parliament will not form the government, the president will, and the military council also maintains its influence.”
For him, the constitution is the largest battleground, but liberals are working on an agreement with Islamists for each party to nominate a limited number of members to the committee which will draft it.
Nevertheless, “If Islamists reach toward a Saudi-style government we have many means to resist. Certainly the new generation is able to go once again to the streets. I expect Egypt will remain a civil state.”
Father Philopater will also stay and fight, but his is a religious perspective. A controversial priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church who has repeatedly clashed with the hierarchy, Philopater expects a continuation of the suffering of Copts.
“The one benefit is that persecution will now be obvious, as under Mubarak it was always assigned to hidden hands or deviant people.”
Furthermore, Copts should not cooperate with Islamists. ‘It is true some speak of protecting Copts, but others speak about jizia, call us infidels, or instruct Muslims not to greet us in the street.’
Ebeid agrees with non-cooperation. “Christians should not support them in their quest for power. If we sell ourselves, why should liberal Muslims continue to fight?”
Cooperating with Islamists
Then there is the group which promotes cooperation. Rafik Habib, son of a now-deceased prominent Protestant pastor, represents a tiny Coptic constituency that actually favors Islamist rule. He is among roughly one hundred Copts who are founding members of the Brotherhood’s FJP, and serves as one of its vice-presidents.
He believes Egypt must accept the essential religious basis of society, not deny it.
“Secularism surrounds Christianity and the church and weakens its role in society. Under an Islamic state it can be completely different because the main function of the Islamic state is to protect religion, not to restrict it.”
More typical are Copts who wish to cooperate with Islamists but due to necessity. Among these is Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani.
“In order to keep any vicious Islamist appetite at bay we must stay at the table with them and remind them they promised not to hijack Egypt.”
Unlike Philopater, Sidhom has a degree of trust in the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who through his interactions with them finds them to be decent people.
“I believe the Brotherhood wants to prove they can create a form of democracy that respects the rights of all Egyptians.”
Similar to Social Democrat Gad, however, Sidhom is prepared.
“Our Plan B if Islamist groups seek an Islamic state is to oppose their constitution in a referendum, but if it is accepted, Copts and liberal Muslims – 40 percent of the population – will take again to the streets.”
All Politics is Local
While these responses are varied, it is “the street” that decides. This is not the street of Tahrir Square, but the poor, crowded neighborhoods in every city of Egypt.
In Warrak, a suburb of Cairo, Shadia Bushra, a 45 year old Coptic widow, cast her vote for the Freedom and Justice Party.
“I don’t know much about politics, but I followed the general view of the neighborhood.”
It did not hurt that when her local church failed to intervene to defend her rights in a property dispute, Essam Sharif, her Salafi neighbor and a leader in the Nour Party stood by her side, retained a lawyer, and helped win the judgment against wealthier Christian neighbors.
“I told her I would have done the same if she was opposed by Muslims,” stated Sharif.
Stated Islamist commitment to the rights of all has also won support from Copts in Maghagha, a small city in Upper Egypt. Sheikh Hamdi Abdel Fattah is a candidate for the Nour Party.
“I will consider myself the candidate of Christians ahead of Muslims, even if they do not vote for me. As such, I have to demand their rights. This is both democracy and Shari’ah law.”
Father Yu’annis is a Coptic Orthodox priest in Maghagha and has campaigned openly for Abdel Fattah.
“I don’t support him as a Salafi or as a Muslim, but as a person. He is from our village and I hope all Salafis will be like him.”
Yet he is pragmatic as well. “If we see more than two-thirds of the people are for an Islamic state we cannot stop them from having it, so as the Egyptian proverb says, ’With him who wins, play with him’. I must do my village duty to stand by him, so he won’t say I caused him to lose, and if he wins, he will be thankful.”
The seismic politic changes in Egypt during the past 12 months are still underway. Copts and others fill this resulting uncertainty with fears and expectations in wildly different directions.
Essam Thabit, a Coptic school teacher in Maghagha, believes all will be well. “Whoever comes to power will make sure they treat Christians better than the old regime, even though they know Christians won’t vote for them. I expect many churches to be built.”
His Coptic colleague Yasser Tekla from the neighboring city of Beni Mazar expects, and oddly welcomes, the worst. “I will vote for the Salafis now so they will come to power and people will see them truly, and then reject them afterwards.”
Many Copts hesitated during the revolution, while others joined wholeheartedly. The initial celebrations of Tahrir – where Muslims and Christians alternated protecting each other at prayer – have been followed by multiple instances of bloody sectarian conflict.
This has prompted Copts to ask themselves hard questions: Should Copts take refuge in the military council against Islamists, or with Islamists against the military-as-old-regime? Should they enter the political arena and trust its processes, or enter their churches and trust in God?
So far, clear answers to these questions seem beyond the reach of Egypt’s Christian minority.