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Current Events

Christmas Celebrations Canceled in Iraq After Deaths of 400 Protesters

Iraq Protests Baptist
Pastor Ara Badalian leads members of National Baptist Church in prayer at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. Image: Courtesy of National Baptist Church

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 9, 2019.

Distributing food to protesters with 40 fellow church members under the Jumariyah bridge near Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Ara Badalian made a poignant observation.

“This movement is a flood, occupying the hearts of the youth and the poor, without any religious discrimination,” the pastor of National Baptist Church recalled to CT. “It has broken down all the walls that divided Iraqis.”

It is at the bridges—about a dozen span the Tigris River, which bifurcates the Iraqi capital—where most violence has taken place. The protest movement, which began in October, has resulted in more than 400 deaths, around a dozen of them security personnel. Over 17,000 people have been injured.

In response, the Chaldean Catholic Church decided last week to refrain from holding public celebrations of Christmas, trading tree decorations and holiday receptions for prayers of intercession.

“Instead of bringing hope and prosperity, the current government structure has brought continued corruption and despair,” Bashar Warda, the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, told the United Nations Security Council last week.

“[Iraqi youth] have made it clear that they want Iraq … to be a place where all can live together as equal citizens in a country of legitimate pluralism and respect for all.”

Protesters have demanded the dissolution of parliament, widespread government reforms, and amendment of the sectarian-based 2005 constitution.

Ratified following the United States-led 2003 Iraq War, the current constitution gives the Middle East nation’s Shiite majority (55% of the population) the leading position of prime minister, as well as the influential interior and foreign ministries.

The Sunni minority (40%) receive the speaker of parliament and the defense ministry. The Kurds, who comprise only a third of the Sunni population but are concentrated in their own autonomous northern region, receive the presidency and finance ministry.

Islam is established as the religion of the state and the foundational source of legislation. Christians are among three religious minorities guaranteed religious freedom, though the constitution protects the Islamic identity of the majority.

While the protests have been cross-sectarian in Baghdad, they’ve paradoxically been strongest in the nine Shiite provinces in southern Iraq.

“People don’t want foreign interference from anywhere…

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

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Current Events

O Come, Ye Gazan Christians, to Bethlehem

Gaza Christians Bethlehem
Palestinian Christian couple from the Gaza Strip leaves through the Israeli Erez crossing, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2009 (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 20.

Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity has restored its sparkling mosaics and marble columns to their original glory for the first time in 600 years.

“It has become such a beautiful church,” Ziad al-Bandak, head of the local project committee of Christian leaders, told the AP. “Every Christian in the world would love to see it now.”

Palestinian Mayor Anton Salman expects 1.2 million tourists will make their way to Christ’s birthplace this year. Among them, following an Israeli reversal, will be those who most long to visit for Christmas—the Christians of the Gaza Strip.

“In Gaza, they talk about the West Bank as if it is heaven,” said Hanna Maher, Egyptian pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church. “People love to go for Christmas; there are so many churches.”

In Gaza, there are three. According to the 2017 census, 47,000 Christians live in the Palestinian territories (1% of the population), but only about 1,000 live in Gaza.

Last week the Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) reported that nearly all who applied to enter Israel to visit the West Bank for Christmas failed to receive permits, except for those older than 55.

Applicants younger than 16 were also approved, consistent with restrictions instituted last Christmas and maintained through Easter. A previous policy limited travel to those between ages 16 and 35.

The MEC report was confirmed by Maher, who stated that initially just 200 travel permits had been granted, and Christians, sharing stories of the delayed permit applications, began to assume those outside the age limit would not be allowed to travel.

But their prayers were answered this week…

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

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Current Events

Does One Huge New Church in Egypt Make Up for Troubles with 24 Small Ones?

Sisi New Coptic Cathedral
(via Ahram Online)

This article was first published at Christianity Today on January 10, 2018.

Celebrating Christmas with Egyptian Christians for the fourth consecutive year, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi presented the largest gift under the tree: A new cathedral.

Sisi was the first president in Egypt’s history to even attend a Christmas mass. During last year’s celebration, he promised to build Egypt’s largest church and largest mosque in a yet-to-be-developed new administrative capital.

Three weeks earlier, 27 people had been killed in a suicide bombing in a chapel adjacent the old cathedral and papal residence, St. Mark’s in Cairo.

“Evil, destruction, and killing will never defeat goodness, peace, and love,” Sisi said at this month’s cathedral inauguration. “We are one, and you are our families. No one can ever divide us.”

Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II called the new church, named The Nativity of Christ, a “divine arrangement.”

But also…

 

One week prior to the Helwan incident, a church in Atfih, 60 miles south of Cairo, was ransacked—not by terrorists, but by dozens of local Muslims offended by the rumor that a bell would be installed in the unlicensed village church.

In a recent report by EIPR, Egypt witnessed 20 similar sectarian incidents at churches over a 13-month period. Ibrahim said the total is now up to 24.

EIPR’s reporting timeframe began with the issuance of Egypt’s new church building law, meant to eliminate such problems…

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

 

 

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Current Events

The Christmas Rabbits of C.S. Lewis

Watership Down
(via http://cromeyellow.com/watership-down-by-peter-diamond/)

Creation is alive with the spark of God, often witnessed in the innocence of children. For those made curious by the title, it is actually an amalgam of two oddly related God moments recently experienced through the pen of two celebrated English writers.

The first came through reading Watership Down to my children. The classic Richard Adams epic is the adventure of several rabbits who break away from their warren. A note of foreboding by the youngest of the herd has not been heeded, but his history of keen perception convinces his colleagues among the rabble.

At a resting place along the way, Dandelion comforts the tired rabbits with the tale of Frith, their god.

It is a “How the Elephant got his Trunk” story, for rabbits. Their chief ancestor engaged in friendly witticism with Frith, and eventually found himself in conversation with the deity while bottom-up stuck in hole.

Earlier in the story, Frith multiplied the rabbit’s enemies as the ancestor thumbed his nose at the request to curb his prodigious copulation.

Impressed by the ancestor’s pluck while still vulnerable, Frith blessed the rabbit’s bottom with quickness and speed, with which it can ever evade them—but must run.

It is a delightful creation account, but my oldest daughter remarked Frith isn’t a real god. He is too much akin to his creatures, and too involved in playful banter with his creation.

I explained that the stories of many gods are similar. They live with humans and interact with them.

My younger daughter then piped in, “That’s kinda like our story, too.”

I was struck by her use of the word “story.” To my daughter the Christian story is the implicitly true account of the universe, but her instinctive description of it is as narrative. Unlike her elder sibling, she didn’t mind the resemblance.

A few hours later I was reading a Christianity Today article about a recently discovered article of C.S. Lewis, called “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” originally published in a forgotten issue of the once popular The Strand magazine, but nowhere listed within Lewis’ extensive bibliography.

The article notes Lewis’ observation that despite post-Christian peoples sometimes being called “pagans,” they are nothing of the sort. True pagans inhabited a world full of mystery, magic, and wondrous creatures.

Comparing the two, Lewis wrote, is:

like thinking … a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built. … Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead.

The enchantment of pagan reality is superior to a dreary modernity, Lewis thought. He found danger in modern man’s machine-like approach to nature, even to humanity itself.

But Christianity is an interesting middle-ground:

It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. … For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure.

It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying.

It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.

In some sense, coming back to my youngest daughter, Christianity is the fulfillment of Frith.

[To note for those truly interested: G.K. Chesterton explored very similar themes in his The Everlasting Man.]

