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Egypt’s Christian Women Treated Like Muslims in Inheritance. Until Now?

Nasrallah Kamel
Nasrallah (L) and Kamel (R), both working to address Coptic grievances, find different receptions from the state. Image: Associated Press / Jayson Casper

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 5.

Two stories here, so the article deck is an important follow-up to the headline:

Meanwhile, Coptic activist who insists true religious equality does not yet exist goes to prison on terrorism charges.

Here’s the intro to the first:

Coptic lawyer Huda Nasrallah may have won a great victory for Christian women in Egypt. Last week, a Cairo court ruled in her favor, dividing the family inheritance equally between her and her two brothers.

Nasrallah’s verdict followed the decision of two other courts to reject her appeal on the basis of the sharia law stipulation that a male heir receive two-thirds of the inheritance.

This past summer, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) took up her cause. In a campaign called “Christian on ID card, Muslim in Inheritance,” it claimed millions of Coptic women suffer similarly.

Coptic men are sometimes all too willing to go along with it, Nasrallah told the Associated Press. But she is “thrilled” by the verdict, and hopes it will inspire other women.

“It is not really about inheritance; my father did not leave us millions of Egyptian pounds,” she said. “If I didn’t take it to court, who would?”

And here is the second:

But a few days earlier, Coptic activist Rami Kamel may have suffered a great setback for all Egyptian believers. He was arrested for his reporting of sectarian tension, and accused of joining a terrorist group.

A founding member of the Maspero Youth Union when Egypt’s military tanks rolled over Coptic protesters in 2011, he later documented sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians.

He is now facing charges of joining a terror group and spreading false information, his lawyer told Agence France-Presse. Additional charges include harming public peace, inciting strife between Muslims and Christians, and agitating against the state.

“There is no credible evidence to support these charges,” said Thabet, who last spoke with Kamel a few days before his arrest. Around 10 days prior, security called Kamel in for informal interrogations as a warning to stop his activity.

But Kamel continued, speaking out against the recent arrest of Khalil Rizk, a Coptic labor rights activist charged with joining a terrorist group.

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

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Church Donations in Upper Egypt: Ideals and Reality

Fr. Yu'annis
Fr. Yu’annis

A few excerpts from my recent article at Arab West Report:

Fr. Yu’annis sat in his small office waiting for a delegation to come, fearfully aware it might not. Having made all the arrangements, he was eager for a prominent Coptic businessman to visit the hundred year old church in his village, see the plot of land he had purchased, and envision together how a small hotel could lure religious pilgrims following the route of the Holy Family.

Being a practical priest, Yu’annis put aside the objection that his village of Qufada is not actually on the official route of the Holy Family. Several kilometers from the central city of Maghagha in the governorate of Minya, Qufada is a bit of a backwater. The nearby villages of Ishneen al-Nasara and Dayr al-Garnous are no closer, but they each boast a well from which the Holy Family is said to have sipped.

Unlike these, Qufada is not mentioned in the ancient manuscripts of the church. No matter, thought Yu’annis, given the geography it is certain they passed through. In any event neither Ishneen al-Nasara nor Dayr al-Garnous have a hotel either, so there is an opportunity to exploit. God knows his people need it.

After describing Qufada and Fr. Yu’annis’ local relations, here is a little more about his project and the man he hopes can implement it:

With this in mind, Yu’annis bought a plot of land next to the church in hope his hotel idea might result in tourist income and local employment. He secured Hamdi’s support and pays him a small sum of money each month to secure the premises. That this is necessary undermines somewhat an absolute understanding of Muslim-Christian harmony; Hamdi once remarked in frustration that though Christians are only 15 percent of the village, the one church is larger than all mosques put together. Correct or not in his estimation, it is personal relations and greased wheels which keep communal peace.

But the peace is present, so Yu’annis proceeds. And thus he sits in hope for the arrival of the delegation, which turns to frustration when it does not arrive.

The awaited businessman is Munir Ghabbour, owner of the luxury Sonesta hotel in Cairo and a number of enterprises beside. Now 70 years old, Ghabbour wants to use his wealth to leave behind a Coptic legacy, strengthening that of the Holy Family. Many churches along their route are operational but decaying. Poignantly similar are the Christians; poverty and emigration, not to mention pockets of religious extremism, eat away at what was once a flourishing Coptic presence.

Mounir Ghabbour
Mounir Ghabbour

I wrote about Ghabbour in reference to a new government initiative to promote Holy Family tourism here. The priest and businessman have a relationship stretching back many years, but the key to the project is support of the church:

But the lynchpin for the deal is a different person altogether. Bishop Aghathon heads the diocese of Maghagha for the Coptic Orthodox Church, responsible for all spiritual matters and many temporal ones beside. Yu’annis could not fail to inform his bishop of such a high profile visitor, who promptly requested to receive the businessman in the local cathedral.

Or rather, the old cathedral. Poorly built and suffering severe structural damage, Bishop Aghathon had long petitioned the government for a new building. For years he was frustrated, and thus he went political. Small demonstrations were held and the bishop complained in the press. His demeanor was much different than that of his predecessor Bishop Athanasius of Minya, who died in 2000 and had his diocese divided into several smaller dioceses. Bishop Aghathon was appointed to Maghagha, and proved less adept at fostering local relations.

This, at least, is the opinion of Yu’annis, who found his own success in securing building permits halted after the death of Athanasius and the ascension of Bishop Aghathon. Relations also faltered between the bishop and the priest, as the latter’s attention increasingly focused on his own village. Previously the twenty-four churches he facilitated were scattered throughout the area.

But Bishop Aghathon’s political approach finally proved successful after the revolution. In May 2011 the Maspero Youth Union formed during a massive Coptic sit-in near Tahrir Square, protesting the burning of a church in Cairo. Completely unrelated to events in Maghagha, during negotiations with the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Coptic youth activists included Bishop Aghathon’s cathedral permit within their list of demands. It was granted, and construction of the new cathedral is currently ongoing.

But in the old cathedral he received Ghabbour and his delegation and planned the events of the day. First would be a visit to Ishneen al-Nasara, then to Dair al-Garnous, and finally, if time permitted, Qufada. Back in his village Yu’annis waited, unable to have a say in the bishop’s ordering of affairs.

He continued to wait, as the bishop showed the businessman other project opportunities. I describe the diocese and local conditions, but then come back to the priest:

All the while, Yu’annis waited in Qufada, making occasional phone calls about the delegation’s whereabouts. Bishop Aghathon urged the businessman back to the cathedral, and said Qufada was an hour away by car, at least. In this he appeared to pad his calculation over estimates in the original schedule, and told Ghabbour he could visit Qufada next time. That village was not on the Holy Family route, he persuaded, and the church had recently been renovated anyway.

It took a comparable amount of time to return to the cathedral, where a multi-course meal awaited. Delicious, time could have been spent in Qufada instead, had the bishop honored the priest’s original intention. Yu’annis himself then traveled to Maghagha, exchanged pleasantries with the bishop, and greeted his friend. They parted ways fifteen minutes later as Ghabbour needed to return to Cairo for an appointment. Yu’annis was disappointed, but understood how the formalities of church hierarchy needed to be honored first.

But it is not simply a matter of formality. In the Coptic Orthodox Church the bishop is one step removed from the pope and near-autonomous within his diocese. No priest can act without his approval; no church project can progress without his oversight. Ghabbour cares little for local squabbles, he simply wants to leave a legacy and assist area development. Working with the bishop can unlock any door.

But for Bishop Aghathon, working with Ghabbour can fund any door. The businessman remains in control of his own money, and will only pay for projects that are viable and fit his vision. The bishop’s pitch appeared to convince him, along with the appearance of the churches. If anyone comes to visit and sees this, he said, we will lose face. But Ghabbour’s vision is larger than churches, and includes his priestly friend. All he needs is land and an idea. Yu’annis has the former, but may need to modify the latter.

All three individuals are looking to intervene in an area of decline, through a tradition that may also be fading. From the conclusion:

Does this mean the Holy Family tradition itself does not have many days left either? To be sure this is not a warning for ‘days’ but years or decades, but as the Christians of Iraq are demonstrating, the existence of community is precarious. Coptic Christianity is not similarly threatened, but if trends continue toward poverty and emigration, will enough remain to care for the churches still being built and renovated? Or will they be the permanent reminder of a bygone era, symbols of a history cherished by believers elsewhere?

Perhaps then the tourists will come, and the hotel will be necessary.

