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Top 10 Persecution Stories at CT

Many thanks to readers who have followed my articles at Christianity Today. CT just published a year-end summary of the ten most read stories about the persecuted church, and I am pleased to report my articles placed at numbers 1, 3, 6, and 10.

That the articles needed to be written in the first place involves little of pleasure, but I am glad that in most there have been moments of grace amid the suffering.

1) How Libya’s Martyrs Are Witnessing to Egypt

Murders spark largest outreach ever amid new freedoms and new threats.

3) Forgiving ISIS: Christian ‘Resistance’ Videos Go Viral in Arab World

Ten-year-old girl from Mosul becomes Christian broadcaster SAT-7’s most-watched interview ever.

6) Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: ‘With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt’

As Coptic Christians mourn ISIS beheadings, they praise the response of their government and Muslim neighbors.

10) Why Christians Are Fleeing One of Africa’s Oldest and Largest Christian Homelands

Beyond the search for a better life, evangelicals and Orthodox in Ethiopia increasingly share even more.

And this story came in at #16 of the 20 most read ‘Gleanings‘, subtitled ‘important developments in the church and the world’.

16) More Martyrs: ISIS Executes Dozens of Ethiopian Christians in Libya

Propaganda video released the same day Justin Welby arrives in Cairo to honor the previous 21 victims.

For what it is worth, none of the articles made the overall top 20 most read list, which was dominated by US domestic trends, though some with international aspects.

As for this list, in general I do not like the word ‘persecution’ or a focus thereupon. Though these articles certainly qualify, the word risks setting Christians into an ‘us versus them’ mentality that risks violation of many Gospel principles. The struggle, says the scripture, is not against flesh and blood.

But without doubt the next mentioned ‘principalities and powers’ have employed flesh and spilled blood. I am grateful to be in a position to help tell these stories, and pray they may result in greater love both for the church around the world, and those who stand against her.

Thanks for reading — and within your power — acting accordingly.

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Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Where the Church Ends and the Citizen Begins

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

This article was first published at Egypt Source.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pope Tawadros Building Consciousness

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Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

When Sectarian Conflict Finds a Local Solution, Copts Lose

EIPR's Ishak Ibrahim; Arabic translation of press conference title: Whose Customs?
EIPR’s Ishak Ibrahim; Arabic translation of press conference title: Whose Customs?

This article was first published at Egypt Source:

What is the value of a presidential visit to the papal cathedral for a seventy-year-old Copt driven from his village? What good are warm relations between Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Pope Tawadros if relations remain tense between Youssef Tawfiq and his Muslim neighbors?

A new report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) says this problem runs far deeper than Sisi and Tawfiq. Over the past four years, twenty-three other Copts have been forcibly displaced from their homes out of forty-five cases examined by EIPR where community justice—rather than legal procedure—has mediated sectarian clashes.

In Jordan, far from the village of Kafr Darwish in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo, Tawfiq’s son Ayman was alleged to have shared insulting pictures of Muhammad on his Facebook page. Upon hearing the rumor, which Ayman denies, a mob gathered and set fire to his family’s homes and fields. An overwhelmed mayor and village officials, with police present, conducted what is known as a ‘customary reconciliation session’ (CRS). Meant to subdue tensions and restore order, village elders debated a just solution.

Ayman’s father, mother, and sixteen other relatives were ordered to leave town.

“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdel Rahman, head of the civil liberties unit at EIPR. Report author Ishak Ibrahim was even more explicit. “If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian conflict, but it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions,” he said.

As EIPR details in its forty-five cases, rarely are individuals from the mob arrested. When they are, many times the reconciliation agreement stipulates the relinquishing of judicial procedure. All of this is contrary to the law. Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. While Article 185 of the penal code allows a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

The EIPR report shows two primary controversies: The first is the free practice of religious ritual, including the building, expansion, and renovation of churches. At 31 percent, it is only slightly more frequent than clashes involving romantic relationships between a Muslim and a Christian, at 29 percent. Land and property disputes constitute 16 percent and expressing opinions on religious matters make up 8 percent, as in the case of Ayman.

At times sectarianism is at the heart of the problem; at times normal community problems escalate along sectarian lines. But among the most controversial aspects of CRS is the presence of police.