Islam, a post-Christian religion held by most Egyptians we live among, takes great offense at the Christian claim of incarnation. While Allah intervenes in human affairs and may extend his great mercy, it is not fitting that he would become a man, sleep, snore, and defecate.

Frith, meanwhile, created the universe from his droppings. The Muslim impulse is very similar to that of my daughter, where a real god should not be so intimately involved with his creation.

It took the younger child to see it right.

“Every evening, when Frith has done his day’s work and lies calm and easy in the red sky,” wrote Adams, “[the ancestor and his descendants] come out of their holes and feed and play in his sight, for they are his friends, and he has promised them that they can never be destroyed.”

The magic of our ancestors fed the stories of our childhood. Modern man has grown too sophisticated to believe them, and Christianity played a significant role. We are not to fear the world.

The pagans did. Post-pagans, with much Christian help, shook their fear and enslaved their former enchanter. What will set the world—and us—free again?

Christmas is coming.

In one corner there may be snark at notions of traveling stars and virgin birth amid inebriation and the best of consumerism.

In another corner there may be snark at the right number of wise men and the seasonal location of a manger, amid legalism and the best of consumerism.

This year, around the Christmas tree appropriated from our pre-Christian ancestors, be rightfully pagan. Feast. Revel. Sing.

Be also rightfully Christian. Share. Serve. Marvel.

As Lewis wrote to the pseudo-pagans of his day, this may be our “way back not only to Heaven, but to Earth too.”

It is a lesson far more easily grasped by children. Perhaps also, by rabbits.

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Current Events

Mothers and Daughters, Mothers and Sons

victims-cairo-cathedral
(via Egyptians Streets)

A reflection from Julie:

Today marks a strange day.  Just one week ago, a suicide bomber killed over 25 people, mostly women and children, as they worshipped in church here in Cairo.  And one week from today, people all around the world will celebrate the joyous birth of a Savior during Western Christmas.  On one end of the bookend is a most tragic event; on the other, a most joyful one.  And yet for both events, that is only part of the story.

The bombing last week hit close to home. Although we are not from the Orthodox tradition of faith, we have worshiped at the local Coptic Orthodox church since we arrived in Cairo seven years ago.  We are familiar with the layout of the sanctuary, including the segregation of men and women.  The right side of the pews, facing the altar, is for the women and consequently most of the children.  The men sit on the left side of the church.  In our church there can be some mixing toward the back, and that is often where our family sits.  But for the suicide bomber, whether this was his target or just the nearest group he could reach, his bomb exploded in the women’s section.

Mothers and daughters lost their lives.  Sisters, friends, aunts, and grandmothers.  Mothers lost daughters and daughters lost mothers.  In at least one family, both the mother and daughter died, and another daughter was injured.  In another family, two sisters died, just graduated from school.  As I looked at the pictures of some of the victims, I couldn’t help thinking about the Sunday school teachers with my kids every week.  Young, vibrant, with their whole lives ahead of them.

One report mentioned the timing of the explosion.  During mass there is always a “giving of the peace.”  This has been a favorite time for our children as they slide their hands between the hands of other congregants, their siblings, and us, and then kiss their own fingertips, while saying “peace of the Messiah.”  This was the time, purposefully for not, that the suicide bomber entered the church.  Instead of peace, how tragic this man would give only violence.

Yet the Coptic Orthodox Church, thought mourning, still rejoices.  It is a church built on a history of pain, persecution, and suffering.  Children hear the stories of martyrs from centuries past and marvel at their strong faith and unwavering resolve to follow Jesus despite the threat of death.  Adults aspire to stand firm in the face of fear.  One friend told us he wished he was counted worthy to be there and die.  We are glad he wasn’t one of 25-plus now added to the church roster.

Such hope can sound trite.  A band-aid for the pain or an elixir to numb feelings after tragedy.  But it is not.  Mothers are grieving.  Fathers are burying their children.  Children try to understand where their mom has gone.  All of the pain is real and felt.  Yet they have a deeper faith that can help support those who are mourning.

Though the Coptic Orthodox calendar has Christmas on January 7, most of the world will celebrate just one week from today.  There is so much joy and happiness that surrounds this event.  For me it means baking, spending time with my family, fellowshipping with friends, making Christmas ornaments, and attending special church services.  And of course, we know the Christmas story where angels appeared to shepherds and announced the good news with great joy!  Amazing things happened more than 2000 years ago.

But tragic things happened too.  As I reflected this week on the bombing—with Christmas so near—I thought of the mothers in Bethlehem who lost their sons.  As Herod’s jealousy grew over the rumors of a new king, he ordered his soldiers to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years and younger.  Can you imagine?  Murdered as they slept in their beds.  Seized while nursing. Moments earlier they were crawling down the corridor or toddling toward their moms.  What pain, what tragedy.

Christmas is a joyous celebration because it signals the birth of the Prince of Peace who will—one day—bring peace to this world. But this year not all are festive with blinking lights and wrapping paper. Besides the families of the Egyptian martyrs, some are dealing with debt, divorce, death, and disease. The world is dealing with refugees, war, terrorism, and racism.  Not exactly the happiest Christmas message.

How do we, how do I, handle all the tragedy in the world and still somehow celebrate the birth of my Savior?  This reflection is how I will start; I will remember the bigger picture.  Some are suffering; some are rejoicing.  I will pray for both.  I will help others.  I will be kind.  I will teach my children what I must continually learn: To not just focus on my own joy this Christmas, but to look outward and consider others.

We are mothers and daughters, mothers and sons.  Let us pray for peace on earth and goodwill toward men.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Christmas, Terror

Flag Cross Quran

God,

As Egypt receives echoes of both hope and horror, make true the promise and put down the threat. Help the people live in peace.

The president once again visited the papal cathedral for Christmas mass. He esteemed the unity of the nation and assured all destroyed churches would be repaired this year.

But terrorists once again killed policemen, destroyed pipelines, and targeted tourists—this time at a popular beach resort. It is a reminding blow to the notion that Egypt is secure.

So God, help Egypt remember correctly.

May she recall neighborly relations between religions. May she resolve through pain of innocents lost.

Let churches be rebuilt and Muslims also celebrate. Let grief heal wounds and reach out in forgiveness.

Otherwise echoes risk ringing empty. Hearts will be hardened and divisive lines reinforced.

God, amplify the sounds of hope. Revive the pulse of justice. Erase the marks of hostility.

Egypt has a long way to go. Echoes alone are monotonous. Strike forth a symphony, and bid her rejoice.

Amen.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Visions of Religion

Flag Cross Quran

God,

If you are the light, the good, and the pure, then it stands to reason that the closer one approaches you the more imperfections are visible. Furthermore, the accumulated wisdom in the approach to you – religion – is prone to the same exposure. Great virtue lies along your path, great vice looms a step awry.

And therefore man is a poor judge. Sometimes the deed seems obvious. Gunmen fire randomly into a newspaper office, or kill policemen guarding a church. Sometimes the act is contested. Religious leaders comment on politics, or political leaders comment on religion. And sometimes the symbol seems worthy. A president visits holiday mass, or a policeman is killed guarding a newspaper.

But in each one, God, man can find both honor or fault. Some difference stems from the choice of religion, some from the different visions of each. The path is important, God, as is the heart. Judge mercifully, but justly. May man imitate you as closely as possible.

For those who kill in your name, offended by the offense given to the revered, instill in them your own humility. For those who kill in your name, seeking retribution and reversal denied them in this world, instill in them a faith in your ordering of affairs.

For a pope who comments on politics, give him wisdom to discern reality, to speak judiciously, and to lead as a servant. For a president who comments on religion, give him wisdom to seek knowledge, to judge his limits, and to lead as a visionary.

