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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.

 

 

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Experimental Egyptian Community Serving Dropouts Reaches Milestone

Sara Hanna
Sara Hanna

Sara Hanna has spent her last five years in a desert oasis, but despite this she is as normal a young adult as you could find anywhere: a 29-year-old university graduate keen to make a difference with her life.

‘I want to do something with meaning, to give my life for other people,’ she told Lapido Media. ‘I have a good education but others haven’t had the chance. I must create these opportunities for others.’

Many restless youth will dabble in volunteer social work for similar reasons. Others will seek a career in the field. But few can match Hanna’s experience on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, or hope to witness the transformation she will help create.

Her last five years were spent at Anafora, an experimental community created by Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

And on 23 November in Anafora, she was one of 26 Egyptian MA graduates of the Catholic University of Lyon, France, in a ceremony coordinated with the community’s fifteenth anniversary.

‘I have lived here because I believe in the vision of Bishop Thomas and the message of Anafora,’ Hanna said. ‘It is to lift up every person.’

The name Anafora means ‘to lift up’ in the ancient Coptic language, and is used of the sacrificial offering presented in the Orthodox liturgy.

Bishop Thomas presides over the diocese of Qusia, 270 kilometers from Cairo in the heart of Upper Egypt. The Asyut governorate where he is based suffers from 70 per cent poverty and 33 per cent illiteracy.

Couple these statistics with a traditional, conservative mentality, and Bishop Thomas concluded that drastic measures were necessary.

Bishop Thomas
Bishop Thomas

‘We wanted to be more free, more relaxed,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘To do this we needed to have Anafora outside their local setting.’

Today around 100 people, mostly from Qusia, have come to work in the retreat centre and various farming and educational programs on the 120 acre property. Hundreds of young people come every year and mix with international visitors, cross-pollinating in cultural exchange.

And like Hanna, some of them stay.

She is from Cairo and now directs the educational programs at Anafora. She supervises the tutoring of 50 high school dropouts, aged 16-41, to prepare them to return to Qusia and complete their high school degree. Fifteen others are in a vocational training program, learning skills through which they can gain employment or start small businesses back home.

In development is a nine-month certificate course in addiction counseling, in cooperation with the NET Institute in Florida.

Sister Partheneya, Hanna’s fellow graduate, estimates 40 per cent of male students in the Qusia ‘Son of the King’ youth program suffer from addiction to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or pornography. Five priests are enrolled and plan to create Qusia’s first addiction recovery center, which will be open to all.

But the joint program with the Catholic University is Bishop Thomas’ highest level of educational investment. Hanna and her colleagues received the equivalent of an MA in Local Development and Human Rights.

Furthermore, within five years Hanna will become the leader of an Anafora team and take on all the training. Until then professors will come from France and adapt their teaching to the local context.

It is the first extension program offered by the university, but they hope to replicate it elsewhere.

‘Bishop Thomas is a visionary and helped create a new idea,’ Olivier Frerot, the vice-rector at the Catholic University of Lyon, told Lapido Media. ‘He is creating civil society from the bottom up.’

Anafora Graduation

Among the graduates were 15 priests and two sisters. It is normal in Qusia for the better-educated priests to also serve as community leaders. The next batch of students has much more laity.

‘When you want to implement a new culture and elevate the whole society, you must convince the leaders first,’ said Fr. Angelos Faltas, one of the graduating priests. He partners with Muslim NGOs to combat illiteracy, and has begun an internship program with five local factories to train 100 men for the labour market every three months.

But it is not just the leaders that Bishop Thomas needs to convince. It took 10 years before Anafora finally saw local acceptance of his transformative vision.

One proof is in the prestigious American University of Cairo’s scholarship program. Each year since 2004 the university selects two students from each governorate, and 60 per cent of those from Asyut have come from the diocese of Qusia, said the bishop.

These students are honoured as role models for the community, representing Egypt at the highest levels. The only challenge is to get some to stay. Internal migration draws the best and brightest away from nearly all villages in Upper Egypt.

The priests will stay, as they are bound to the church. But from distant Anafora, Hanna explains her hope for the training.

‘It helps people know how to develop their local community,’ she said. ‘Now they will think how to stay and serve, rather than how to leave.’

 

This article was originally published at Lapido Media.

 

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Personal

Bishop Thomas: Almost a Jonah

In typical Coptic Orthodox clerical fashion with his flowing black gown and long white beard, you would never know Bishop Thomas was almost a Jonah.

The Jonah of old is characterized for his rebellion against God. He was commanded to preach to the people of Nineveh, went instead on a boat to Tarshish in the opposite direction, and met up along the way with a famous whale.

A point often missed in the story applies equally well to the case of Bishop Thomas: Jonah was a man of God already, at the point of his calling. He was a prophet with a well established ministry in Israel.

