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Bishop Angaelos on the Recent Rise of Attacks on Copts

Bishop Angaelos

Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK is a frequent go-to source for Western media seeking perspective on the Christians of Egypt and the Middle East.

As localized, sporadic attacks on this community have been on the rise in recent weeks, he released a statement that is quite wise and balanced. Before quoting it in its entirety, please feel free to click here for context, and here for video of what one of these attacks looks like first-hand. This article describes security facilitating a reconciliation.

You can also click here for a statement for the Egyptian president warning of efforts to drive a wedge between the two religious communities and vowing to hold accountable those responsible for the violence. After meeting with the president, Pope Tawadros of the Coptic Orthodox Church also urged people to not allow Egyptian national unity to be broken.

Here is the statement of Bishop Angaelos:

Egypt is undoubtedly going through a formative stage of its contemporary history. Having emerged from uprisings and changes in Government, dealing with resulting pressures on its economy and infrastructure, and with the loss of foreign investment and tourism, it has become more vulnerable to a disturbing wave of radicalism.

One of the manifestations of this radicalisation is that despite a short period of apparent reprieve, it is regrettable that the time has come yet again to speak of heightened, targeted attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt. Tensions against Egypt’s indigenous Christian community have again escalated over the past few months, and will spiral even further if not immediately addressed.

The exponential rise in attacks against Christians and Christian property in recent months can largely be attributed to three main catalysts: inflammatory false rumours and accusations regarding alleged extra-marital relationships between Christians and Muslims, incendiary rumours relating to the building of new churches, and a growing trend towards the direct targeting of priests and their families. At their most brutal, these recent attacks have culminated in the burning of churches and places of worship, the stripping and public parading of 70-year-old Souad Thabet, and the senseless murder of Father Raphael Moussa.

What must be considered very clearly and with great concern however is that an attack on any individual member of a society is an attack on that same society and what it stands for, so our prayers are not only with those who have suffered these unspeakable and horrid violations, but for the society that is undermined and made more vulnerable with each and every one of these incidents. The system of law and order in Egypt is not one for Christians, Muslims or any other individual group of people, but it is for all Egyptians, and so when violated this violation is against all.

While there are clear efforts at the national level in Egypt to attempt to curb such acts of religiously-motivated violence and lawlessness, what we have repeatedly seen at the local level is, at best, carelessness and, at worst, criminal negligence in the reaction and lack of reaction of local security service officials. This gives a clear and direct message that certain crimes will go unchallenged and unchecked, especially when perpetrators are not brought to justice. The resulting sense of impunity not only means a lack of justice for crimes already perpetrated, but also gives greater encouragement to those who will seek to do even more, and more aggressively.

While there is a rejection of these attacks on Christians by the vast majority of Egypt’s 85% Muslim population, themselves often targeted by the same radical and intolerant elements, there is a need for a robust system of law and order that appropriately responds to crime, irrespective of who it is perpetrated by or against. If this does not happen, the concern is that hopes for a more cohesive nation will disappear, and that recent events will give way to a re-emerging religious divide.

In light of all this, it is of course difficult to have a sense of hope or promise in the current situation, but mine still remains rooted in the way Christians in Egypt and elsewhere have faced persecution for millennia. They continue to draw strength from their confidence and trust in an omnipotent God, and forgive through grace that only He can provide. In this, those suffering directly from this persecution provide a great example and inspiration for us not to be engulfed by anger or resentment but in calling for justice, remain forgiving, no matter how hard, and work towards a hopeful future, no matter how seemingly impossible.

The brutal and personal nature of many of the attacks against our brothers and sisters in Egypt warrants our prayers and support for them as they continue to endure heightened levels of persecution while refusing to lose their admirable and resilient spirit, and unyielding ability to forgive according to their Christian devotion and commitment.  We also pray for Egypt and its leadership, hoping that hearts and minds will be led to greater inclusiveness, justice, equality, and refuge for the oppressed, remembering that our Lord Himself once took refuge from persecution within its gracious and welcoming borders.

 

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The Surge in Concern for International Religious Freedom

Lord Alton: speaking up. Photo: Lord Alton
Lord Alton: speaking up. Photo: Lord Alton

THE social contract . . . limits on power . . . liberty of conscience . . . doctrine of toleration . . . human rights . . . Each is under attack around the world and Lord David Alton wants the government to do something about it.