“Traditional sessions do not conflict with the law at all, they have to do with the prevention of bloody conflict,” former security director for Minya Sayyid Nour el-Din, told OnTV, defending police practice. “The security presence is to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.” But in some cases EIPR studied, the police participated in issuing decisions. In others they randomly arrested people on both sides to exert pressure to accept the CRS process.

EIPR does not condemn CRS entirely, as in non-sectarian cases it has the potential to reach a consensual opinion and avoid lengthy legal processes. For Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani which helped break the story in Kafr Darwish, reaching a fair outcome in sectarian conflict is rare. “Usually it is humiliating, as it forces the will of the stronger party upon the weaker,” he said. “When security officials let this be done under their eyes and blessing, it is a very grave mistake.”

At stake is the sovereignty of the state, he said. But perhaps it is getting better? The report said there were twenty-one cases under transitional military governance after the fall of Mubarak, at a rate of one per month. President Morsi’s year in office witnessed fifteen, at a rate of 1.25 per month. Under Mansour and Sisi, only nine cases were reported over eighteen months through the end of 2014, when the reporting concludes.

Then again, Ibrahim said there have been six cases in the first half of 2015. The problem is not going away.

After a media outcry, the governor of Beni Suef intervened and security returned Youssef Tawfiq and his family to their homes in Kafr Darwish. Sidhom believes President Sisi acted quietly behind the scenes. “I don’t consider this a happy ending as the law is still not enforced,” he said, noting that to his knowledge, none of the mob are in prison nor have any in the police force been disciplined. “You cannot live under the mercy of the president rather than the rule of the law.”

As with much else in today’s Egypt, the issue falls to Sisi. He has done much to try to change a culture—visiting the cathedral and calling for the reform of religious discourse. But will he follow through to change a reality? Will he be able?

Egyptians have respect for the strong leader. They have less respect for those who ‘talk.’ If Sisi sets the right tone—backed by holding accountable those responsible for undermining state sovereignty—others will walk in step with him and help transform the culture over the long run.

But not if he is weak. The president has shown a strong hand in asserting control over the Egyptian state—despite international criticism over violations of human rights. Similarly, if Sisi is intent on a new relationship with Egypt’s religious minority (as implied by his rhetoric and meetings with Pope Tawadros), he will have to face possible domestic and institutional criticism to assert it further by arresting aggressors and disciplining enablers.

“We put responsibility on the government,” said Ibrahim. “It is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

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Middle East Published Articles World Watch Monitor

Community ‘Justice’ Expels Copts from their Homes

A customary reconciliation session in Ismailia, from Misr el-Balad
A customary reconciliation session in Ismailia, via Misr el-Balad

My new report for World Watch Monitor, published June 17:

Forgive Emad Youssef if he and his extended family felt quite confused. The crowd welcoming them back to the village had only a few days earlier demanded they leave.

“They said this is the first time something like this has happened in our village,” he told private satellite channel, OnTV “and that, Inshallah, it won’t happen again.”

Yet it happens frequently in Egypt – at least 23 times in the last four years, according to new research released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Whose Customs? – a 78-page report by the group – points out that the period from 2011-2014 saw 45 instances in which sectarian strife was settled, in different ways, outside the law through “Customary Reconciliation Sessions.”

In concept, Customary Reconciliation Sessions are community-based conflict resolution, long established in Egyptian tradition. If two residents have a dispute, solving it through the judicial system is long and costly. Instead, “wise men” of the village will hear both sides and issue a binding ruling. Religious leaders are often involved.

If the dispute is violent, the Customary Reconciliation Session is a method to calm tensions and prevent escalation. Police are usually present to enforce security.

But in the case of Youssef and his relatives, all Coptic Christians, the session took place because police did not do their job in the first place.

”This (the forced ‘relocation’) happened while the police were in the village, and they did nothing to stop them,” a local Copt, choosing anonymity, said.

Emad’s brother Ayman is a migrant worker in Jordan, accused of sharing pictures deemed insulting of Muhammad on Facebook via his cell phone. Ayman claims he is innocent. Nevertheless, on May 27 a mob gathered in his home village back in Egypt, attacking the houses and fields of his family and their Coptic neighbors. The village of Kafr Darwish, about two-thirds Muslim, is located in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo.

Reports say that some local Muslim neighbors tried to defend the family, but the mayor was not able to control the situation. Officials and village leaders conducted a Customary Reconciliation Sessions and issued a verdict placating the mob. In Ayman’s absence his family was punished, resulting in the expulsion of 18 individuals, including Ayman’s mother and his 71-year-old father.

