Thirty Coptic Christians were gunned down by ISIS, ambushed in a church bus on a weekend outing to a popular monastery in the Egyptian desert. Their families gathered to receive their loved ones in a local hospital, but were met with a mixture of ill-equipped facilities and overwhelmed staff. They even had to fetch their own water.
As if another reason was necessary, Coptic anger turned the funeral march into a protest.
“With our souls and blood we will redeem you, oh Cross!” they shouted. Some seemed to take aim at Islam. “There is no god but God,” they chanted, before changing the second half of the Muslim creed, “and the Messiah, he is God.”
Other chants took no aim at all, thrashing wildly in anger. “We will avenge them, or die like them.”
Many observers say such anger plays right into the hands of ISIS, which is keen to turn Egypt against itself.
Six weeks earlier, after twin suicide bombings on Palm Sunday, Bishop Boula of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Tanta found himself in a similar situation. Hospitals did not have enough refrigeration units to keep the 25 bodies of those martyred at St. George Church. Crowds were gathering, and anger was surging.
Quickly, he made the decision to bury them together in the church crypt reserved for bishops. Honoring the dead with their leaders of ages past, he then marshaled the youth to provide order and security for the semi-spontaneous funeral service.
“It cooled the fire of all the people,” he later recounted on satellite TV. St. George was renamed to include “the righteous martyrs of Tanta,” with a shrine erected outside the crypt.
Many Egyptians these days shed no tears over the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing in them an unhealthy and manipulative merging of religion and politics. But religion, politics, and manipulation are known the world over. First take a look at this excerpt from Christianity Today, describing two evangelical leaders during the Jimmy Carter presidency:
Balmer also describes Jerry Falwell’s mendacity and Billy Graham’s duplicity as they worked to bring Carter’s presidency to an end. Falwell brazenly lied in his report that Carter had told a group of evangelical leaders he supported gay rights. Eleven days after telling the Reagan campaign that he wanted to “help short of [a] public endorsement,” Graham reassured a Carter liaison that he was “staying out of it.”
I hate to think these descriptions are true, but perhaps this only shows we are quick to believe the worst of the other while doubting it for our own kind. The anecdotes are from a new biography of Carter, so I can only assume, perhaps wrongly, it was well researched.
But no research is needed to see the all-but manipulations of Bishop Boula of the Orthodox Church. Even here my ‘all-but’ exposes my will to disbelieve, but how can you doubt when his efforts are admitted? Here is a translation of his recent comments on Egyptian television, translated by Middle East Monitor (video included):
Bishop Paula (Boula): How do I estimate it? Let me tell you what I would do for instance in Tanta. I come to each one of the churches. Let’s assume that in this particular church there are six priests. We divide it into six squares and each priest is put in charge of one square and that would be the region he is responsible for. We tell the priest: father, you are in charge of this region. How many homes are there within it? I want to appoint one young man for each group of thirty homes to prompt them and make sure to bring out those who have not yet come out. The young man who is in charge of the thirty houses would submit a report about each of these houses, one by one. In this way, we would know who went out and who did not. We call the father in charge by phone and he goes and knocks on the door. So, we have extremely accurate information about the ratio of those who went out and those who did not.
Presenter: I am saying this to you but it might be possible that those who hear us might take to mean something else. Was the Church playing politics?
Bishop Paula: No, no. Look. The Church is playing patriotism.
Presenter: It plays patriotism?
Bishop Paula: It has a patriotic role. The Church has always been a patriotic church. And in this particular time it should have a strong patriotic role. The patriotic role is the prompting role. And to be telling the truth, it includes, if possible, unifying opinions through persuasion as to who is the best (candidate).
If not for that last statement, the ‘all-but’ could remain. It is, perhaps, patriotic to stimulate and even ensure the voting of the flock. Christians should be good citizens; the church should help them know how to engage their civic responsibility.
But could he not help himself? Did the Christian in him demand he reveal the full truth? Did his pro-Sisi/anti-Muslim Brotherhood giddiness expose it? Is he just proud of himself and the monumental task he organized? Bishop Boula invited me into a meeting once during parliamentary elections in 2011. I saw his efforts then, but did not notice any ‘persuasion’. Of course, that was just one session.
But, oh, this is fuel for the Egyptian political fire, and it is well deserved. Pope Tawadros, do you have a comment given your insistence of church neutrality? I wrote you an ‘all-but’ interpretation in that article. Has Bishop Boula made me a liar?
