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Current Events

Terrorists Kill 26 on Church Bus Trip to Popular Monastery

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on May 26, 2017.

Minya Bus Attack
(via Reuters and Ahram Online)

Terrorists ambushed a Coptic church bus trip on Friday near Minya in Upper Egypt, killing at least 26 and injuring 25, including many children.

Egypt’s interior ministry reported that three 4×4 vehicles of 8 to 10 gunmen dressed in military uniforms opened fire on the vehicle, which was on its way to St. Samuel the Confessor Monastery in Samalout, 140 miles south of Cairo.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the attack—which occurred on the eve of Ramadan—follows church bombings claimed by the Islamic State on Palm Sunday and in advance of Christmas.

Last week, Egyptian authorities arrested 48 individuals, securing confessions of belonging to a terrorist cell linked to the Islamic State.

“I am grieving. It is sad and shocking,” said Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Qusia, 75 miles from the monastery. “But at the same time, I know this is not new. I was expecting things like this to happen. And it will not be the last.”

Please click here

to read the rest of the article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

Copts Pick Up the Pieces: An Interview with Bishop Thomas

A condensed version of this interview was first published at The Media Project on May 4, 2017.

Bishop Thomas
Bishop Thomas

Coptic Christians, the Middle East’s largest Christian community, account for roughly ten percent of Egypt’s population and have endured generations of exclusion and restrictions. Their struggles for equality have been aggravated by a series of gruesome and deadly attacks carried out by ISIS criminals. The latest act was a pair of bombings on Palm Sunday targeting packed churches in Alexandria and Tanta, which took the lives of 45 Christians and wounded more than 100 others, according to Human Rights Watch. ISIS previously targeted Copts in Cairo in a December, 2016, bombing that killed 30 and in a January, 2017, attack in the Sinai peninsula that killed eight. ISIS has stated its intention to extirpate Christianity from the Middle East.

TMP Egypt contributor Jayson Casper spoke to Bishop Thomas, head of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Qusia and Meir, 170 miles south of Cairo, to find out how Copts are reacting to the latest attacks and what they expect for the future. Born in 1957, Thomas became a monk in 1985 and bishop in 1988. In 1999 he founded Anafora, a retreat center along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, which became a community dedicated to ecumenical welcome and human development. Fluent in English alongside his native Arabic, he is a key source of insight on the situation of Christians in Egypt.

The Easter holiday is a joyous occasion but Egypt and her Christians are going through a difficult time after the Palm Sunday bombings. How are Copts doing these days?

There was a blend of grief, shock, anger, and question marks about what’s happening. People recall similar incidents from the past – the December bombing at St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo, the 2010 Alexandria bombing, and further back in history. There has been a development in the attacks against Christians, and people are comparing it to what is happening in Syria and wondering if this will come to Egypt.

But the church holds to Christian principles, giving the people a Christian message. Love, and conquer evil through good. If we believe in the forgiveness Christ gave to us, we have to give it to others. Think positively, and do not be afraid. Don’t generalize but be fair. We cannot put the work of Islamic extremists on normal Muslims who haven’t done anything.

And normal people from the families of the victims have made statements that are very powerful. The widow of the doorman at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria said she forgives them. There is the question: How can Copts forgive like this? We are trying to nurture a holistic faith in society. Believing our life is not limited to this world makes it becomes stronger.

It will be good to come back to the teachings of the church, but first I want to ask about what is seen in the media. Coptic reactions are portrayed as fear, anger, and disillusionment. Things aren’t getting better and the government isn’t taking care of us. Is this an accurate picture? How strong and widespread are these feelings?

The Copts have a clearer understanding because we know the growth of Islamic fundamentalism has to be dealt with in a deeper way than just police or military forces. Security measures are only a part. The foundation is the ideology, needing the reformation of education. Copts are angrier at the education system than the security situation.

We look at things realistically, even though we were hoping for a calmer, more peaceful situation with the new government after the Muslim Brotherhood regime. We hoped it would be more active in reform. Some Copts are disappointed, but we are aware it is a long-term change, needing the support of the private sector, NGOs, and the religious sector. The curriculum of al-Azhar has to be looked at, in how they portray Christians, as does the public school curriculum.

We see also two kinds of media. One is trying to understand the situation and sympathize in the tragedy. The other is condemning Christians and encouraging more of the same. This must be dealt with firmly. If someone encourages attacks on others this is a crime against humanity, and it must be declared as such.