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

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How Egypt’s Goverment is Trying to Get Christians to Follow Jesus

Holy Family in Egypt Icon 1

This article was published at Christianity Today on December 23, 2014.

The sound bomb exploded right behind the Egyptian Museum on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, throwing Ibrahim Morgan’s Swedish tour group into a temporary panic.

Then they settled back down and finished their tea.

This latest tactic in Egypt’s Islamist insurgency is meant to instill terror without harming civilians. It seeks to convey a message to citizen and tourist alike: Egypt is unstable.

This has been the dominant narrative abroad regarding Egypt, thanks to three years of instability, four presidents, and two revolutions. However, some locals like Morgan disagree.

“We know it is nonsense what the media says about Egypt,” Morgan said after the November 28 incident. “This group is here and they have had a great time.” The Swedes nodded in appreciation.

But relatively speaking, they are among the few. Since hitting a highwater mark of 14.7 million visitors in 2010, Egypt’s tourism numbers declined by a third, devastating the economy. The sector represented more than one-tenth of Egypt’s GDP, and tens of thousands have lost their livelihood.

Once stability—or its perception—returns, the numbers will likely rebound. The Giza pyramids, the temples of Luxor and Aswan, and the medieval mosques of Islamic Cairo will long attract international visitors.

But in October, the government launched a unique campaign to increase a segment representing only 1.9 percent of total tourists: Christian pilgrims. To do so, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II promoted the most noteworthy biblical example.

“Jesus was the first ‘tourist’ to Egypt,” said Tawadros at the launch event, according to AsiaNews. “For us, for our community, his stay in this land has been a blessing for the present and for the future.”

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

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More from the Maspero Memorial: Video, Pictures, and Anecdotes

On October 10, it was quite an adventure simply to get to the memorial service for the martyrs of Maspero. ‘The church in 6 October City,’ is what both people and press related, and Google Maps said there is only one, downtown. 6 October City is also one of Cairo’s satellite cities, and thus not very easy to access.

But the name of the church – St. Michael’s – did not match the name of the church on Google. I was faced with the choice of having to taxi out and hope it was correct, which would be quite expensive, or discover the routes of public transportation, which would take me downtown and then leave me there. In either case I was not confident the only church in town was the right one.

Wael Saber
Wael Saber

In the end I contacted Wael Saber, described in my earlier article as one of the spokesmen for the Union of the Families of Maspero Martyrs (UFMM), to try and double-check the location of the memorial service. He proposed a solution without which I would have been completely lost. I could meet him at 7:30am in downtown Cairo, where he was arranging a bus to transport dozens of relatives.

Within the controversy described in the article, this bus was good evidence that Saber is indeed appreciated by at least many relatives as the spokesman of the group. More below will contest that claim, but as we weaved out of Cairo and through the expanse of land on the way to 6 October City, we did not quite reach it. Instead the bus veered to the left, out into the desert.

I had no idea where we were headed, but I’m glad I searched Google thoroughly looking for a second church. I did not find one, but on the outskirts of town was a new cemetery, and it quickly became clear we were now driving through it.

The sign reads: Cemeteries of St. Michael, 6 October City. The vast gray expanse behind are the Muslim graves.
The sign reads: Cemeteries of St. Michael, 6 October City. The vast gray expanse behind are the Muslim graves.

The majority of the mausoleum structures were clearly for Muslims, but as we drove through to the back of the cemetery a huge church rose up above the whole area. It was odd to see the massive structure with no comparable mosque nearby. Later, a church employee told me the size was necessary to hold mourners for the funerals held here, especially given that the remains of the martyrs of Maspero often attract a crowd. The church does hold regular mass, he also said, but busses in the worshipers from surrounding areas.

St. Michael's Church. The sign to the bottom left says 'Come to me', with Jesus speaking to Maspero martyrs.
St. Michael’s Church. The sign to the bottom left says ‘Come to me’, with Jesus speaking to Maspero martyrs.

I spoke with him outside the crypt holding the remains not only of the Maspero dead, but also those killed in an earlier attack on a church in Imbaba, Cairo, as well as those killed in a later drive-by shooting during a wedding in the Cairo neighborhood of Warraq. The church was built in 2011, and Saber told me he has papers stating church leadership will rename it to the Church of St. Michael and the Maspero Martyrs.

Inside the crypt of the Maspero martyrs. One must remove shoes before entering.
Inside the crypt of the Maspero martyrs. One must remove shoes before entering.
The plaque reads: The Martyrs of Maspero, with a date of October 10, 2011. One relative explained it is the 10th because that is when the autopsies were finalized, though the massacre took place on the 9th. The phrase above says: Their bodies are buried in peace, and their names live throughout the generations.
The plaque reads: The Martyrs of Maspero, with a date of October 10, 2011. One relative explained it is the 10th because that is when the autopsies were finalized, though the massacre took place on the 9th. The phrase above says: Their bodies are buried in peace, and their names live throughout the generations. Honored below are Nassif Ragi, Michael, Musad, and Wael Mikha’il.

It has been a difficult three years for Egypt’s Christians, but also for her Muslims. At the end of the mass I spoke with Sheikh Ahmed Saber, who is the imam of a mosque near the Maspero Radio and Television building, the epicenter of the Coptic protests and the site of the eventual massacre. Over the course of time he has become a friend – first to the activists, later to the families – and was keen to be present at the memorial service.

Ahmed Saber, with one of the younger relatives of the deceased.
Ahmed Saber, with one of the younger relatives of the deceased.

Unfortunately, he did not have much to say about the course of justice, preferring to make non-politicized statements. Perhaps this was wise – it just wasn’t useful for my article. But he also stated he was there in a personal capacity, not representing the Azhar institution despite his clerical garb. But it was acceptable the Azhar was not there, he said, for the church and Azhar agree upon 99 percent – which is citizenship, human rights, and social justice – and disagree about only 1 percent – doctrine.

Therefore, he said, having official church representatives was the same as having Azhar representatives.

Except, the official church representatives did not come either. Earlier it had been stated that the influential bishops of Central Cairo and Giza would be in attendance, but at the last moment they excused themselves due to travel necessities. This seemed odd to me, but none of the Copts I spoke with were troubled by it, stating both were present at the 2nd memorial service a year earlier. Having now lived long in Egypt my mind flirted with the conspiratorial, but there was nothing to latch on to, so it also escaped my article.

Another interesting comment from the sheikh was in relating an earlier conversation between St. Anthony and St. Boula, two of Egypt’s earliest monks. St. Anthony instructed him that Copts should pray first for the Nile, then for the ruler, and then for the patriarch. Sheikh Saber found this to be an example of wisdom, and elaborated upon it while quoting several Bible verses. He was certainly a unique individual. Muslims often attend special services in the church as welcome visiting dignitaries, but are invited or allowed to leave midway through before the serving of communion. Sheikh Saber remained politely the entire time.

Fuad Attiya
Fuad Attiya

Afterwards I did my best to interview as many family members as I could. Wael Saber’s contact was given to me by one side of the activist division, Fuad Attiya by the other. The activist told me Attiya represented 14 of the martyr families, and that Saber was supported by only three or four. The following needed to be cut from my article due to word limit, and I didn’t mind as I felt the back-and-forth exchange of accusations was becoming petty. But it is nonetheless insightful:

The three UFMM spokesmen were appointed by the families as they were the most active relatives working on their behalf, Saber said. This testimony was confirmed with others at the memorial service and was evidenced by a busload of relatives for whom he arranged transportation.

But not by all. Fuad Attiya is the 69 year old father of Hady, his 22 year old son killed by gunshot in the demonstration. He invited the MYU to attend the church memorial service.

‘There is no Union [speaking of the UFMM],’ he told Lapido Media. ‘No one speaks on behalf of the Maspero martyrs. This is a lie.’

Another relative told me Attiya provided for the light snacks shared by the martyrs’ families after the service. Perhaps this is not as strong an indication of support as the bus provided by Saber, but he did appear a respected senior figure to those I spoke with, including Saber. Attiya, however, did not confirm the ‘14 families’ idea spoken of by the activist, but he clearly was not happy with Saber’s assumption of leadership.

But following the commemorative funeral procession shown above, quarrels broke out here and there between the various parties. It was not long thereafter the MYU activists decided to leave. I wondered if they had been asked to. Here is another segment of the article that needed to be cut:

Mina Magdy, general coordinator of the MYU agreed with Gaziri it was a day for the martyrs. They attended the memorial mass to express condolences, and left shortly after it ended. He is saddened by the accusations against the group and explained they have spent countless hours with Saber and the families to demonstrate their innocence.

