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Copts Ring Church Bells for Egyptian Muslims, in Christian Sympathy

My new article for Providence Magazine.

Copts Church Bells Sinai
Photo Credit: Church and mosque in Egypt. By kmf164, via Flickr.

In what is being called the largest terrorist attack in modern Egyptian history, over 235 people were killed at a village mosque. Militants detonated explosives as worshipers exited the Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abd, 25 miles west of the North Sinai capital of Arish. Several then fired upon the fleeing masses.

There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion falls upon the Islamic State. The Rawda mosque is affiliated with the Gaririya Sufi order, and ISIS has previously vowed to attack what it deems to be heterodox Muslims, warning them to stop their distinctive rituals. ISIS represents an extreme Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, and is offended by Sufi practices that seek a mystical connection with God through chants and visits to the shrines of Muslim saints.

In 2013, a Sufi shrine was bombed with no casualties. But in 2016 two prominent Sufi sheikhs were kidnapped and decapitated.

Coptic Christians, who have seen over 100 people killed under an ISIS vow, responded with condemnation and sympathy. The next day, Saturday the 25th, the Coptic Orthodox Church spokesman announced all churches in Egypt would ring their bells in solidarity at noon.

“We pray to God that Egypt is preserved from such unprecedented brutal terrorism,” the church announced in its first statement, released shortly after the bombing. “We offer our sincere condolences to the families of the martyrs, praying for the healing of all who are injured,” stated the second announcement about the bells.

Such a public display of Christianity will only further infuriate ISIS…

Please click here to read the full article at Providence Magazine.


Middle East Providence Published Articles

Islamism: Contextualist or Essentialist? Or Both?

My new article for Providence Magazine.

Islamism Contexualist Essentialist
Photo Credit: Mosque in Tunisia. By Tarek, via Flickr.

In an excellent review of Shadi Hamid and Will McCants’ Rethinking Political Islam, Olivier Roy says there are generally two ways to think about Islamism.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, he first briefly introduces three important shockwaves—the Arab Spring, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS)—that have affected the debate.

As Hamid and McCants write, “After decades speculating on what Islamists would do when they came to power, analysts, academics—and Islamists themselves—finally have an answer. And it is confusing.”

The confusion tends to be filtered into analysis based on one’s predisposition.

There is a contextual approach, as Roy explains: “The policies and practices of Islamist movements are driven less by ideology than by events and sees such groups as reactive and adaptive.” He elaborates:

Contextualists believe that Islamist groups seek to adapt to circumstances and country-specific norms (for example, by recognizing the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco). The groups’ main goal is to survive as coherent organizations and political actors. And their use of religious rhetoric is often little more than “Muslim-speak”—a way to express a unique identity and articulate grievances, especially against the West.

There is also an essentialist approach: “Islamists are fundamentally ideological and that any concessions they make to secularist principles or institutions are purely tactical.”

A corollary to this argument is the idea—extolled by critics of Islamism but also some of its adherents—that Islamic theology recognizes no separation between religion and politics, and therefore an authentic Islamist cannot renounce his ideological agenda in favor of a more pragmatic or democratic approach.

The presentation is skillful, and after researching Islamist movements and parties across the Muslim world, Roy offers a conclusion…

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Providence Magazine.

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How Do Copts Endure their Martyrdoms?

From my article published at Providence Magazine:

Copts Endure Martydrom
Photo Credit: Egyptian Coptic Christians attend Orthodox Good Friday mass at the Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo, Egypt, on April 10, 2015. Xinhua/Pan Chaoyue, via Flickr.

“On a day like today,” Fr. Samaan Shehata was murdered in Cairo. The day was October 12, but he likely read those very words in mass just one day earlier, introducing the lives of the saints.

Hunted down and stabbed repeatedly by a Muslim extremist, his name now joins their list. Dozens have preceded him in the last few years alone, gunned down in a bus, bombed in a church, beheaded in Libya.