For the symbol of state to recognize Christmas, bless intentions of unity amid accusations of politics. For the symbol of sacrifice in defense of another’s religious or irreligious voice, bless the faithfulness of duty amid uncertainties of criticism.

Should human freedom permit religious mocking? Should religious freedom permit divergence in the community?

Should Christianity stand with the powers-that-be, or simply pray for them? Does Islam need a renewal of religious discourse, or a better imitation of its origins?

God for so many the answers are obvious; for others these answers are obviously different. We are poor judges, especially in religion. Show us the light, the good, and the pure. Help us hold to conviction where our vision is true, but in our certainty show us our darkness, our bad, and our impurity.

Bless Egypt in these questions, God, as a nation may she draw closer to you. Reveal her imperfections. Give her the best wisdom in religion. Guide her on the right path. Keep her foot from slipping.

Amen.

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Current Events

Translation: President Sisi at Christmas Eve Mass

Egyptian President Sisi talks next to Coptic Pope Tawadros II as he attends Christmas Eve Mass at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo

Last night on Christmas Eve according to the Coptic Orthodox calendar, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became the first ever Egyptian head-of-state to attend the holiday mass.

His appearance lasted for about ten minutes, during which he gave a short speech. The video selection and translation is provided kindly by Paul Attallah.

It was necessary to come and congratulate you for the feast
I hope that I did not interrupt your prayers

Egypt for years taught the civilization to the whole world
and taught the civilization to the whole world
I want to tell you that the world is now waiting from Egypt
in these circumstances…

The people: We love you
Sisi: We love you too!

I thank you because frankly the Holy Pope will be upset!

It’s important that the whole world watch us: the Egyptians.
You noticed that I am not using another word than Egyptians
It could not be something different
We are the Egyptians
Nobody says: what (type of) Egyptian are you?
Listen
We are saying things
We are writing to the world a meaning
and we are opening a window of real hope and light to the people

I am saying that Egypt taught to the world all over the years civilization and humanity
Today we are present to confirm that we are able another time
to teach the humanity
and to teach the civilization once again.
Starting from here
For this reason, we cannot say but: we the Egyptians
We must be only Egyptians
Yes Egyptians

The people: One hand

Yes one hand
I want just to tell you
that with God’s will
we will build Egypt together
we will contain one another
We will love each other
We will love each other in a good way
we will love each other really
so the people can watch

I want to tell again
Happy New Year
and for all Egyptians
and for all Egyptians: greetings for the feast
Holy Pope: Greetings for the feast
Thanks and I will not take from you more time
Greetings

It is certainly a historic occasion. Merry Christmas to all Egyptians.

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Personal

Not Quite Home for Christmas

Lonely Christmas

I have lived overseas now for about eight years.  We have lived in three different countries, but even so, I feel quite at home here in Egypt, where we have been for four years.  We have lots of friends and my life is busy with four young kids.  For me, living overseas is the norm.  While I love so many things about America, and I would love to live in the same state, or even town, as my family, I am perfectly content living as an expat.

But there are times when homesickness strikes.  Times when you just wish you could be two places at once, or that you could travel over the ocean as easily, and cheaply, as driving from New Jersey to Pennsylvania.  And one of those times is the holidays.  Particularly Christmas.

The family I grew up in still gets together on Christmas despite growing from the original 7 to now 29 people.  And if I sit and think about that too long, especially at the time they are actually gathering, which is usually when I am sleeping here, that can make me sad.  I would love to be with my family on Christmas.  But of course, I am with my family on Christmas as I celebrate with my husband and kids.  What is the difference?

The last few years I have felt that Christmas has snuck up on me.  We celebrate American Thanksgiving, and before I can think about it, I have to have the Christmas Advent calendar up in order to count down to the 25th.  Meanwhile, here in Egypt, the official holiday of Christmas isn’t until January 7, according to the Coptic calendar.  And while you can see lots of Christmas trees and wrapping paper on display at local shops, there isn’t exactly the festive atmosphere that you would find in the States.  One of the biggest reasons the 25th almost comes without notice is that my girls have a regular school day and are either studying for or taking their mid-term exams.  The church where we worship has begun Christmas choir practice for the girls, but their program will be on New Year’s Eve.

And so I am learning what I need to do personally to make Christmas special for me and my family in our home here in Egypt.  I need people and special celebrations.  If we aren’t invited to others’ celebrations, then I need to host celebrations for us (or maybe for me!)  I need to bake and enjoy the time spent in the kitchen with my kids, as that is one of my favorite memories from Christmases in Pennsylvania… all the kitchen preparation beforehand.  I need to listen to Christmas music and make an effort to teach my kids the carols they should know.  We need to attend Christmas productions and concerts at local churches.  And we need to set new traditions that make our Christmases ones that our children will one day miss.

This year I am hoping to host three Christmas teas.  What is easier, and tastier, than making a bunch of Christmas sweets, and inviting others to join and indulge?  One group will be teachers from my daughter’s Egyptian school, where I have begun teaching on a very part-time basis.  This is an experiment and something totally new for them.  Another group will be of Egyptian Christian friends.  Again, a bit of an experiment, but we can celebrate the holiday together, perhaps for some of them in a new way.  And the last group will be of other foreign moms like me.  This will be the most naturally comfortable and possibly the tastiest as they provide some of their favorite traditional sweets.

No matter where we are, if with my husband and our children gathered together, we are home. And this home is now Egypt.  It requires some adjustments and creativity, and perhaps some courage to step out and try new things.  One of our Egyptian traditions is sailing on a felucca on the Nile River on Christmas morning. It is very different from the craziness that ensues when 17 grandchildren descend on my parents’ house on Christmas day.  But these are special times and new memories that we make ourselves. Perhaps one day our own children will have a longing for Egypt. But we pray they will be able to celebrate wherever they are, even if not quite home.

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Personal

Unintended Recipients of Generosity

Generosity

‘Make sure your kids come to Sunday School tomorrow,’ their teacher told Julie. Snug in bed, my wife ignored her first call at 10:45pm, but then picked up on her second effort at 11:00. Egyptians are well known as night owls, though they don’t usually call us so late.

‘There will be special visitors,’ she told Julie in Arabic, but the key word to follow was in an unclear English. ‘They will give each child books.’

Great, we thought. Emma and Hannah both have been making progress in their Arabic reading, and now they would be receiving additional age-appropriate materials we could use at home. Only we weren’t sure she said books. It might have been boox.

Regardless, it was nice to be invited. She didn’t want our children to miss out.

Upon our arrival in Egypt four years ago we began attending the Coptic Orthodox Church, which we discovered had a wonderful Sunday School program. Coptic laity is required to complete a year-and-a-half long training course before they serve officially in any capacity. We kept a close eye on content, especially early on, as we were still learning the intricacies of Orthodoxy. But we appreciated the spirit and love with which they teach, and our kids’ participation helped us as parents feel part of the community. Besides, David and Goliath is the same in any tradition, and on the occasions they taught about specific saints it was a learning process for us, too.

But this teacher was calling from the Arabic Evangelical Church. Her earnestness was in part due to the fact our kids hadn’t gone there since we came back to Egypt after a summer in America. This wasn’t the first time she called to inquire.

The Evangelical Church is more akin to our American heritage, but consistent with the night owl nature of Egyptians, their services don’t begin until after our kids go to bed. So we never became part of that community, though we discovered their Sunday School program began right after the one at the Orthodox Church ended. The two are about ten minutes away walking distance, and our kids are not the only ones who attend both.

