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Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Cathedral Bombing

Flag Cross Quran

God,

If the video is authentic, the suicide bomber strolled into the church grounds. Reports say the guards were distracted, perhaps having breakfast together.

A church doorman followed him to inquire. Seconds later – the bomber likely ran though the near door leading to the women’s entrance – the roof and outside wall shook. Twenty-five people were dead.

There are many to pray for, God. Perhaps we can start with those least among them.

It is not ours to pray for the bomber, God. But the victims can if they are able and willing: Do not count this sin against him.

Is the doorman still alive? Comfort him in what he was unable to stop. Surely he is torn apart internally, weeping over those torn apart literally.

He did what he could, God. It was not enough. Maybe in hurrying the bomber he stopped greater carnage? Make him content in the not-knowing. Make him aware of your great love for him even so.

Comfort also the guards in what they were negligent to stop. How condemning is their guilt? How scarring is their shame? They failed, God, and the consequences were immense.

Hold them accountable before the law. But let them first weep in recognition of their crime. Heal them in it, and draw from them repentance.

And neither is this for us to pray, God. But the victims can if they are able and willing: Let them experience the forgiveness of those they wronged.

Whether it comes or not, make them aware of your great love for them also.

God, there are those who smirk, even rejoice in this atrocity. There are those who helped plan it and threaten more. Pierce the conscience of the former in powerful contrition. Pierce the conspiring of the latter in rapid arrest.

The wicked laugh and plot, God. Bring them to failure, then bring them to yourself. Make them aware of your great love for those they hate, a love that draws them in as well.

We mention the victims, and many have prayed for them already. Add these thoughts to their ledger, and forgive us for presuming an ideal upon them.

Comfort them, God. Strengthen them. Illumine them. Indwell them. And may they be for our sake a fulfillment of your best ideal.

May your mercy flow through them.

In this, may they know your great love. May they know you, love itself.

Have patience with them God, and with the many who are angry. Be with them as they rend their clothes in rage and mourning. In it rend their hearts.

Give them others to weep with. Give them healing in their trauma. Give them good memories of their loved ones, to eventually smile.

God, in this horror transform Egypt. Make her a place of welcome for all her people. Make her strong, and make her soft. Help her stand. Help her kneel.

Help her know of your great love. Help the murdered rest in peace.

Amen.

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Middle East Providence Published Articles

A Rough Stretch in a Season of Waiting: Egypt’s Christians and the Cathedral Bombing

cathedral-bombing
Photo by Omar Elhady, via Twitter (@ElHady).

This article was first published at Providence Magazine.

“There has been a bombing at the cathedral,” said the pastor at the local Methodist church in a lower-class area of downtown Cairo. “Several are dead, and we pray for our nation.”

It took me a moment to comprehend, but the gravity of his words indicated more than a simple illustration. I opened my cell phone to check the news and saw the bold headline: 25 dead and 49 injured in an attack on the Coptic Orthodox cathedral. The spiritual center of Egyptian Christianity had been mercilessly violated.

Only a few minutes earlier, the sermon considered John the Baptist and how his life of faithfulness ended with his head on a platter. Here again now was another modern Egyptian example of martyrdom, one more in a long line since the similar bombing of a church in Alexandria six years earlier. Several women sobbed quietly, as the men sat in stunned silence.

But a little later as they exited the service, the collective sense felt more like resignation. The men exchanged pleasantries and went home; the women lingered a little longer in conversation. What was unthinkable at the start of the Arab Spring had become unsurprising. In Alexandria 23 Copts died when a car bomb went off outside the church, but that attack, at least, soon gave way to the hope of a new revolution. The cathedral atrocity gives no inspiration, as Egypt remains muddled in a regional fog of war and terrorism.

In-between the two bombings were the 2013 revenge attacks on dozens of churches throughout the nation, as frustrated Islamists blamed Christians for the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi. And the usual stream of sectarian incidents continued apace, as the state failed to hold accountable the mob violence of Muslims objecting to a church in their village, or an interfaith love affair, or any other typical but ill-justified collective form of Coptic punishment. It has been a rough stretch for Egypt’s Christians.

But not nearly as rough as the Christians of Iraq and Syria, or the Muslims of Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere have endured—and the Copts know this. They stand behind their Muslim Brotherhood-vanquishing president, and give much slack to a government they know is under tremendous pressure. Everywhere they turn it seems some new conspiracy is bent on dragging Egypt into the Middle East morass. The economy is in shambles, tourism is nonexistent, and save for the mandatory utterances of support following terrorism, they feel the international community never speaks except in censure. For this reason many have expressed favor at the election of Donald Trump. He likes our president, they say, and at least he’ll leave us alone.

For Copts are tired of being treated as pawns. A few days before the bombing, Foreign Policy ran a story entitled, “How Egypt’s Copts Fell Out of Love with President Sisi.” Even Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint piled on, ostensibly seeking to help by demanding the US president support Egypt’s Christians. “Meet the new persecutor,” said the article subtitle, “same as the old one.” Some on the left seem intent on buttressing the narrative of Copts in the way of a deserved Islamist democratic future. Some on the right seem intent on painting Muslims as sharia-inspired agents of Christian antipathy.

Both articles do well to draw on actual Coptic voices, and important ones. The news they convey is vital to learn in a world where, unless made a pawn, the Copt is often ignored. But they miss the nuance of the Coptic reality. Perhaps they can be forgiven for not knowing enough; perhaps they are guilty of pushing an agenda.

Back in Egypt, the Copts are well aware of incumbent discrimination and state weakness. But they cheer on a president who attends Christmas mass with the pope, and a military that rebuilds the churches Islamists destroyed. A new law for church building may or may not fully address the issues surrounding freedom of worship, but at least this regime—the first in 160 years—issued a law at all.

And following every tragedy, the common Muslim tends to open his or her bosom. Private taxi services Uber and Careem offered free rides to the hospital for blood donations. Many have missed the fact this bombing took place on the birthday of Islam’s prophet, a traditional day of merriment. The attack was therefore an assault on Muslims as well, Christians note. A popular cartoon draws the traditional holiday doll in the black clothes of mourning, as behind her stands a somber crucifix.

Thus between the kindness of the Egyptian soul and the sectarianism latent in an identity-driven society, the Copt is left waiting for national transformation. The rhetoric of the current regime seeks to revive a spirit of Egyptian nationalism, if only it can sludge through current challenges to reach a modicum of stability. Every maltreated Copt who fails to obtain justice is another reminder of how far the country has to go. And the cathedral bombing is another example of the powerful forces that stand against an idealized future.

But from the demonized past and lingering present, the Muslim Brotherhood condemns the bombing in one breath and blames it on regime-church collaboration in another. As long as this is the alternative, Copts find their best option in the preservation of a strong-handed government and a nominally secular society. Some in their community continue faithfully to agitate for human rights and a less political role for the church. Many agree but feel security and economy must be prioritized. Most hope for an open society of enlightened Egyptians, if only a generation away.

The Methodist church sermon that ended with John’s head on a platter began with the miracle that led to his birth. Elderly Zachariah and sterile Elizabeth likely long gave up hope of a child, the pastor surmised. Even so, “Your prayer has been heard,” said the angel. God is faithful, even when his people falter. John, the pastor noted, also doubted the one he baptized.

Where in this parable are Egypt’s Copts? Soon to be beheaded, or of pious prayers fulfilled? Likely somewhere in between, still inclined to pray for their nation.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Cairo Church Attack Kills 25 at Center of Egyptian Christianity

coptic-cathedral-bombing
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

This article was first published by Christianity Today, on December 11, 2016.

At least 25 people were killed and 49 injured when a bomb exploded around 10 a.m. this morning during a worship service at the spiritual center of Christianity in Egypt.

It is the worst terrorist attack on Copts since the New Year’s bombing of a church in Alexandria in 2011 that killed 23 people.

A worship service of mostly women was targeted in the St. Peter and St. Paul church, adjacent to the St. Mark’s Cathedral and papal residence of Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt and worldwide.