He believes lies have been told by the media to harm their organization, and many of the families have been taken in. He also thinks Saber is jealous of the MYU’s political influence, something he wants for himself.

Saber admits he will represent the UFMM not just in matters pertaining to the justice of their case, but also as citizens about the affairs of the nation. He announced their participation in the June 30 protests that led to the military-backed overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi, for example.

Magdy made it clear to me they were not attending the mass to attract attention to themselves as an organization, but to participate in an event that devastated them as well. They left of their own decision, he said, so as to leave the focus of the day for the families, even though both Attiya and the priests conducting the service asked them to stay.

Relatives of the martyrs, dressed in black.
Relatives of the martyrs, dressed in black.
Attendance at the memorial mass
Attendance at the memorial mass

I have known the activists of the Maspero Youth Union for a long time, and it is difficult for me to believe they have profited off the names of the martyrs. In human nature, however, anything is possible, and Magdy spoke of the privacy of the organization when I asked if I could review their financial records. He assured me, though, that they have shown bank reports and other evidence to the families. He will accompany them to court if any produce evidence of wrongdoing by any in the MYU, but so far no one has.

Youssef Sidhom, quoted in the article, also stated that when his newspaper collects donations it makes them public and details the expenditures, so that all is done in full transparency. Unfortunately, many in Egypt’s activist spectrum – from the Muslim Brotherhood at one end to the Maspero Youth Union on the other – operate outside the structures of oversight and keep all their financial dealings in-house. Mina Thabet told me the donations the MYU helped solicit were processed through a certain priest, so there is a channel to follow up with these investigations.

Wael Saber also stated that in order to cut out the ‘middle man’ of the MYU and others he printed with permission the phone numbers of every activist family, so anyone who wanted to help could do so directly. Here also is a channel to follow up on the counter-accusations that he is an opportunist. The families can be asked about him directly, which he invited me to do.

But the whole matter is sad. Certainly if there is fraud, this is sadder still. And if Saber and others are deliberately marring the reputation of the MYU then this also deserves condemnation.

There is that within me that wants to get at the truth of the story, motivated by a desire that a better understanding might overcome this animosity – or perhaps prove the worthiness thereof. But even the telling of the divisions I hope has a small impact on showing this ugly face to the activists and families themselves. The death of these 27 individuals was a tragedy; it deepens in sorrow with the witness of infighting.

October 10 was also my birthday. After the melancholy experience I returned home and was received by my own family which does not suffer from so much division. Of course in comparison we have hardly suffered at all.

40 Balloons

But as my children covered me with 40 balloons, I was reminded of the good gift of unity in a community of love. The bulk of my day was unsettling; the ending repaired all harm. I pray Egypt might receive a similar experience soon.

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Bring Back our Coptic Girls

Coptic Kidnapping

Seeking commonality with the outrage over the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram, Ebram Louis and the Association of Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disapperances (AVAED) is launching a hashtag of his own. #BringBackOurCopticGirlsEgypt.

I might advise to remove the ‘Egypt’ from the hashtag, thinking ‘Coptic’ builds sufficiently on the now viral #BringBackOurGirls. But Ebram is a dedicated advocate and researcher, and the issue of kidnapped Coptic women is longstanding.

Here I share some recent reflections on the issue, from an article in Arab West Report, excerpting my reflection on the difficulty of this research:

One of the greatest horrors that can befall a family is the sudden disappearance of their child. No country in the world could doubt such tragedy. Why then does controversy surround Coptic minors?

There are two prominent reasons, and both relate to the contested sectarian nature of Egyptian society. While Muslims and Christians live side by side as neighbors, colleagues, and often friends, there is an undercurrent of tension among many, stemming from religious identity. During a moment of crisis or a community dispute, sides can be drawn along religious lines.

Many Christians harbor suspicions that the Islam in a Muslim will push an otherwise friendly neighbor to discrimination, or worse. Many Muslims harbor criticisms that Christians are actually treated better than the average Muslim in society, yet complain constantly. While this tension is generally unspoken a disappearance can shatter the peace.

The first reason is due to an often heard accusation: The girl was kidnapped, with blame assigned to extremist Salafi Muslims. Salafis are understood to be very traditional, and though not necessarily anti-Coptic in essence, often hold a viewpoint assigning non-Muslims a secondary status as if in the historical Islamic caliphate. They also believe in early marriage for women, often below the Egyptian legal age of consent of eighteen. Combining these two characteristics it is posited that some Salafis will kidnap Coptic minors and convert them to Islam to weaken their community, and then marry them off within the Muslim fold.

Setting aside for now the legitimacy of this accusation, it is easy to comprehend its inflammatory nature within a sectarian-laced society. Muslims would be horrified to imagine that such a crime is committed, but furthermore, that it is committed on a religious rationale. But at the same time the alleged crime touches the nerve points of Coptic consciousness, molded over centuries of living within that historical secondary status. Raising the accusation offends Muslims, denying it embitters Christians.

The second reason is due to the social setting surrounding the accusation of kidnapping. Much of Egypt maintains a patriarchal attachment to women, attaching their purity to the family or community’s status of honor and shame. If a woman loses her virginity outside of marriage the offense is felt by the community. A woman who disappears puts their honor at risk, no matter the reason for her absence.

This charged setting is amplified if the suspected disappearance crosses religious lines, in any direction. But first imagine the situation is not one of forced disappearance, but simply of individual choice. The decision of a female to attach herself in relationship outside of family approval is a scandal; it is even greater if the relationship is with a man of a different religion. The reasons can be many and are essentially human: Often they are of love, money, or the desire to escape a difficult home situation. The temptation can therefore be very strong for a family to defend its damaged honor by claiming their daughter has been kidnapped.

These two reasons help explain the controversy, but there is a third factor that may or may not be equally sectarian. The Egyptian state, especially outside of the major population centers, is notoriously weak. Police investigations are often feeble, and the judicial system takes years to process a case. Community transgressions are often left to be solved by the community – with security looking on – and if the crime takes place across religious lines the two sides are encouraged-cum-compelled to ‘reconcile’.

What is more difficult to say is if there is an additional sectarian aspect in police conduct. Christians often accuse security of paying even less attention to crimes against their community. In cases of disappearance of minors, sometimes they fail to investigate at all. Is this due to individual fanaticism, institutional bias, or simply a common indifference?

But the end result for many families is they may have no idea if their daughter was kidnapped or not. She is simply gone. It could be she ran away from home to join her boyfriend. It could be she ran away, but then is met with a host of barriers denying her ability to return. Among these, it is claimed, is the pressure placed on her by the Muslim family, implying the horrors of what will happen to her if she goes back, having violated her family’s honor. Whatever violence she might face, she knows the shame she brought them.

Or, perhaps she was outright kidnapped. Especially following the revolution kidnapping has become a potentially lucrative career given the security vacuum. But if the police do not give due diligence to the cries of a distraught family, what conclusions can they draw? Even if she wishes to marry freely, even if she wishes to convert to Islam freely, the law prohibits these actions until she is eighteen. As a minor, she must be returned to her family. Very often, the law fails.

And also the fact that in a country of more than 85 million people, any one person’s individual problem is drowned in a sea of difficulty and inequity. In order to get the attention of authorities, one must yell louder than everyone else. ‘Kidnapping’ makes for a very loud scream.

Given all the above, this is why proper research into a disappearance is essential. Without it, not only can religious and social taboos be violated, but far worse, the girl may never return home.

But when research must take place independent of the properly invested authorities, it also acquires an air of advocacy. But what can be more appropriate? The task is to put right a wrong, not study sociology.

As such, Ebram Louis is both a researcher and an activist.

The rest of the article profiles his work through the Association for Victims of Abductions and Forced Disappearances. I have written about him earlier, and you can additionally click here for more information.

Ebram Louis
Ebram Louis

But the article closes with his idea for solving the issue. One of his colleagues proposed going through the newly formed Ministry of Transitional Justice, to right past wrongs. Louis, however, wishes to resurrect an old practice:

One possible solution can help sort through the vagary, and is endorsed thoroughly by AVAED. In 2004 in a case similar to that of Camīliah Shihātah, Wafā’ Constantine, another wife of a priest, sparked rumors and demonstrations when she disappeared. Eventually she was returned to the church, but the antagonism that developed between the church and security led to canceling the then-mandatory ‘counseling sessions’ for anyone wishing to convert to Islam.