These things are being discussed among the youth and on the Coptic street. Even still, we are saying we love and we forgive—Jesus told us to love our enemies and do good to them—so his love encompasses the whole world and our fight is not against flesh and blood. It is against evil principles and thoughts; it is a struggle of ideology. Humanity must be linked with religion, and not to a particular religious group. As Christians we view everyone within the circle of God’s love, so we must love everyone, even those who persecute and attack us. We are against evil, but not against human beings. Instead we pity them.

There are some voices in Egypt who are promote this idea, but will it always be within the elite? It has to be implemented at the grassroots through the educational system.

You mentioned the importance of ideology. The president has spoken many times about the importance of reforming religious rhetoric, it seems he is aware of the comprehensive nature of this issue, beyond a military solution. But we see crimes against Copts go unpunished and a failure to pursue educational reform. Do the Copts still have optimism the government will move in this direction so that it will reach the grassroots, over time? Or is their frustration it is either only talk and politics, or that the state is unable to address ideological reform?

There is a group of people who hope it will change, who say we should encourage the process of reformation. There is another who says it will not happen, it is too long-term and the ideology is fixed among too many scholars. Personally, I think those who are disappointed are thinking about emigration, and I think another wave will come very soon, which is very bad. Christians have to stay in Egypt and be empowered here.

The process of reformation goes beyond just a president. He is trying to do his best but the society has many layers, and the undercurrent is stronger than what the official government says. What we need is to focus more on the undercurrent, which requires lots of work.

This gives Christians the responsibility to build up society. We have to be more active in peacemaking. This is an art that needs training, and helps build trust in the community. But we must also address the power balance, which aids the stability of society. Christians abroad and the international community can help Copts achieve this. We must work on projects and fill professions that the society needs.

Such as?

In my area of Qusia we created a school that provides education in languages and an open, creative atmosphere, not dictation. Many Christians and Muslims started to come. It is run by the church, but society needs it, and it is unique in the area.

People meet and interact, but not in a religious framework. They come for the sake of their children, and discuss ethics and childrearing. We create many educational programs through this platform, and this gives us hope that these meeting points help give us status in society.

Similar things like hospitals and social events help society unite, and the church should take the lead. It presents us to society in a new way and counters disinformation against us.

But this problem is bigger than Egypt, and we have to look at it from a global perspective. Islamic fundamentalism and political Islam must be addressed. We have seen the results over several decades, in addition to the recent developments in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine. The Middle East has been almost depopulated of its Christians, and in Egypt we are the largest community left. Will these conservative forces succeed in pushing our Christians to the West, or not?

Let’s return shortly to immigration, but first address some of the spiritual teachings you mentioned earlier. The wife of the doorman in Alexandria gave a phenomenal testimony of forgiveness, that came from her faith. But as we judge the Coptic mentality between anger and frustration and the church teachings to resist fear and hold on to joy, to what degree does the Christian message of hope truly permeate them as people?

One of the spontaneous reactions has been the full attendance of Sunday evening prayers, right after the Palm Sunday morning bombings. All during Holy Week our churches have been packed. People are praying with enthusiasm and demonstrating persistence that we are here, we’re staying here, and this is our faith. Through their actions they are demonstrating their hope.

No doubt there have been tears, but still they come. There is sadness in their hearts, but they still hold to the responsibility that God has given: We are not afraid, we love, and we ask for justice. These are the three folds the church has been teaching, and the people’s reaction has been a beautiful portrayal.

Many people see only the church teaching suffering and martyrdom, but within this there is justice, a very important aspect that balances with love. Love and forgiveness create peace and positive attitudes, but at the same time love is not weak, it is strong, that is why there is no fear. Love and justice must be intertwined. I love, but I ask for my rights. I’m a human being, and I must be dealt with in my home country like a citizen, with security and equal rights.

The heritage of martyrdom in the Coptic Church promotes acceptance and forgiveness. But what is its connection with justice?

There have been many saints who were martyred because they asked for their rights. St. George, St. Mina, St. Mercorious – they stood up for their faith, defending other people. This is why it was their fate to become martyrs. Martyrdom is not just someone putting a bomb in a church. It is mainly people declaring their faith, hold to their rights, asking for justice, but ending in death.

So I don’t see a contraction, and many in the Coptic community are asking what we must do to achieve justice. I don’t know how it will be implemented. Communication with scholars, writers, and journalists from the Muslim side, to empower the cause?

If I take an American example, in achieving justice for the black community there were three main aspects. The first is Rosa Parks, and how she was made able to ask for her rights. Our teachings can help prepare the individual and create many more.

The second is Martin Luther King, who was a man of faith, but also of truth. He was able to communicate love and Christian principles in a context of injustice. The church has to give the message.