Tawadros was traveling in Greece at the time of the attack. He will cut short his visit and lead funeral prayers tomorrow in the Nasr City district of Cairo.

So far, there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack.

“This is an unbelievable act against Egypt first and Christians second,” Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, told Christianity Today.

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Let My People Build

This article was published in the November print edition of Christianity Today.

let-my-people-build
(via Coptic Solidarity)

Long live the crescent and the cross!” shouted Egypt’s parliament in joy. All 39 Christian members joined the two-thirds majority to vote to end a 160-year practice instituted by the Ottomans requiring Christians to get permission from the country’s leader before building churches. The long-awaited reform was promised by the 2014 constitution after the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.

The new law shifts authority into the hands of the governor, who must issue a decision within four months of an application and give detailed reasons for refusals. The law also established a process to retroactively license hundreds of churches erected without a presidential permit.

“It is a good step,” said Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, who helped negotiate the draft law with government officials. “If we wanted an agreement to include everything and please everyone, it would have taken 100 years.

“This is the best we can get right now.”

But even as they celebrated, Christians debated if they failed to fully seize a unique opportunity to pursue equal citizenship…

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

 

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Global South (Anglican) Middle East Published Articles

World Religious Leaders Laud the Anglican Global South Conference in Egypt

global-south-azhar-welcome
Credit: Michael Adel, Bridges Cultural Center

Pope Francis, patriarch of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar, the leading religious institution in the Sunni Muslim world, welcomed delegates at the October 3 opening of the sixth Anglican Global South Conference, esteeming the importance of their gathering.

Pope Francis expressed his “deepest appreciation” for his invitation to this “momentous event”, in remarks read by the Apostolic Nuncio in Egypt, Archbishop Bruno Musaro. Musaro assured delegates of Francis’ prayers as they discuss themes of “high significance” for both the Anglican Communion and the entire Christian community.

“Nothing is lost when we effectively enter into dialogue,” Musaro quoted from Francis’ encouragement to all people of goodwill, “Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer.”

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb’s remarks quoted from the Quran in his welcome to the Anglican delegates, noting how God created different peoples in the world so that they would know each other and build society.

Tayeb’s message was delivered by Sheikh Saeed Amer, chairman of the fatwa committee in Al Azhar. He esteemed the importance of the conference, hoping it would contribute to building increasingly positive Egyptian participation in the Global South.

Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthdox Church also extended his welcome to the delegates of the Anglican Global South. Through Metropolitan Bishoy he expressed his delight in the Christological agreement signed between the Anglican and Oriental Orthodox Churches in 2014, as well as the 2015 agreement on the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father.

“[We] back you in your defense of the commandments of the Holy Scriptures,” said Tawadros to the Global South delegates, through Bishoy, while noting serious disagreements that exist between the Coptic Orthodox and the Anglican Church as a whole.

“Yet we carry on our dialogue with the Anglican Communion in order to encourage the Anglican conservatives to continue abiding to the true and genuine Biblical principles.”

Archbishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, bishop of Egypt and chairman of the Global South steering committee, welcomed the ecumenical and interfaith dignitaries, and thanked them for their participation in the conference opening session.

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Excerpts

Bishop Angaelos on the Recent Rise of Attacks on Copts

Bishop Angaelos

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

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

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

Here is the statement of Bishop Angaelos:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

A New Holy Family Site and the Development of Coptic Tradition

Gebl al-Tayr
Gebl al-Tayr, overlooking the Nile River

From my new article at Arab West Report:

The Holy Family came to Egypt, says the Biblical text. But it is silent on what they did once there. Coptic Orthodox tradition has filled in the details… And now they have one detail more.

The article describes our visit to Gebl al-Tayr, or Mountain of the Bird, which is a Holy Family site recognized by Coptic tradition. The article explores some of this history, which includes an alleged reference to Empress Helena, mother of Constantine.

If some of these details strike the reader as legendary, it must also be remarked that the existence of many Holy Family sites is mentioned in the writings of antiquity. As Egypt became majority Christian prior to the arrival of Islam, these became locations of renown. This does not provide historical confirmation of the Holy Family itinerary, but it does testify to very early narratives upon which ancient churches were naturally constructed.

But other sites are much less certain. Coptic tradition designates the Patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, who presided from 384-412 AD, as source for many locations, which he was believed to have received in a vision from the Virgin Mary. Without impugning the character of clergy or church historians, it is not difficult to imagine the benefit – spiritual or commercial – that a diocese would draw from connection to the ancient tradition. In any case, in Be Thou There, Dr. Stephen Davis chronicles the numerical increase of Holy Family Sites from the fourth century onward.

The article then describes a modern example of this phenomena, in the duelings Asyut monasteries at Deir al-Muharraq and Durunka. But then it returns to Gebal al-Tayr:

Gebl al-Tayr Stairs
The 166 step ascent from the river below

Though this location is part of the ancient Holy Family tradition, on this visit Hulsman noticed an oddity. Approximately 500 meters down the road from the Church of the Holy Virgin, now semi-accessible from above for modern transportation, is excavation work at another part of the mountain.

A Muslim policeman-turned-impromptu-tour guide proudly described it as a recent discovery, understood to be the lodging of the Holy Family upon their return from Upper Egypt. Work had been underway for the last year, he said. Hulsman, a frequent visitor to the area, had neither heard nor seen of this before.

After a simple stairwell decline of around ten meters from the mountain plateau there is a gradual descent into the mouth of what opens into a long, narrow cave. Inside has the beginnings of a rudimentary altar along with icons and candles, and already there is the graffiti of visiting pilgrims. Outside a new church building has been established.

Hulsman remarked that the identification of a cave with the Holy Family fits within longstanding Coptic themes. Being so close to the ancient church, it would be natural for ecclesiastic authorities to imagine Jesus taking refuge there, as tradition indicates he did in caves throughout Egypt.

Walking back to the main site, a local priest standing with villagers stated the discovery was made around five years ago, and that Bishop Paphnotius of Samalut had done the investigations and research to ascertain its antiquity.

Gebl al-Tayr Cave
The new cave, recently discovered and renovated
Gebl al-Tayr Graffiti
Inside there is now an altar, icons, and modern graffiti
The article next moves to describe the modern miracle tradition at the Virgin Mary Church in Maadi, itself a Holy Family site where a Bible is said to have floated down the river and rested at its Nile descent.
It also introduces the character of Dr. Otto Meinardus, a theologian-scholar who once told Hulsman a fascinating anecdote directly related to the topic:

Perhaps in the end it does not matter to local believers. In personal discussions, Hulsman said, Meinardus would use the term ‘pious fraud’ to describe the legendary in Coptic history. In his writings he was more careful to avoid offending church hierarchy, but imagined the process like this.

Somewhere at some time a bishop’s sermon employed an illustration drawn from history, creatively illustrating a Biblical moral. Once popularized, it lodged into local consciousness and became commemorated.

But beyond imagining, Meinardus was also a one-time practitioner. He was the first to narrate the story of St. Bishoy carrying Jesus disguised as an elderly pilgrim up a mountain, only afterwards to enjoy his epiphany.

The story first appeared in his 1961 book, Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert,  published in Egypt with AUC Press. All texts and icons of this event post-date his book, Hulsman said, and can be seen across Egypt including at the Monastery of St. Bishoy. According to Bishop Marcos of Shubra al-Khayma, the story was not known to the monks of Egypt until they read it in Meinardus’ book, wrote Paul Perry in Jesus in Egypt.

Perry also quotes Meinardus, saying, “That’s how tradition is, Once a story leaves someone’s mouth, it spreads like wildfire.” Though not recorded in the book he told Perry and Hulsman, “Many stories are based on dreams. Why should I not also have dreams?”