These sessions were instituted in order to make certain that anyone expressing interest in Islam did so from their full and free will. The would-be convert would meet with a priest under supervision of security, and express his or her desire. The priest had the opportunity to counsel the individual back to the faith, and the presence of security ostensibly ensured an atmosphere of non-coercion.

Reinstituting these counseling sessions would not eliminate the problem of disappearances, but it would carve out space to explore the argument that these young Coptic women are converting to Islam freely. Of course, this only applies when they are of age; otherwise, the law must rule and return all minors to their families. But in the controversial cases where an initial love relationship becomes complicated, a formal procedure to evaluate and process a conversion to Islam would remove much ambiguity from the controversy of disappearances.

Of course, rule of law and freedom of religion are much more basic solutions, but given the nature of Egyptian reality, they are unfortunately not simple solutions. Except for the basic fact that families do not know where their children are, little about this issue is simple.

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

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Why Egypt’s Christian Families are Paying Ransom

Coptic Ransom

From my recent article at Christianity Today, published online on January 8, 2014, and in the Jan/Feb print edition:

In 2011, Nadia Makram, 13, was walking home from church near her working-class Cairo neighborhood when she vanished.

Her mother, Martha, went to the police, who refused to file a report. Soon after, Martha received a call demanding $15,000. She went back to the police, who registered a complaint but noted only Nadia’s disappearance.

When the police did nothing, Martha gathered money from family and friends and traveled to a village 65 miles south.

Martha met Nadia’s 48-year-old kidnapper in the home of the local mayor. After she handed over the money, the men showed her what they called a “marriage certificate.” Nadia, they said, had converted to Islam and married her abductor. Martha left empty-handed—an increasingly common story among Coptic Christians. Abductions have increased sharply in the past few months.

The article deals with grassroots efforts to uncover these cases, some of the details in paying ransoms, theological reflection from an Egyptian seminary professor who’s relative was a victim, and budding hopes that a new government ministry might partially solve this issue.

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Christianity Today. (photo credit: AP/Thomas Hartwell)

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Made to Feel Inferior: A Christian Family on Ordinary Life in Egypt

The hands of husband and wife, otherwise unidentified in the article

From my recent article for Aid to the Church in Need:

Life is not easy for Christians in Egypt, and the strain is taking its toll. Beyond the reports of churches burned and homes attacked, there is also a more subtle hardship affecting ordinary families. While not universal, mistreatment and discrimination are unfortunately all too common.

“Every day we leave our house, not knowing what will happen,” says Girgis, an Egyptian Catholic who preferred not to use his real name.

His wife, however, has the irritating stories:

“The other day, I was climbing into the (public transportation) van with my two children as usual,” Maria tells her story, “and I called out the name of my neighborhood just to confirm. But the driver said he wasn’t going there, so I got out to ride in the correct one.”

“But then a Muslim woman came on board and asked for the same neighborhood, and the driver let her in, taking the last place. I was outraged and complained, but the man replied, ‘I’m free to let in who I like and force out who I like.’”

Within the past year, similar incidents happened half a dozen times. It is not a daily occurrence, but it leaves a painful wound, especially when repeated with such regularity.

The wife gives other examples, and the following is her testimony from the conclusion:

“I try to be a Christian,” she said. “I try to be kind, but I also try to show the person this behavior is not appropriate.”

It often makes little difference. In fact, witnesses to her mistreatment usually downplay what happens, telling her it’s ok, or not to worry about it.

She does have good relations with Muslims in her apartment building; she even freely tutored a neighbor’s child in French, without charging the family. Yet, as a family, they have few if any real Muslim friends, the couple affirms.

Girgis views the situation of Egypt’s Christians as follows: “There are two types of persecution: Physical, when you are threatened with death, and mental, which is worse.”

“If you are killed, it’s over. But if you are subject to mistreatment it may drive you to kill yourself. We are made to feel inferior. This is the persecution that is present in Egypt.”

In saying so, Girgis made clear to me that the burning of churches and attacks on families are not best understood as persecution, but as the result of political and social struggles. Rather, it is the incessant needling as described in the interview they see as the persecution Egyptian Copts generally face.

I am happy to tell their story, for I have heard many similar complaints from others. It reveals a slice of life that is true.

My only concern is that their story be received as the only truth. I have heard other Copts tell me of generally warm relations with Muslims, and of friendships that are real and genuine. Within the article I hope this sentiment is expressed.

The reality is a mix, and the deep Coptic frustration with the sectarianism of many of Egypt – even if it doesn’t touch them personally – is worthy to convey. But somewhat paradoxically, it is very difficult to get sense of this sectarianism as an outsider. Within the Coptic community it sometimes feels like groupthink; within the Muslim community it is often denied completely.

Of course, there is no one community for either religion. One Muslim I know heads an NGO for combating religious discrimination. Another I know, from the same neighborhood as the wife in the article, told me he sees Coptic women everywhere and they get on just fine.

Some Copts may suffer a setback at work and attribute it to anti-Christian bias. And while some Muslims at least rhetorically, if not worse, make Christians feel inferior, many others are likely just ignorant of what others suffer.

The partial solution is to tell each others stories.

Alas, I made several attempts to conclude this post with a practical result of what comes next – and failed. It is strange; I am glad to convey this family’s struggle, and yet feel conflicted at the same time. I don’t want such an example to be used to misrepresent Egypt, even while this example does represent Egypt. Just not entirely. But what can an article convey? Go read a book! Or better, an encyclopedia. Perhaps you can enroll in a Middle Eastern Studies masters program instead.

But that is my burden. It is my job to help tell Egypt’s story correctly, and to do so within the criteria of each publisher. I trust that if you read this blog consistently you trust my effort to give the big picture. But in any individual article, published in any individual source – the work stands alone to be judged. Or rather, to judge Egypt. Please click here to read the whole article at Aid to the Church in Need, and judge accordingly.

And as for solutions? What comes next? I trust the telling of stories is helpful, but how?

Categories
Current Events

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.

Categories
Current Events

60 Minutes on the Copts of Egypt

60 Minutes Copts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Personal

Egyptian Government Restores Antiquated Church

From Ahram Online, official promotion of Egypt’s Christian heritage:

On Wednesday, Mostafa Amin, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), inaugurated the Abbey Church of the Apostles in Atfih town in Giza governorate after the completion of its restoration with a budget that reached LE6 million.

The opening came within the framework of a drive by the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) to save the Coptic shrine and to open more sites to tourists, in order to encourage the tourism industry.

The church, like other Coptic and Islamic monuments located in rural areas, had suffered serious damage, including from high sub-soil water levels, high levels of humidity, and an outdated and decayed sewerage system installed 100 years ago.

It is one thing to show respect to buildings, another thing to honor people and their right to freedom of belief and expression. Negative examples of the latter have proliferated over the past two years, but this news is nonetheless encouraging, especially as it takes place in a diocese which experienced the first sectarian tensions after the revolution.

There, a church was burned due to village family tensions and rumors of witchcraft practiced inside. The army stood by and watched, but amid outrage and protests the government sought reconciliation, part of which was an agreement to rebuild the church. Whether or not the two efforts are related is not stated in the article.

Is the Egyptian government schizophrenic, then? Maybe. The current cabinet is composed of many technocrats joined by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. While many ministers carry out the functions of state as before, others appear to be actively ignoring incidents against Copts or pursuing legal action against them for defamation of Islam. The Ministers of the Interior, Justice, and the Public Prosecutor are not members of the Brotherhood, but were appointed by Morsi. Other ministers he simply inherited.

But the Minister of Antiquities, under whose authority this restoration project falls, was also a Morsi appointment. He is considered an Islamist, but is an expert in both the Coptic and Islamic heritage of Egypt. Was this project an ongoing one whose file he received near completion, or an example of his own initiative? Either way, it is a needed break from the ongoing flow of bad news.

Categories
Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Mapping the Coptic Movements: Activism in a Revolutionary Setting

Coptic Activism

From my recent article at Arab West Report, an extensive, interview-based effort into the diversity of Coptic activist movements:

One of the distinguishing sub-themes of the Egyptian revolution which began on January 25, 2011, has been the proliferation of Coptic movements. Largely, though not entirely, contained in the church during the Mubarak era, Christian Egyptians joined their Muslim counterparts as ‘one hand’ to challenge the authority for the sake of ‘freedom, bread, and social justice’. After successfully deposing the president, many of these Christian Egyptians continued their revolutionary posture.

For years Copts presented their demands to the state primarily through the person of Pope Shenouda. When pressed to demonstrate for their demands, either by events or by clergy, they did so mostly within the confines of church walls. The revolution changed this equation, however, and the unity expressed in overthrowing Mubarak gave Copts a new sense of participation in rebuilding Egypt.