The third, which is very much needed, is Elanor Roosevelt. She represents the political arena and media, which were not of the black community. If the Christians in Egypt make a better effort to reach out to the Muslim community, its intellectuals and scholars, and discuss with them in more openness to empower them to join in the faithful fight for justice, it will be a great help.

But it is also needs an international effort, for the ideology is global. If conservatism is strong in the world there must be collaboration in the reformation of thought and the interpretation of texts in light of citizenship and humanity. There is much work ahead of us, and if it is not undertaken we may end up in a worse situation.

Is there something that makes the Copts of Egypt different from the Christians of the rest of the region, something that has enabled them to survive and resist the temptation to violence?

We don’t want to blame the victims, which is important to state clearly. We stand in sympathy and solidarity with the people of Syria, Iraq, and the region. We have seen what happened in Sinai, when the Christians evacuated from the area. We don’t know if this will continue.

A faithful attitude of ‘love your enemies’ and forgiveness gives a positive message to the other side, but we don’t know what will happen. It is a big question mark. Allow me to be spiritual and say it is the hand of God that is protecting this people here for a reason. I don’t know why, but keeping the Christian community in stability in Egypt may give a message of stability to the whole Middle East.

Yet over the past few decades, as you mentioned, Coptic immigration to the West has increased dramatically.

And it will continue to increase, no one can say it will stop. This makes us weaker, because who emigrates? Those who are able – the rich, the educated, those able to make a living outside. But they leave behind the weaker ones. If someone wants to care for their family we cannot tell them stop, to stay. We can encourage them it will get better, but if they have decided to go, they will.

But we recognize the negative impact. Still, Copts in the diaspora help with financial support, educational programs, and are a voice in the international community. This is very much appreciated. The presence of Christians in the Middle East remains a big question mark these days. If things continue, I don’t know how long we can last.

Yet in Egypt we have a very strong belief in the promise found in Isaiah 19, that there will be an altar in the land of Egypt. This gives the Christians a very strong hope that we will always be here and nothing can break us. This belief gives us power and helps explain why the church is flourishing despite difficulties, attacks, and persecutions. The church is strong, and people are determined to stay and stand firm in their faith.

Thank you, Bishop Thomas.

Categories
Current Events

Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable

This article was first published by Christianity Today on April 20, 2017.

Coptic Forgiveness
Image: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP Coffins are carried to funeral of Egyptian Christians killed in Palm Sunday bombings.

Twelve seconds of silence is an awkward eternity on television. Amr Adeeb, perhaps the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, leaned forward as he searched for a response.

“The Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel!” he finally uttered.

Moments earlier, Adeeb was watching a colleague in a simple home in Alexandria speak with the widow of Naseem Faheem, the guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city.

On Palm Sunday, the guard had redirected a suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. Likely the first to die in the blast, Faheem saved the lives of dozens inside the church.

“I’m not angry at the one who did this,” said his wife, children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’

“‘You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.’”

Stunned, Adeeb stammered about Copts bearing atrocities over hundreds of years, but couldn’t escape the central scandal.

“How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”

Millions marveled with him across the airwaves of Egypt.

So also did millions of Copts, recently rediscovering their ancient heritage, according to Ramez Atallah, president of the Bible Society of Egypt which subtitled and recirculated the satellite TV clip.

“In the history and culture of the Copts, there is much taught about martyrdom,” he told CT. “But until Libya, it was only in the textbooks—though deeply ingrained.”

The Islamic State in Libya kidnapped and beheaded 21 mostly Coptic Christians in February 2015. CT previously reported the message of forgiveness issued by their families and the witness it provided.

“Since then, there has been a paradigm shift,” said Atallah. “Our ancestors lived and believed this message, but we never had to.”

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

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Current Events

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.

 

Categories
Personal

60 Minutes on the Copts of Egypt

60 Minutes Copts

On Sunday and Monday this week I noticed an unusual spike in the views of this blog. A post I had written in April 2012 was attracting far more traffic than normal. Entitled ‘Applying the Cross (On Your Wrist)‘, all sorts of search engines were directing queries my way, looking for ‘Coptic crosses’, ‘Coptic tattoo’, and the like. Later they day I think I found out why.

On Sunday, the popular American television news magazine ’60 Minutes’ ran a segment on Coptic Christians. One of the more poignant snapshots was of a little girl being tattooed with a small cross on her right wrist. That location featured is in a popular cave church located in the garbage collecting district of Cairo, and I had profiled the tattoo man in the post linked above.

In a post two years earlier I wrote a similar article about my then four year old daughter, who drew a cross on her wrist at her Coptic preschool. ‘Emma’s Saliib‘, with ‘saliib’ the Arabic word for ‘cross’, has a few cute pictures if you are interested.