They, and we, appreciate this Sunday School also, but churches across Egypt changed over the summer. President Morsi was deposed, hundreds of his supporters were killed when their protest site was cleared, and the next day dozens of churches across the nation were attacked. Nearly every Friday since then, Morsi supporters have marched through the streets. Many have been peaceful, a few have been involved in unclear violence, but all have sprayed graffiti on every nearby wall or sign. Anti-Christian slogans have been commonplace, blaming them for siding with the popular revolt against the Islamist president.

As a result, many churches have moved up their service times so that people can get home before Friday demonstrations begin, just in case sectarian violence rears its ugly head. And here it is necessary to clarify that in Christian Egypt, Sunday School takes place on Friday. The weekend is Friday and Saturday, and most churches hold their main services coinciding with the Muslim day of prayer, when everyone is off.

This meant the Evangelical Church now held its Sunday School at the same time as the Orthodox Church. We had to choose, and our Egypt roots were stronger in the latter. The teacher called us regularly to invite us back, and we apologetically explained our situation.

But this time there were boox.

The teacher assured we just had to get there before a certain time, so we booked out of the Orthodox Church and made our way. Hannah, especially, led the charge pushing the stroller beside me. When we arrived we noticed a few other new faces, perhaps like our own.

That is, in the sense of ‘not regular attenders’ rather than ‘foreigners’. The open area outside the church was filled with Egyptian mothers dressed in the traditional village garb of a long robe and head covering. Granted, we haven’t attended for a while, but this Evangelical Church is more generally frequented by the middle-to-upper class residents of Maadi, the upscale Cairo district where we live. Not far away are lower-to-middle class areas, too, but village dress is not the norm for this church. Maybe they were there also for the boox?

Now, Egypt unfortunately is not known for its love of literacy. We began to suspect the teacher was not promising books, but a box. As the first few children left their classes, we saw we were right.

We didn’t know how right, though Julie started to wonder. Were these boxes from Samaritan’s Purse?

Operation Christmas Child

Samaritan’s Purse is an American based Christian charity, and one of their signature campaigns is Operation Christmas Child. Kindhearted people in churches across the country fill shoeboxes with toys for underprivileged children around the world, who might not otherwise receive anything for Christmas.

And out marched our three girls with huge smiles.

I’m sure Samaritan’s Purse orchestrates with churches throughout the country, distributing many boxes in poor areas. 40 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line, so there are certainly many needy. But dollar store type toys are readily available in Egypt, and the Orthodox Church does a very good job of making Christmas special, here celebrated on January 7. Toys and treats are given freely even in rural village churches, and families sacrifice to make sure their kids have new clothes for the holidays.

I’m not saying the charity is unnecessary, but it was odd to see Samaritan’s Purse in Maadi. And it was fully ironic that a generous Florida mother sent her shoebox across the ocean to be received by our five year old daughter. Her toys were not even the made-in-China variety; Hannah got an electronic battle hamster that darts across the floor.

Perhaps God’s generosity is similar. He makes his rain fall on the just and the unjust. He gives full wage to those who work but a few hours, while praising others for contentment with the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.

We can trouble ourselves – and perhaps we should more often – why God’s generosity seems instead withheld from those who need it most. Or, we can take the lesson and apply it with whatever we have, to whoever we meet. When we visited that poor, rural church, our children were honored also. There is a similar ministry here in Cairo that gives Christmas gifts to the children of local Sudanese refugees. Perhaps the value of the Florida mother’s gift was to prompt imitation in our family to them.

In one sense we are to bless those we know in need; in another, we are to cast our bread upon the waters. We were unintended recipients of generosity, and while laughable, it is humbling. Therefore, let us be generous also, by nature, so that blessing comes to all who cross our path, many of whom will be unintended.

 Girls with OCC Gifts

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Personal

Church, State, and Revolution in Egypt

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope of the Co...
Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Many Christians in America are keen on emphasizing that the ‘separation of church and state’ is found nowhere in the constitution. Rather, they state, it was from the personal letters of Thomas Jefferson – his guiding opinion, of course, but never adopted in America’s founding documents.

This is true. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion for the individual, while also keeping government from imposing a religious test for any public office. Many Christians, however, find that the modern interpretation of these clauses – read through Jefferson – squeeze religion from public life.

They don’t know how good they have it.

Coptic Christians in Egypt are currently caught between two relatively good systems. The modern secular state, as in America, allows personal freedoms and independence of religious institutions. This was somewhat the promise of Mubarak, but never really arrived. Especially in light of the Arab Spring, many Copts look to the west and hope for the implementation of such enlightened policy.

Yet on the other hand, also driven by the Arab Spring, is the understanding that Islam-as-state protects a subservient church. This also is enlightened, and for many centuries Christians lived comfortably under the caliphate, participating in society, economy, and government. There were abuses in history, and it is not the equivalent of modern citizenship. Yet many Copts are fearful of such a return, while Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are head-over-heels trying to assure them their fears are baseless.

Unfortunately, Mubarak muddled between the two.

While the church was officially independent, it was not free. Relations between the president and the pope were conducted along the lines of the old caliphal system. No jizia was paid, but in exchange for guaranteeing the subservience of the Christian community, the pope received a direct line to the leader and relative freedom of internal rule. If Christians got out of line, though, or if it was necessary to hold them in line, a measure of sectarian strife was allowed. Some say it was even encouraged, if not promoted.

A few days ago I posted about a controversy in the church, which erupted during Christmas celebrations. With the massacre at Maspero in the background, Pope Shenouda welcomed the military council, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. The church has regularly welcomed representatives of the state, which in the past have been members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.

This year, it is members of the military council, and of the triumphant Islamist powers. Though the faces have changed, the pope was following a protocol long established.

Revolutions, however, disrupt protocol. Many young Copts invested themselves heavily in the revolution, seeking greater freedom for society at large. Instead, at Christmas, they find the pope continuing the same pattern. The military, they believe, killed demonstrating Copts at Maspero, and no one has been held accountable. The Muslim Brotherhood is an open question; will they simply continue politics-as-usual, with a democratic face?

If these young Copts desire freedom throughout the society, they desire it on the part of the church as well. It was humiliating, or else cowardly and insulting, to see the pope receive those who shed Coptic blood, as well as Islamists who seem very comfortable with the military.

They want the pope to be revolutionary. They want him to refuse greetings until justice is met. To a large degree, they want a western version of freedom of religion.

They are not alone. Many Egyptians desire this, including many Muslims. The question is: Is it best for the church?

The pope is a man of tradition, and old men are set in their ways. He is also a fountain of wisdom, and he knows his society. He believes the church is safest under the protection of the state.

Is he wrong? Maybe. Jesus was a revolutionary, though of a different kind. But he was willing to sacrifice himself for what was right. If the church challenges the state – currently constituted as the military council – it might rally both Christians and Muslims to continue the revolution until military rule is abolished. Then, with governance in the hands of civilians, even an Islamist parliament would be free to … well, what would it do?

Or, if the church challenged the state, the state might hit back. Would Muslims rally behind it? If so, would they be strong enough? Or would this only push them deeper into Islamism, seeing Coptic comeuppance, ‘those ungrateful Christians’?

One might pragmatically say the church should stay by the side of the military against the Islamists, as under Mubarak. Activists, and most Copts, would now say that Mubarak did not work out so well for them. They were certainly very critical of him before the revolution. But will Islamists be worse?

Pope Shenouda is probably not making bets for one side or the other. In all likelihood, he is simply following protocol. He is not promoting the military council or the Muslim Brotherhood. He is acknowledging their place in the governance of Egypt.