Godfather to Shehata’s children, Fr. Yuannis Anton said these deaths are a “tax” that Copts must pay for the peace of the church and nation. These are difficult days for Egypt, he said, and the fight against terrorism is a fight for stability.

“In the language of the church, it is our cross to bear,” he said. “But we pray with Jesus not to hold this sin against them. We are not angry nor ask for vengeance, this is not our spirit.”

Similar stances have repeatedly wowed the world as Coptic faithful forgive their enemies. But even when their call instead emphasizes justice, there is an odd sense of jealousy that indwells many in the community.

“I wish I was with him, and lost my life with him,” Fr. Biemen Muftah told C-Sat, who was with Shehata at the time of the murder. “I wish I was as ready as he was, and could be in the place he is now.”

Choking back tears, he said, “We have lost a good priest on the earth, but gained the best intercessor in heaven.”

It is these intercessors Copts learn about “on a day like today,” every time the mass is celebrated.

Called the Synaxarium, the liturgy features daily hagiographic biographies of the celebrated saints of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Read after the Acts of the Apostles and before the Gospel, it features 726 entries, 237 of which involve martyrdom. In daily readings, nearly half the year encourages the faithful to suffer even unto death…

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Providence Magazine.


Middle East Providence Published Articles

Will the Ambush of a Church Retreat Ambush Also Coptic Faith?

This article was first published at Providence Magazine.

Ambush Coptic Bus Minya
(Photo Credit: Screenshot of Associated Press raw footage of bus that was carrying Coptic Christians going to church retreat when they were ambushed in Egypt on May 26.)

As word spread that 28 Coptic Christians were killed by terrorists, ambushed on their way to a church retreat in Upper Egypt, it was a little while before the realization hit: I was on a church retreat in the Delta.

Being in the opposite direction offered no sense of safety. Only one month earlier the Islamic State sent two suicide bombers to spoil Palm Sunday in churches in the Delta cities of Tanta and Alexandria. But this attack seemed different, another escalation. Coptic outings like the fated one to St. Samuel the Confessor Monastery near Minya in Upper Egypt represent one of the favorite activities of Orthodox Christians throughout Egypt, a mixture of spirituality and social fun. This killing could be a message for Christians to stay in their homes. Whether at worship or leisure, they are ISIS’ favorite target.

But the mentality is worse. Before the Palm Sunday bombings, the Islamic State drove Christians from their homes in northern Sinai, forcing them to take refuge in the Suez Canal cities or Cairo. There is an element—very small but determined and dangerous—that wants Egypt rid of Christianity.

It will be a very difficult task. The roots of the faith go back two thousand years. Copts claim first-century St. Mark the gospel writer as the founder of their church, and third-century St. Anthony the hermit as the founder of monasticism. Gruesome death is no stranger to the Coptic Orthodox Church; its liturgical calendar begins at the era of Diocletian, the Roman emperor who set thousands of martyrs to the sword. It is not likely the church is going anywhere.

But will they think twice before going again to a monastery? St. Samuel is off in the desert, an ancient expression of the Christian impulse to simplify and flee the allurement of the world. Copts in Upper Egypt go to the monastery 120 miles south of Cairo on the Western Desert road to seek the saint’s blessing, and perhaps the spiritual guidance of a monk. But with little else in the way of area entertainment, they also go for a picnic and to have a good time.

So also do they go to Anafora, a modern expression of the Christian impulse to simplify and uplift the marginalized of the world. This is where I was, 90 miles north of Cairo on the Alexandria Desert road, when I heard the news of the savage attack on the bus to St. Samuel. The rest of the day the atmosphere was sullen. Founded only two decades ago and not a monastery but a place of lay retreat and development, Anafora is usually vibrant and bustling with activity. But what joy can there be in the face of such evil?

Yet there must be. That evening the staff at Anafora quietly celebrated the birthday of one of their sisters. The founding bishop urges Copts to not give into fear, but to insist on both love and justice. Is this not the message of Christianity, to resurrect life after suffering death? The Coptic Orthodox Church has incarnated this model for two thousand years, will they not continue?