The displaced told of their ordeal as they were “traveling from one town to another and not finding a place to accommodate us.”

In this one instance, five families of 18 members had to contend with living in one room. “They expelled us while we have done nothing, we are struggling to provide for ourselves,” they said before their return.

Media is often inattentive to Upper Egyptian issues, but in this case the outcry was immediate. Popular broadcaster Ibrahim Eissa declared, “How is that we have an enlightened president but a Salafi [ultraconservative Muslim] state? We don’t have the courage to say: These are their homes and their life is here. Whoever stands against them and the law will be judged by the law!”

A day before Eissa said this, the Beni Sweif state governor had tried to intervene, announcing the displaced families would return. This only resulted in further attacks in the village. But the following day control was established. The governor convened a meeting in the village, with high profile political, religious, and security figures – and more than 2,000 residents.

According to Mideast Christian News, the governor announced that the law does not allow the displacement of any Egyptian from their home. He promised to restore the properties that had been damaged.

But Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, which helped first report the story, is not aware of even one Muslim arrested for the attacks. MCN reported that Christian villagers submitted the names of 20 individuals involved.

“I don’t consider this a happy ending, it is not a healthy situation and the law is not enforced,” Sidhom told World Watch Monitor.

Fanatics ”may harm Christians,” he said, ”but the greater harm is done to the sovereignty of the state.”

Ishak Ibrahim

 (right) with Amr Abdulrahman at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015
Ishak Ibrahim (right) with Amr Abdulrahman at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015

The incident was unique in that the state intervened to overturn the results of a Customary Reconciliation Session. But Ishak Ibrahim, lead author of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights report, said the non-prosecution of offenders is common. In the vast majority of cases studied, no arrests were made. In the few that were, the accused were released shortly thereafter. The reconciliation agreements often stipulated the relinquishing of legal procedures.

“If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian attacks,” said Ibrahim, “but accepting it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions. We put responsibility on the government because it is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. And while Article 185 of the penal code allows for a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

But the waiver of prosecution has not applied to Christian aggressors.

Not all incidents begin as sectarian. In 29 per cent of the studied cases, community tension resulted from a romantic relationship between a Muslim and a Christian, and in 16 per cent conflict emerged from land or other property disputes.

In each one where the Christian was at fault, legal prosecution continued after penalties, often exorbitant, had been stipulated by a Customary Reconciliation Session. But when the Muslim is at fault, reconciliation and social peace are emphasized. Sometimes there are no penalties whatsoever; other times the church has opted for waiving them to keep the peace.

Bias against Christians is also apparent in disputes with religious origins. Thirty-one percent of cases have to do with the practice of Christian religious ritual, including attempted church construction and repair.

Only one case was resolved in their favor.

‘Relocated’

Even the “Martyrs” Church, established by a presidential decision to honor the 20 Egyptian Copts killed in Libya by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, had to be “physically relocated” following protests and a subsequent Customary Reconciliation Session.

Eight per cent of cases had to do with expressing opinions on religious matters. The majority involved simply “liking” a Facebook page deemed insulting to Islam, and resulted in expulsion of the offender from his village.

World Watch Monitor previously reported on Gad Younan, a teacher from Minya arrested with some of his students for a video in which they made fun of Islamic State. Mideast Christian News  has recently reported that judicial procedures resulted in his release on bail pending further trial, but that the Customary Reconciliation Session agreement continues to demand he not return home.

“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdulrahman, head of the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Abdulrahman explained that those who conduct the reconciliation sessions often view them as above and apart from the law. This status is buttressed by the police presence that implicitly endorses the process.

And in a rare departure from Coptic restraint in criticism of the government, Bishop Aghathon of Minya accused local authorities of collusion with conservative Muslims in Customary Reconciliation Sessions. He told a Coptic satellite television channel that, in one incident in his diocese, the typical mob protest was instigated by security.

General Sayyid Nour el-Din, former director of security in Minya, defended the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions. “It does not conflict with the law at all, it has to do with the prevention of bloody conflicts,” he told OnTV. “The security presence is there to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.”