The article concludes with a story from Hulsman’s own history, how a heroic uncle morphed in memory into a family saint. Tying all the themes together, it ends with a necessary reflection:

Therefore, let the reader consider the real-time development of tradition in Jabl al-Tayr. For half a century later in Asyut, the church recognizes officially the Monastery of Muharraq as a Holy Family site, while Durunka remains disputed. Even so the latter continues to attract the faithful and is an ever-expanding site of pilgrimage. But more is at stake than simple religious commerce. Only a few verses earlier in the same chapter celebrated in Maadi, Isaiah prophesies there will one day be an altar to the Lord in the middle of Egypt. Asyut roughly qualifies, and only 70 kilometers separate the two sites. Where is the epicenter of God’s promised blessing?

Perhaps to God the details are not important. But to man, the interactions of God in human history are worthy of record. And now in Egypt, there is one more.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

From Garbage to Glory

Cave Church

From my new article for Christianity Today’s Behemoth publication:

The Pyramids of Giza used to be in the middle of the desert. Eventually Cairo’s urban sprawl pushed right up to the Sphinx. The Citadel of Saladin towers over the city. The southern approach requires an overpass straddling the City of the Dead. In Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum and its famed mummies were overrun with the bedlam of a revolution.

Tourism has dropped dramatically since then, but intrepid travelers can hardly help notice the encroachment of squalor on the glories of antiquity.

What most miss is the reversal: A glory rising out of the garbage. To create it, 40 years ago one man had to literally trudge through a pigsty. Today it is simpler to reach the massive cave church complex in the Muqattam Mountains on the eastern edge of Cairo. But the journey still requires a pungent assault on the senses.

Women and children pick through 15,000 tons of the city’s collected refuse, sorting out recyclable waste from the biodegradables useful for wandering livestock. Men haul burlap trash bags twice their size into garbage trucks poised to tip from overfill…

The article tells the story of how a Coptic Orthodox priest inhabited this world and gave birth to one of Egypt’s most beautiful sites.

Please click here to read the full article and see the photos at The Behemoth.

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Personal

The Pope, in Maadi

Pope Tawadros at St. Mark's Church in Maadi, Cairo
Pope Tawadros at St. Mark’s Church in Maadi, Cairo

Friends in Philadelphia will soon have the privilege of a papal visit. But will Pope Francis preach in your particular church?

His equal in the faith visited us in Maadi.

A Catholic might not consider it so. A Protestant might insist we are all equal. But for Orthodox Christians, Pope Tawadros is patriarch of one of the five ancient sees of the church, in which Rome and Alexandria are equals.

“To advance in the church,” he said, “is not done in the ways of the world. It is to lower yourself beneath the feet of others.”

By holding to equality with Rome, or in serving as a patriarch at all, does the head of the Coptic Orthodox violate his own teaching? His sermon on Wednesday was on the topic of humility. His visit on Wednesday—perhaps—is evidence of it.

Pope Tawadros’ predecessor Pope Shenouda was beloved of the people. Charismatic and witty, his Wednesday sermon at the papal cathedral characterized this bond. To a full house that treated him like a superstar, he took questions from the audience and left them laughing, rebuked, and inspired.

Pope Tawadros is respected as an organized administrator and heady thinker. He is young in his position, but does not seem to have the same level of charisma nor to have won the same level of enthusiasm. Few could.

He initially tried to follow in Shenouda’s footsteps, but when I attended a few weeks ago the hall was only half-full. Furthermore, he replaced the question-and-answer period with the traditional evening prayer. He does have a call-in show on Coptic satellite television, but I have heard Copts complain that this medium is out of reach to many simple believers. Rich and poor alike, all loved Pope Shenouda.

The Coptic Cathedral is now under repair, and Pope Tawadros suspended the Wednesday service. Before this, however, it was interrupted by petitioners seeking resolution for their divorce cases. Speculation wonders if the two are connected, or if the pope feels weighed down by the burden of comparison.

There is no answer that can weigh the motivations of his heart. But the visit to Maadi reflects a new evolution of the Wednesday tradition. Rather than sitting centrally in the cathedral, he will visit his flock.

A full church for the papal visit“To be humble does not mean you are less than others or to deny your gifts, talents, or abilities,” Tawadros said. “It is liberation from the power of the self.”

In order to stay humble Tawadros recommended a checklist of characteristics the Christian should continually review. Never elevate your opinion of yourself, but lower it. Be thankful, and search for the good in all things. Remember the final judgment, and constantly repeat, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Tawadros’ advice centered on the creation of a humble spirit, but two other attributes are necessary, he said. The Christian should also cultivate an open mind and a wide heart. Together these three make it possible to live well and navigate the challenges of life.

After the sermon St. Mark’s Church demonstrated fidelity to Tawadros’ predilection for organized administration, in the form of crowd control. Young people from the scouts program lined the aisles and hallways, channeling all in attendance into a single line to meet the pope. There, he further demonstrated humility as near an hour transpired for each one to receive from his hand a commemorative picture of the occasion.

Commemorative photo taken in front of St. Mark's Church
Commemorative photo taken in front of St. Mark’s Church

Meanwhile, I chafed. My seat was in the very back row of the balcony. The best seats were already taken, so I judged the next best viewpoint would be to scan the whole assembly. Had I considered it, I might have believed myself humble for choosing so lowly a place.

I have had the opportunity to meet Pope Tawadros, briefly. But at the end of a long evening I just wanted to get home. I was quite happy to skip the line and again, had I considered it, I might have believed myself humble for my patience in waiting to leave and allowing others to go ahead.

But patience wears thin. I could see below that the pope was receiving the crowd. What I could not see was the organization. The scouts in the balcony were not letting us go anywhere, and I didn’t know why. Just let us exit, I thought, and as others get in line below, I’ll slip out a side door.

A few fought their way past the scouts, and the balcony crowd started getting restless. We were told many times to sit and wait, but no one was explaining anything.

That might be a mark of deficient organization, as communication is a must. But my entire perspective changed once allowed down the balcony steps. Very efficiently, at each turn in the path stood the scouts. Smoothly and quickly we were ushered to Pope Tawadros.

As it turns out there was no opportunity to leave by another path. I took the picture from the pope, then a mug from the bishop. Just like that, and I was outside. Five minutes later I was home.

It could be said the entire evening was public relations. Rather than continuing in the pattern set by his popular predecessor, Tawadros sets his own terms. He will visit the churches in carefully controlled settings. He will deliver a sermon and distribute memorabilia. Copts love their religious leaders. He will create a desire in each church to receive a future visit.

Invitation distributed to selected parishioners of St. Mark's Church, following an open sign-up
Invitation distributed to selected parishioners of St. Mark’s Church, following an open sign-up

If it is public relations, is it only PR? And is it wrong? Tawadros blessed the Copts of St. Mark. He both encouraged and demonstrated a humble spirit. He has the open mind to create a new pattern for Wednesday sermons, and the wide heart to check directly in on local congregations.

He has a hard job. If he lacks the charisma that is comfortable with the spotlight, he knows he cannot remove himself from it. Instead he will subject himself even to the scouts of the church.

Only God knows his heart, but God has so far chosen to elevate him to leadership of an ancient see. Many scoundrels have held similar posts in the past, so there is no guarantee. Let both Catholic and Protestant nod heads in sad memory of flawed saints and rank sinners.

Let them both also hold out hope and prayer for Pope Tawadros, to live and lead worthy of his calling.

“I must decrease, he must increase,” Tawadros quoted John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus. Standing long in the apostolic line of Alexandria, may the 118th successor of St. Mark do the same.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Planting a Tree for Peace Means More than ‘Hugs and Kisses’

(from Michel George)
(from Michel George)

If the Islamic State is uprooting civilization, one response is to plant a tree.

At Palmyra in Syria, religious fanatics took an axe to the witness of generations past.

At Ismailia in Egypt, religious leaders take a shovel to secure a witness for generations future.

And by the banks of the Suez Canal, Egypt’s recently expanded national project, imams and priests both learn and demonstrate a lesson that transcends religion.

‘We want to open their eyes to see how great their country is,’ said Saleem Wassef, ‘not in terms of their Muslim or Christian heritage, but for all of us as citizens.’