Bishop Thomas, meanwhile, was a missionary monk serving in Kenya. He had already dedicated his life to God, when, at the age of thirty, God interrupted.

The interruption came through Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, now deceased. He identified Thomas for the position of bishop of Qusia in Upper Egypt, giving him one day to prepare for his ordination.

Thomas actually said no to the pope – an almost unheard of boldness in clerical circles. Yet his spiritual father encouraged him to wait and pray before making any final decision.

At the cathedral in Cairo Thomas knelt alone before the altar of God and cried the tears of resistance. He begged God to take this burden from him. The word ‘bishop’ implied title, respect and responsibility of men. Thomas preferred his quiet, unknown service among the Africans.

It was then God revealed to Thomas exactly where he was kneeling.

In the Coptic language, ‘anafora’ means ‘offering’ – that placed in sacrifice upon the altar. Thomas pictured himself no longer weeping beside the altar, but surrendered upon it.

God showed him a bishop was not a hand to rule over people, but a hand to come beneath them to lift them up. With this his heart rested and he accepted the mission – to own the work of a bishop, and not the title.

Moving to Qusia his vision – in particular the word ‘anafora’ – remained with him. He purchased empty land along the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway over two hundred miles from his parish. Here he oversaw a reclamation project he named Anafora, an offering of spiritual retreat for all who were in need.

Anafora became a retreat center open to all Christian denominations, local and foreign. It also provided employment for the people of Qusia suffering from a difficult job market. These he formed into a team able to administer the center independently in democratic manner. He teaches them even to positively say ‘no’ to the bishop, as he once did in error to the pope.

Anafora is being developed additionally into an education and training center for personal capacity building. Its focus is on women’s development, but also on men, to allow their wives to develop. Furthermore, Bishop Thomas is creating a life-size Biblical panorama to aid in scriptural education, as well as a school of mission to train in service for fields abroad. Currently France is asking for trained Arabic speakers, in cooperation with the University of Lyon.

Jonah, though he repented, remained a bitter servant even after seeing the harvest of his preaching in Nineveh. In contrast, Bishop Thomas did not succumb to rebellion but embraced the call of God. He remains full of joy in the life God has given him, a servant to all he comes across.

A whale can chasten, but not transform. Only God can change a heart.

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Personal

An Egyptian ‘Rihla’ (Outing)

Last Saturday, our family of five joined a busload of Egyptians for an all-day trip to two monasteries.  This was the first trip we took like this since Layla joined our family a year ago, but Jayson has traveled with many from this group on several.  While these outings are great opportunities to see different parts of Egypt and also to interact with Egyptians on a deeper level, being out all day long with three young children can also be exhausting.  We often have to weigh these two thoughts to determine if a “rihla” is worth taking.  Obviously, we decided to be adventurous and give it a go this time.

Here is a little glimpse into our family’s experience on this latest rihla.

The bus was to leave from the bishopric church in Kozzika, just south of Maadi, by 6:45am.  We assumed that the bus would not leave on time as punctuality is not the most important trait of the Egyptian culture.  However, being the foreigners in the group, and not totally sure how late we could be, we opted to follow our Western ways and be there on time.  Sure enough, we were among the few who arrived on time.  The bus didn’t leave until around 7:30am, although I did hear others complain about not leaving on time.  These “others” however, were not at the meeting place at 6:45, so I’m not sure why they complained.  The fact that we left late didn’t really bother us since we expected it.  And actually, our two older girls enjoyed running around the church grounds as we waited, and being one of the first to arrive allowed us to choose the front seats of the bus to try to prevent the frequent car-sickness our girls’ exhibit.  Further, leaving later actually lined up better for our one-year old’s morning nap which she easily took in her car seat.

Our first stop of the day was to a monastery/retreat center called Anafora, which we learned means “sacrifice.” We had heard of this spot from foreigner friends who sometimes frequent the place for two to three day retreats with their families.  We even heard there was a pool which is sometimes suitable for swimming.  I wasn’t sure what to expect with this so I packed the bathing suits, but didn’t mention the possibility to the girls ahead of time.  This turned out to be a good idea since we never did see the pool to know if it was filled and clean for swimming.

Our first event of the day was mass in the church at Anafora.  At first I wasn’t sure if I would sit through the mass with an active one-year old in my lap, but it turned out to be the best place for our not-yet-walker to crawl around.  The whole place was carpeted with small, colorful carpets.

Inside the Sanctuary

It was a simple, yet beautiful building to take in.  Our two older girls enjoyed playing with their Egyptian peers in various ways throughout the mass, as I continuously looked toward their Egyptian parents to see if our girls were overstepping the expected norms.  Hannah was enjoying conversation with a group of kids, and at times laughed out loud during mass.