History is riddled with examples of minorities who backed the wrong side. If Pope Shenouda is licking the boots of the powers-that-be, this is beneath the dignity of his position – indeed of any Christian, or of any individual human being. But if he were to thumb his nose, this also is a threat to dignity, and more.

Perhaps unfortunately, revolutions demand one choose a side. This puts Christians in a very difficult position. On the one hand, their religion encourages them to sacrifice themselves for others, for truth, and for the cause of justice. On the other, it encourages fealty to the ruling powers, with prayers offered on their behalf. How, then, should a first loyalty to God drive a Christian in Egypt today? How should it drive the pope?

Perhaps Pope Shenouda leans a bit too much in deference to the state. This is certainly the activists’ charge. Yet it must also be noted this criticism is leveled from the perspective of a western system of religious freedom, or at least from the longing thereof.

It may well be Egypt is moving back to an official caliphal system, where the pope represents his community. Or perhaps the mixed-Mubarak system will stay in place. The future could be very bad, or it might not be bad at all. Activists must continue to labor for what they believe in, and convince others of the same. The pope must be given room to do the same. Indeed, his conduct now may be guaranteeing activists their relative freedom of operation.

Americans, imagining themselves in the middle of all of it, might wish for a little more Jefferson.

 

Categories
Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Coptic Leaders Enrage their Youth as they Avoid Conflict with the Military

note: This article was published on Lapido Media. The version below contains a few more quotes which did not make the final edit.

Young Coptic activists disrupted Christmas mass in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo on January 7, shouting slogans against the military council.

Around ten individuals coordinated to erupt the moment Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, extended Christmas greetings to military members, as captured on YouTube.

Among these was Gen. Hamdy Badeen, head of the military police. Many activists hold him responsible for the deaths of 27 people during a mostly Coptic protest at Maspero in October.

The pope has faced challenges leading the church during the revolution. Even so, he welcomed those whom many activists consider at odds with the Copts. This represents not only the military council, but also the Muslim Brotherhood, reported previously by Lapido Media.

Ramy Kamel

Ramy Kamel organized the Christmas protest in the cathedral – a rarity in the hierarchical church where the holiness of the pope is widely respected.

‘It has not yet been three months since Maspero and they invite the military council?’ Kamel stated.

Sameh Saad of the Maspero Youth Union echoed this dismay.

‘We are very angry because the Pope invited them. Nothing has happened to hold anyone in the military accountable since Maspero, and we do not want to greet them.’

‘Still, we will be silent because we love the pope.’

Kamel had been a leading member of the Maspero Youth Union, but resigned due to silence like this.

‘The organization was becoming content simply to issue statements, but people need to be awoken into action.’

Nevertheless, if not for his mother, Kamel would have passed the holiday at home. He states church security threatened him with attack dogs if he led a demonstration inside the cathedral.

Ramy Kamel's Mother, with grandson

Karima Salama is Kamel’s mother. ‘I pushed him to go. The common Copts here in our neighborhood are outraged, so how could my son sit at home doing nothing?

‘We must not say the pope makes mistakes but here he did.

‘The church should welcome all but the pope should not have invited them.’

Bishop Bisenti emphasizes such open reception in defense of the pope.

‘The pope expresses his love to welcome all, and if they want to come they are invited as brothers.

‘Those who reject this are looking from the point of view of punishment for what happened in Maspero, but we look from the point of view of love.

‘The question of punishment is left to the judge and we will accept this.’

The military council has stated lower ranking officers are being investigated concerning the tragedy at Maspero. Official charges, however, have only been leveled against activists.

A week before Christmas, Coptic confusion increased over the church’s reluctance to demand military accountability. Pope Shenouda stated peace and security prevailed in Egypt due to the military council, as reported in the local press.

Amir Bushra, another member of the Maspero Youth Union, was among those affected by Kamel’s protest.

‘I personally apologize to Ramy Kamel because I was opposed to doing anything in the cathedral, but realized I was mistaken when I saw Pope Shenouda with Gen. Hamdy Badeen.

‘The church should take pride in her sons, because their chants are the chants of all who lost loved ones at Maspero.’

A subsequent blow of protest was issued a week later at mass by Fr Yuhanna Fuad, priest of the Virgin Mary Church in Old Cairo, and presented on YouTube. He was present at the cathedral on Christmas.

‘Hamdy Badeen greeted me. I apologize I kissed him and shook his hand and was pictured with him. He arranged this to improve his image.

‘You have to know that your priest is honest and has to say the truth. These people are unjust. They are liars and thieves, holding on to power.’

Samir Morcos is a respected writer and researcher in Coptic Church affairs. He states, ‘This is a new dynamic we must accept after January 25, especially among the young people.

So it must be noted that while Bishop Musa [bishop of youth affairs] justified the presence of the military council, he did not condemn the youth.’

Samir Zaki, who works under Bishop Musa as the general secretary for encouraging civic participation, makes clear this perspective.

‘The system works that security and VIPs always come to Christmas, and we issue invitations to allow them through the doors of the cathedral. The military council stated they are coming to wish Christmas greetings. Should we not say thank you?’

As concerns the demonstrating youth, Zaki states, ‘The pope put forward the official church position, but they were representing their personal opinion. No one has done anything to them.’

Samir Morcos believes no one knows exactly the extent of Coptic frustration with the church, in its accommodation to the military council.

It is clear, however, there is an undercurrent of revolutionary sympathy. Ramy Kamel wants it to transform the church.

‘No one should be able to represent the position of the church absolutely, no matter who he is.’

For many, this itself is a revolutionary idea.

Please read the published article on Lapido Media.

Related Articles:

 

Categories
Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Christmas with the Brotherhood

MB Delegation Outside a Helwan Church

Following two years of bloody winter holidays, and following also resounding Islamic success in elections, the Muslim Brotherhood coordinated with security forces – and probably Orthodox Church leadership – to stand watch outside church buildings throughout Egypt.

I was able to visit one installation in Helwan, to the south of Cairo. After moving from church to church in the district of Maadi, finding no Brothers present, I happened upon a Christian taxi driver who told me they were at his church, to which he subsequently brought me. It would have been difficult to find on my own.

I wrote about this story for Lapido Media, a British website focusing on telling religious aspects of the news which might be overlooked by other outlets. That the Brotherhood would come and spend Christmas with Copts is a fairly big deal, but many Western news agencies missed it. Not only is the event newsworthy, but so is its undercurrent. Please click here to read the story.

The basic question is this: Is the Brotherhood coming to Christmas celebrations because they love Copts as fellow citizens and Egyptian brothers? If so, this is wonderful.

Or, does their effort to ‘defend’ Christians issue from a place of Islamic superiority which offers protection to religious minorities in exchange for their acceptance of an Islamic system of government? If so, this is concerning.

Read the story for several wonderful quotes which insist upon the former. Yet upon pushing them for their eventual goal – after reestablishing security, economy, and demonstrating the virtues of Islamic government – they deftly skirted the issue. They insisted it was not proper to speak about Christians under dhimmi protection ‘now’.

I don’t necessarily doubt their sincerity. I believe that most Brothers, being Egyptians, have a love of their fellow Copts. It is a laudable feature of Islam that it urges Muslims to defend the rights of (at least Abrahamic) religious minorities.

Every religion has a natural chauvinism with which it imbues believers concerning their own faith. One of the prominent interpretations of Islam insists it has the right to rule – and rule justly – but to accord non-Muslims a special place in subservience to an Islamic order. Even if the Muslim Brotherhood does not have a ‘strategy’ to turn Copts into dhimmis, this aspect of their faith may be bubbling to the surface, no matter their simultaneous sincere expressions of love and equality.