Wassef is the coordinator of the ‘Imam-Priest Exchange’, a three year project run by the Egyptian Family House. Each year 35 pairs of Muslim and Christian leaders are brought together in friendship, trained to cooperate in practical expressions of national unity.

The ‘Exchange’ is supported strongly by Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church. Supervised by the head of the Islamic Research Council, Sheikh Muhi al-Din al-Afifi, and a leading figure in the Orthodox Church, Fr. Butros Bastorous, it urges participants to dialogue.

The Family House was created in partnership by the Azhar and Egypt’s Christian denominations shortly after the 2011 revolution, in an effort to preserve good religious relations.

Despite much trauma locally, as the whole region exploded in religious violence, Egypt stayed relatively stable.

Last month, to great celebration, Egypt opened a new waterway in the Suez Canal to permit two-way traffic, decreasing travel time and potentially doubling revenue. Funded entirely by the local investments of businessmen and farmers, Muslims and Christians, it was a moment of pride after four trying years.

(from Michel George)
(from Michel George)

 Consecrate

On 1 September the Imam-Priest Exchange followed behind to consecrate the effort.

At the oldest church in Ismailia the imams planted three olive trees. Then at the Young Men’s Muslim Association, priests did the same.

‘It is necessary to bring our people together,’ said Wassef. ‘Planting a tree means love and prosperity, and is sign for the future that you are working for the coming generations.’

In a previous generation under then-President Mubarak, Egypt would often make a great show of national unity. Religious leaders would come together at major events and exchange what became locally known as ‘hugs and kisses’.

But many felt they were only patching over religious tensions. ‘Hugs and kisses’ would often follow an episode of violence.

So the Family House mandate is to diffuse tension and preempt violence in practical projects of great symbolism. Branches have been created in Alexandria, Asyut, and other major cities throughout the country. One of the most active is in Ismailia.

Sheikh Abdel Rahman (R) and Fr. Suriyal
Sheikh Abdel Rahman (R) and Fr. Suriyal

‘The Grand Imam of al-Azhar [Ahmed al-Tayyib] wants us to move from closed meetings out to the streets and the people, walking among them,’ said Sheikh Abdel Rahman Mahmoud, a leading figure in the local branch.

‘When they see so many imams and priests walking together they are amazed; they have not seen this in Egypt or elsewhere.’

Rehabilitation

Hundreds attended their public lecture. Dozens came up to them on the street, took pictures, and asked how they could participate.

Mahmoud and Fr. Surial Aziz coordinate with other imams and priests to visit up to four local schools a week, demonstrating religious unity. They are even working to open sub-branches in two of Ismailia’s larger neighborhoods.

Ismailia is a success story of the Family House vision, but for Wassef in the Imam-Priest Exchange, the visit is only one step of the process. The next day he took them to a drug rehabilitation center.

A patient gives his testimony of recovery. The director lectured on the spiritual role in healing. Wassef wants each participant to return home, find his religious opposite, and together meet the needs of their shared community.

And the Suez Canal is a reminder.

‘If imams and priests visit our national projects it will inspire their role in society as religious leaders in promoting citizenship,’ Wassef said.

‘They go back to their cities and villages and tell the story of pride in their country. Egypt is serving not only its own people, but the whole world.’

If religious unity holds in Egypt as Iraq and Syria burn, they just might.

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

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Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Where the Church Ends and the Citizen Begins

(from Coptic Media Center)
(from Coptic Media Center)

This article was first published at Egypt Source.

Accusations against the Coptic Orthodox Church are many. It is in bed with the regime. It desires a political role. It monopolizes the Coptic voice, keeping the faithful within its walls. It is not difficult to find evidence that can fit the accusations. But as the church talks to its own people, not only is it aware of these perceptions, it is actively working to dispel them.

“The church is a pure spiritual institution,” Pope Tawadros said to the gathered crowd of 700 youth, emphasizing also a societal role. “It is the national church of Egypt, it is ancient. But we must not be closed upon ourselves.” Tawadros was speaking at a conference entitled “Building Consciousness,” organized by the Coptic Media Center (CMC), the media arm of the church. Hosted in Cairo, it followed two gatherings in Upper Egypt, with an upcoming meeting in Alexandria and the Delta. Participants are handpicked as active and influential leaders able to carry the message back to their churches.

Building Consciousness, according to CMC head and church spokesman Fr. Boules Halim, is a multi-year campaign designed to create educated, enlightened Orthodox Christians, able to think for themselves and engage with society. “They should vote and join political parties,” he said. “They should build their society and not be secluded. Connection to [the] church should not encompass their whole life.”

For many Copts this would be a radical departure. During the long era of now-ousted President Hosni Mubarak and the late Pope Shenouda, Egyptian citizens, including Copts, were depoliticized. As the state withdrew from social service provision, the church stepped in to fill the gap for its flock. Spiritual programs also multiplied, but as devotion increased so did the sense of the church as an alternate society, a place safe for Copts away from the trials of the world.

The state presented itself as a bastion of stability and semi-secularism against an Islamist threat. The church received the mantle of Coptic political leadership. The relationship had its ups and downs as it negotiated issues of sectarian violence, family status laws, and Coptic criticism from the diaspora.

The thrust now is to prepare Coptic citizens for leadership, but Building Consciousness is not a new emphasis of the church, according to Halim. It is the renewed application of Christian teaching to replace a reality that was forced upon them. “Society refused us,” he said, citing, for example, discrimination in state youth centers and sport programs. Speaking on the relationship between Mubarak and Shenouda, he said, “This is how the state wanted it, it was the nature of that stage.”

Egypt is now in a new stage, having passed through revolutionary tumult. While a large majority of Copts have strongly endorsed the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Halim is cautious, though encouraged. “Until now we still don’t have a convincing picture of citizenship, but there is hope,” he said. “The early signals say to us, ‘Come and participate,’ and the government is creating a conducive climate.”

Both Tawadros and Halim emphasized that the church will play a national role to encourage electoral participation. Attempting to allay concerns that this initiative opens up the church to similar criticisms made of Egypt’s short-lived Brotherhood government, they say it calls on all citizens to vote for the most qualified candidates and not on the basis of religion. It will use church networks to urge Copts to the polls, but will not endorse candidates, nor filter Coptic politicians through the political parties. This may happen at the local level, Halim conceded, but it is refused. There is no central electoral strategy in the church.

Besides politics, the Coptic citizen should be active also in the development of the country. But this area reveals potential contradictions in the message. The church has an organizing role, said Halim. He envisions a future in which every diocese has both a Coptic hospital and a Coptic school, open to all, without discrimination. As registered private schools, they will follow the national curriculum. The few schools currently operating have only a handful of Muslim students, as Copts have flocked to enroll. But once there is sufficient number, Halim hopes the student body will be distributed equally according to religion.

“If we can have a role in education, it will contribute greatly to better consciousness and open minds,” he said. “When enlightenment reaches the other it is more powerful. It produces coexistence, knowledge, love, and common cause.” During his presentation Tawadros advocated similarly. “We must serve society within the possibilities available,” he said, “completing the government in the provision of services.”

Such plans have provided fodder for Islamist critics accusing the church of proselytizing. While nothing in the conference suggested this aim, it is clear the church preaches a certain conception of society. One of the pillars of Building Consciousness is emphasis on the dual nature of Coptic and Egyptian identity. This, while at peace with Muslims, may be at odds with an Islamist agenda.

Viewed through the lens of the last four years of struggle and polarization, the issues are also quite political. The church insists it is not involved in the micro issues of elections and policies. But its vision is to shape society in the acceptance of macro issues of citizenship and national identity.

Here, the church wants Coptic citizens up to the task, even as it leads the effort. But in their eyes there is little contradiction, as the church with its members is the body of Christ. If it desires Coptic citizens to play an active role in society, it falls upon church leadership to teach them to do so. Where does the church stop, and the Christian begin?