The Independent Crossbench Peer has tabled a debate in the House of Lords this Thursday (16 July) to focus on the issue that underpins them all: religious freedom.

Alton has framed the debate to focus on the ‘clear links’ between freedom of conscience and both the prosperity of a nation and the litany of other rights its citizens enjoy.

It will also discuss ‘greater political and diplomatic priority’ in support of Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guaranteeing freedom of thought and religion.

One debate participant is Lord Jonathan Sacks, former UK Chief Rabbi. Addressing a UK-Israel policy conference in late June he noted that ‘wars are won by weapons, but peace is won by ideas.’

And each of the above principles which shape the modern world, he said, ‘began life as religious ideas.’

Within the UK the debate over secularism may question the value of this assertion. But it is undeniable that international religious freedom has received greater attention across the political and social spectrum.

Rhetoric

Richard Honess is a board member of Atheists Alliance International and the international liaison officer for Atheism UK. Dr David Landrum is the director of advocacy for the Evangelical Alliance.

Unlikely bed-fellows, both have spoken forcefully in support of religious minorities around the world.

‘The right to religious freedom is essential,’ Honess told Lapido. ‘All we ask is in return that atheists also have that same right, the right not to believe.’

Honess finds the UK guilty of privileging Christianity and believes the foundation of freedoms to be personal liberty under the law—not faith. He looks at Africa and the Islamic world and finds witch hunts against homosexuals and the lashing of dissidents in the name of religion.

‘The Atheist Alliance International will continue to lobby the EU and the UN,’ he said, ‘but this has to stop and I fear that we are long way from that.’

Landrum, on the other hand, released a report to Parliament detailing how UK Christians’ freedoms are ‘restricted’. But he sees religious liberty as receiving a far higher profile than it used to, driven by horrors witnessed in the Middle East.

‘We need to educate society about the value of religious freedom for all freedoms,’ he told Lapido, ‘and keep our politicians focused on persecuted minorities abroad.’

A growing and influential segment of these politicians sees this as their key mission. The All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief was formed in 2012, and is co-chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Berridge.

In addition to a host of Christian organisations, it is supported also by the British Humanist Association and Sikh, Bahai, and Ahmadiya Muslim groups.

‘The level of awareness and involvement among MPs on issues of international freedom of religion was higher in the last parliament than at any point in the past twenty years, and there is every evidence that this is just as true now,’ said Stephen Rand, advocacy consultant for Open Doors and web editor for the APPG.

The election manifestos of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, DUP, and Green parties all included language supporting religious freedom abroad.

‘But it is too early in the life of this government to judge whether the rhetoric will become reality,’ Rand added.

Safeguarding rights: Baroness Berridge and Bishop Angaelos. Photo: Brian Pellot/RNS

One sign of the rhetoric is the recent honour given to Coptic Orthodox Bishop Angaelos, appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen for his services to international religious freedom.

‘Greater acknowledgment of this issue,’ Angaelos told Lapido, ‘is fitting within the UK’s understanding of what it means to safeguard human rights.’

It was ‘imperative’, he added, for both individuals and nations to protect them.

Reality

There are signs the UK government is getting the message.

According to the Pew Research Center, 76 per cent of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religion.

The 2011 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report on Human Rights and Democracy found that religious freedom was ‘crucial to ensuring conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding.’ It has since been updated to include ‘countries of particular concern’, numbering 27 in the most recent edition.

Put negatively, the June 2015 volume of the Harvard International Law Journal noted ‘nations that criminalise blasphemy tend to foster an environment where terrorism is more prevalent, legitimised, and insidious.’

The FCO report insists it is ‘important’ to secure religious freedom as part of the government’s ‘wider security agenda’.

The report was quoted in ‘Article 18: An Orphaned Right’, prepared by the APPG in 2013. It will form the basis of the coming House of Lords debate.

It also contains ten recommendations to the government on how to ‘mainstream’ a religious freedom approach into foreign policy.

One year later Baroness Warsi chaired the first meeting for the Foreign OfficeAdvisory Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, fulfilling recommendation three.

An additional three have been positively acted upon, with evidence suggesting all have been considered.

But is advice enough? Do reports translate into policy?

Lord Alton continues to push the debate. His own view is clear: ‘Countries have to make the cause of those who suffer for their religion or belief the great cause of our times,’ he wrote in GIS.