Friday begins the weekend in Egypt in accordance with the Muslim day of communal prayer. Most churches make this their primary worship service as well, and many Christians take advantage of the quiet roads and time off to commune with fellow believers in their monastery of preference. There are dozens scattered throughout the country, and surely next Friday they will be full again. Copts have not stopped going to church after the suicide bombings. I suspect they will not stop celebrating their heritage of monasticism and martyrdom either.

But the question of continuance must be asked. Since the Arab Spring, emigration has dramatically increased in anecdote, though official figures cannot be verified. And for decades within Egypt, economic realities even more than sectarian tension have driven internal migration from villages to cities. Are there enough of strong faith and eternal Christian values to stay and persevere? Or is it those of strong means and international Christian connections who leave, regardless of faith? In any case, the less-well-off are left behind.

But poor, rich, and in-between, the Copts of Egypt still number in the millions. Now by far the largest Christian community in the Middle East, they also claim a Biblical promise. “Blessed be Egypt, my people,” God says through the prophet Isaiah, and with Muslims the Copts see God’s hand of preservation upon the land of the Nile. But Isaiah also listed Assyria, modern-day Iraq now bereft of Christians, as God’s handiwork. With Israel named as God’s inheritance, is the best the Copts can hope for a tenuous middle ground?

There may not be much sympathetic American Christians can do to help, but do try to understand. And as you enjoy your church outing in the weeks to come this summer, do so with remembrance and prayer. Think too of the allurements of the world, the blessings of simplicity, and the necessary uplift of the marginalized. Think of St. Samuel, and of Anafora, and of an ancient bond of faith.

If from there you can only grow frustrated, remember the importance of love, justice, and joy. Trust God will work out his purposes and join him along the way, even as ambushes await.



Middle East Providence Published Articles

A Rough Stretch in a Season of Waiting: Egypt’s Christians and the Cathedral Bombing

Photo by Omar Elhady, via Twitter (@ElHady).

This article was first published at Providence Magazine.

“There has been a bombing at the cathedral,” said the pastor at the local Methodist church in a lower-class area of downtown Cairo. “Several are dead, and we pray for our nation.”

It took me a moment to comprehend, but the gravity of his words indicated more than a simple illustration. I opened my cell phone to check the news and saw the bold headline: 25 dead and 49 injured in an attack on the Coptic Orthodox cathedral. The spiritual center of Egyptian Christianity had been mercilessly violated.

Only a few minutes earlier, the sermon considered John the Baptist and how his life of faithfulness ended with his head on a platter. Here again now was another modern Egyptian example of martyrdom, one more in a long line since the similar bombing of a church in Alexandria six years earlier. Several women sobbed quietly, as the men sat in stunned silence.

But a little later as they exited the service, the collective sense felt more like resignation. The men exchanged pleasantries and went home; the women lingered a little longer in conversation. What was unthinkable at the start of the Arab Spring had become unsurprising. In Alexandria 23 Copts died when a car bomb went off outside the church, but that attack, at least, soon gave way to the hope of a new revolution. The cathedral atrocity gives no inspiration, as Egypt remains muddled in a regional fog of war and terrorism.

In-between the two bombings were the 2013 revenge attacks on dozens of churches throughout the nation, as frustrated Islamists blamed Christians for the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi. And the usual stream of sectarian incidents continued apace, as the state failed to hold accountable the mob violence of Muslims objecting to a church in their village, or an interfaith love affair, or any other typical but ill-justified collective form of Coptic punishment. It has been a rough stretch for Egypt’s Christians.

But not nearly as rough as the Christians of Iraq and Syria, or the Muslims of Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere have endured—and the Copts know this. They stand behind their Muslim Brotherhood-vanquishing president, and give much slack to a government they know is under tremendous pressure. Everywhere they turn it seems some new conspiracy is bent on dragging Egypt into the Middle East morass. The economy is in shambles, tourism is nonexistent, and save for the mandatory utterances of support following terrorism, they feel the international community never speaks except in censure. For this reason many have expressed favor at the election of Donald Trump. He likes our president, they say, and at least he’ll leave us alone.

