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Saudi Arabia Embraced Coptic Christmas. Could Its First Church Be Next?

Image: Markas Ishak / The Coptic Orthodox Church Press Office / Getty Image

Saudi Arabia stunned foreign policy observers this month by publicly agreeing to normalize relations with Iran, under Chinese sponsorship. The deal between the neighboring Sunni and Shia arch rivals, known for sectarian proxy fights, is expected to ease tensions within Islam.

Meanwhile, the kingdom has recently taken less publicized steps toward another religious normalization: public Christian faith.

In this case, Egypt is the supporting nation.

“Nine years ago, I was told, ‘Pray, but don’t publicize it,’” said Bishop Marcos of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church. “This time, Saudi Arabia is publicizing it themselves.”

On January 7, Marcos headlined a month-long pastoral visit by celebrating the eastern Christmas liturgy amid 3,000 Coptic Christians residing in the kingdom. Facilitated by the Egyptian embassy, additional services in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Khobar, and Dhahran were “held under the full sponsorship of the Saudi authorities.”

It was the first public Christmas celebration admitted by the Islamic nation, home to the pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina. Muslim traditions cite Muhammad as forbidding the existence of two religions in Arabia, though scholars differ as to the geographic scope.

But Marcos’ trip was not the first Christian worship permitted.

He began praying about visits to Saudi Arabia after being sent in 2012 to help solve a dispute between authorities and an Egyptian Christian migrant worker. Marcos estimates there are about 50,000 Copts in the kingdom, among 2.1 million Christians—mostly Filipino Catholics.

None have a church to worship in. Open Doors’ World Watch List ranks Saudi Arabia No. 13 among the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian today. Visiting Coptic clergy used to meet the faithful in neighboring Bahrain.

But when Marcos returned in 2014, he said he conducted liturgies for about 4,000 believers. Leaks covered by the Qatari news network Al Jazeera resulted in some attention, but the Saudis told him they were not troubled by it. Weeks-long pastoral trips continued annually, and in 2016 Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz visited Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Egypt.

It was 2018 that led to further openness. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (known as MBS) visited the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo in March, taking a famous photo with Tawadros in front of an icon of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He invited the Coptic pope to visit Saudi Arabia, while encouraging continuation of Marcos’ visits.

That December, the first liturgies were officially reported. Not everyone was pleased. Medhat Klada, spokesman for the European Union of Coptic Organizations…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 29, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christmas Epiphanies from the Ruins of Ukraine

Image: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

In advance of Putin’s unilateral declaration of a 36-hour truce over Orthodox Christmas today, Ukrainian seminary leaders shared their reflections on the impact of ten months of unabated conflict.

“War is exhausting—but this exhaustion does not happen overnight,” wrote Roman Soloviy, director of the Eastern European Institute of Theology. “Nevertheless, our mission continues.”

Reviewing his own emotional response since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Soloviy cited the impossible choices forced upon his nation: Save your family or your neighbors? Flee the country or stay and help?

He could not read, listen to music, or watch movies for many months.

The stress only surged as reports proliferated about atrocities, complicated by the frustration that Ukrainian churches could not help everyone. Decisions needed to be made in darkness, while seeking to balance one’s own psychological health.

A Kherson seminary, Tavriski Christian Institute (TCI), was occupied by Russian forces in March and liberated in November. President Valentin Siniy recounted the grim chronology:

January: Talks about the war. Doubts about invasion.
February: Team. Responsibility. Daily Zoom calls to pray.
March: Massacre. Inhumanity. Generosity: flour, sugar, potatoes, seeds.
April–May: Russians want to reconcile, without repentance. Families separated.
June–July: Marriages. Fragility of life. Losses. Divorces.
August: TCI shelled. Books trashed. Valuables looted. Vandalism.
September: New location. Big enrollment.
October: Infrastructure destroyed. Nation freezing. Unity. Mutual assistance.
November: Liberation. Joy. First trip home. Ruined city.

For his December entry, Siniy wrote: “Christmas is the coming of God into a mean world to mean people. We pray that the Lord will show us how and where to serve.”

Oleksandr Geychenko, meanwhile, chose a different theme for the holiday. Yet it fit perfectly with Siniy’s October observations.

“This year’s Christmas for me is closely associated with the metaphor of light,” wrote the president of Odessa Theological Seminary. “Perhaps, this is my reaction to the uncertain power supply.”

Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) first suggested the holiday truce, while 1,000 US-based faith leaders called for Ukraine to honor it. Nonetheless there has been exchange of shelling along the front lines, and many Ukrainians dismissed Putin’s initiative as a cynical ploy to buy time for his retreating troops. (Foreign analysts instead saw a PR bid for Russian Christian backing.)

But despite the battlefield losses, last month Russia specifically targeted Ukraine’s electrical grid, repeatedly plunging cities and civilians into darkness and cold.

Geychenko had taken his electricity for granted. Now, he sees a spiritual connection. “The light that comes from Jesus not only shines into human darkness,” he wrote, “it also…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 7, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.

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Muslims Love Russian Christmas. Eurasia’s Evangelicals Do Too.


Kris Kringle should be in Kyrgyzstan.

If he is efficient, that is. The Central Asian nation, according to a 2007 study by Swedish consultants, is the geographic center best situated for his annual toy delivery campaign.

Regional evangelicals welcome his advent.

With Kyrgyzstan’s snowfall and freezing temperatures from November to April, Old Saint Nick would feel right at home in the mountainous peaks that raise the country’s average elevation to 9,000 feet. But whatever the religion of his army of elves, Father Christmas would have to adjust to Islamic customs in the valleys below.

Quick to seize on the marketing opportunity, the 90 percent Muslim-majority nation declared 2008 as “The Year of Santa Claus.”

There was eventual pushback—though seemingly confused in terms of the calendar. Frustrated with the non-Islamic revelry, in 2012 the Kyrgyz Muslims’ Religious Administration (KMRA) issued a fatwa forbidding New Year’s celebrations.

Not Christmas. Not even Xmas. The birth of Jesus reamins an official holiday.

But it is observed on January 7, not December 25. Nearly half of the nation’s 7 percent Christian population is Russian Orthodox and follows the Eastern almanac. And since Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991, the government has honored its primary religious minority with few Muslim objections.

New Year’s Day celebrations on January 1, however, are a holdover from the Soviet era. The atheistic communists banned Christmas in 1917 but in 1935 reconstituted it as a secular holiday, celebrated one week earlier. No baby Jesus, but no Santa Claus either.

The Russians instead promoted a vague ethereal figure named Ded Moroz, which translates as “Grandfather Frost.” And they kept the trappings of tree decorations, gift giving, and family gatherings. With Islam suppressed as well as Christianity, over time the Muslim peoples of the USSR adjusted to the imposed culture.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islamic authorities in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—as well as Azerbaijan on the western bank of the Caspian Sea—largely left New Year’s alone. Nominal Muslims shared in the festivities, including the sharia-forbidden consumption of alcohol.

It was Santa Claus that offended the KMRA—or rather, the modern, globalized excess of consumerism. Declaring the holiday un-Islamic, the administration asked the faithful to avoid celebrations altogether and instead give to the poor the substantial sums they would have spent on frivolities.

The fatwa found resonance, but not enough to dent the market.

“January 7 is the religious holiday, but the ‘real’ celebrations of Christmas come from the West,” said Ruslan Zagidulin, a lecturer in missiology at United Theological Seminary in the capital city of Bishkek. “But these have nothing to do with Jesus.”

Not that such celebrations are unwelcome. While there is no set custom for the meal, many families welcome the New Year with the national dish beshmarbek, a noodle soup with meat. Others enjoy boiled mutton or horse meat, served in dishes with sour cream or yogurt.

Following a speech by the president, fireworks go off in Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square—and on countless balconies across the country. Children await the visit of Ayaz Ata, the Kyrgyz name for Ded Moroz, and his beautiful granddaughter Snegurochka, known as Kar Kiz, meaning “Snow Maiden.” But where the Soviets merged religious heritage into a secular New Year’s celebration, freedom…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 20, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Ukraine Celebrates Christmas Twice. Now Its Orthodox Christians Can Too.

Image: Maxym Marusenko / NurPhoto / Getty Images

Thanks to Russia, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians may now partake in a Christmas feast on December 25.

The joyous, 12-dish celebration has been their timeless practice—on January 7, according to Eastern tradition. But this year, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) has permitted its clergy to conduct religious services on the same date as Western tradition, granting a one-day exemption to the 40-day Nativity Fast.

Beginning after the feast day of St. Philip, observed by Ukrainian Orthodox on November 28, the faithful abstain from alcohol and most meat products until the first star appears on Christmas Eve, January 6. But with millions of refugees in Europe witnessing the revelry of fellow Christians in the West, the OCU decided to permit Ukrainians everywhere to decide parish by parish which date they would honor.