But of the program in question, CBS did a very nice job describing the Coptic community – true to form without being overdone. Please click here to watch their 15 minute segment.

And finally, if you would like more information about Bishop Thomas, who spoke about the response of Christians after their churches were burned, here is a profile, entitled ‘Almost a Jonah‘.

Having lived here for four years now, we are very partial to the Coptic community, noticing both its faithfulness and flaws. 60 Minutes made me proud.

http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-coptic-christians-of-egypt/

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Personal

Syria and Egypt: Reflecting on a Critical and Curious Denial

From Ghouta, Syria: Victims of a Chemical Attack

On September 7, I posted an article questioning the legitimacy of US intelligence in Syria. Here is the response of Dale Gavlak to the article she allegedly authored:

Mint Press News incorrectly used my byline for an article it published on August 29, 2013 alleging chemical weapons usage by Syrian rebels. Despite my repeated requests, made directly and through legal counsel, they have not been willing to issue a retraction stating that I was not the author. Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece.   To date, Mint Press News has refused to act professionally or honestly in regards to disclosing the actual authorship and sources for this story.

I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based.  The article is not based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based on my journalistic reputation. Also, it is false and misleading to attribute comments made in the story as if they were my own statements.

I, like many others, made reference to this article in the debate over who used the chemical weapons that killed scores and almost resulted in a US strike on the country. A useful comment posted there was a voice of reason that went against the conspiratorial fervor at the time.

It also jarred me. I am no fan of conspiracy, but am also wary of my nation’s militancy abroad. When I read the article I wondered why such a bombshell was reported only in Mint Press, which is not among the world’s leading journals. But the association of Dale Gavlak allowed me brush my hesitancy aside, and freely share the article along with my own reflections.

All on false pretenses, as it now turns out.

But it is still curious. Why did it take so long for Gavlak to issue this denial? And why did she do so only in personal correspondence to the Brown Moses blog? Another blog, al-Bab, includes other strange elements to this story, all centered around her identity:

There are two other oddities relating to Gavlak’s role or non-role in this affair. One is that a “Dale Gavlak” Twitter account (see screenshot) was deleted around September 3 – just a few days after the Mint Press article appeared. The other is that someone created a “Dale Gavlak” Facebook page on August 30, one day after the Mint Press article, and there are claims that the page may be a fake.

Journalism is about verification in a manner to which blogs are not held accountable. Still, reflecting on this incident – before the Gavlak revelation – made me question another story I shared.

On September 11, I posted an article describing Bishop Thomas’ defense of his church in Upper Egypt. It was shared very widely, striking a cord about Christian non-retaliation and Muslim defense of their Coptic neighbors. I didn’t feel great about how part of the story I did not copy seemed a little sensationalized, but I had heard of the attack from the bishop himself (with little detail) and I have always found him to be a sensible man.

Which is why I was surprised – and fearful – when I received this seemingly very knowledgeable comment:

This bishop is a liar, his residence is within the church perimeter that is walled and has a great gate. They did use soap and water, but no one ever attacked. They were targeting another house in the same street, and they have never approached the church where he resided in. Moreover, the fathers under his command gave some young men weapons (pistols and shot guns), they also gave them Molotov bottles to use in case if anybody attacks the church where he resides; however, no body attacked. This coward tried to protect his life by his parish!

I’ve received similar comments before, oddly enough, on Syria. I have no issue with allowing the alternate version of events, but I thought first to contact the commenter. He is obviously an eyewitness!

But no, there was no response, perhaps not unexpected with an email address of noone@nodomain.com. So I left the comment out, and let the story stand. I’m glad to have been prompted to investigate, but it also made me remember my uncertainty about the account.

Is it a true story? If the attackers had machine guns, they would not have needed to approach, and then slip and fall on the soapy pavement. I don’t yet distrust, but the comment, which I am glad to have investigated further, gave me pause.

Who would forge a story based on Gavlak’s repuation? And who would use such a weird email address to contradict a story on a blog? There is a mountain of misinformation in this region, and to some degree I have aided and abetted.

Only a small number of readers will see this reflection, compared to the many more drawn to the eye-popping stories I shared earlier. Neither one was my story; if I was writing an article I would be obliged to more fully investigate. Is this a fair enough mea culpa? This is only a blog; it is a place for reflection and questions. It is journalism which requires the verification and answers.

But in passing on both stories, I did not stop to listen to the small voice inside of me which questioned.

It is a good lesson to trust that small voice. I will aim to do so more faithfully in the future.

[For more details on this story, please read this article.]