According to Halim, the church as an institution desires strongly to leave these matters aside and return strictly to a spiritual, shepherding role. But too much is at stake in this transitional period. “If one calls for the church to have no role whatsoever, this will be when full citizenship becomes a reality,” he said. “But as long as citizenship is lacking, the country needs us.”

Pope Tawadros Building Consciousness

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Personal

The Virgin’s Fast and Intercession

Virgin Mary 2

In the Coptic Orthodox tradition, today begins two weeks of fasting from animal products in honor of the Virgin Mary.

During our six years in Egypt we have attended the Orthodox Church regularly, appreciating without fully accepting many of their traditions. But today a small part of the mass, seemingly special for this fasting period, unnerved me.

It was not this part, repeated each week:

With the intercession of the Mother of God, Saint Mary:

Oh Lord, grant us the forgiveness of our sins.

We prostrate before you, oh Christ,

With your good Father and the Holy Spirit,

Because you have come and saved us.

A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.

I was raised a good Protestant, and imagine I still am. Our attendance at the Orthodox Church is to learn, and to the degree possible, serve – seeking to honor the body of Christ in the widest possible ecumenical spirit. Our priests share this spirit and welcome us, but are bound by the teachings of their church that bars communion to all who are not baptized Orthodox.

They would be happy to re-baptize us, but to us this does not seem right. ‘There is one faith, one hope, one baptism,’ it is written, and we do not share their understanding of history lending them status as the one church which has carried Jesus’ teachings correctly.

But we do share, we believe, membership in the universal church of those who trust in Christ for their salvation. Though our fellowship with the Orthodox is not complete, we trust it is real.

This puts us in the position of engaging their traditions. One of the more Protestant-offending is the intercession of the saints; chief among them, the Virgin Mary.

The hymn above, so beautifully chanted each week, is perfectly Protestant in every line but the first.

But there is a logic behind the concept of intercession that I find able to accept, if not practice. It is a logic most practicing Protestants frequently assume.

That is: In times of need, I am very eager to ask my friends to pray for me. If I believe that the prayers of a living Christian can make a difference with God, why should I not also seek the prayers of still-living Christians in heaven?

Fair enough, but the Orthodox extend the logic further along family lines. Would not Jesus be even more inclined to answer the request of his mother? After all, they say, at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, Jesus was approached, by Mary among others, to tend to the embarrassment of running out of wine.

‘My time has not yet come,’ said Jesus, seemingly rebuffing the request. But it made no difference to her. ‘Do whatever he tells you,’ his mother told the servants. And thus, Jesus’ first miracle – perhaps against his inclinations – turned water into wine.

Why should the Christian not continue to seek such obvious intercessory power?

But the Protestant has a trump card to play, while highlighting the example in Cana as before Jesus’ death and resurrection. But now it is written, ‘Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’

My conclusion has been: Intercession is not necessary, though it may be benign. Perhaps it even helps, if only in strengthening bonds with the church both here and hereafter.

But if I seek intercession doubting that God cares enough to hear me on my own, it may become dangerous. This is not the Orthodox understanding, but I have seen this spirit in many otherwise faithful, believing friends.

It is dangerous also as a manipulative technique, very akin to the Middle Eastern mindset – not far from any human – that seeks to get around the system through ‘wasta’, a powerfully placed ally who can bend rules or gain a hearing on my behalf.

But if intercession seeks to engage the ‘great cloud of witnesses’, and still ‘fix our eyes on Jesus’, why not?

After around six years of fellowship, this is where I have more or less comfortably settled with the Orthodox.

Until today.

Perhaps this was the first time we were in church on the actual first day of the Virgin’s Fast. But this part of the liturgy took my attention:

We have no [dalla] with our Lord Jesus Christ

Except in your requests and intercession,

Oh Lady of us all,

Our Lady, the Mother of God.

I wasn’t sure what dalla meant, but it didn’t sound good. The dictionary gives these options, among others: audacity, boldness.

In the teachings above, Christians are told to approach the throne in this manner.

But the dictionary also offered these options: familiarity, chumminess.

This is the sense my friends offered after mass. They described dalla as something like ‘warm, friendly feelings’, and who could have more of this with God than the Virgin Mary?

They used justification similar to that offered above, which seems perfectly logical. But that is not what the hymn is saying. It is that our dalla with God comes only through her intercession. This is making it a necessity.

And it runs up against another teaching of Jesus, where God welcomes our requests through our relationship with him. ‘I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name,’ he said, but even here it is not intercession exactly. ‘I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me.’

Perhaps we do not perfectly love him, an Orthodox might argue, whereas his mother does. But elsewhere it is written, ‘We love him because he first loved us,’ and this, ‘while we were yet sinners.’

My friends assured me this also is Orthodox teaching. The church, they said, wants to impress upon the faithful the need for humility, while lifting up those whose previous testimonies – the saints – have stood the test of time. But yes, they assured, it is only Christ that gives us access to God. We can go to him on our own.

But of Mary they may have a leg up on Protestants. ‘All generations will call me blessed,’ she said. Invoking her intercession is not necessarily fulfillment, but remembering and praising her certainly is.

The Catholic Church, they said, can sometimes go too far on Mary. But the Orthodox try to keep a middle way, a balance.

Today for dinner we ate rice, peas, and zucchini. Visiting Orthodox friends later on, we had cake specially made without eggs and butter. We are not fasting, but our fare was suitable for the day.

I am glad it was so. Hail Mary, full of grace … with reticence still for the ending.

Virgin Mary 1Orthodox readers are invited to answer more fully than my laymen friends. Protestants, too.

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Personal

The Family House at the Ministry of Youth

Pope Tawadros presenting Minister of Youth Khalid Abdel Aziz with a commemorative gift, quoting Isaiah 19:25 in Coptic, Arabic, and English.
Pope Tawadros presenting Minister of Youth Khalid Abdel Aziz with a commemorative gift, quoting Isaiah 19:25 in Coptic, Arabic, and English.

In a sign of cooperation between the government and Egypt’s religious institutions, the Ministry of Youth and Sports hosted Pope Tawadros of the Coptic Orthodox Church, representing the Egyptian Family House.

The Family House is a partnership institution between the Azhar and Egypt’s Christian denominations. It is tasked to promote and preserve national unity, at both the governmental and grassroots levels.

On July 27 Minister of Youth Khalid Abdel Aziz welcomed Tawadros in an event organized by the youth committee of the Family House. The title of the conference was The Role of Youth in Building Egypt’s Future.

Central to Tawadros’ message was that education is the key to change in society.

Participating also in panel discussion were Gamal al-Shaer, head of the Radio and Television Institute, Gamal Shaqara, professor of modern history and the head of the Middle East Research Center, Musad Aweis, head of the youth committee of the Egyptian Family House, and Aida Nassif, professor of philosophy at Cairo University and Aweis’ assistant leader in the youth committee.

They discussed the economy, confronting terrorism with culture and thought, as well as social and spiritual development.

Minister Abdel Aziz referred to Tawadros’ statement from August 2013 that a nation without churches is better than churches without a nation. This put an end, he said, to the sectarian problem Egypt was suffering at the time.

Dozens of churches throughout Egypt were burned following the removal of President Morsi and the dispersal of pro-Morsi protest sites. Some were trying to sow the seeds of division, the minister said, but to their surprise the opposite was proven.

Tawadros was asked how the church overcame the divisions of 2013. He said the one who knows love, understands life. So the one who knows the love of Egypt understands Egypt, and the church has been a national institution since the first century, which always puts the interests of the nation as first priority.

He praised the 14 centuries of relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, saying it could not be described on paper but is tasted in everyday life.

Muslims and Christians together are responsible for the protection of the nation, Tawadros emphasized. The fingers of a hand differ in shape and size, but they work together for the good of the person. This is a lesson, he said, in accepting differences and pluralism.

The event at the ministry was part of stage two of a Family House program to prepare youth leaders from the different governorates who can spread the ideas of national unity, building bridges of communication and dialogue between the sons of the nation.

Five regional meetings to be held in Alexandria, North Sinai, Luxor, Fayoum, and Cairo will contribute to this effort.