Liturgical reform has long been on the agenda, but war was the spark.

“For most bishops of the church, the calendar is not a dogmatic issue of faith,” said Archbishop Fedir, head of the youth department of the OCU. “Especially after the full-scale aggression of Russia, there is a desire to become part of the Western family of churches.”

Ukraine had already established December 25 as an additional official Christmas holiday in 2017, joining Belarus, Eritrea, Lebanon, and Moldova as nations that formally celebrate the birth of Christ twice.

But altering the calendar disrupts the entire church cycle. Saints’ days, sermons, and gospel readings are all impacted, with scholars engaged in response. The Holy Synod decision tasks priests with gauging the sentiment of parishioners and bishops with conducting follow-up research. Many believers love their traditions, Fedir said, and the hierarchy is wise to proceed cautiously.

The archbishop is responsible for the diocese of Poltava, 220 miles southeast of Kyiv, where one newly established congregation of young people has decided to switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar altogether, with his blessing. With blanket permission granted, he does not yet have a tally of how many parishes will join them—nor does the OCU’s Holy Synod.

But within her circle of Ukrainian friends, Nadiyka Gerbish finds none opposed.

“I expected it to happen, and wanted it to happen long ago,” said the author of A Ukrainian Christmas, updated and rereleased last month. “They want a solid line between them and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).” Gerbish, a member of Hosanna Evangelical Church in Zbarazh, a small town 250 miles west of Kyiv, condemned the support ROC patriarch Kirill has given to the invasion. And religiously, she sees the decision as part of a long-standing battle over…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 20, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

On Ukraine-Russia Border, Evangelicals Endure as Invasion Looms

Image: Alexander Reka / TASS / Getty Images
A Christmas light installation in Luhansk, Ukraine, by a monument to the 2000th anniversary of the Nativity of Christ, on December 24, 2021

Ukraine celebrates Christmas twice, honoring both the Eastern and Western church calendars. Yet this season, Pentecostals spent the week leading up to December 25 in prayer and fasting while Baptists did the same from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day.

The reason: tens of thousands of Russian troops amassed on the border, threatening a full invasion.

Russian-backed separatists have held control of the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine since 2014. This past November, the European Evangelical Alliance (EEA) declared Donbas “the area of Europe where the church suffers the most.” In total the conflict has killed over 14,000 people and displaced 2 million of the region’s 5 million people.

“Prayer is our spiritual weapon,” said Igor Bandura, vice president of the Baptist Union of Ukraine. “God can undo what the politicians are planning.”

This past Friday, US President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that any further invasion of Ukraine would result in “a heavy price to pay”; Putin replied that any new sanctions would trigger a complete breakdown in relations. On Monday, Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the US and its allies would “respond decisively” to Russian aggression; Zelensky signaled appreciation for the “unwavering support.”

Trying to help years ago from the Russian side, Vitaly Vlasenko was labeled a spy.

Traveling 650 miles south from Moscow to Luhansk, Ukraine, at his own expense, the now–general secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance (REA) waded into a war zone.

By 2018, separtist leaders in Donbas had crafted laws to re-register churches, ostensibly under the principle of freedom of conscience and assembly. But two years prior, authorities in Luhansk declared Baptists and Pentecostals a security threat. Pastors had been murdered; churches were seized.

“Our brothers in Christ in Ukraine are crying out: ‘Why don’t you pressure Russia to stop this aggression?’” said Vlasenko. “We tell them we are a small minority with no standing and no clear information, and officially Russia is not a part of this conflict.”

It does not go over well, he admits. Relations between evangelicals in the neighboring nations have become strained, and some assumed the worst of his December 2018 trip to speak with rebel authorities about the registration process.

Only the KGB-connected could get access, Vlasenko heard.

In reality, Vlasenko said the visit was arranged through prior connections with the Russian Orthodox Church metropolitan in Luhansk. Your church received registration, the REA leader told his Orthodox counterpart; where is our Christian solidarity?

Without registration, churches were disconnected from the gas and electricity grid. All remaining evangelical churches were operating illegally, but some still had use of their facilities. But now it was winter, and cold.

The metropolitan agreed the situation was wrong and facilitated contact with the religious affairs official. Vlasenko was told registration would be given to all who completed procedures. He passed on the information to Ukrainian colleagues. But today, he said, relations are at a standstill.