Some Christian participation remained along the lines of revolutionary values, enveloped fully in the youth movements that populated Tahrir Square. Others began sensing a threat to their full participation from the emergence and ascendency of Islamists groups, and rallied behind a liberal and civil cause.

Still others took the opportunities of the revolution to organize and demonstrate for particular Coptic issues. Though there is significant overlap between Coptic demands and those for a civil state, these movements are characterized by Coptic peculiarity, even though many boast the participation of Muslims, who tend to be liberal in outlook. This category is shaped by a desire for Copts to assert their rights as Copts, leaving the church to take to the street and integrate with society.

Yet as they do so they highlight the tensions of religious identity. Insisting upon their right as citizens to demonstrate, they move beyond citizenship and appear to many as sectarian. Conscious to defeat this charge, Coptic movements stress their belonging to Egypt, and their work on its behalf. The question is fair if they do more harm than good, but this question may miss the point if indeed, as they claim, it is equality they seek. When pursuing that which is right, popular reception is a secondary concern.

This paper seeks to analyze in particular the Coptic movements which adopt Coptic issues. It will discuss the pre-revolutionary history of Coptic activism, trace its development after the fall of Mubarak, and continue to the present with the current attempt to gather these movements together in what is called the Coptic Consultative Council.

The paper will then provide a map of these movements along with the names of key participants to the extent that current research allows. Then it will profile of a limited number of these groups, describing their leadership structure and spheres of activity. Finally, it will examine the questions of foreign funding and interference.

From the conclusion:

In closing, two remarks from the interviewees are useful. Sameh Saad stated the normal person works to earn a living and then goes home to enjoy his family and rest. The activist, meanwhile, sacrifices from his personal life in order to achieve success in a larger cause.

Similarly, Ehab Aziz stated that no one will give you your rights while you are sitting on the couch. You have to work hard to achieve them.

While many questions circulate around the Coptic movements – from finances, to cooperation, to the wisdom of separating from the larger Egyptian cause – the above observations must be remembered. They are balanced by the remark of Gaziri that they also have a tendency to exaggerate their issues.

In all these matters Coptic activists resemble activists around the world, exhibiting significant sacrifice and dedication in pursuit of their goals, understood to be righteous. Yet besides pressuring the government to fulfill their rights, they face also the challenge of awakening a religious community long accustomed to acquiescence to the status quo.

Further research is necessary to better understand their reality, their excesses, and their triumphs. But in the above description they must be commended. Their existence represents one of the many successes of the revolution.

Please click here to read the full, 19 page document at Arab West Report.

 

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

With the Holy Family in Upper Egypt: A Pictorial Travelogue

From April 25-28 I traveled with Arab West Report through a few Upper Egyptian Holy Family sites, places Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are recorded to have stayed according to Coptic tradition. This travelogue will share some of the insights and anecdotes learned along the way, by means of pictures taken at each location.

Please click here for the full commentary at Arab West Report. This posting represents the third of the articles I was able to write following the trip; I will only post the photos not used in writing about a cancelled Palm Sunday march through streets of a mostly Christian village, or about local perspectives of Copts toward the elephant in the room – emigration.

But the Arab West Report article is a good nine pages long featuring 35 photos. Most only have a paragraph or two of reflection, so it is easy reading. Here it will easier – pictures with a sentence or two. Please enjoy both here and there.

With professional photographers Norbert Schiller and Dana Smillie. Lining up a picture of a monk at Dronka Monastery, purported to be the southernmost extent of the Holy Family in Egypt.
With professional photographers Norbert Schiller and Dana Smillie. Lining up a picture of a monk at Dronka Monastery, purported to be the southernmost extent of the Holy Family in Egypt.
This is a Holy Family Tree at Sarabamoun Monastery, near Dayrut. Coptic tradition says they paused to rest under its shade. The white papers represent the prayers of pilgrims seeking intercession.
This is a Holy Family Tree at Sarabamoun Monastery, near Dayrut. Coptic tradition says they paused to rest under its shade. The white papers represent the prayers of pilgrims seeking intercession.
The large tree in the upper right is the Holy Family Tree. The Sarabamoun Monastery is quaintly isolated in agricultural land. Here, a local farmer pauses by the side of the road.
The large tree in the upper right is the Holy Family Tree. The Sarabamoun Monastery is quaintly isolated in agricultural land. Here, a local farmer pauses by the side of the road.
The village of Saragna is 90% Christian and on the way to perhaps the most holy Holy Family Site, Dayr al-Muharraq. It is a very traditional village built on the ancient pattern, extending out circularly from a high point above the elevation of the Nile flood, now halted by the Awsan Dam.
The village of Saragna is 90% Christian and on the way to perhaps the most holy Holy Family Site, Dayr al-Muharraq. It is a very traditional village built on the ancient pattern, extending out circularly from a high point above the elevation of the Nile flood, now halted by the Awsan Dam.
The mayor and his deputy of Saragna. He is the 4th generation in his family to hold the position.
The mayor and his deputy of Saragna. He is the 4th generation in his family to hold the position.
Homes in Saragna pushing up against the massive new church recently built. Some homes were purchased and destroyed to make room.
Homes in Saragna pushing up against the massive new church recently built. Some homes were purchased and destroyed to make room.
The greatly expanded Church of the Virgin Mary in Saragna. It cost just shy of $900,000, but had much free volunteer labor offered by residents. Most of the money came from Saragna men working abroad who tithed their earnings.
The greatly expanded Church of the Virgin Mary in Saragna. It cost just shy of $900,000, but had much free volunteer labor offered by residents. Most of the money came from Saragna men working abroad who tithed their earnings.
The inside of the Saragna Church sanctuary. It is beautiful.
The inside of the beautiful Saragna Church sanctuary.
The Saragna church is modern in every sense of the word. Here the traditional wooden offering box is replaced and made more secure by electronic safe.
The Saragna church is modern in every sense of the word. Here the traditional wooden offering box is replaced and made more secure by electronic safe.
The Monastery of Dayr al-Muharraq is esteemed as the southernmost extent of the Holy Family in Egypt. If this seems to contradict what I wrote earlier, you're paying good attention. The walls are built to resemble the walls of Jerusalem, seeking to establish itself as an alternate pilgrimage site.
The Monastery of Dayr al-Muharraq is esteemed as the southernmost extent of the Holy Family in Egypt. If this seems to contradict what I wrote earlier, you’re paying good attention. Do read on below. The walls are built to resemble the walls of Jerusalem, seeking to establish itself as an alternate pilgrimage site.
Another example of the walls. For some reason I found this monastery strangely modern. It seemed more like a colonial villa compound than a place of asceticism.
Another example of the walls. For some reason I found this monastery strangely modern. It seemed more like a colonial villa compound than a place of asceticism.
Almost all Coptic monasteries have been modernized. Here inside you can see the old versus the new.
Almost all Coptic monasteries have been modernized. Here inside you can see the old versus the new.
But here is old. It was great fun to watch the monks worship and interact.
But here is old. It was great fun to watch the monks worship and interact. About 100 are resident in the monastery.
Here a monk chants from the prayer book, joining his colleagues in unison.
Here a monk chants from the prayer book, joining his colleagues in unison.
The chants were in the ancient language of Coptic, still used somewhat in the masses of Egypt but known only by a small group of specialized practitioners, such as in this monastery.
The chants were in the ancient language of Coptic, still used somewhat in the masses of Egypt but known only by a small group of specialized practitioners, such as in this monastery.
I love this photo. Monks in Egypt are strangely free to join or not join communal worship as they see fit. It is a very individualistic calling, largely left to one's sense of how to walk with God.
I love this photo. Monks in Egypt are strangely free to join or not join communal worship as they see fit. It is a very individualistic calling, largely left to one’s sense of how to walk with God.
On the way to the Holy Family site of Qusair we passed by a new but very traditional village. The women, Muslim, are doing dishes in the Nile.
On the way to the Holy Family site of Qusair we passed by a new but very traditional village. The women, Muslim, are doing dishes in the Nile.
To get to the small chapel in a cave we had to cross by a traditional sailboat.
To get to the small chapel in a cave we had to cross the Nile in a traditional sailboat.
Upon arrival we were met by tens of Muslim women coming out of their homes and cheering. As it turns out, arriving just after us was a released prisoner returning home for the first time in six years. The priests joined in the celebration.
Upon arrival we were met by tens of Muslim women coming out of their homes and cheering. As it turns out, arriving just after us was a released prisoner returning home for the first time in six years. The priests joined in the celebration.
Upon returning north on the way to Palestine (from whichever location), the Holy Family rested in this cave before sailing the Nile. A small church is now inside; the priests lead weekly mass at 5am on Sunday.
Upon returning north on the way to Palestine (from whichever location), the Holy Family rested in this cave before sailing the Nile. A small church is now inside; the priests lead weekly mass at 5am on Sunday.
But we saw also the expansion of the site. The priests are preparing to host a summer festival for the first time, trying to increase the pilgrim awareness of this site. I fear it may ruin its pristine nature and tranquility.
But we saw also the expansion of the site. The priests are preparing to host a summer festival for the first time, trying to increase the pilgrim awareness of this site. I fear it may ruin its pristine nature and tranquility.
But can anything ruin this tranquility? This photo looks down from the cave upon the small distance we walked from the Nile.
But can anything ruin this tranquility? This photo looks down from the cave upon the small distance we walked from the Nile.
Returning now to the first scene, this is the Dronka Monastery on the edge of the Asyut Mountains. The connection with the Holy Family tradition is tenuous, and only accepted by church hierarchy in the 1970s. It has since been massively expanded from...
Returning now to the first scene, this is the Dronka Monastery on the edge of the Asyut Mountains. The connection with the Holy Family tradition is tenuous, and only accepted by church hierarchy in the 1970s. It has since been massively expanded from…
... this cave, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in an apparition. (Is that redundant?)
… this cave, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in an apparition. (Is that redundant?)
Looking out from the monastery at the village and farmland below. It is said the Holy Family tradition emerged here when local businessmen had a falling out with the monks of Dayr al-Muharraq Monastery. In the AWR article I provide a somewhat extended reflection on how possible pious fraud can both strengthen and damage the faith of Coptic Christians.
Looking out from the monastery at the village and farmland below. It is said the Holy Family tradition emerged here when local businessmen had a falling out with the monks of Dayr al-Muharraq Monastery. In the AWR article I provide a somewhat extended reflection on how possible pious fraud can both strengthen and damage the faith of Coptic Christians.
Concluding our trip was the celebration of Palm Sunday at the church in Saragna. Here, in defiance of the priest's decision to cancel the street parade, Coptic youth go out the gate as opposed to into the service. Please read that article for further context, but fortunately, no trouble occurred.
Concluding our trip was the celebration of Palm Sunday at the church in Saragna. Here, in defiance of the priest’s decision to cancel the street parade, Coptic youth go out the gate as opposed to into the service. Please read that article for further context, but fortunately, no trouble occurred.
This is a good photo to close with, Coptic street vendors making palm leaves outside a church in Asyut. The little cross the man on the right is holding sold for $1.
This is a good photo to close with, Coptic street vendors making palm leaves outside a church in Asyut. The little cross the man on the right is holding sold for $1.