‘Christians, Jews and Muslims privileged to live in free societies have to challenge cold indifference and speak up and defend humanity.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

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Honor and Humility in the Anglican Communion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From Bishop Mouneer in his diocesan newsletter, on the recent visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby:

In the Middle East, Africa, and much of the non-Western world, extending honour is among the chief virtues. Our Anglican Communion is blessed to have a leader who embodies not only this cultural value, but also its Biblical roots.

“Without doubt, the lesser person is blessed by the greater,” writes the author of Hebrews. “Honour one another above yourselves,” writes Paul in Romans. On April 20, our diocese of Egypt was blessed by the visit of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He came to offer condolences over the martyrdom of 21 Christians killed by ISIS in Libya. But in humility, as a man of the West visiting the East, he proved the reality of these verses in his life and leadership.

In attendance were Coptic Orthodox Bishop Angaelos and Coptic Catholic Bishop Antonius Aziz, themselves men of humble service there to honour his visit. Aware the representatives of these churches could not share in an Anglican Eucharist, the archbishop desired to demonstrate his appreciation for their churches in a land whose children produced such a testimony of faith.

Archbishop Welby left the communion table, knelt before the two bishops, and asked them to pray a blessing for him. Immediately moved in spirit, they knelt as well, and asked the same of him. He then returned and offered body and blood to God’s holy church. Both privately expressed how they were touched by his gesture.

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” said Jesus to his disciples. “Those who honour me,” said God in I Samuel, “I will honour.” Following communion, Archbishop Welby joined me in demonstrating this call and promise of God.

For the past seven years, Rev. Drew Schmotzer has worked tirelessly not only as my personal assistant, but also in assuming vacant pastoral positions in Maadi, Menouf, and at All Saints Cathedral. He is now leaving the diocese to return to the United States. Archbishop Welby’s visit was Rev. Drew’s last day in Egypt. During the service, we were able to honour Rev. Drew’s humble service to the Diocese of Egypt. I presented him with the shield of the diocese in gratitude for his ministry.

“God is not unjust,” it is written in Hebrews, “he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people.” The virtue of honour is one the Eastern Church can share with the Western. Our Anglican Communion is blessed to have so many from all cultures who, in humility, exhibit it already.

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There is no ‘Nation of the Cross’

Message Signed Blood ‘To the nation of the cross, we are back again.’

So boasted the black-clad narrator of the latest ISIS video, this time chronicling their slaughter of 30 Ethiopian Christians captured in Libya. Two months earlier, the victims were Coptic Christians, whose beheadings came entitled: A message signed with blood to the nation of the cross.

But what is the ‘nation of the cross’?

Some have embraced the terminology. The Christ Church United Methodist of the Woodlands, Texas, posted a Je Suis Charlie inspired message of support: ‘Here am I, I too, am a member of the nation of the cross.’

But Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK thinks they are making a grave mistake.

‘This divisive terminology implies that we as a “nation” of Christians are at war with the “nation of Islam”,’ he wrote to the youth of his church.‘Of course this is not the case, and we must not be coerced into a state of enmity.’

ISIS labeled the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church an ‘enemy’, likely for the ongoing Ethiopian military response against the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia. Likewise, the Coptic Orthodox Church is targeted to a great degree for the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

But ISIS is not just after these churches. ‘Our battle is between faith and blasphemy,’ the narrator declared. ‘We swear to Allah: You will not have safety, even in your dreams, until you embrace Islam.’

In seeing itself as a caliphate, Angaelos told Lapido Media, ISIS wants to put itself at war with Christianity.

Alarmed

‘Because there is a Muslim ummah, there must be in their eyes a Christian ummah, the nation of the cross,’ he said, using the Arabic word that can be translated as ‘nation’.

‘This is why I am very alarmed when people use it naively, because they are buying into a rhetoric that is not ours.’

And according to Muslim scholars, ‘nation of the cross’ is not part of Islamic rhetoric either.

The word ummah is used 62 times in the Qur’an, sometimes referring to ‘peoples’ in general. But over time it becomes more specific to the Muslim community, according to Frederick Denny’s chapter, ‘The meaning of ‘ummah’ in the Qur’an’, in The History of Religions.

Christians and Jews are viewed as an ummah as recipients of divine revelation, but Christians are labeled ahl al-kitab, or ‘people of the book’.

‘This phrase [nation of the cross] is unknown, ISIS has invented it to divide people,’ Muhga Ghalib, dean of Islamic Studies at al-Azhar University told Lapido Media. ‘We have the three religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and we are brothers in humanity.’

The editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website agreed. ‘I cannot really make any reference of “nation of cross” to Islamic heritage, or history, and I’m not sure what the origin is,’ Hazem Malky told Lapido. ‘It looks like something they use in their own literature to serve their needs and ideology.’

But even where the rhetoric turns negative in Islamic history, terms like ahl al-dhimmah or kuffar are employed, to refer either to a protected community paying jizya tax, or to infidels.

ISIS’ video also highlights the fact that Syria’s Christians admit paying the tax, having been brought to the point of submission. Rejecting the nation-state system, ISIS sees the caliphate at war with distinct religious communities with the aim of subjugating them.

Obscure

Its extremist scholars have made a science out of reviving obscure concepts in Islamic history, like the selling of sex slaves and the burning of captives. These are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims today.

But even a group with traditional animosity against Christians finds the term ‘nation of the cross’ unfamiliar. Hany Nour Eddin, a member of Egypt’s dissolved parliament with the formerly militant al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, told Lapido Media ISIS tries to invoke the Crusades in its effort to pit East against West.

‘ISIS uses the logic of power and jihad in order to create conflict,’ he said. ‘They are trying specifically to recruit the Islamist current to their side, telling them the democratic experiment has failed.’

Bishop Angaelos, on the other hand, interprets it as the recruitment of an enemy.

He says ISIS wants a military response motivated by Christian sentiment. ‘The West must not give in. This ideology must fall, otherwise those killed will be replaced by others,’ he says.

Instead, those motivated by Christian sentiment have a responsibility to exhibit their faith.

After the beheading of the Copts by ISIS, Angelos tweeted #fatherforgive, and it quickly went viral. When BBC and CNN reported it, the popular discourse shifted.

Angaelos is calling for his own redefinition of terms to be taken up more broadly, to prevent the world being sucked into a false dichotomy.

‘When we disengage from this language, we move away from the simplicity of Christian West versus Muslim East, because it’s wrong,’ he said. ‘I find this concept of the Muslim world quite offensive. Do I not have a place? For millions of Christians, this is our world also, plus Baha’is and non-believers beside.’

He adds that ‘the nation of the cross’ does not fit the West in its religious diversity. Coining a phrase foreign to Islam, Christianity, and modern civilization, ISIS is threatening to set the terms.

‘They are killing Muslims not just Christians’ says Angaelos. ‘This ideology considers everything unlike itself an enemy.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

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More Martyrs: ISIS Executes Dozens of Ethiopian Christians in Libya

Ethiopian Christians LibyaA few excerpts from my article for Christianity Today, published April 20:

Once again, ISIS has orchestrated and filmed the dramatic mass killing of African Christians who refuse to deny their faith.

This time, the approximately 28 men targeted by the Libya affiliate of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as Daesh) were Ethiopian Christians. In February, the killing of 21 mostly Egyptian Christians drew widespread horror and fears of future massacres, but also led to Egypt’s largest Bible outreach.

The video was released the same day the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, arrived in Cairo to offer condolences for the previous martyrs in Libya: 20 Coptic Orthodox Christians and a sub-Saharan African. (CT reported how their deaths were unifying Egypt and inspiring Muslims throughout the Arab world, as well as honored in the Coptic calendar.)

“Why has Libya spoken so powerfully to the world?” asked Welby during a public sermon. “The way these brothers lived and died testified that their faith was trustworthy.”

The Ethiopian government has not yet been able to confirm the video, or certify the victims are its citizens.

But Grant LeMarquand, the Anglican bishop of the Horn of Africa, says they certainly appear to be.

“If they were given the chance to convert and did not,” he told CT, “they should be considered what ISIS calls them: ‘People of the Cross’, and therefore true followers of the crucified one.”

Bishop Angaelos, the general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, underscored the Ethiopians’ testimony.

“Once again we see innocent Christians murdered purely for refusing to renounce their faith,” he said in a statement.

“As Christians, we remain committed to our initial instinct following the murder of our 21 Coptic brothers in Libya, that it is not only for our own good, but indeed our duty to ourselves, the world, and even those who see themselves as our enemies, to forgive and pray for the perpetrators of this and similar crimes,” he said. “We pray for these men and women, self-confessed religious people, that they may be reminded of the sacred and precious nature of every life created by God.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.