Tawadros Youth Lecture Hall

Information and pictures courtesy of the Facebook page of the Coptic Orthodox Church Spokesman.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

How the Egyptian Family House Quells Sectarian Tension

Sheikh Hassan and Fr. Kyrillos
Sheikh Hassan and Fr. Kyrillos

This article was first published at Arab West Report.


Port Said is known as a revolutionary city, famed positively for its resistance in the wars with Israel, negatively for the February 2012 massacre of soccer fans during the confusing days of the Arab Spring.

But fortunately, Port Said has never been a sectarian city, said Fr. Kyrillos Ghattas of St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, one of eight Coptic Orthodox churches serving an integrated Christian population, among fifteen overall. In the past Port Said was a cosmopolitan mélange of different cultures, and the spirit of coexistence continues to this day.

This heritage makes Port Said a natural home for the Egyptian Family House, witnessed in the warm Easter greetings offered to Bishop Tadros. The governor and top officials from the Azhar, police, and local university spoke of the importance of local relations and congratulated the Christians on the occasion of their feast.

And though Port Said has experienced far less sectarian tension than other parts of Egypt, no city is immune. Ordinary struggles, mixed with family pride and factional attitudes, can poison relations even between neighbors. What is necessary is a system of wise men attuned to sense the early warnings, and to engage in early response.

The Family House was established in 2011 as a joint initiative between the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyib and then-Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda. Worried over the sectarian violence witnessed in Iraq, they invited the Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans also to work together to preserve national unity in Egypt.

The Egyptian revolution slowed implementation, but over time committees were formed for this religious body to communicate directly with cabinet ministers. And a mandate was received to create local branches at the grassroots level, so that national unity might come to mean more than just the ‘hugs and kisses’ of top level religious dignitaries, interpreted by many as masking a neighborly but latently sectarian people.

This year marks the third year of one of the Family House’s most dynamic projects. Seventy participants – thirty-five imams and thirty-five priests – live together for three days, four times a year, being trained in dialogue and practical partnership.

Each of the previous two years witnessed an additional seventy, some of whom went on to help establish Family House branches in Alexandria, Luxor, Mallawi, and among others, Port Said.

Fr. Ghattas was one of the participants in the year two training with his colleague Sheikh Hassan Abdel Dayim. Together they are two of the 27 members of the Port Said central committee, among roughly 100 active participants.

Dayim explained part of their work is to visit together in schools, youth centers, hospitals, and conferences. Some sort of public Family House work takes place on average once a week, he said.

‘Jesus and Mohamed both call to be united, to build society and keep it from harm,’ said Dayim. ‘In this we have the responsibility to help quell problems between families.’

A dispute among teenage boys in May 2014 provided a good example. A Christian youth flirted with a Muslim young woman, and her brothers intervened and began insulting him along with the Christian neighbors who had come to his defense. The situation worsened as a fight broke out and one of the Muslims suffered severe bruises and a broken arm. Such a scene is not uncommon in Egypt, when harassment touches family honor. But involving opposite religions, the situation threatened to escalate and both sides filed reports with the police. One of the Christians was arrested and held in jail. Fearful, the Christians fled, vacating their home for a week.

Fr. Ghattas heard of this issue through neighborhood gossip and consulted with Dayim on how to handle it. When he went to visit the families he found the Muslim home full of knives and bladed weapons. The Christians, meanwhile, called for help from a handful of relatives from Asyut in Upper Egypt who came with guns. The family itself had migrated to Port Said around five years earlier.

Fr. Ghattas pressed upon both families the need for a peaceful solution, speaking in the name of the Family House. But he made use of the Family House status as an approved government institution, warning of the influence he would have also with police. Combining religious and civic responsibilities, Fr. Ghattas led both families to agree this was just a problem between youths which spiraled out of control.

He also helped the Christians to accept that they were primarily at fault, having begun the flirting and causing the bodily harm. From their own initiative the family purchased two sheep for roughly $300 – a substantial sum in their poor neighborhood – and gave it to the offended family. The Muslims slaughtered the sheep, placed their hands in the blood, and pressed the mark against the walls. Afterwards some of the meat was distributed to even poorer neighbors. Through this act reconciliation was achieved, the Christian was released from prison, and the families today continue to live in peace.

Such is a practical demonstration of the value and promise of the Family House, but like the initiative as a whole the fruit is still ripening and not yet fully grown.

Reviewing the incident, Dayim emphasized that ideal Muslim reconciliation should not require compensation. Furthermore he recognized that though marking the wall is a common cultural practice, the blood is unclean and should not have been touched.

Fr. Ghattas reflected that it might appear the Christians ‘purchased’ the reconciliation, and though the Muslim elders rebuked their children for the insults, there was no apology for the lesser share of their family’s guilt. Fr. Ghattas believed the Muslims felt they were only slightly at fault, and were doing enough by forgiving the offense and returning to live in neighborly peace. But both sides withdrew their complaints with the police immediately after the reconciliation session, and through several visits afterwards Fr. Ghattas can testify that peace has indeed prevailed.

‘This is what the culture says to do to solve these types of problems,’ said Fr. Ghattas. ‘It is not altogether right, but it is the right solution in this case.’

Much about the Family House seems all right. But privately some imams and priests express less than conciliatory attitudes about the other. Though some cities have witnessed continuing cooperation, others have not yet been able to translate budding relationships into joint work on the streets.

But even where there is success, after three years there will be only 210 religious leaders who have been actively trained in the program. Surely the same spirit exists among hundreds more, but what is this among millions of Egyptians?

‘Sowing the values and morals of citizenship is like a drop in the desert,’ said Lubna Abdel Rahim, a trainer in the program and unit leader in the Ministry of Education, speaking of her ministry’s efforts.

‘But if we cooperate in all our institutions this drop can become a garden.’

Such is the promise of the Family House, still awaiting the nourishment to flower further. Port Said is a worthy place to begin and if the Easter visit is any indication, the effort is well under way.

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Personal

The Pope, Preaching Esther

Pope Tawadros EstherFive-and-a-half years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Pope Shenouda preach. The now-deceased 87-year-old had presided over the Coptic Orthodox Church for 39 years, along the way establishing a new tradition of holding a weekly meeting with the people every Wednesday.

Last week in my first visit since, I witnessed his successor Pope Tawadros continue the tradition.

It was a fine sermon. Pope Tawadros preached on the character of Mordecai in the Old Testament book of Esther.

To briefly summarize, the book describes a period when the Jews were captive in Persia and a wicked minister planned their extermination. But prior to the scheme, following the announcement of an empire-wide beauty contest Mordecai helped the Jewish orphan Esther win the favor of the king, who then married her and made her queen.

In the end, Mordecai challenges Esther to violate palace protocol and inform the king of the minister’s intrigue. God, who interestingly is not named in the entire book, rules sovereign over events as the plot twists and the minister instead is put to death, hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai.

Pope Tawadros had been preaching a series entitled ‘Names in the Shadows,’ featuring minor characters from the Bible who are celebrated less often.

Mordecai was a hero, he said, in three areas.

First, in owning responsibility to raise the orphan girl Esther. In an age when many who are fathers do not live up to their title, Mordecai assumed fatherhood outside the requirements of blood. In both church and society we must honor the responsibility God gives us, said the pope.

Second, Mordecai was a hero in contentment. Despite promoting his adopted daughter to the position of queen, he never sought personal advantage or advancement. Furthermore, after exposing an earlier plot against the king’s life he did not run after reward. He was satisfied in his position, and used his connections only when required to save the life of his people – not serve his own interests.

Third, Mordecai was a hero in faith, the pope said. Despite living in a foreign land he did not give up his prayers or rituals. Even when others bowed down to the wicked minister, he risked censure by refusing a posture due only to God. Trusting fully in God’s sovereignty, he held to his principles confident nothing happens apart from God’s will.

To close, Pope Tawadros encouraged the congregation with a picture from the book of Revelation, where the martyrs were honored as those who were faithful unto death. Whether God gives you high position or ordinary standing, he said, great works can emerge from acting with responsibility and faithfulness to God’s principles.