For Copts are tired of being treated as pawns. A few days before the bombing, Foreign Policy ran a story entitled, “How Egypt’s Copts Fell Out of Love with President Sisi.” Even Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint piled on, ostensibly seeking to help by demanding the US president support Egypt’s Christians. “Meet the new persecutor,” said the article subtitle, “same as the old one.” Some on the left seem intent on buttressing the narrative of Copts in the way of a deserved Islamist democratic future. Some on the right seem intent on painting Muslims as sharia-inspired agents of Christian antipathy.

Both articles do well to draw on actual Coptic voices, and important ones. The news they convey is vital to learn in a world where, unless made a pawn, the Copt is often ignored. But they miss the nuance of the Coptic reality. Perhaps they can be forgiven for not knowing enough; perhaps they are guilty of pushing an agenda.

Back in Egypt, the Copts are well aware of incumbent discrimination and state weakness. But they cheer on a president who attends Christmas mass with the pope, and a military that rebuilds the churches Islamists destroyed. A new law for church building may or may not fully address the issues surrounding freedom of worship, but at least this regime—the first in 160 years—issued a law at all.

And following every tragedy, the common Muslim tends to open his or her bosom. Private taxi services Uber and Careem offered free rides to the hospital for blood donations. Many have missed the fact this bombing took place on the birthday of Islam’s prophet, a traditional day of merriment. The attack was therefore an assault on Muslims as well, Christians note. A popular cartoon draws the traditional holiday doll in the black clothes of mourning, as behind her stands a somber crucifix.

Thus between the kindness of the Egyptian soul and the sectarianism latent in an identity-driven society, the Copt is left waiting for national transformation. The rhetoric of the current regime seeks to revive a spirit of Egyptian nationalism, if only it can sludge through current challenges to reach a modicum of stability. Every maltreated Copt who fails to obtain justice is another reminder of how far the country has to go. And the cathedral bombing is another example of the powerful forces that stand against an idealized future.

But from the demonized past and lingering present, the Muslim Brotherhood condemns the bombing in one breath and blames it on regime-church collaboration in another. As long as this is the alternative, Copts find their best option in the preservation of a strong-handed government and a nominally secular society. Some in their community continue faithfully to agitate for human rights and a less political role for the church. Many agree but feel security and economy must be prioritized. Most hope for an open society of enlightened Egyptians, if only a generation away.

The Methodist church sermon that ended with John’s head on a platter began with the miracle that led to his birth. Elderly Zachariah and sterile Elizabeth likely long gave up hope of a child, the pastor surmised. Even so, “Your prayer has been heard,” said the angel. God is faithful, even when his people falter. John, the pastor noted, also doubted the one he baptized.

Where in this parable are Egypt’s Copts? Soon to be beheaded, or of pious prayers fulfilled? Likely somewhere in between, still inclined to pray for their nation.

Middle East Providence Published Articles

Egypt and the Agony of Ongoing Tragedy

This article was first published at Providence Magazine:

Photo Credit: Wing of EgyptAir plane in November 2008. By via Flickr.

6am in Cairo, May 19, I woke to the news of another disaster. EgyptAir flight 804 fell out of the sky en route from Paris, France. The world wondered terrorism. Egypt pondered the same, but the cause almost didn’t matter. With many Egyptians I exhaled deeply, sighing in familiar resignation, “Oh no, not again.”

Writing about Egypt these past seven years, I have shed many a tear over local developments. Most have come observing the nation’s self-inflicted wounds, as young men are anointed ‘martyrs’ after near-pointless street clashes. Others have come as once hopeful faces harden into determined grimace against either the regime or its opponents, if not altogether into despondent passivity.

But that morning there was no time for tears, and one reason was personal. The next morning I would fly with my family the same route to Paris, transferring onward back to America.