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Excerpts

Copts Unite with Muslims after Islamist Attacks

Bishop Thomas of Qussia
Bishop Thomas of Qussia

From Egyptian Streets, elaborating on how Bishop Thomas defended his church in Upper Egypt, which I briefly mentioned in this report:

“We learned that extremists were going to attack us with machine guns, but we did not prepare ourselves for the attack with weapons. We did something simple,” says Bishop Thomas, about that day he received a message that armed hardliners were on their way to his episcopal residence in the Al Quosia-region of Lower Egypt.

Determined to defend themselves without violent means, the church fathers applied soap and water on the rocky path leading to Bishop Thomas’ residence.

“I saw them coming with their machine guns far down the road. They tried to get to the house, but they slipped and fell. They tried over and over again, without succeeding,” says the Bishop, smiling with grief as he talks about the episode.

The grief is over the many homes in his diocese which were attacked. But he is resisting the urge to demonize:

“Fear and anger does not come in my heart. Fear is the biggest enemy – this makes you lose wisdom and power,” said the Bishop gently when asked about the impact of the violence on life as a Copt. “Hatred is the biggest disease – full of revenge and the source of all evil.”

Doing so enables him to take a path different from many Copts, who have embraced the current crackdown on Islamists:

“I need to embrace the victims with love and communicate forgiveness. When the worst assaults are over, my task is to promote and facilitate reconciliation,” said the Bishop calmly while smiling. “The Coptic church is training people to see the situation from different perspectives, we teach them the difference between autocracy and democracy, and the meaning of a civil state. We are working against both a religious – and a marshal state.”

The attacks, some might say paradoxically, have brought the Muslims and Christians of his area closer together:

“Poor Muslim families brought blankets to the Christians who lost their homes, and together we formed a civil front– not Christians against Muslims– but civil society against extremism,” explained the Bishop.

Among the issues discussed jointly were defense-tactics and how to prevent any new attacks.

Images and video-clips from Muslims and Christians, who hand in hand formed a protective ring circle around churches, were shared on social media across the globe.

“No one who has not experienced sectarian violence close up will be able to imagine what this solidarity means to us, as a society,” said Bishop Thomas gratefully. “We did actually lose hope under Morsi. Now we are hoping and praying that the price Copts are paying now will benefit generations of Egyptians in the future.”

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Church Burning Reveals Ugly Contest over Truth and Victimhood

Copts Pray in Burned Church
Copts Pray in Burned Church

What mentality of man will burn a church? In Egypt, what should be known as a house of prayer is now the symbol of civil strife amid conflicting accusations of blame.

‘Attacks on churches are being done by the former regime and their thugs, not pro-Morsi demonstrators,’ said Ahmed Kamal, youth secretary for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Helwan, an industrial district to the south of Cairo.

But this is nonsense to Bishop Thomas, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Qussia, 340 kilometers south of Cairo. His church was attacked by pro-Morsi protestors, but neighborhood Muslims rallied to defend it.

‘We recognize their faces and know who they are,’ said Thomas. ‘The Brotherhood is using us as a scapegoat to blame us for their failures.’

Anti-Christian rhetoric has been prominent among Islamists. Since Pope Tawadros, along with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, appeared with General al-Sisi to announce the deposing of President Morsi, many Islamists believe Copts to be part of a grand conspiracy against not just their movement, but Islam itself.

‘We don’t oppose Christians,’ said Kamal, ‘but we are against the pope – as we are against the head of the Azhar – who interferes to direct people to a particular political direction.’

This second half of this message is reinforced by Kamal’s local party representation. The Helwan FJP’s Facebook page notes that ‘burning houses of worship is a crime’, but then all but justifies it in an attack on the church.

After listing a litany of the pope’s offenses, it declares, ‘After all this people ask why they burn the churches.

‘For the Church to declare war against Islam and Muslims is the worst offense. For every action there is a reaction.’

Kamal recognizes this message may have been too general. The Brotherhood sees Islam as both worship and ideology, only the latter of which has been rejected by the church and anti-Morsi protestors.

Incoherence

But for Arne Fjeldstad, CEO of The Media Project to promote religious literacy in journalism, this error reflects the reality on the ground for Islamists.

‘Whatever the Brotherhood says [about nonviolence] is not listened to or communicated on the street,’ he said. ‘So there is a large incoherence among them.’

More than 50 churches were destroyed since Wednesday last week, including two Bible Society bookshops – the first time in Egypt’s recent history.  Some news organizations reported churches being marked for attack before the Brotherhood sit-ins were forcibly broken up.

Fjeldstad believes the Brotherhood will have a difficult time making theological sense about why God ‘turned against them’. But in the meanwhile, the sit-ins were filled with chants about martyrdom.