Nour el-Din said security has to be especially vigilant as Islamist groups are looking for any excuse to explode the situation. Strong especially in the poorer southern governorates, their presence coincides with the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions following sectarian incidents. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reported 48 per cent of cases are from Upper Egypt, 33 per cent from Minya alone.

The Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the forced displacement of Copts in Kafr Darwish, while blaming the church for tearing apart national unity through its support of the government.

This latter sentiment was emphasized by Amr Abdul Rahim, a former member of parliament from al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, an Islamist group implicated in many attacks on Copts in Upper Egypt during the 1990s.

“The church is part of Sisi’s regime,” Abdul Rahim said. “(The church clergy) have to wake up and realize they are playing with Coptic lives and leading them to a holocaust.”

Though Abdul Rahim insists that “Muslims” are not against Copts, his criticism makes no distinction between Islamist ideology and Muslim identity.

‘Roots of the Problem’

Statistics assembled by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights indicated the use of one Customary Reconciliation Session per month during the interim rule of the military, when, following the fall of Mubarak, a security vacuum existed and Islamist groups felt themselves in the ascendency. During Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led presidency, the rate rose to 1.25 per month.

It declined under interim president Mansour and incumbent president Sisi following the removal of Morsi, but the practice continues all the same. The report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted six incidents, outside the scope of its report, in the first half of 2015 alone.

“From Mubarak to today, no regime has dealt with the roots of the problem,” said Ibrahim, the report’s lead author.

Sidhom tied Customary Reconciliation Sessions to an unreformed educational system that does not properly instill the values of citizenship. Related is a weak state apparatus that submits to the pressure of militant action apart from the law.

But Ibrahim emphasized he is not against Customary Reconciliation Sessions in principle.

“Anything that extinguishes sectarian tension is beneficial, as long as the process of law continues,” he told OnTV. “The problem is that it is a replacement for law, often compelled upon the weaker party, reflecting the local situation of power.”

But where power is balanced and tension is not high, Christians, like Muslims, avail themselves readily of a Customary Reconciliation Session, especially in view of a judicial system saddled with millions of new and pending cases.

“In 90 per cent of the cases, CRS is beneficial,” Fr. Yu’annis Anton of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Minya told World Watch Monitor. “Relationships are reconciled and everyone takes his rights.”

Anton speaks from a long experience with Customary Reconciliation Sessions, underlining their utility in non-sectarian cases. This is not the case of Kafr Darwish, he said, which was an emergency situation.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted that its 45 cases detail only Customary Reconciliation Session use following sectarian clashes, not the practice itself.

Perhaps following in the footsteps of Jesus, Emad Youssef chooses to reflect positively.

“This trial was from God, who has used it to increase the love shown to us by Muslim neighbors,” he said.

“They have made reconciliation,” added the 71 year old father. “We have returned home, in goodness and peace.”

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Excerpts

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Police Accountability

Flag Cross QuranGod,

The police stand in service to the people. They stand also in service to the law. At times there is heroism, at times there is error. But at all times there must be accountability.

This week there was.

An officer was sentenced 15 years in prison for the killing of an unarmed protestor. The case of Shaima al-Sabagh, carrying flowers to lay at Tahrir Square for the revolutionary anniversary, took both media and presidential attention. Perhaps he did not mean to kill. Perhaps there are others needing accountability beside. Perhaps this ruling is an exception. Perhaps it is a precedent.

A human rights organization released a report implicating police in implicitly endorsing the forced displacement of Copts from their homes. The case of Copts in Beni Suef, where a Facebook post by a relative in Jordan resulted in 18 forced from their home, took both media and presidential attention. They have returned home, but so far none have been held accountable, either in the mob or the police.

Perhaps it is an exception, but perhaps media accountability can also set a precedent.

But in Luxor, the police foiled the plans of a suicide bomber to kill visiting tourists. Intercepted beforehand, he blew himself up but few suffered injuries. Positive accountability is in order.

God, honor the police. Equip them to do their job faithfully. Give them the support necessary, both popular and legal.

Deal justly with things go awry. Deal justly with superiors. Deal justly with the system. Preserve the faith of the people and the rule of the law.

Comfort the family and colleagues of Shaima in this verdict. Reconcile the Copts of Beni Suef to their neighbors. Let freedom of expression be received without bullets. Let community justice be issued without exile.

And amid all the controversies, help the police in the hard job against terrorism. Spare Egypt further tragedy. Stabilize the nation, bring back tourism and investment, and help Egyptians to live in peace.