Being a dhimmi may not even be a horrible thing, but neither is it liberal democracy. Currently the Muslim Brotherhood straddles the fence, insisting both on a civil state with equality of citizenship and an Islamic reference to guide legislation. Can they pull it off? Time will tell.

Yet despite the desires of many Muslim Brothers to postpone this question, it is essential it be answered now. Otherwise, the system may take root and produce effects from sources far more deeply rooted than assertions of national unity. These assertions are true, they are even sharia. Yet historically, sharia also often included dhimnitude.

Muslim Brotherhood overtures at Christmas hint in both directions. As one Brother states in the article, he wants Christians to know what is in their heart. This is good, but Copts also deserve to know what is in their vision.


 

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Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Christmas

God,

As Christmas comes to Egypt, Islamists rise to power. The military council stands prominently in the background of both.

What do you wish for Egyptian Christians, God? They are no mere minority, but have little independent power. They are dissolved into every community as part and parcel of the Egyptian fabric. Yet they are different, and sometimes subject to the approbation of ‘other’.

They all will say their security resides in you. As such, God, honor them in this. May their faith be rewarded as political winds vacillate.

But where should their earthly security reside? Is it with the ruling power? Is it with the Islamists? Is it with a democratic system? Is it aloof from all of these? Give Christians wisdom, God, to choose friends wisely during these tumultuous days. Yet beyond gaining friends, cause them to be servants to all, yet servile to none. Give them a sense of purpose to utilize the fruits of their faith on behalf of the nation, bringing to bear what might be missed by others. May their salt savor and their light shine.

Give such wisdom and purpose to Islamists as well, God. You have blessed them with favor from the majority of the people; may they be grateful and humble. Their challenges are many. Help them to draft a constitution of consensus. Help them to navigate relations with the military. Give them the skill of governance, God, for the good of the nation.

Meanwhile, God, the pope has invited both to Christmas. Many Copts are angry, finding both army and Islamists to be against their community. If true, do Jesus’ words demand he invite them? Do Jesus’ words allow for church-state politics? Are Jesus’ words simple rhetoric?

Bless Pope Shenouda, God. Help him to care for his flock, and care for his nation. Sanctify his prayers for the rulers of state, and help him to lead all Christians in this. Guide the church through these days, both the institution and the people, the body of Jesus.

May they find peace and kinship with the community of Muhammad. May all submit to one another in love and trust. Grant both a government in which they take rest, and take part.

Keep Christmas safe tonight God.

Amen.  

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Personal

Contemplating a Terrorist Strike

SUICIDE BOMB
Image by wannaoreo via Flickr

Jayson and I attended St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church here in Maadi, Egypt on Coptic Christmas Eve.  This is not so unusual, as it is the main church we attend weekly, but this particular night was a little different.  You may have heard in the news about the suicide bomber who attacked a Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt on New Year’s Eve.  Egypt’s churches had been threatened by terrorists back in November, and on New Year’s Eve, that threat became reality!  The week that followed was interesting reading the news reports and hearing about the heightened security as Coptic Christmas approached.  Each day as I took my girls to preschool across the street from the Coptic Church, I noticed more and more security measures.  The teachers told me about bomb-sniffing dogs and scanners to be put in place for the Christmas Eve service.  We had planned to take a trip three hours south of Cairo for the holiday to celebrate with the same priest’s family we had celebrated with last year, but were advised to change our plans due to the threats.  And yet, we couldn’t forsake the place where we had been striving to belong over the last year.  It was Christmas Eve, the second biggest Christian holiday, and threats or no threats, it was time to attend church.

It was a long day in many ways.  I began work making a “contingency plan” over a year ago, and yet, with the immediate cares of everyday, I usually forgot about it and certainly didn’t make it a priority.  And yet, that day, with the thought of attending church under threat of attack, my thoughts turned to our three little girls, and what information people would need if something happened to Jayson and me.  I finally got around to writing down where our important documents are kept, phone numbers of parents in the states, and contact information for other connections we have.  I even wrote down phone numbers of friends in the country who I knew would be able to help with babysitting, even though I never asked them if they would be on my contingency plan.  It was necessary, but foreboding, to be writing down the girls’ daily schedules:  Emma and Hannah go to bed at 7pm, Layla is eating squash and peas … things people would need to know IF something happened.  But yet, the thought of this information being needed was very disturbing!

I lived that day a little differently I think.  I prayed more.  I hugged my girls more.  I had realized in the past that I didn’t have many pictures of me with the girls simply because I am usually the one taking the pictures.  And I knew I didn’t have any recent pictures of me with Hannah, my second girl.  So, one of the things I did that day was take some self-portrait shots with Emma and with Hannah.  I figured IF something happened, at least the girls would have these photos to hang on to.  How depressing!  But it was the first time I really went through a day thinking, this COULD be my last day.

I even taught the girls a song that day which I had recently remembered when reading Psalms.  I heard this song years ago on one of Steve Green’s Bible Verse Song tapes and it goes, “When I am afraid I will trust in You, I will trust in You, I will trust in You….”  I thought it a perfect song, not only for when they wake up at night with bad dreams, but especially today … IF something happened to me, I wanted them to have a song to sing as they were afraid without their Mommy and Daddy.

I tried not to think about the possibility of this being my last day on earth too much, but it really was a strange feeling.  I wasn’t overcome with fear, but I really did want to be prepared … or have my girls prepared for what COULD happen, without letting them think about what COULD happen.  My “I love you’s” to them when we put them to bed had a little more weight behind them than normal, and I looked at them just a few seconds longer than usual as I left their room.

I wasn’t sure if I would be nervous the whole time we were in the church, as the best time for the attack would be as people were exiting the building, but while I thought about it some, it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.  I was impressed by the security presence at the entrance.  I was impressed by the number of people who were in the church, and the numbers who just kept coming and made it standing-room-only for a time.  I felt proud to be there and proud of the others who came despite the threats.  I was grateful to the Muslims I noticed in the crowd, for their standing with their Egyptian brothers in a possibly dangerous place.  And I enjoyed what I could understand of the sermon.

I got a little nervous toward the end as the priest made several announcements to the congregants to exit and go straight to their cars following communion.  They reminded them not to stand around and chat either inside or outside the building.  They wanted to cooperate with security as much as possible and get people home safely.  I felt comfortable inside and couldn’t imagine something happening at that point, but still, we had to leave the church and walk through the barriers before we were “safe.”

And you all know, since I am writing this post after the fact, that nothing happened and I am still alive and well and still able to be a Mommy  to Emma, Hannah and Layla, for which I am very grateful. But I now have a good start on our contingency plan, and a good reminder of what it’s like to live more “in the moment,” realizing that any day COULD be my last day here.  I don’t want to live in the depressing “what if’s” of thinking about death, but I want to hug my kids hard each day, tell them I love them truly each day, teach them songs and take pictures with them each day.

I’m thankful for the days God gives me here, but I don’t want to live in awareness of this only when the thought of death becomes a possibility.  Though there are many good things to live for, sometimes we only recognize it when the status quo is threatened. Terrorism can do that to you, but it can also lead to paralysis. Hopefully, in the days to come, we can find the balance.

 

Categories
Personal

How Many Days of Christmas?

The Christmas season is upon us and we are enjoying watching Emma and Hannah learn about the Christmas story.  We are doing a few new things this year with them in mind, and it’s been fun to watch.  At the same time, I wonder what confusion they may be experiencing, particularly with the “days of Christmas” in the land of Egypt. First, a new song.