‘They have prepared the ground for future generations of warriors for Islam,’ he said.

Sarah Carr is an independent journalist and founder of mbinenglish.com, a web page which exposes the Arabic-only messages the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the FJP Facebook page above.

But she understands the rage of Islamist protestors, for she was a witness to the military-sponsored dispersal of the sit-in which killed over 600 people, not including 40 police personnel.

‘It was completely disproportional violence,’ she said, describing army vehicles mounted with automatic weapons firing into the crowds. Carr did not see any armed protestors, though she does not deny their presence.

‘The army needs to justify their terrorist narrative and use it to crush the Muslim Brotherhood,’ she said.

But the Brotherhood did resist. Political analyst Abdullah Schleifer notes that the Western tradition of nonviolent protest involves non-resistance to state-sponsored oppression.

‘Non-violence does not mean building barricades to hold off the Egyptian riot police and breaking up pavement stones to throw at them.’

Ahmed Kamal
Ahmed Kamal

Kamal freely admits the difference.

‘Gandhi is not necessarily our role model,’ he said. ‘He was good and his people were brave, but we have our peaceful model as well as per our book and principles.

‘We are unarmed in front of their weapons, but we will resist them. To be peaceful is not just to stay silent and wait for bloodshed. We must defend our lives even by throwing stones.’

But Emad Gad, a leading politician with the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, says they went far beyond throwing stones. His party is collecting evidence of protestors’ violent intent.

‘The army did not attack the people,’ he said. ‘They used tear gas and bulldozers and were attacked by armed protestors, and then they responded.’

For political analyst Eric Trager, both narratives make sense. The Brotherhood cannot win a battle against the security forces, but that may not be the point.

‘The Brotherhood seems to believe that if it can draw the military into a fight directly, it can create fissures within the military,’ he told World Affairs Journal.

To protect itself, the military must now push the issue to conclusion.

‘It [the army] entered into a direct conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even an existential one,’ Trager continued.

‘The military believes it not only has to remove Morsi, it has to decapitate the entire organization. Otherwise, the Brotherhood will re-emerge and perhaps kill the generals who removed it from power.’

Incitement

Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church in Cairo disagrees.

‘We witnessed bloodshed on our streets, vandalism and the deliberate destruction of churches and government buildings in lawless acts of revenge by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters,’ he said.

‘I appeal to everyone to avoid rushing to judge the authorities in Egypt.’

In attacking churches, though, Carr finds the Brotherhood playing into the hands of authorities – though society provides fertile ground.

‘We’ve seen for decades how you have one person with an agenda [to spark sectarian attacks] and then others are very happy to jump in,’ she said.

‘It doesn’t take much incitement from the Brotherhood or anyone else.’

Yet the authorities, she finds, are not innocent.

‘It is no good to go to conspiracy theories, but why did you break up the sit-in and not protect churches?’ she asks. ‘What should we conclude?’

The conclusion is a morass of relativity, reflective of a polarized society overlooking travesties on all sides.

‘The number of police killed is almost insignificant,’ said Kamal, ‘compared to the two thousand killed and ten thousand injured on our side.

‘This confirms our peacefulness.’

 

This article was originally published on Lapido Media.

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Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Emigration at Easter: Fight, Flight, and Resignation

From my latest article in Egypt Source, culling attitudes on emigration from a recent trip to Upper Egypt:

Sara Shuhdi
Sara Shuhdi

“I have nightmares every couple of days,” said Sara Shuhdi, a 23 year old assistant professor of analytical chemistry at the German University of Cairo. “I don’t see a bright future for Egypt; maybe it would be better for me if I left.”

Fifty-five days of fasting concluded on Coptic Easter, celebrated this year on May 5 according to the eastern calendar. Always a period of reflection and joy for Egyptian Christians, this year the community is deeper in the former and subdued in the latter.

Here are the photos of each person sharing, with a quote from each:

Fr. Seraphim, an Orthodox priest in Dayrut
Fr. Seraphim, an Orthodox priest in Dayrut

“Of course we must stay here,” he said. “Our history, family, and churches are here – we cannot leave Egypt.”

Emad Awny, a businessman in Asyut
Emad Awny, a businessman in Asyut

“The civil current – Muslims and Christians together – must provide a different way of thought and raise consciousness through business,” he said, “especially in poorer areas susceptible to extremism and ignorance.”

Fr. Kyrillos, an Orthodox priest in Saragna
Fr. Kyrillos, an Orthodox priest in Saragna

“Twenty years ago, I tried to convince Copts not to emigrate, but now because of the bad economy I bless them if they want to go.”