May the police enable as they serve the people. But hold them—and all—accountable, in service to the law.

Amen.

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Personal

Photos: Easter Greetings at the Coptic Cathedral

The following pictures show a lot of handshakes, but the message should not be lost in the repetition. Government officials, most of them Muslim, congratulate Copts for their holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.

Similar pictures could be seen on Christmas, but Easter is a far bigger deal. In Egypt, Christmas is an official holiday, and there is no Muslim religious objection to the birth of the Messiah. Muslims agree with Christians that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, and though they object to the interpretation of incarnation, there are few reasons not to celebrate a common prophet.

Easter is different. In Islam, Jesus die not die on the cross so therefore he cannot have been raised again. There are real theological barriers, and less if any common ground. Some conservative Muslims are vocal about the inadmissibility of congratulating Christians on their holidays, but especially Easter.

The Muslim governmental and religious officials of the current Egyptian regime do not agree. Certainly they would not share the spiritual meaning of Easter, but they are keen to demonstrate congratulations to Copts in recognition of the importance of their holiday.

In these contested times in the Middle East, a handshake communicates much.

(More reflection to follow after the pictures)

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab
Shiekh Mohamed Abu Hashim, representing the Azhar
Shiekh Mohamed Abu Hashim, representing the Azhar
Sheikh Mohamed Gamia, representing the Egyptian Family House
Sheikh Mohamed Gamia, representing the Egyptian Family House
Amr Moussa, head of the constitutional committee and longstanding diplomat
Amr Moussa, head of the constitutional committee and former head of the Arab League
Nabil al-Arabi, head of the Arab League
Nabil al-Arabi, head of the Arab League
Labor Minister Nahed al-Ashari
Labor Minister Nahed al-Ashari
Planning Minister Ashraf al-Arabi
Planning Minister Ashraf al-Arabi
Culture Minister Abd al-Wahid al-Nabawi
Culture Minister Abd al-Wahid al-Nabawi

Easter greetings were also extended in the governorates.

Bishop Thomas of Qusia received Asyut governor Yassir al-Desouki
Bishop Thomas of Qusia received Asyut governor Yassir al-Desouki
Bishop Kyrillos of Nag Hamadi received Sohag governor Gen. Abd al-Hamid al-Hegan
Bishop Kyrillos of Nag Hamadi received Sohag governor Gen. Abd al-Hamid al-Hegan
Bishop Bisada of Akhmim received Sohag governor Ayman Abd al-Munam
Bishop Bisada of Akhmim received Sohag governor Ayman Abd al-Munam
Bishop Maqar of Sharqia received Sharqia governor Rida Abd al-Salam
Bishop Maqar of Sharqia received Sharqia governor Rida Abd al-Salam
A military designation visited the St. Mina Monastery outside Alexandria
A military designation visited the St. Mina Monastery outside Alexandria

Just as at Christmas great importance was given to the visit of President Sisi to the papal mass, the first ever honor bestowed by an Egyptian president, perhaps meaning should also be taken from his absence at Easter services.

Religious relations remain tricky in Egypt, and the president may not have wanted to alienate conservative Muslims with such a symbolic endorsement. But his government was not shy to risk it.

America is a secular state; Egypt is less so. When President Obama frequents a Muslim Iftar, it is an honorable recognition of the place of Islam within a nation that constitutionally guarantees the non-establishment of a religion and the freedom of all.

In Egypt it is a bit different, for Islam is the state religion and its law is the source of legislation. While the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Islam retains a priority of place in interpretation.

The gesture in Cairo, then, is weightier than that offered in Washington. It is greater still in the more conservative governorates. It is not just that Copts have freedom, it is that as a government we honor even their Islam-challenging Easter holiday.

Of course the reality is not yet complete, and a cynic is excused if he accuses the government of insincerity. It is the practical demonstration of executive enforcement of law that speaks far louder than a handshake, and in this many parts of Egypt are still lacking.

But a handshake still speaks, and it speaks in relationship. Far more handshakes are needed, but let the message resonate.

Egypt honors the Copts at Easter.

(All photos courtesy of the Coptic Orthodox Church)

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Excerpts

Escaping ISIS in Libya

From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Osama Mansour (L), from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Consider the horrible ordeal of Coptic Christians in Libya, as the Islamic State stormed their compound. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tells how one escaped, helped by his Muslim friend:

Hani Mahrouf awakened at 2:30 in the morning when fists pounded on the door of his housing compound in Sirte, Libya.