For us the inconvenience was a delayed flight, a missed connection, and acute exhaustion after a very long day. But back in the United States I could soak in the green grass, breathe the fresh air of freedom, and lament a polarized political discourse that seems offensive given our comparable blessings.

But in Egypt flight 804 is far more than an inconvenience. It is hard to weep when suffering becomes endemic, when a country steels itself against the inevitable next blow. Tears were a natural response for the families who lost loved ones. The rest of the nation simply feels under siege.

“Oh no.”

When Metrojet flight 9286 crashed into Sinai October of last year, Egypt hoped beyond hope that it was not terrorism. As ISIS claimed responsibility and Russia and the UK suspended their flights, many interpreted the hemorrhaging of nearly $250 million per month in lost tourism revenue as a targeted strike at the nation’s economy.

Fortunately the hijacked EgyptAir flight 181 in March ended safely as the result of a lovestruck looney. But for flight 804 a terrorism component would almost perversely be welcome, though no claim of responsibility has yet been issued. If Paris authorities failed at least Cairo has the misery of good company. Should EgyptAir equipment or crew prove to be at fault, another mental log gets marked against a would-be pyramids vacation.

Already it is too late. Who wants to come to a nation beset by five years of upheaval? Who wants to invest when governments are shuffled like a used deck of cards? The Egyptian pound devalues as foreign reserves evaporate. The regime desperately attempts to balance between necessary economic reforms and protection of the poor. But all the while prices are rising and only Gulf largesse buys time in hope that Egypt can get its house in order.

Set aside domestic political reform, for most Egyptians have. A dedicated few strive after the liberal reforms promised early in Tahrir Square, while the Muslim Brotherhood nurses their grudge against the many enemies they feel cheated them from power. The Western press rightfully rails against the human rights failings the government admits are a necessary compromise in search of stability. But the outcome is political stagnation as leaders ask for trust, but without the reserve of transparency on which it can be built.

The resulting gap is filled in with conspiracy, on all sides. The Muslim Brotherhood blamed the regime for the crash and warned more disasters would follow unless Egyptians unite against the alleged coup. Some regime supporters suggested Israeli involvement, and many saw evidence of a Western media campaign against Egypt. No matter what the failing, they say, Egypt is made to be at fault.

Pummeled from the right and left by events not always of their own making, it is hard to determine if conspiracies are spun just to distract the populace or if they are actually believed in full. But for want of a fully developed and accountable democratic political system, someone somewhere is always conspiring behind the scenes. It is just impossible to pin down who.

“Not again.”

In the aftermath another familiar cycle begins. Anonymously sourced quotes from foreign or Egyptian figures reveal information or posit interpretation. Egyptian authorities follow behind to deny, that no official findings have been concluded. Perhaps all is true and legitimate in the moment. But the world waits and eventually loses interest; Egyptians simply add to the list of yet unaccountable deaths, stretching back to the first days of the revolution. Still unknown is who killed the protestors.

The difficulty comes in policy recommendation, especially in an atmosphere filled with punditry. Hardheaded analysis is necessary, and God bless the diplomats who must make decisions. The Christian in us wants to help, but how to advise? In the contested arena sincere critique is taken as interference, for the Arab world has suffered at the hands of our moralizing endeavors. Foreign policy is about national self-interest; they are quite used to our situational application of principle. They are also quite used to seeking someone else to blame.

What does this imply for Egypt and terrorism, Egypt and good governance, Egypt and struggling political economy? Listen to Egypt’s groan, and sigh in return. Each disaster is felt personally, every loss a tragedy. Rather than seek strategic distance, embrace a sympathetic analysis. Mourn with those who mourn. Love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly. Suffer with them, but stay true to principle. Wounds—if from a friend—can be trusted.

Now is the time for comfort and prayer. Unfortunately, it is also the time for transparent investigation. In all her calamities, Egypt alone is ultimately responsible for the latter. The West can encourage, and demand fidelity. But without the former, we are no help at all.