A worthy question also for the Muslim Brotherhood, for Jerry Falwell, and for Billy Graham. May God honor you all for the good you sought within your best interpretations. May he hold you all accountable for the means by which you pursued it.
And may be be merciful to us all for our many manipulations, both great and small. We self-justify far too easily.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview Bishop Boula of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Tanta. While we discussed several subjects, the timely publication stemming from our meeting concerned how local Christians are preparing for parliamentary elections, under the guidance of the church. Click here to review if you missed it earlier.
The bishop’s schedule was busy and unpredictable, and I was obliged to stay three days in order to meet with him. This afforded a pleasant opportunity to understand local relations, and to enjoy the comfort of St. Mina Monastery. On the site of an ancient monastery which was the birthplace of St. Mina, an early Coptic martyr under the Roman persecution, it is no longer a residence for monks but serves as a guest house and retreat center.
Please enjoy a walk through the grounds in these two videos. The first is about nine minutes long, and the second is five. I narrate as I walk, based on what I learned while there.
The pictures below highlight certain aspects as well:
The monastery lies in the village of Ebiar. From the train station in Tanta to the village would cost a simple 1 LE ($0.18 US) in a microbus, and then an additional 3 LE from the village center to the monastery in a smaller tuk-tuk (three wheeled motorized rickshaw).
Ebiar has approximately thirty Christian families which make up an estimated 10% of village population. They have good relations with neighboring Muslims, though they mention the occasional harassment of a Christian girl or the under-the-breath cursing of a successful Christian businessman. Christians, like Muslims, tend to be farmers, traders, or government employees. Though they interact in all manner of relations, Christian families live almost exclusively around the church – which is not unusual in village settings in Egypt.
The St. Mary Church is over 200 years old. The icon of the Virgin Mary is well known in the area as being a source of healing to those who intercede through it. The church is presided over by Fr. Boula, who was appointed in 1981 and is beloved by all. He is celebrated for his assistance to the poor, attracting people from surrounding villages as well as Tanta itself.
Muslims in Ebiar fall into three categories. The first and traditional category is that of a simple farmer. In this they would be nearly indistinguishable from village Christians. Over the last few decades, however, several from Ebiar now identify with the Muslim Brotherhood. Their percentage equals about 30-40% of the village. Practically every family, however traditional, has a Brotherhood member – if not a Salafi – influencing the rest. Salafis make up an additional 30% of the population, but have less influence due to their recent public emergence. Though my visit was substantially before elections, the Salafi Hizb al-Nour (Party of Light) banner flew prominently over the main road.
As I spent most of my time in the monastery complex I was unable to experience the reality of Ebiar village life. Yet through testimony and extrapolating conventional wisdom about village life, it appeared to fit the norm. Christians make up a small percentage, center their existence around a church, and enjoy traditionally good relations with a rapidly politicizing Muslim population.
In the weeks and months to come, it will be interesting to see if elections have any impact on Christianity in Ebiar. The village is traditional and poor, yet hosts a massive and elaborate Christian monastery. Bishop Boula – from Tanta – is mobilizing Christians to vote, and while he does not give instructions, nearly all Christians are motivated by worry over Islamist government. Meanwhile, the emerging political identity of village Muslims is exactly that, whether Brotherhood or Salafi.
Will traditionally good relations keep politics a separate slice of life, allowing Muslims and Christians to interact as always? Or will the language of suspicion on both sides inject a subtle poison, unintentionally damaging much? Will Fr. Boula’s love for the poor characterize Christians of the village, or will his simplicity be trumped by the grandness of the monastery?
Village life has always faced challenges, and the free exercise of politics is simply the newest visitor to Ebiar. Perhaps the mutuality, integration, and respect of traditional village life prevail over unavoidable trends. Perhaps Bishop Boula, Fr. Boula, Brotherhood and Salafi leaders, and village elders all find common cause in love and support, rather than rivalry. I bet the Egyptian nature of the village holds; elections will come and go as life goes on.
Cairo is the beating heart of Egypt, but her villages are the nation’s lifeblood. I only wish I knew more about their reality.
From before the revolution, many Copts have realized their community suffers from a dearth of political and civic participation. The Coptic Orthodox Church’s Bishopric of Youth, for example, has an area of focus entitled ‘Promoting Coptic Participation in Society’, which I encountered when a representative spoke at our local church encouraging the congregation to register to votein the 2010 legislative elections. When he informally polled them for who planned to vote, only a handful indicated any interest at all.
That was before the revolution, when everyone knew that election results were rigged. Yet conventional wisdom still suggests the Copts of Egypt are reticent in their political participation. Recently, a representative of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party presented a brief primer on basic civics in a Sunday School meeting at church, and while the subject received more apparent interest than earlier, the attitude still seemed subdued.