The trip took in far too much in far too little time to really feel like I learned about these sites and the reality of Christian life in Upper Egypt. But I am very thankful for this first opportunity, hopeful for far better understanding in the future. Please click here for a few more photos and fuller commentary.

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Personal

On US Policy toward Egypt

From the Washington Post, in an op-ed from Nathan Brown, a respected Egypt expert:

The U.S. message to Morsi should no longer be “We’re with you, watch out for some details around the edges.” Instead, Obama officials should be telling Egyptian leaders: We’re extremely concerned about your violations of core political and legal principles; we can’t be the partner we would like to be, and the partner Egypt needs, if you undermine the fulfillment of Egyptians’ democratic aspirations.

Putting this message into practice will require much sharper, clearer public responses by the White House and State Department to violations of basic democratic and rule-of-law norms. It will mean an end to justifying the Brotherhood’s negative political steps. And the United States should indicate that the possibility of new aid is not isolated from domestic Egyptian political realities.

This tougher line should not be coupled with an embrace of the opposition. U.S. policy should be based on firm support of core democratic principles, not on playing favorites.

Recalibrating the current policy line will require careful nuance. It has to be clear that the United States is not turning against the Brotherhood but is siding more decisively with democracy.

Earlier in the article Brown goes through the litany of Brotherhood illiberal and anti-democratic decisions. Here, he puts forward what is necessary to counter the widely believed Egyptian liberal and Coptic Christian conspiracy which says the US is ‘backing’ Morsi.

Brown’s words seek to hold on to the ideal in difficult geopolitical times. It is always best to do what is right, and call others to do the same. Messy and impractical, often, and with uncertain results. But it is always best.

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Personal

The Deeper Meaning in Oriental Orthodox Colors

If you’d like a look at me in action, a friend found this video from a few months ago. I simply stand, and mouth the words to the Nicene Creed along with the rest of the Syrian Orthodox congregation.

The occasion was the installment of Pope Tawadros; representatives of this sister Oriental Orthodox Church were in attendance. Before traveling back to their own countries in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, they had a joint service together in downtown Cairo.

My appearance is at about the 7:00 minute mark. It is worth a few minutes of your time, just to enjoy the different and vibrant color schemes of each church. In attendance with me was the former head of the Middle East Council of Churches, who I’m sure could explain the differences.

I remember at the time thinking I would write about the experience, but other projects placed it on the back burner until it was forgotten. But now I recall the fun, the boredom, the familiarity, and the small differences between these ancient adherents of the faith and their Coptic brothers I have come to know.

On the one hand, they seem utterly irrelevant. They are small, declining churches surrounded by violence and conflict. They have funny hats and peculiar beards. They did have a good time together, as did the small congregation of a hundred or so worshipers.

But of what value are these churches, these dresses, these colors, to the people of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq? What difference does this faith make to those suffering, to societies in collapse, the remaining faithful?

Perhaps the question can be what good is this faith anywhere? Does it transform, does it serve, does it save? There is no peculiarity to the Arab world.

But this faith is ancient, and those privileged to existentially wonder about it from the comforts of Western experience would do well to learn. I only wish I knew what the lesson is.

Is that the point? There are Christians in this world in the lap of luxury, and others in the deepest poverty. There are some who preside over the greatest military power in history, and others who are stomped upon by the weapons of war.

The world has made it possible for these worlds to connect, only adding to the complication. But for centuries it was such, and each slice of the Christian world had only slight knowledge of the extended family.

So what good does it do Syria to have a Christian costume party in Cairo? What good does it do America to have a Christian rock concert in a movie theater? What good does it do you to see a transplanted American in their mix, who assaults you with these questions?? What good does it do them that I was there at all?

Of course, each of these questions presupposes the ‘good’ of Christianity is for this world. It is, right? I would so like it to be.

But the Oriental Orthodox churches remind amid their colors and pomp and circumstance that worship probably has very little relevance to what good this world needs. More poignantly for me and probably most readers here, what I as an individual need.

But with God you cannot say it is what he needs, either. So what is the point?

Still, I have no lesson. Can faith and humility be ok with this? They must, lest you throw it all away.

Here, there is no certainty, there is no peculiarity, there is no victory. God can grant them each at other times if he wishes.

Instead, we wonder, we reflect, we appreciate. If all is well, we share, we worship.

If we like, we wear funny colors, or do interpretive dance.

And if he leads, we welcome marauding militias, or sign petitions against hovering drones.

And if he leads, we fight against oppressive regimes, or lobby against oppressive taxes.

But in the end, together, we mouth the Nicene Creed.

We believe in one God…

And we trust, in the end, it will be good.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Libya Offers the First Coptic Martyrs Outside Egypt in the Modern Era

Coptic Orthodox Church - Misrata, Libya
Coptic Orthodox Church – Misrata, Libya

On December 29, 2012, an unknown assailant killed two Egyptians praying in a service building attached to a Coptic Orthodox Church in Misrata, Libya. Located to the west of Tripoli, the attacker threw a homemade bomb into a midnight prayer service of 150 people, injuring two others.

According to Fr. Marcos, the Coptic priest in Misrata, the assailant appeared to have targeted the service, attacking the home rather than the more heavily secured formal church building. He did not have any prior warning of an attack, however, nor any knowledge if his church was targeted because it was a Coptic Orthodox Church in particular.

Fr. Marcos wondered if the attacker may have been confused thinking this prayer service was in celebration of the New Year. Two years earlier in Alexandria a Coptic Orthodox Church was bombed on December 31, 2011, killing 21. This prayer service had been ongoing for a month, however, so the priest offered the possibility of no connection at all.