Last month, a good friend gave the girls a new book called, “The Twelve New Days of Christmas”, by Bonnie Fite.  It’s a great new rendition of the old song many of us are familiar with, but it uses elements from the Bible story instead of some odd combination of birds and musicians.  Emma already has the whole thing memorized and Hannah is close behind (see video here).   What a perfect way to learn all the different parts of Jesus’ story of arrival on this earth.

The song goes like this:

  • On the first day of Christmas, my true Lord gave to me, the Babe in a manger bed.
  • 2nd – two earthly parents
  • 3rd – three wise men
  • 4th – four elder saints (referring to Elizabeth and Zechariah, parents of Jesus’ cousin, John; and also, Simeon and Anna, two saints at the temple)
  • 5th – five Roman guards (referring to the only sad part of the Christmas story where King Herod sends his soldiers to kill the babies in Bethlehem)
  • 6th – six chickens clucking (the author admits to taking some liberties here, but says that certainly there were chickens in the stable with Jesus)
  • 7th – seven kings in waiting (referring to seven good kings in the line of Jesus in the Old Testament days)
  • 8th – eight shepherds praising
  • 9th – nine sheep a-bleating
  • 10th – ten prophets predicting (referring to those who prophesied the coming Messiah)
  • 11th – eleven people sleeping (referring to all the people visiting Bethlehem for the census)
  • 12th – twelve thousand angels (with the shepherds at the manger)

So this started our “days of Christmas” with the idea of twelve days.

Meanwhile, last year we bought a wall hanging Christmas tree that also works as an advent calendar.  We bought it from the people who do handiwork at the recycling center in Muqattam, otherwise known as ‘Trash City’, here in Cairo.   But last year we didn’t use it as an advent calendar as it required some thinking about what could actually fit on the hanging.  My mom and niece and nephews helped out this year and sent us some great little ornaments to pull out each day, so now we can use it and count down the twenty-four days until Christmas!

To add to this number confusion, in Egypt, we will celebrate Christmas on two different dates, December 25 and January 7. Most of Egypt’s Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox church, and they celebrate Jesus’ birth on January 7.  However, we are Western Christians and have always celebrated on December 25 as much of the world does, and so, we will have some sort of celebration on each of the days.  One other item that is mildly confusing is that many of our Egyptian Muslim friends, and even some Christian ones, seem to assume that we celebrate Christmas on December 31; I suppose this is because the televised celebrations in America are much more pronounced on that day.  They see fireworks and big parties and people “counting down to the New Year” and assume this is our big holiday.  You might say we have three Christmas dates to consider.

So all these things may confuse our preschoolers as to when Christmas actually is, but we’re thankful they are learning more about the Biblical story and less about the ever-present Santa Claus.  This is the first year we put out a play nativity scene which they enjoy every morning, acting out Mary and Joseph in the stable, the angels announcing the baby’s birth, the shepherds coming to see the baby and the wise men going on a long journey to find baby Jesus in Bethlehem.  (We hide the wise men somewhere in the house after they go to sleep.)

Emma and Hannah are learning familiar Christmas carols like “Away in a Manger” and “Joy to the World,” and belting them out for all to hear.  Emma even may sing in her first Christmas concert this year, appropriately enough, on New Year’s Eve.  So whatever date you celebrate and whatever your traditions may be, our family wishes you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and then another Merry Christmas.

Categories
Personal

Press Review of Nag Hamadi — Part Three

I have little commentary to offer today; we continue to follow the story and think about what we might do, if anything. The last thing I would like to do in presenting this information is put forward a false hope in ourselves. As an Egyptian friend here recently told us, as we asked his advice and wondered if he might go and play a role, the most important thing to do now is to pray. Please join us in this effort.

Click here for today’s link.

Categories
Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Coptic Christmas: Day Three

Today we visited two “Holy Family Sites” near Maghagha.    For those who know the Bible story, you may remember that due to the threat of Herod’s soldiers coming to kill the babies under age 2 in Bethlehem, Joseph took his small family down to Egypt before returning to Nazareth.  From what I know and remember, the Bible doesn’t say much more than, “They went down to Egypt,” but here in Egypt, there is a whole route mapped out where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, i.e. The Holy Family, went.  I am not sure where all the information comes from, but just about a month ago, I learned that Maadi, the town where we live in Egypt, was one of the Holy Family stops.  There is now a church built on the spot, right along the banks of the Nile.  In some ways, this reminds me of our visit to Jerusalem a few years ago where we walked along the Via Delarosa … the path Jesus took to the cross.  There is a lot of history and archeology that could map a basic route he walked, but there are also places along the way that seem impossible to believe, like the place where Jesus stumbled and fell and his hand print is embedded in the wall.  But, the Holy Family tour is one of the important Coptic things in Egypt, and since Maghagha is near two of these sites, we took the opportunity to visit.

Our gracious host, a priest in a village near Maghagha, was unable to go with us this morning, but he did provide a driver, and another priest, to accompany us.  Not only that, but we rode in the Bishop’s private van … complete with air conditioning and curtains on the windows.  We felt a little like secret service or something since no one could see in.  It was very clean and comfortable … at least before we started the trip.

Traveling to the first site, Dair al-Garnous, took about 40 minutes.  I had been prepared for Emma to get car sick because she sometimes does, and I warned her that if she started to feel sick, she should close her eyes and lay her head back.  After about 30 minutes, she said she wasn’t feeling good, so she actually laid down in the empty back seat.  Hannah laid on my lap most of the time, not sleeping exactly, but resting.   I should have taken that as a clue that she wasn’t feeling well, but I didn’t think of it.  With about ten minutes left in the trip, although we didn’t really know how much longer it would be, Hannah wanted to join Emma in the back.  I didn’t mention yet that the road we traveled on was sometimes just dirt, very bumpy, and required lots of stopping to let the donkey carts, people, or other animals pass by, so it wasn’t a very smooth ride.  I took Hannah back myself because I didn’t want her to fall over.  A couple minutes after getting to the back, Hannah lost her breakfast all over herself and me.  I quickly called for Jayson’s assistance and he got me the bag I had prepared for Emma.  It didn’t do too much good since Hannah didn’t give us the warning that Emma usually does, and my clothes and hers were pretty much a mess.  I sent Emma toward the front because I didn’t want her to get sick from the smell, and I would have liked to get out of there at that point too since my stomach wasn’t doing too well either from all the bumping around.  Jayson offered me his undershirt to wear under my sweater; fortunately I had taken off my sweater since it was warm in the van, so I could wear his undershirt under my still-clean sweater.  I had a change of clothes for Hannah since she is still being potty trained, so I took off her dirty clothes and let Jayson hold her in her dressed-down state while I changed and cleaned up.  All in all, we didn’t get too much in the van itself.

When we were about one minute away, Hannah and I were changed and Jayson was holding Emma when she said “bag.”  We quickly grabbed the bag Hannah had used and caught Emma’s breakfast.  Poor kids!  She managed to stay quite clean thanks to her forewarning, and Jayson did too.  Good thing as we didn’t have any more clothes to spare!  And with that, we arrived at the site, all four of us feeling a bit queasy, and glad to get out, walk around a bit in the fresh air.

This first site was actually the second of the two in order of Jesus’ visits.  Since it was Friday morning, the day of worship for most Egyptians, the church at the site was filled with children having Sunday school.

This place was interesting because it was in an entirely Christian village of about 12,000 people.  No Muslims live in this town.  The well where Jesus’ family drank from was locked up, but we saw it, and by the end of our time there, they found a key so Jayson could drink from it. 