It was Islamic State gunmen, searching for Egyptian Christians.

“They had a lot of weapons,” said Mahrouf, 33, a Muslim construction worker. “They asked if we were Muslim or Christian.

“We told them we were Muslim. Then they asked for the rooms of the Christians.

“They threatened us with their guns.”

The article describes how fighters scaled the compound walls, but the story centers on one who got away:

Osama Mansour, a Christian, was sleeping in a room of the first compound when ISIS burst in. Warned of what was happening, he slipped outside and “jumped from fence to fence just ahead of the gunmen,” he said.

He escaped but was left on his own in the dangerous city, separated from his friends.

“I stayed (in Sirte) for 30 days, but I didn’t stay in the same room” from night to night, said the 26-year-old tile worker.

A man he called “Sheikh Ali,” a Muslim from his home province of Assuit, helped Mansour hide and constantly change locations. Eventually, he grew a beard in order to leave Sirte.

“ISIS had two checkpoints that they would move around. I heard they were checking for tattoos” — he pointed to the bluish-black cross that he and many Coptic Christians ink on the insides of their wrists — “and we put a plaster cast on my hand and wrist. Sheikh Ali gave me a Quran and a prayer rug for the trip.

“I had to do this — I can’t have my mother wearing black” for mourning, Mansour said.

The article says most of his companions also eventually returned home, but it does not specify Sheikh Ali. Maybe he is still in Libya, able to work. If so, Osama may be using a pseudonym to protect his friend’s identity there.

One would hope it is not to protect his identity in Egypt. Recent news has some in the village protesting the church President Sisi promised to build in the name of the martyrs.

But in Libya, in this instance, the bonds of relationship and homeland proved stronger than the militant call of extremist religion. Amid constant news of chaos and atrocity, stories like this are precious reminders of humanity.

Unfortunately, guns and ideology can change the equation.

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Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Beheadings

Flag Cross QuranGod,

After a few days the spirit risks becoming calloused. One more tragedy amid a litany of offense. But the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya might strike a nerve that runs deeper. It might awaken a nation to danger, or deaden further a decayed humanity.

For some, God, are blaming the victim. There is talk that the church can only expect such treatment after its support for Morsi’s removal. There is talk that all is faked to further this conspiracy and extend it to Libya.

But there is also action. Two would-be bombers blew themselves up accidentally in the Upper Egyptian city where the victims are from.

God, let not those frustrated with Morsi’s removal descend into hatred and violence. Let them not draw sectarian readings and exact revenge on the innocent. Let not their seeking of justice lead to embrace of chaos. In their struggle, God, save their humanity.

For many are expressing their humanity anew. Government and Muslims alike have poured out sympathy on their Coptic fellow-citizens. A new church will be built in the Upper Egyptian city where the victims are from.

God, let not this moment pass without touching permanently the Egyptian soul. Let not the forgiving example of the Christian families be lost in the outrage against their killers. Let not a desire for justice lump all pro-Morsi together. In their struggle, God, deepen their humanity.

For callousness is still quite possible. So-called Islamic State partisans have been beheading tribesmen in the Sinai for months. May directed targeting of Christians not become as normal. That atrocity is normal at all is a stain on all humanity.

But what should a spirit do to avoid callousness? Do strikes on Libya and a call for international intervention signal a spirit that is hardening? Or is it rather a conscience awakening? Guide Egypt and the world with wisdom to meet this threat.

Whatever the solution, God, limit the blood. Speak alike to presidents and jihadists, that peace, reconciliation, and justice might somehow meet between them.

God, the offenses multiply daily among Egyptians of every persuasion. In their desire to see the world put right, help them hold tenaciously to the humanity of the other. May they forgive, that they be forgiven.

It may be the only way to save their own souls, and Egypt alongside. Be merciful, God, be merciful.

Amen.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: ‘With their Blood, They are Unifying Egypt’

(credit Mohsen Nabil / AP Images, via CT)
(credit Mohsen Nabil / AP Images, via CT)

From my new article in Christianity Today:

Late Sunday night at an otherwise quiet curbside café in Cairo, customers put down their tea and backgammon. They sat riveted, watching Egypt’s president pledge retaliation against the Islamic State in Libya.