Bishop Thomas of Qussia
Bishop Thomas of Qussia

“I raised people here, trained them, and watched them grow and become productive members of society,” he said. “And then they leave? It is sad.

“I can’t prevent them but I encourage them to stay. I try to speak to their conscience to make their land a better place. Why would someone leave their home and become a foreigner forever?”

The article concludes with a stinging quote by Bishop Thomas for the conscience of humanity; please click here to read the whole article at Egypt Source.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Coptic Palm Sunday Street Parade Axed to Keep the Peace

Bishop Thomas among the revelers
Bishop Thomas among the revelers

This article was first published on Lapido Media:

Joyous Copts raised palm leaves and shouts of welcome as Bishop Thomas, dressed in his regal red clerical robe, entered the Church of the Virgin Mary in Saragna, 325 kilometers south of Cairo.

But departing from tradition he arrived by car for the first time this year. For years local Copts would first parade him through the streets of the 90 percent Christian village.

For the first time in this Upper Egyptian diocese, the ancient parade on 28 April remained within church grounds to control the behavior of Christian youth.

‘It used to be that all churches would parade in the streets, but because of the pressures of the last few decades in most places it has stopped,’ explains Thomas.

Saragna was the last village of his diocese to maintain the parade. ‘We are mostly Christians here, so all is well,’ says Ramiz Ikram, the fourth generation Coptic mayor.

‘Some Muslims complain due to their fanaticism, but we don’t march in their areas so as not to make problems.’

Fr. Kyrillos of Saragna
Fr. Kyrillos of Saragna

But according to Fr Kyrillos Girgis, a Cairo-trained medical doctor who has served as priest in the village for 23 years, local youth recently began shouting offensive anti-Muslim chants.

He threatened to bar them from communion for a year, but eventually had to stop the procession entirely.

This past Sunday, as everywhere else in Egypt according to the Eastern religious calendar, palms were raised within church grounds instead of in the streets as of old. (Please click here for video.)

Bishop Thomas remains positive however. ‘The challenging religious situation in Egypt reinforces our religious identity,’ he says ‘and today we enjoy being in the kingdom of God.’

Fr Kyrillos can also see the silver lining in the dark clouds gathering over this country.  He is leading a vast expansion of the Church of the Virgin Mary, tripling its size and adding a second sanctuary.

The greatly expanded Church of the Virgin Mary in Saragna
The greatly expanded Church of the Virgin Mary in Saragna

Local authorities licensed the expansion before the revolution, along with construction of new churches in the roughly 50 percent Christian villages of Titaliya and Manshia.

‘We have good relations with security and with local people,’ said Thomas, ‘We prefer to obtain proper permissions because we do not want to take any risks.’

Illegal construction

Outside of his diocese, however, other bishops are less risk averse. The 22,000-strong village of Bayadia which is more than 90 percent Christian, had a single church for six different denominations, despite many applications for building permission.

‘We felt great injustice under Mubarak,’ said Orthodox priest Fr Girgis, ‘because we had only one church despite being the great majority of Christians.’

His solution was illegal construction of four more churches. Other denominations followed suit, and Bayadia now has fourteen churches.  In the nearby village of Dair Abu Hinnis which is 100 percent Christian, Fr Bemwa boasts of an increase of from five to ten churches since the revolution.

Bishop Thomas explains it can take up to fifteen years to gain a church building permit, whether from bureaucracy or discrimination.

Many priests take matters into their own hands.

With the collapse of government, this is increasingly the norm in Egypt. The Ministry of Housing and Local Development announced recently the existence of more than five million unlicensed buildings. A BBC report earlier this year documented the post-revolutionary surge in building, including many that have already collapsed.

But when Christians attempt such illegal church construction in Muslim majority villages, there is often resistance. Sometimes this is the case even when permits exist.

‘As long as it is a primarily Christian area there is no problem to build,’ said Cornelis Hulsman, editor-in-chief of Arab West Report (AWR). ‘But when it is in a mostly Muslim area it can cause clashes if neighbours are opposed.’

AWR investigated an attack on a church in Aswan in October 2011, and a February 2013 attack in Fayyoum. In both cases Muslims had been offended when local houses used for worship were expanded or renovated.

But on Palm Sunday, Egyptian Copts celebrate the success of a community which has maintained Christian roots since the visit of the Holy Family fleeing from Palestine.

The faithful flock to pilgrimage sites, such as the rural Serabamoun Monastery, believed by local Christians to house a tree which provided shade to Jesus and Mary.

Fr. Seraphim, offering a loaf of communion bread
Fr. Seraphim, offering a loaf of communion bread

Fr Seraphim, Coptic priest in the nearby city of Daryut, said, ‘Christians in Egypt have seen more persecution in the past than we see now.