It was not always such. Copts were equal participants with Muslims when British colonialism was repulsed, and helped shape a liberal democratic polity under the Egyptian monarchy. The revolution of 1952 steadily put an end to the budding democratic system, and Copts began to feel excluded from the corridors of power. The increasing religiosity of the state under Sadat accelerated the feelings of marginalization, and Mubarak succeeded in concentrating the Coptic voice within the walls of the church, with Pope Shenouda as its spokesman in both religion and politics. Whatever merits the Copts gained from their direct line to the president, it cemented their tie to the autocratic state, especially against the feared possibility of Islamist rule.
This line of reasoning was heard recently from Bishop Boula, head of the Clerical Council of the Coptic Orthodox Church and bishop of Tanta, a city in Delta region an hour’s drive north of Cairo. He spared me a few minutes of his time in between meetings with the supreme military council, in Cairo – to discuss the Maspero affair – and an election preparation meeting with the priests under his charge, in Tanta.
He related to the priests that despite the military council being much in the wrong in Maspero, where twenty-six people were killed following protests, almost all being Copts, Christians must still support the army. It is the only functioning institution left in Egypt, and Islamists are chomping at the bit. Much of his counsel, however, was to keep the anger of Copts at bay. Priests should work to prevent other political forces from getting Copts all fired up, and too many were going out to demonstrate during a time of economic trouble. The military is having trouble running the country, and Copts should be careful not to make things worse.
There was Biblical counsel in his words as well. Christians should take care not to chant against Field Marshal Tantawi, head of the military council, as this was against Christian teaching. In response to the Maspero tragedy, the church must remind its flock that as the Bible says, ‘All things work together for good,’ and that now was a time to increase societal dialogue, not protest.
The thrust of the meeting, however, was in application of an unmentioned Biblical concept: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Coptic attention during this time must focus on the vote of every single Christian – a chief responsibility of citizenship. Bishop Boula then reviewed the homework he had each priest prepare.
Each priest had reams of paperwork – maps, graphs, or hand drawn versions of the same. They demonstrated the results of previous instructions to select a church volunteer to be responsible for every fifty houses in his area. Many priests had done admirably; others had not done enough. These had failed to map their constituency down to the details of names and exact street location. The bishop wanted nothing left to chance, or for anyone to slip through the cracks. Not only should the volunteer know each and every Christian under his responsibility, he must also be readied to give clear instructions on voting procedures. He must master the content of www.elections2011.eg, so there would be no confusion the day of the vote.
Bishop Boula issued further instructions during the session as well. Many Christians in Tanta have their official residence outside the area, and several poorer professions, such as the doormen, come from Upper Egypt. Each priest must identify these Christians as well, and study arrangements to assure they are present in their home district for elections. If this involved the church paying their transportation back home, it is worth the expense. Even beyond the coming legislative elections, priests also must help mobilize for the more immediate syndicate board elections. All Christian professionals – engineers, doctors, journalists, etc – must be located and encouraged to vote.
It was a very impressive meeting. Bishop Boula went far beyond exhortation to convince Copts of the necessity of political participation; he actively served as campaign coordinator. It should be noted he gave no instructions on which candidate or party to vote for, only that a vote be cast. The necessity, however, was lost on no one.
According to the results of the March referendum, the elected parliament will appoint the delegates charged with writing the new constitution. The importance of these first elections, therefore, goes far beyond simple legislation. It will set the ground rules for future governance.
If as expected the Islamist parties perform well at the ballot box, will they craft a civil, democratic constitution? Only a handful of Copts admit to the possibility they would fare better under an Islamic system; the rest lean overwhelmingly with the liberal parties, at least among those who have a political inkling. Copts are commonly constituted as 10% of the population. They may be as low as 5-6%, and one partisan estimate tallied them as high as 20%. Regardless, if all mobilized they would have much electoral sway.
Does the effort of Bishop Boula represent illegitimate church interference in politics? Does it represent wholesome spiritual impetus for civic engagement? Or, does it represent the desperation of a religious community pressed between the history of autocratic rule and the fear of Islamist? How much is it a combination of all three?
The Copts of Egypt are well represented in many aspects of business and professional life, but the political arena requires savvy and acumen long left unpracticed. The Egyptian revolution has opened wide the doors to politics, but many Christians are only in the aperture. Bishop Boula is trying to push them through; God may weigh the intentions of his heart, but the ballot box will measure the extent of his success.