We all drank some Sprite to settle our stomachs, and I visited the bathroom while Jayson and Emma climbed the steps to the top of the under-construction new church

so they could see the whole village.  Since this post has been graphic enough, I won’t share too many details of the bathroom.  It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, and they didn’t have anything but a hole in the ground, and I did think to myself while I was in there, “Oh boy, what a trip this has been,” but we made the best of it, and Hannah and I soon joined the other two at the top of the building.  I remember being glad that both girls lost their breakfast in the van, as I thought they might have trouble using the facilities if they needed them. 

The view was very interesting with lots of unique things on people’s roofs like pigeons, chickens and ducks, which people raise to sell.   The roofs here are flat so that allows for people to store things, or raise things on them until they may decide to add another floor to their existing building. 

The steeple of the evangelical church in town was not too far from this site. 

The one unique thing about what we saw from our view was that there were no mosques … a rare thing in Egypt.

But, as I said, this was an entirely Christian village, and we later found out that when a Muslim family wanted to move in, they were refused.

After looking around for a bit and taking some pictures, we climbed back into the van … somewhat hesitantly.  We knew the ride to the next place would also be bumpy, but we hoped for the best.  We all sat as close to the front as we could, and each held a daughter on our lap.  The girls took a short nap and Jayson and I kept our eyes closed as we rode to the next place.  Fortunately it didn’t take too long to get to Shineen al-Nasara, which means ‘garden of the Christians’ in the Coptic language, where the Holy Family had come directly from Maadi (our current town) and spent seven days before traveling on.  This was an interesting place for us to visit because this is where our host had been priest for about 20 years. They had a life-size manger scene set up and the girls enjoyed getting close to baby Jesus and the animals, cardboard, though they were. 

Then we entered the church where Jayson took pictures and the girls played “church,” and I just sat and rested.  The church was decorated with streamers and balloons for the holiday celebrations of New Years and Christmas.

It was an interesting look considering Coptic churches are filled with icons of Jesus, Mary, the apostles and other saints; the streamers and balloons didn’t quite fit in.  The church also houses a 500-year old baptismal, a small one, since it is for infants.

We couldn’t stay in the church too long since a funeral was about to take place.  Just 30 seconds after we exited, the wailing women came into the church followed by a group of men carrying a coffin high above their heads.  We went to a different building in the complex where they had two smaller churches, a guesthouse and a large reception room. 

We climbed to the roof to get a better view of the surrounding area and we could see the thirteen domes on top of the church—representing the twelve apostles, with a larger one representing Jesus. 

We climbed back down the steps and saw another well which the Holy Family drank from, and also the plaque on the wall with the names of the people who helped to build the building, our priest being one of them.

Then it was time to climb back in the van for our return trip to the priest’s house for lunch.  We had planned to visit a third site after lunch, but seeing what the long car rides did to the girls, and knowing they really needed afternoon naps, especially as we planned to go to someone else’s house for a 9:30pm dinner, we decided to split responsibilities and let Jayson visit the site while I stayed home and napped with the girls.  So Jayson may write about his visit in a later post.

The rest of the day was somewhat restful—after too big of a lunch, the girls and I, along with the priest’s wife, all took naps, while Jayson and the priest went to visit the site of a modern day saint, whose lowly dwelling place has now been transformed into a massive church as a place for local pilgrimage. It was a late nap for Emma and Hannah, but we figured a late night was coming up, and we were right.

Around 8:15pm, the priest and Jayson finally returned home to pick us up to take us a few blocks to one of his daughter’s houses.  She had visited us the night before and really wanted to meet the girls, but they were already in bed.  It worked out for our schedules to visit and have dinner with her and her husband on this night so we climbed 8 floors to their new apartment as they are still waiting for their elevator to be installed.  Everyone was quite concerned for me, being pregnant, but the steps didn’t bother me at all.  Even Emma and Hannah walked the whole way up.  The apartment was very nice, and we enjoyed some nice conversation as Emma proceeded into a separate living room where she eventually put all of the pillows from the couches, maybe 6 or 7 large pillows and 3 or 4 smaller ones in all, on the floor and created a pillow train to jump on. 

She was having a blast, and Hannah joined her. 

Even though I am sure the furniture was brand new, our hosts didn’t mind and in fact, enjoyed the entertainment the girls provided.  At around 9:15, they asked if we wanted to eat dinner yet, or just feed the girls, and I said that we were ready to eat dinner, but I guess it was still early for them.  They kind of agreed as 10pm is more normal for them, so we compromised and said between 9:30-9:45 we could aim to eat.  Good thing the girls got late naps! 

Dinner was delicious, but once again, way too big!  We had a plate full of rice, large pieces of chicken, kefta, another meat dish, cut up raw vegetables and okra.  At just about every meal, we had to eat some of everything, and I felt like I ate quite a bit, yet at each meal they asked me, “Why haven’t you eaten anything yet?  Why does your plate look the same as when you started?”  We really had to insist that we had enough, everything was delicious, and thank you, thank you, thank you!  We sat and talked and drank Pepsi and ate fruit for another hour or so after dinner was over, as the priest fell asleep on the couch after his very busy few days. 

Finally, after 11pm, we were able to take a group picture

and then leave their house, descending the 8 flights of stairs and returning to our hosts’ house.  Fortunately, our next day wasn’t starting too early, and we could sleep in.  But for now, the Christmas celebrations were over and therefore Day 3 ends this series of posts!

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

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Personal

Press Review of Nag Hamadi — Part Two

In an effort to keep you up-to-date with the news, I will continue to post the media summaries we provide as long as the subject is dominating the Egyptian press. As you read in the last update, it is difficult to sift the wheat from the chaff in these reports. The true and accurate often stands side-by-side with the exaggerations and inventions, and it is hard to know which is which. Right now, it is important just to listen and record. If we are able to investigate this situation further, these reports will be the foundation from which we can ask further questions. If any of you have the time to help us play detective, please feel free to read along and keep track of the names, crimes, insinuations, and accusations. Other perspectives are always helpful.

Click here for the link. Thank you.

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Personal

Press Review of Nag Hamadi

We hope you have enjoyed our accounting of Coptic Christmas; there is still one more day to come, and hopefully some pictures to be shared thereafter. In the background of our Christmas stories, however, has been the events of Nag Hamadi, in which six Christians and a Muslim policeman were killed in a drive-by shooting while exiting the Christmas Eve mass. The incident has received international attention, and has dominated the Egyptian media consciousness in the days which have followed.

Our work at Arab West Report translates articles from the Egyptian newspapers and provides detailed summary thereof. In addition, we review these articles as necessary to provide fact checks and analysis. Due to the sheer number of articles on this topic, however, we have instead provided a press review, which we often do when there is a topic which dominates the news. This press review summarizes all the relevant articles from the major newspapers and combines them in one report. This manner of summary allows all voices to be heard, no matter how contradictory. This sampling may not clarify our understanding—our minds prefer a simple sound bite we can digest and process—but it does establish the complexity of the situation. It is hoped that by beginning from complexity clarity can emerge.

I have provided a link here to the press review. The assembly and analysis you will read is not my personal work, rather, it is that of my colleagues. The larger question for us here is what can we do about this? Do we have a role in encouraging reconciliation in the area? If so, how and when? I cannot say we have the answers to these questions yet, and even when we do, it may take a while to share them. I will look to link to further press reviews as we develop them, however, that you can follow along. If you care also to pray for peace in this region, and wisdom for us on how to contribute, that would be greatly appreciated.