The book is named after Esther, but Pope Tawadros called Mordecai the hero of the story. The saying goes that behind every great man is a great woman, but here, he said, we see this truth in reverse.

As mentioned, it was a fine sermon. But the evening was different than what I experienced five-and-a-half years earlier.

First, there was a mini-protest. One man had to be removed from the audience over something I didn’t understand. Another woman, across the aisle, stood up and shouted something I couldn’t make out. All was calmed without incident, but a week earlier the pope canceled his sermon altogether when activists agitating for wider divorce and remarriage rights disturbed proceedings.

Second, there were vesper prayers. Pope Shenouda opened his weekly meeting taking questions from the audience, on all manner of topics, both mundane and theological. Pope Tawadros has a similar practice, but on television where people can call in or share questions electronically. Replacing the audience participation was one of the ritual daily prayers of the church, with the audience, perhaps, passively involved.

Third, the cathedral was half-empty. With Pope Shenouda the hall was packed, replete with the faithful even scaling the scaffolding. Here, all was subdued. When Pope Shenouda entered, the crowd rocked with the chant of ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ With Pope Tawadros everyone stood, but I had to ask about this missing custom. It was there, I was told, but intoned in quiet Coptic.

In both personal relations and public address, Pope Shenouda was revered for his wit. In Pope Tawadros’ sermon no one laughed. At the close everyone filed out, in orderly fashion.

To leave the comparison at this sentiment is not just. My attendance with Pope Shenouda came after his long service; Pope Tawadros is still young in office. He is also a different person. Pope Shenouda was acclaimed for his charisma; Pope Tawadros is respected for his administration.

One Copt sitting next to me agreed, and helped lead me in the descriptions above. But perhaps unconsciously influenced by the sermon on Mordecai and Esther, this person said that Pope Tawadros was the man for this time, chosen by God for these unique circumstances.

Pope Shenouda coincided with the regime of Mubarak, with its stable but contested relations with Copts. Pope Tawadros coincides with revolutionary instability and whatever is emerging in the nature of the state.

Each is responsible to God for his conduct in office. But each, Copts believe, was put there by God in his sovereignty and wisdom, to guide the church through challenging times.

Will Pope Tawadros, one day, be as deeply loved?

Mordecai counseled Esther, ‘Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?’

And Esther responded, ‘I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.’

As indicated in his own sermon, nothing less is demanded of the pope. Whether he is loved or not, what is required is faithfulness. God may yet have great things for him; perhaps he is walking in them already.

May he honor his responsibilities, content in his position, according to God’s principles. May his good word preached be true in practice.

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Excerpts

Honor and Humility in the Anglican Communion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Middle East Published Articles The Tablet

Where Tolerance is at Home

Priests and imams celebrate the second birthday of Fr Kyrillos’ son
Priests and imams celebrate the second birthday of Fr Kyrillos’ son

A scant eighty feet from St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Port Said, two small bombs exploded last month. Despite the second detonation being delayed until after a crowd had gathered and police were summoned, no one was killed. Even so, it is one more mark of an insurgency aiming to destabilize Egypt.

‘It is a psychological message that terrorism is near you,’ said Fr. Kyrillos Ghattas, the local priest.

Fortunately, despite the hundreds killed in the waves of protest and violence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt has not suffered the horrors witnessed in Syria and Iraq. But throughout the region struggles over political power are mixed with sectarian rhetoric that targets religious minorities.

‘Some people try to stoke the flames of hate,’ said Ghattas of his otherwise idyllic Mediterranean city, ‘to turn them against their Christian neighbour and get them to leave their homes.’

But unlike Syria and Iraq, Egypt has an antidote. It is embryonic in development, but carries promise to resist the regional trends. It is the Egyptian Family House, created by Al-Azhar University and Coptic Orthodox Church to resist the sectarian pull and preserve national unity between Muslims and Christians. Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches are also included.

Egypt’s Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib and then-Coptic Pope Shenouda were distraught after the 2010 attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, and worried when extremists declared they were coming for Egypt next. In 2011 the Family House received official approval, though the 25 January revolution delayed much of the work of setting it up.

‘National unity’ has long been a rally cry of the Government, which paraded imams and priests in official ceremonies, exchanging hugs and kisses at the highest levels. But on the street ordinary Egyptians would grumble. Neighbourly relations were ample and interreligious friendships not uncommon, but a sectarian spirit was latent in many and easily exploited.

By contrast, the Family House was authorised to extend national unity in two directions. First, it was given authority to interact directly with cabinet ministers to address policies that result in division. Committees were created to tackle religious discourse, educational curriculum, media coverage, and youth affairs, among others.

But second, the Family House has authority to replicate itself in branches throughout the country at the grassroots level. One of the most dynamic early initiatives aims to supply the raw materials in this effort.

January 2012 witnessed the launching of a three-year programme to bring together imams and priests in common cause. Paired off, they live together for three days, four times a year, while as a group of 70 they receive training in dialogue and practical partnership. The programme takes them to historic religious sites, churches, and mosques, which for many represents the first time to step foot in a house of worship of a religion not their own.

The project was run through Al Azhar. Hailed as a bastion of moderate Islamic thought, it aimed to counter sectarian trends in Egypt and coordinated the supply of imams. The Orthodox offered the largest percentage of priests, and each other denomination chose their multiple participants.

Midway through the first year the Family House received sizeable psychological encouragement from the highest levels. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who overthrew President Morsi following widespread demonstrations, began publicly speaking of the need to address sectarianism.

‘I pledge to implement mechanisms that will reform religious discourse,’ said Sisi, ‘so that Egyptians don’t witness any more violence.

‘I personally have lived and grown up in a town where problems between Muslims and Christians were nonexistent, but radical extremism has caused division.’

This division was not easily overcome. One Christian participant accused the Muslims of lack of hospitality – a great insult in the Arab world – as he accused them of hoarding welcoming food and drinks intended for the whole group. Some said that a priest would never be welcome in a mosque, nor an imam in a church.

‘It is very hard work,’ said Saleem Wassef, the project director. ‘They can be very hardheaded, as everyone thinks they are right.’

Slowly attitudes began to change. Bishop Yohanna Gulta of the Coptic Catholic church gave an address on the Trinity, demonstrating its essential monotheism. This message was confirmed by a respected Muslim scholar, after which some of the more sceptical imams began to mellow, Wassef said.

Particularly pleased was Fr. Mikhail Thabit, a Coptic Catholic priest in 6 October City outside of Cairo. Before relocating north he served 23 years in Hegaza, 570 kilometres deep in the often sectarian-laden provinces of Upper Egypt.

‘It was a Judas kiss,’ he said of his previous official gatherings with sheikhs, which he described as playacting. But with participants in this exchange he felt a real warmth develop as they joked together.

‘Just because we are different it is not the end of the world,’ he said. ‘Instead, the differences enrich us if we get to know each other.’

Between official meetings, many participants did. For some this involved only the phone calls offered for religious holidays, though the recognition of Christmas and Easter even as social occasions was often a great challenge. But Sheikh Ali Abdel Rahman of Fayoum welcomed Orthodox priest Fr. Mityas to his home to visit his sick wife. For many conservative Muslims female members of the household are strictly off limits to anyone but relatives.

‘God bless all of your work for the sake of our country and our children,’ lectured the Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Ishak, who welcomed the imams and priests to the cathedral for one of the sessions.

‘But it is very important that this reaches the people so that they can see it, be influenced by it, and be changed.’

One of the most revolutionary acts of the group was simply to walk the streets together. Some priests complained when they walk alone some will curse and even spit upon them. But as they strolled the streets of Cairo in a group, onlookers gaped in astonishment, and seeming admiration. At the Coptic Museum a school group ran up to greet the imams and priests together, and demanded a picture.

‘Egyptians love men of religion,’ said Fr. Arsanious Murid, a Coptic Catholic priest in Fayoum, ‘and if they see a priest and an imam together it influences them to work together and overcome fanaticism.