“I understand they are in a difficult situation,” Vlasenko said. “Most churches have their headquarters in Kyiv, so how can they accept registration and explain this to their brothers in the [Ukrainian] capital?”

But Donbas churches face a choice: Continue to suffer, or continue in ministry. Vlasenko stays neutral, as he cannot advise them as a Russian.

Religious freedom problems in Donbas listed by the EEA include…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on January 4, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.


Lebanon Prayer: Mehry Christmas


You promise joy, and joy you give. But how can we say it to others?

Sometimes ourselves we struggle to find.

But it is there.

In the return home. In the familiar carol.

In the small splurge we no more can afford.

In the smile of our children.

These are true, and they are good. Even when absent, we know they are real.

Just as you are.

So should we shout out: Merry Christmas!

Or whisper like a secret shared?

The in-between irony, a good middle ground,

The great incarnation for lives that are tired.

Worn out. Tattered. Shabby. Used.

Mehry Christmas.

These also are real. And true, even when we believe they are absent.

Then, as now.

Joy. Inbreaking. A world of drab.

Much we can do in our efforts to fix it.

A deal to trade judge for six parliament seats.

And then meet together, a loan to secure.

Even the nations, united, come visit.

Encouragement. Warnings. More of the same.

God only you know if the rumors are real.

But even when absent, the plan behind doors.

Not yours, God.

You place it on a lampstand. You shout it from the roof.

Go. Tell it on the mountain.

And you are with us, to the end of the age.

God, maybe a deal would fix things. Maybe it got foiled.

You free us, God, to dive right in.

But yet, to float above.

Bless the hands grubby from grime and from sweat. From trying to budge the unbending.

But chastise, God, the dirty.

Your counsel hard—to cut it off—lest two-handed Hades await them.

For too many, hell is here now.

It is real. But it is not true.

You are with us.


It deserves to be whispered.


To receive Lebanon Prayer by WhatsApp, please click this link to join the closed comments group.

Lebanon Prayer places before God the major events of the previous week, asking his favor for the nation living through them.

It seeks for values common to all, however differently some might apply them. It honors all who strive on her behalf, however suspect some may find them.

It offers no solutions, but desires peace, justice, and reconciliation. It favors no party, but seeks transparency, consensus, and national sovereignty.

How God sorts these out is his business. Consider joining in prayer that God will bless the people and establish his principles, from which all our approximations derive.

Sometimes prayer can generate more prayer. While mine is for general principles, you may have very specific hopes for Lebanon. You are welcome to post these here as comments, that others might pray with you as you place your desires before God.

If you wish to share your own prayer, please adhere to the following guidelines:

1) The sincerest prayers are before God alone. Please consult with God before posting anything.

2) If a prayer of hope, strive to express a collective encouragement.

3) If a prayer of lament, strive to express a collective grief.

4) If a prayer of anger, refrain from criticizing specific people, parties, sects, or nations. While it may be appropriate, save these for your prayers alone before God.

5) In every prayer, do your best to include a blessing.

I will do my best to moderate accordingly. Thank you for praying for Lebanon and her people.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christmas Unites a Divided Iraq

A picture taken on December 30, 2016 shows people walking past Christmas and New Year’s decorations displayed outside a shopping mall street in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. / AFP / SAFIN HAMED via Getty Images

Seventeen years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the fractious Iraqi nation—divided mostly between Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish Muslims—remains unable to agree on a national day.

But they can agree on Christmas.

Last week, the parliament unanimously passed a law to make Christmas a “national holiday, with annual frequency.”

The latter phrase gave great “joy and satisfaction” to Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Last October, he presented an official request to Iraqi President Barham Salih to make Christmas a permanent public holiday.

“Today Christmas is truly a celebration for all Iraqis,” said Basilio Yaldo, bishop of Baghdad and Sako’s close associate. “This is a message of great value and hope.”

In 2008, the government declared Christmas a “one-time holiday.”

In 2018, the parliament amended the law to make Christmas for all citizens.

But after each occasion, it was not renewed.

“The declaration is beautiful, but it is very late,” said Ashur Eskrya, president of the Assyrian Aid Society–Iraq. “But our trouble is not in holidays, it is in…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 21, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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.



Books Personal

The Christmas Rabbits of C.S. Lewis

Watership Down

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.


Mothers and Daughters, Mothers and Sons

(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.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Christmas, Terror

Flag Cross Quran


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.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Visions of Religion

Flag Cross Quran


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.



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?
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

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


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.


Unintended Recipients of 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


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.


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.

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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.