‘And of course you have to make use of the opportunity: there is no government.’

 

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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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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Copts Split over Boycott of Clinton over Support for ‘Islamo-Fascism’ in Middle East

This article was originally published at Lapido Media on August 1, 2012.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared religious freedom in Egypt to be ‘quite tenuous’ following the releaseof the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report. Despite chronicling several instances of sectarian violence against Coptic Christians, their community finds itself increasingly divided over its longstanding support for America.

At issue is Clinton’s alleged support for the nation’s first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsy.

The Orthodox Church and Coptic politicians boycotted a recent meeting with Clinton as she visited the fledgling democracy. Some Copts, meanwhile, demonstrated at the US Embassy against her visit.

Bishoy Tamry

‘We believe there is an alliance between the Obama administration and the Muslim Brotherhood, which supports fascism in the Middle East,’ said Bishoy Tamry, a leader in the primarily Coptic Maspero Youth Union, formed following post-revolution attacks on Cairo churches.

‘The US thinks the Brotherhood will protect their interests in the region but it will be over our bodies as minorities.’

President Morsy won a highly contested election rife with rumors of fraud and behind the scenes negotiation between the Brotherhood, Egypt’s military council, and the United States.

‘We knew the next president must have US support,’ said Tamry, ‘because the military council rules Egypt and the US pays the military council.’

Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually in US military aid, compared with $250 million in economic assistance.

Yet, according to Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, Copts have been disproportionately affected by these rumours.

‘Copts fell victim to the conspiracy theory that said Morsy did not win and Shafik [his opponent] was in the lead. I found no compelling evidence of this conspiracy.’

Nevertheless, Copts find reason to believe the US is taking sides in an Egyptian political question. Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader Khairat al-Shater stated his group’s priority is a ‘strategic partnership’ with the United States.

Clinton, meanwhile, urged President Morsy to assert the ‘full authority’ of his office. Egypt is currently undergoing a struggle between the Brotherhood and the military council over the political transition to democracy.

Bishop Thomas

Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Orthodox Church told Lapido Media, ‘We did not meet with Clinton because of the unclear relationship with the Brotherhood and the support they have given it.

‘Things are not settled in Egypt,’ he said. ‘Why was she in such a hurry to come?

‘The current administration does not understand the agenda of the Brotherhood which has been clear for decades – to revive the caliphate and apply shariah law.’

Emad Gad is one of two Copts elected to the now dissolved parliament. He received an invitation to meet with Clinton, but refused.

‘In exchange for Morsy’s being named president,’ he said, ‘the Brotherhood is expected to protect Israel’s security by pressuring Hamas – the Brotherhood’s branch in Palestine – not to launch military attacks against Israel, and even accept a peace agreement with Tel Aviv.’

Sameh Makram Ebeid

Sameh Makram Ebeid, the second Coptic parliamentarian, gives a different emphasis. Though not invited to the meeting with Clinton, he agreed with the refusal of Gad and other Coptic politicians.

He told Lapido: ‘There are two objections to her visit. The liberal forces say – true or false I don’t know – the Americans were in cahoots with the Brotherhood and handed them the country.

‘The second is that you should not meet with the Copts as Copts, but as part of the liberal movement, as the third way between military and Islamist.

‘She wanted to meet with individual liberal politicians, but they were all Christians,’ he said. ‘If you start segregating the country you’re making a big mistake.’

Segregating and dividing the country was also a concern of Revd. Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Council of Churches. In an interview with Lapido, he said the Orthodox clergy withdrew from the meeting only one hour before it started, but that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox laity attended.

Baiady told Clinton of Coptic fears of a repetition of Iraq, where Christians fled the country following American interference. He also spoke of Egyptian concerns the US would divide Egypt, especially the Sinai, using it as a solution for the problem of Hamas.

‘She is a good listener and took many notes,’ said Mr Baiady.

‘Clinton said we have to back the winners and those who lead the country. They have the best organization and power on the ground, based on the parliamentary elections.

‘We have to support the people, she said, and not oppose them.’

Raed Sharqawi, a reporter present at the Coptic demonstration, agrees with Clinton.

‘America has relations with every nation in the world,’ he said. ‘The US is also the shield for the Copts, and always will be. This protest is foolish.’

As Egypt’s transition muddles forward, there is ample room for confusion. The military and the Brotherhood emerged as the two strongest forces, making Copts wonder about their future. Within this mix, Clinton’s visit in support of Morsy has led to this near unprecedented rupture in Coptic-American relations.

‘The US will make us into another Pakistan,’ said Tamry as the protest continued. ‘We have come to say don’t interfere in our business.’

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