Earlier in the day, jihadists released a video of the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians. Following President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s declaration of a week of mourning, the channel switched to images of the orange-clad victims, walking to their death on the shores of Tripoli.

“Do you see that?” one customer exclaimed, rising to point out the scene to his friend. “They dressed the Copts like in Guantanamo. This is horrible!”

The remark demonstrates the gut-level reaction of Egyptian Muslims, contrary to the desires of the Islamic State.

“There has been a very strong response of unity and sympathy,” said Andrea Zaki, vice president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. “People are describing Copts as Egyptians, first and foremost, and with their blood they are unifying Egypt.”

The article then provides commentary from other Christian leaders, and ends with a very direct message:

This thought is the central feature of nearly all Coptic advice to Christians in the West: Support Egypt.

Sidhom speaks openly of his “grudge” against the US administration, and no longer holds hope that American organizations can help. Zaki asks Western citizens to pressure their governments to see the “reality” and designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist entity. Kharrat asks for tourism and investment, especially in Upper Egypt.

But all ask for prayer.

“We are praying for God to change the hearts of those who have been raised on extremist thoughts,” said Anton, “and that this generation of Sisi will be different.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, published February 18, 2015.

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Diocese of Egypt (Anglican) Middle East Published Articles

Bishop Mouneer on the Beheading of Egyptian Copts in Libya

Copts Killed in LibyaDear Friends,

It is with great sadness I write you today about the heinous murder of 21 Egyptian Christians at the hand of the so-called Islamic State branch in Libya. These men from the Upper Egyptian city of Samalout are no different from thousands of other Muslim and Christian Egyptians in Libya, seeking employment to support their families back home.

Except that these 21 were specifically chosen for their Christian faith. The video of their beheading expressed the Islamic State’s intention to increasingly target the Copts of Egypt.

This morning the Egyptian government launched airstrikes on Islamic State positions. It has declared a week of mourning, banned further travel to Libya, and will work to facilitate the return of all Egyptian citizens. The foreign minister has been dispatched to the United Nations to discuss the necessary international response.

The Anglican Church in Egypt and the world expresses its deep condolences to the families of these men, and also to his Holiness Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Please join me in praying for peace in Libya, Egypt, and the entire Middle East. Please pray the international community will act in wisdom, correctly and efficiently, and support Egypt in its war on terror. Please pray the churches of Egypt will comfort their sons and daughters, encouraging them to resist fear and hatred. And please pray for the perpetrators of this terrible crime, that God would be merciful to them and change their hearts.

Jesus tells us in John 16:33, “In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

Such cheer may seem impossible, but it is God’s promise. Please pray for us, that we may live lives worthy of his name, and hold to the testimony exhibited by the brave Egyptians in Libya.

The Most Rev. Dr. Mouneer Anis
Archbishop of Episcopal / Anglican Diocese of Egypt
with North Africa and the Horn of Africa
Primate of the Episcopal / Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East

Categories
Personal

Christians at the Cairo International Book Fair

The 46th Cairo International Book Fair is coming to a close on February 12, and I enjoyed strolling through the hundreds of booths selling mostly Arabic books from around the world. The guest of honor this year is Saudi Arabia, but prominent also in a central location are more than a dozen Christian publishing booths selling their products freely.

This is not a surprise. Each is registered with the Egyptian Publishing Union and they have long had a presence at the fair. But this images to follow may not be familiar to many readers who assume either one of these two common perceptions.

First, that Christians are persecuted by a majority Muslim country. Second, that censorship is rampant as the government clamps down on alternate voices.

Both of these perceptions deserve their own comment, but here take a moment to see the diversity of Christian representation. Around two million people frequent the book fair over a two week period, browsing the marketplace as they see fit.