The churches of Libya, however, are included in the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Beheira in western Egypt. This is the diocese from which the current patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, was elected.

The bombing represents an unfortunate continuation of the sufferings of the Coptic Orthodox Church since the Alexandria bombing. Fr. Marcos noted the two who died were the first Coptic martyrs outside of Egypt in the modern era.

Whoever did this, he assured, represented a very small percentage of people. Libyans, he declared, are good people who do not know religious fanaticism as they have only one religion, Islam. The church had lived in peace in Misrata for a long time.

During the Libyan Revolution at one point the church was hit by a bomb. On other occasions it was strafed by gunfire. None of these events targeted the church, and Fr. Marcos related that no injuries were suffered. The Coptic community gathered together as a community and managed as best they could.

Their management included offering service and grace to others. Soldiers connected to Col. Gaddafi at times demanded shelter in the church. This was freely offered, but with the request that all weapons be left outside. Sometimes this was followed, sometimes not.

Fr. Marcos remarked the Copts of Misrata are praying for their own salvation, the salvation of Libya, and the salvation of the world. They ask God to bring peace and love to their city, even to their enemies who committed this crime.

He remarked his church was a praying church, united in seeking blessing for all people, of which God heard their prayers. He wondered if the attack was orchestrated by the devil in an effort to stop them from praying. If so, he assured, this plan would fail.

May God bless their community, the people of Libya, Copts in Egypt and around the world, and the nations of the Arab Spring. May the upheavals they suffer result in peace, prosperity, and good governance in the near future.

Related Posts:

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Personal

Alexander’s Subuu3

Alexander Eyes Open

About six weeks ago, we welcomed baby Alexander into our lives. According to Egyptian tradition, one week later we should have given him a Subuu3.

Subuu3 is related to the Arabic word for ‘week’, and the number three at the end represents an Arabic letter absent in English. We delayed his party, however, until his eighteenth day of life, until both sets of grandparents could arrive. But this is acceptable according to the local traditions, as Egyptians tend to be very, um, flexible, on matters of time.

Yu'annis and Alexander

Our good friend, a Coptic Orthodox priest, Fr. Yuennis, traveled three hours one way from Upper Egypt to perform the religious rites of what is essentially a cultural baby party – received from the Pharaohs. We weren’t really sure what these rites included, though, until he was about fifteen minutes from our home.

My friend, who had already arrived, told me I needed to have a basin prepared for the priest to bathe Alexander in. I racked my brain, but couldn’t think of anything appropriate. Fortunately our neighbors upstairs had a foot bath which worked perfectly for the event.

I learned after the fact that we should have had a similar party the previous night where Alexander was also bathed. This time, all the guests would have thrown an Egyptian coin or two into the water, and the lucky woman who was chosen to bathe the baby would then collect that money. It is up to the family to choose, but the main criterion is that she is an older woman. My friend told me that for the Subuu3s done for her two children, the women took 100 and 150 Egyptian pounds (US $17 and $25) respectively. Not a bad fee for giving a baby a bath!

Yu'annis Leading Ceremony

Instead, our party began with the arrival of the priest, who chanted prayers before taking Alexander from me to bathe him. The point is to bless the baby; it is not a baptism. In the Orthodox tradition boys are baptized forty days after birth, and girls eighty.

Yu'annis Bathing Alexander

I have to admit that I was quite distracted during the priest’s words since we had about fifteen children, ages 3-9, holding lit candles and standing very close to each other and many other flammable items! Even when I took Alexander to get him ready for his bath, I was very conscious of the candles behind my back and prepared to catch on fire at any minute!

Later, when I asked my friend about the craziness of putting lit candles in young children’s hands, she just laughed and said this was a key part of the ceremony, and that, unlike our party, the children should have marched around the whole apartment holding the candles.

(Please click here to watch a video clip from the religious part of the ceremony. Translated subtitles are provided, though we are not yet able to translate the parts in Coptic. You may need to select ‘captions’ from the YouTube screen.)

Group with Candles

Kids and Candles

Hannah and Candle

After getting cleaned up and dressed in white, as is customary, Alexander got to experience the most stimulating part of the evening. First, he was put into a special bed made for the occasion. Then we put him and his bed on the floor and I stepped over him seven times, showing my authority over him as his Mother. Next he was taken by my friend and shaken a bit in his bed.

Alexander in Basket

If that didn’t wake him enough, another friend took a mortar and pestle and made lots of noise right next to him. As it rang out, she chanted something like, “Listen to your mother, listen to your father, listen to your aunt, but don’t listen to your grandfather.” They will say several variations on this, always joking around by adding the “don’t listen to” part. When I asked the ‘why’ behind all this, I was told that it helps him not be afraid in the future when he hears a loud noise. Having been put through this ordeal, the rest of life should be much easier.

Making Noise

This is all followed by walking around the room in a circle with the noisemaker in his ear while the guests chant something like, “Lord, be with him and grow him; may he have the prettiest gold in his ear.” This is said regardless of gender, for some reason.

(Please click here to watch a video clip from the cultural part of the ceremony. While there is lots of chatter, no subtitles are necessary – just take in the hubbub.)

Circling the Room

Once all this was done, it was time for the food. In general, Egyptians are very generous and great at hospitality, so we wanted to be sure we had more than enough food as well as a nice-looking spread. It probably wasn’t enough, but with a lot of help from the four grandparents, we mixed ready-made Egyptian favorites with American items.

Baby Party Spread

The final aspect of the traditional baby party is the party favor, also called a Subuu3, where we comically veered too much into American baby shower traditions. The Egyptian bag should be filled with peanuts, popcorn, and some hard candy, along with perhaps a baby-looking figurine or something similar and labeled with the baby’s name.  But our friends were enamored by the favors we gave out as they weren’t the least bit traditional.

In preparation for this party, my mom came with American items. Our bags were filled with a lollipop and a couple pieces of candy – all wrapped in blue, of course – then tied together with a miniature pacifier and a card bearing Alexander’s vital statistics: name, date of birth, weight, and length — information all our stateside friends expect to hear at the birth of a new baby. This was far too much detail for our Egyptian friends, though. They only include the baby’s name and a written blessing. This is what happens when you combine two cultures!

Baby Party Kids

All in all it was a great night. Our Egyptian friends had a chance to meet Alexander and we were able to share in Egypt’s unique cultural traditions. Perhaps most importantly our child received a blessing, as did we, of an ever deeper sense of belonging.

Alexander and Daddy

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Bishop Tawadros: His Life, the Church, and the World

When the candidates for the Coptic papacy were reduced to five, Bishop Tawadros, along with all the others, gave an interview on Coptic television. The full video, along with English subtitles, can be found here.

I culled the interview for useful nuggets about the pope-to-be’s background and views about church and ministry, and arranged them for an article with Arab West Report. The full text can be found here, excerpts follow below.

Tawadros was born in 1952 in the city of Mansoura. At age five his father, a landscape engineer, moved the family to Sohag for work where they remained for three years before settling in Damanhour. Here, he studied in a Coptic school run by the sister of then-Pope Cyril VI.

Tawadros’ family was very religious; many of his uncles and cousins were or became priests. His mother was originally from the area of St. Dimyana Monastery near Mansoura, and each summer would take her family there to visit. He has two sisters.

‘All our life was related to the church,’ said Tawadros.

Later on in the interview he addressed certain issues. Here is an example.

‘As Egyptians we live with our brothers the Muslims, and it is a priority to keep this unified life,’ he said.

He spoke positively about how Pope Shenouda was called a ‘safety valve’, and then answered this question in light of necessary history.

‘Look at our beautiful diversity: a Pharaohnic obelisk, a Christian steeple, and a Muslim minaret. This is the diversity that Egypt brings to the whole world,’ stated Tawadros.

‘Do our youth know these treasures? We have many common roots, and the media should focus on them.’

It had been stated in the media that Bishop Tawadros was commended as keeping good relations between Muslims and Christians, and with Islamists in particular. Labib questions the last point.

‘You cannot say that he has had good or bad relations with Islamists, as he has no relations at all, he stated.

‘He just has no clashes with anyone. I have no documented information otherwise.’

From the conclusion:

The picture provided of Bishop Tawadros is at best incomplete, but does offer a slice into his personality and upbringing. He is a faithful son of the church. He is quiet, thoughtful, and concerned about its long term internal spiritual growth. He offered few insights into issues of state or relations with Muslims, except for the necessity of mutual esteem and preservation of unity. He grounded this relationship in the diversity of Egyptian history, which in light of current politics can be understood as a nod to its identity.