Surrounded by friends

At other times, Emma and Hannah were running and skipping around the back of the sanctuary with two Egyptian 3½ year olds from our group.  It didn’t seem to faze anyone too much, but I guess I am just used to Western expectations of children in church services.  I was so glad they were playing happily with the other kids; this is just what I hoped for.  However, I really wanted them to wait until AFTER mass was over.

Urging the kids to 'shhhh'

Meanwhile, Layla kept busy crawling and climbing and being picked up by total strangers.  And a few times, she even visited her Daddy on the men’s side of the church.

Keeping one still

When the mass ended, I told the girls they could finally run around.  But once again they had to sit as a woman briefly shared about the church building.

Taking in a lecture

Following mass, I assumed we would eat breakfast.  It is the Orthodox practice to fast until after communion.  This meant that most of those in our group had not eaten breakfast yet and it was now 10:30 in the morning.  I learned, however, that we would first visit the gift shop before eating.  This was followed by another surprise when Jayson told me we were getting back on the bus to drive somewhere else for breakfast.  This was unexpected as I thought the plan was to spend a few hours in this first monastery.  We soon learned that we were just going down the road slightly to another part of this monastery where we would eat breakfast and hang out for a few hours.

The other part of the compound was nice in many ways, but not great for the not-yet-walker.  There was no inside clean floor for her to crawl around on, and so she was a bit limited in her movement.  This part of the complex had a large courtyard surrounded by a shaded area where the tables and chairs were.

Entering the courtyard

This is where we ate breakfast, some listened to a lecture, and kids played.

Fun in open space

By about 2:30, we were ready to head to the second monastery of the day, about a 45-minute drive by bus.  This lined up perfectly with Layla’s afternoon nap, although wasn’t quite as long as I would have preferred.  Still, I was thankful for any sleep she had that day.  We had visited this second monastery before and remembered that the church here was also carpeted.  We figured this is where I could hang out with the kids even as Jayson attended a second lecture of the day.  We arrived at the St. Toma monastery shortly after 3pm.

St. Toma Monastery

I carried Layla in her car seat into the church with hopes that she would sleep longer, but to no avail.  Still, it was a carpeted place where she could crawl around for awhile.  Unfortunately, the two older girls saw a lot of open space and just assumed they could run back and forth.

The monastery sanctuary

Again, being the foreigner, I wasn’t sure what was appropriate, but it didn’t seem quite right to be so playful in the church building.  Many others, after all, were walking around and looking at the icons contemplatively.  I didn’t want our foreigner kids disturbing them.  We soon learned that they shouldn’t be running and playing, and they were sent with the adults to an outside open space where they could play while the second lecture took place.  I stayed in the church for another half hour or so with Layla since she was much less obtrusive in her playing around.

Following the lecture, it was time for lunch.  For us, it was basically dinner time since it was almost 5pm.  The girls had been having a great time all day running and playing with the other kids from the group.  One of the great things about the monasteries is that they provide lots of open space where you can feel safe letting the kids run around without them being able to get lost.  The girls got lots of exercise and made some new friends, and this was great to watch.  Had Layla been able to move around on her feet more, the trip would have been even more enjoyable.  As it was, we found creative ways to let Layla move in relatively clean environments.

But back to lunch/dinner.  The man who organizes these trips often likes to bring the meals with him rather than get them from the monasteries.  We aren’t sure why this is, but he sometimes arranges delicious food, and other times, we aren’t so sure.  This was one of those “not so sure” times.  Our meals were packaged on a Styrofoam plate wrapped in plastic wrap.

Chicken, hamburger, mincemeat-between-baked bread, cucumbers - all likely a day old

The food was not too bad, but the main question was, how safe was it?  We had no idea when it was cooked or how it could possibly be stored safely as we had been out and about since 7am that morning.  But we had eaten this food before and not had any trouble, so we dug in again.  We didn’t force the girls to eat too much of it, but they ate their fair share.

We finished our lunch/dinner and washed up and expected to be heading out shortly.  However, when I asked what time we would leave, he told me 6:15.  This was a little disappointing as I thought we were aiming to arrive back in Maadi around 7, but once again, we try not to expect anything too hard and fast.  Jayson disappeared for awhile with Layla and when I called him on his cell to locate him, he told me he was talking with a resident of the monastery.  I enjoyed the respite from holding and occupying Layla and enjoyed watching Emma and Hannah play with their new friends. (video clip)

When the bus did finally pull out of the monastery around 6:30, I settled in for a comfortable ride.  Layla did not need much coaxing to fall asleep in her car seat once again, and Hannah was out pretty quickly too.  Unforunately, the ride home took much longer than the morning ride as Cairo traffic added at least an hour to our trip and our family of five stumbled wearily into our home around 9:30pm.  I quickly got Layla ready for bed while Jayson tucked Emma and Hannah in, and all three were sound asleep within minutes.  It was a full and exhausting day on our Egyptian rihla.