‘These displays of love are like the leaven that spreads through the whole community.’ He hopes a Family House branch will soon be established in his city.

Bishop Mouneer Hanna of the Anglican Church in Egypt urged at the close of the second year of Family House sessions that this would not be the last meeting between participants. Sheikh Muhi al-Din Afifi, head of the Azhar’s Islamic Research Council, asked the same.

And if year one is any indication, it is a developing project. Regional branches of the Family House were created in Alexandria, Ismailia, and Luxor, among others, though many cities have yet to show interest.

One city that did, however, is Port Said. There, Fr. Ghattas was able to directly intervene and prevent a Coptic family from being forced from their home.

A neighborhood scuffle between teenagers led to the hurling of insults and broken arms. The Muslim family’s home was full of knives, while the Christians – after fleeing for a week – called on relatives who brought guns.

But the potentially explosive situation was diffused when Ghattas pressed upon both families in the name of the Family House. The Christian family was primarily at fault, he judged, and led both in the acceptance of a reconciliation sacrifice. Two sheep were slaughtered and peace prevailed.

‘Jesus and Mohamed both call [for us] to be united, to build society and keep it from harm,’ said Sheikh Hassan Abdel Dayim, Ghattas’ close collaborator in Port Said.

In a region torn by strife and religious intolerance, the Family House has accepted this challenge, to keep this harm from Egypt.

 

This article was originally published in the 13 December, 2014 print edition of The Tablet, but is currently behind an online paywall. It is reproduced here with permission.

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Middle East Middle East Institute Published Articles

The Egyptian Family House: Fostering Religious Unity

Family House Port Said

From my recent article at the Middle East Institute:

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has not been shy about the need to reform religious discourse and relations. He is concerned about how the image of Islam has been marred by Muslims themselves, and how extremist thought has torn the fabric of Muslim-Christian unity. Visiting the Coptic Orthodox cathedral on Christmas Eve, he told the cheering audience, “We will build Egypt together. We will love each other, so the people can see.”

If these words are to become reality, the president may have a tool in an organization called the Egyptian Family House.

The article then describes the basic structure and activity of the Family House, which is mandated both to advise government ministers and replicate itself at the grassroots level. I have written about this before from Cairo, but here is an excerpt from Alexandria:

But examination of the Alexandria branch, established in December 2012 as one of the first regional chapters, shows that these efforts, while promising, are challenged by the precedent of people of different faiths not often working together.

In Alexandria, the governor provided the Family House with a building and four employees from the public payroll. The approximately 100 members meet once a month and work with deputies from the local ministries of culture, health, and social solidarity to plan how to collaboratively serve disadvantaged populations.

But at the same time, the Alexandria branch has been slow to organize activities. One conference on citizenship was held in the presence of the governor, but attracted an audience of only 150. The branch’s family committee has also conducted two visits to lower income neighborhoods, presenting a positive image of religious unity. But little else has been done. Members are encouraged to travel together to each monthly meeting to display their cooperation publicly, but only around half are doing so, according to Father Boulos Awad, co-head of the branch.

Even within the Family House, the culture of separation and ignorance of the religious other has not been easy to overcome. Awad explained that the members have spent much of their time getting to know each other and learning how to communicate. While many imams and priests in the organization have succeeded in forging friendships—calling each other on holidays, for example—they have reported few examples of practical cooperation.

A non-clerical member of the Alexandria branch added that the deliberate pace of the group’s activities reflects the nature of the members in that they are not pragmatic, fast-acting professionals and have the mentality of religious caution. But he and Awad both agree that the participants have good intentions, and they anticipate greater success in the years to come.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

The Educational Initiative of the Family House

Rasmy Abdel Malak
Rasmy Abdel Malak

Dr. Rasmy Abdel Malak is the head of the educational committee of the Egyptian Family House, an independent institution created by government decree. It is run by the grand sheikh of the Azhar in partnership with the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, involving Egypt’s other Christian denominations as well.

The Family House is authorized to create branches in the governorates, so that the effort to protect and reinforce national unity between Muslims and Christians will be felt at the grassroots. But it is also authorized to interact directly with government ministers, so that their suggestions will be taken into serious consideration in the framework of national policy.

It is in this second capacity Arab West Report met with Dr. Rasmy Abdel Malak Rostom, who describes the work of the educational committee of the Family House in formulating recommendations to the minister of education. The interview was conducted on November 10, 2014, by Jayson Casper and Adel Rizkallah, board member of the Center for Arab-West Understanding.

Please describe the basics of your educational work in the Family House.

The Egyptian Family House was established by a decision by the prime minister in 2012. There are a number of committees, approximately eight or nine, including one for education which I am honored to lead.

It is well known in Egypt, like in any nation of the world, that education forms the person. We have noticed instances of extremism and fanaticism among the students that come from the religious discourse in the mosques. But there are no question marks concerning the churches, it would be very rare to see similar problems.

We have begun to think how we can build up a person from youth. It is very important, from nursery and preschool certain things influence Muslims and Copts to be against each other.

The idea of the Family House is that we are a family, all together. But how can we live together when each one is raised in an incorrect way? We have witnessed this, and in the education committee we are trying to do something about it.

Please click here to read the full text of the interview at Arab West Report.

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Personal

Photos: The Orthodox Church and the Tragedy in Libya

As Egypt mourns the victims killed by the so-called Islamic State branch in Libya, the Coptic Orthodox cathedral has been a center of attention. Every day the official spokesman has issued press releases and pictures updating the situation; all photos that follow are credited to the Coptic Media Center.

On Friday, February 13, following the announcement by the Islamic State that they were holding 21 Coptic Christians, the cathedral permitted their families to hold a small protest.
On Friday, February 13, following the announcement by the Islamic State that they were holding 21 Coptic Christians, the cathedral permitted their families to hold a small protest.
On February 14, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab met with the families, promising best efforts and to take care of them while in Cairo.
On February 14, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab met with the families, promising best efforts and to take care of them while in Cairo.
On February 16, after the Islamic State released its video of beheading its victims, President Sisi visited Pope Tawadros to express his condolences.
On February 16, after the Islamic State released its video of beheading its victims, President Sisi visited Pope Tawadros to express his condolences.
He was followed by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab.
He was followed by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab.
Also offering condolences was a delegation from the military, including the Minister of Defense, Sedki Sobhi.
Also offering condolences was a delegation from the military, including the Minister of Defense, Sedki Sobhi.
Also paying condolences were the ministers of social solidarity, health, and youth.
Also paying condolences were the ministers of social solidarity, health, and youth.
Following these was a delegation from the Azhar, including the Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb.
Following these was a delegation from the Azhar, including the Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb.
Later that evening Pope Tawadros received the condolences of the US ambassador, R. Stephen Beecroft.
Later that evening Pope Tawadros received the condolences of the US ambassador, R. Stephen Beecroft.
Also offering condolences was a delegation from the Protestant Churches of Egypt, headed by Safwat al-Baiady.
Also offering condolences was a delegation from the Protestant Churches of Egypt, headed by Safwat al-Baiady.
Many other churches also paid condolences, including Coptic Catholic Bishop Yohenna Qulta.
Many other churches also paid condolences, including Coptic Catholic Bishop Yohenna Qulta.
Also visiting the pope was prominent Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris.
Also visiting the pope was prominent Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab and Minister of the Interior Mohamed Ibrahim and the governor of Minya visited Bishop Paphnotius of Samalout to console the families and promise the state would build a new church in the name of the martyrs.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab and Minister of the Interior Mohamed Ibrahim and the governor of Minya visited Bishop Paphnotius of Samalout to console the families and promise the state would build a new church in the name of the martyrs.

The link given above is to the Facebook page of the official spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which contains pictures of many other visits.

Christians in Egypt have taken great comfort in the expressions of sympathy from state and Muslim citizens alike. It is a difficult time for the church, but the tragedy is serving to unite the nation.

‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’