Further research, of course, is necessary. Certainly Bishop, and soon-to-be Pope Tawadros will offer more than enough insight into his papacy in the days and years to come.

Please click here for the complete article.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Bishop Tawadros Selected by Lot to Become the 118th Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Bishop Tawadros

Mid-Sunday morning, after three days of fasting, the Coptic Orthodox Church selected Bishop Tawadros of the Diocese of Baheira to be its 118th patriarch, succeeding Pope Shenouda III, who passed away in March of 2012. Tawadros’ name was drawn from a wax-sealed glass ball by a blindfolded child, supervised by the acting patriarch Bishop Pachomious.

Immediately after holding the paper with Tawadros’ name aloft for all to see, Pachomious then removed the other names from the remaining two balls to prevent allegations of fraud. Muhammad Hassanain Heykal, a prominent journalist, had disputed the selection of Pope Shenouda in 1971, alleging all three ballots bore the same name. Such a claim was not likely, but it resulted in doubts.

Bishop Tawadros was born in 1952 and is a graduate of Alexandria University with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences. In 1997 he was appointed as an auxiliary bishop to serve with Bishop Pachomious, now the acting patriarch. The lot was cast in his favor on his birthday, November 4, 2012.

The above excerpt is from the article I wrote for Arab West Report, reporting on Bishop Tawadros, the selection process, and issues moving forward. Please click here for the full article. Additionally, please click here for analysis from the AWR editor-in-chief Cornelis Hulsman, and here for a first-hand account from the cathedral from the managing director Hany Labib.

As for a brief description of the new pope-to-be, here is another excerpt:

Bishop Tawadros is also appreciated as one who reached out to the youth of his diocese, and kept good relations between local Muslims and Christians. He is also said to have decent relationships with Islamists.

And from the conclusion:

‘Civil society organizations can enter into confrontation with the state, but the church cannot,’ stated Sidhom. ‘Things are stable now, but it will be the time of crisis and sectarian strife that will be the real test.’

But today, and until then, Egypt’s Copts rejoice in a new leader, having asked God to grant them a ‘good shepherd’. Tawadros will need to prove himself, but he receives his position following a selection process esteemed not only clean, but spiritual – in distinction to national politics.

‘The lot lifts the election above politics as if it were for parliament.’ stated Labib. ‘The last choice is for God; this makes Christians very comfortable.’

It is a day of celebration for the Coptic Orthodox Church. May God give wisdom to their new shepherd.

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Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

A Home with No Husbands: A Glimpse at Internal Egyptian Migration

Qufada Skyline

My article about life in an Upper Egyptian village published today on EgyptSource. Click here for the full article; excerpts are in the boxes that follow, interspersed by other material needed to be cut for focus or word count.

During a visit to the city of Maghagha to learn more about surrounding village life, the local priest brought me along to a family’s baptism party in Qufada, celebrating the forty day mark of their new baby boy. Earlier at mass the child received his rites of entrance into the Coptic Orthodox Church; it is conventional thereafter to invite the priest to their home for a meal.

The Coptic home of the now deceased patriarch, Shafik Khilla, in Qufada conveys few signs of luxury but has a dignity fitting proper village family life. The ground floor houses common areas such as the reception, kitchen, and bathroom facilities, as well as a place to store the family animals during the night. The upper level contains a single room for each of the five nuclear families who maintained residence. But is ‘nuclear’ a proper word when all the husbands are away?

Today, Shafik’s sons Masry and Ruweiss are elderly, peasant farmers like their father. They spend all day in the fields watching the animals, for if they were to join in the life of the house thieves might steal them away. The men return to bed with the beasts, privileged above them by life on the upper floor. Neither attended the church service for the baptism of their grandson.

Also absent were the three husbands of the home. Masry had three sons, Samir, Medhat, and Milad. Samir and Medhat married their cousins, the two daughters of Ruweiss. Milad had to step outside the family to marry, yet by appearance all six of their children avoided the genetic defects of intermarriage. All are in school or preschool.

In the article I describe how they found work outside the village. Speaking of one husband, the priest made his wife blush:

Milad, meanwhile, found a job as a clerk in Cairo, for which he earns roughly the same salary and comes home just as infrequently. The priest playfully asked his wife why she had missed early morning mass the week before. She looked at him sheepishly and replied, ‘Oh, you know, Father, my husband was home.’

The two younger wives also received education up to the high school level, which inspired Samir’s wife to also improve her situation. She took literacy classes from the church and recited in our presence a poem she crafted about Jesus and his love. Mother to three daughters, the priest wished for her a son. She demurred, denying cultural expectations, and expressed thanks to God for what she had. Still, the priest held up both his own example and described mine as well, where three girls were finally followed by a boy. He said he would pray.

Here is the root of the problem:

‘There is no opportunity to work in Qufada,’ states Fr. Yu’annis. ‘People finish their education, but because they have no land, money, or chance to open a project, they must search elsewhere. The only other option is to work the land as a peasant farmer. ‘Work can be found in the nearby city of Maghagha, says Fr. Yu’annis, but it pays poorly and transportation costs eat a quarter of the earnings.

And from the conclusion:

Amid the cries that Islamist government may whittle away the Christians of Egypt, a far more subtle phenomenon is underway. Christians, and their Muslim neighbors, are depopulating the villages of their ancestors, simply to find a better life elsewhere. Will Samir, Medhat, or Milad ever return to live in Qufada? How long can their families live there without them?

Demographic changes as these are not unique to Egypt. As the nation undergoes vast political upheaval, no less significant are these social realities. In fact, the question is fair: For the great majority of Egyptians, which is more significant – a president, or a husband?

Please click here for the full article. I’m glad for the chance to place more slice-of-life material in the blog, but the official version is crisp and better analysis – thanks to the professional editing which suggested to cut the above material in the first place.

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Personal

Bishop Thomas: Almost a Jonah

In typical Coptic Orthodox clerical fashion with his flowing black gown and long white beard, you would never know Bishop Thomas was almost a Jonah.

The Jonah of old is characterized for his rebellion against God. He was commanded to preach to the people of Nineveh, went instead on a boat to Tarshish in the opposite direction, and met up along the way with a famous whale.

A point often missed in the story applies equally well to the case of Bishop Thomas: Jonah was a man of God already, at the point of his calling. He was a prophet with a well established ministry in Israel.

Bishop Thomas, meanwhile, was a missionary monk serving in Kenya. He had already dedicated his life to God, when, at the age of thirty, God interrupted.

The interruption came through Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, now deceased. He identified Thomas for the position of bishop of Qusia in Upper Egypt, giving him one day to prepare for his ordination.

Thomas actually said no to the pope – an almost unheard of boldness in clerical circles. Yet his spiritual father encouraged him to wait and pray before making any final decision.

At the cathedral in Cairo Thomas knelt alone before the altar of God and cried the tears of resistance. He begged God to take this burden from him. The word ‘bishop’ implied title, respect and responsibility of men. Thomas preferred his quiet, unknown service among the Africans.

It was then God revealed to Thomas exactly where he was kneeling.

In the Coptic language, ‘anafora’ means ‘offering’ – that placed in sacrifice upon the altar. Thomas pictured himself no longer weeping beside the altar, but surrendered upon it.

God showed him a bishop was not a hand to rule over people, but a hand to come beneath them to lift them up. With this his heart rested and he accepted the mission – to own the work of a bishop, and not the title.

Moving to Qusia his vision – in particular the word ‘anafora’ – remained with him. He purchased empty land along the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway over two hundred miles from his parish. Here he oversaw a reclamation project he named Anafora, an offering of spiritual retreat for all who were in need.

Anafora became a retreat center open to all Christian denominations, local and foreign. It also provided employment for the people of Qusia suffering from a difficult job market. These he formed into a team able to administer the center independently in democratic manner. He teaches them even to positively say ‘no’ to the bishop, as he once did in error to the pope.

Anafora is being developed additionally into an education and training center for personal capacity building. Its focus is on women’s development, but also on men, to allow their wives to develop. Furthermore, Bishop Thomas is creating a life-size Biblical panorama to aid in scriptural education, as well as a school of mission to train in service for fields abroad. Currently France is asking for trained Arabic speakers, in cooperation with the University of Lyon.

Jonah, though he repented, remained a bitter servant even after seeing the harvest of his preaching in Nineveh. In contrast, Bishop Thomas did not succumb to rebellion but embraced the call of God. He remains full of joy in the life God has given him, a servant to all he comes across.

A whale can chasten, but not transform. Only God can change a heart.

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