The Bible Society of Egypt
The Bible Society of Egypt
Local distributors of the Jesus Film
Local distributors of the Jesus Film
Seventh Day Adventists
Seventh Day Adventists
Local distributors of Focus on the Family and other products
Eagles, local distributors of Focus on the Family and other products
Culture House, the leading evangelical publishing house in Egypt
Culture House, the leading evangelical publisher in Egypt
The Brethren Publishing House
The Brethren Publishing House
Prepare the Way, a semi-Catholic but ecumenical publishing house
Prepare the Way, a semi-Catholic but ecumenical publishing house
Panarion, publishing works of the early Egyptian church fathers
Panarion, publishing works of the early Egyptian church fathers
The Antioch Orthodox Publishing house, visiting from Syria
The Antioch Orthodox Publishing house, visiting from Syria
The Anglican Publishing House of Egypt
The Episcopal Publishing House of Egypt
Family Publishers
Family Publishers
True Vine Publishers
True Vine Publishers

I am hopeful a full article about the Christian presence at the book fair will soon follow. Please stay tuned.

Update: The article was tied into the story about the 21 Christians killed by the Islamic State, and How Libya’s Martyrs are Witnessing to Egypt.

Categories
Middle East Middle East Institute Published Articles

The Decline of Coptic Activism in Egypt

Coptic activism in decline

From my new article at the Middle East Institute:

During and immediately following the 2011 Egyptian uprising, Coptic activism reached new heights. Copts organized and came together to call for protection for their communities and rights more generally. However, particularly since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, such activism has declined. Today, the number of active, effective Coptic movements can be counted on one hand. This leaves the church carrying the mantle of Coptic identity, allowing the pope to decide whether or not to engage in politics. Thus far, Pope Tawadros has opted to back the new government, and Coptic citizens are following his example.

The article recounts Coptic activism since the revolution, and then introduces the remaining players:

But in terms of traditional political activism, the landscape is quite barren. There are two primary movements that remain: the Coalition of Egypt’s Copts (CEC) and the Maspero Youth Union (MYU). Both are small, with 88 and 40 voting members, respectively. At the height of the Maspero protests before the massacre, the MYU laid claim to the support of over ten thousand, judged unofficially via Facebook conversations and attendance at demonstrations. Today it counts only a few hundred active members.

The article describes the former as aligned with the state, the latter as supportive but wary while clinging to revolutionary ideals.

From the conclusion:

But if the MYU leads, will anyone follow? Copts other than MYU members and supporters view Coptic activism to be negligible in influence and advocate for transcending Coptic concerns. Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic newspaper Watani, speaks for many when he says that the Coptic community must move on from sectarian labels and evolve in two directions. At the grassroots level, he says, activists must transform into community leaders and aid their neighborhood constituencies. And at the national level, they must emerge as politicians and address issues beyond the Coptic cause. While Coptic activists had their moment during the uprisings, Sidhom points to parliament as the coming and enduring challenge in which Copts must legislate rights to support full citizenship and demonstrate leadership on the national stage.

But almost by definition, activists operate outside the sphere of formal power and put pressure on it. Few activists have space to operate these days, as the state has greatly limited the scope of civil society. Time will tell if the CEC or the MYU can muster the influence to capture the favor of the Coptic community—and more importantly, of Egypt as a whole.

Please click here to read the full article at the Middle East Institute.

Categories
Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Where is the Maspero Youth Union Now?

Egyptian Coptic Christian holds cross during a demonstration outside Egyptian embassy in Athens

Twenty-three Egyptian liberal activists were sentenced to three years in prison for demonstrating against the protest law on Sunday. Amid the ongoing clampdown on dissent, the common observer can sigh, but be forgiven for asking: Whatever happened to those Coptic youth activists? Did that massacre at Maspero all but end their influence? Or like most Copts do they support the current regime and its policies?

On October 9, 2011, twenty-seven Coptic Christians were killed during a protest against ongoing attacks on churches, the majority underneath the wheels of military vehicles, which plowed through their demonstration. The Maspero Youth Union, born in the spring of that year, was the most vocal and organized of an emerging Coptic activism that was considerably quieter thereafter.

Close observers of Egyptian politics will recall hearing their name here and there amid the tumults of the revolutionary struggle. They most recently appeared in a small candlelight vigil, commemorating the three year anniversary of the Maspero massacre and calling for justice against former top military brass.

But it is not true they have been silent, insisted Mina Magdy, general coordinator of the MYU. They have issued statements to the media, mobilized for elections without endorsing a candidate, and participated in government-sponsored youth outreach. They appeared before the constitutional committee to advocate for favorable clauses and communicated with thousands of Copts through social media.

Andrawus Ewida, head of the committee responsible for MYU work in the governorates, went further. MYU activists, he explained, were a prominent contributing force behind the Tamarrod protests against then-President Mohamed Morsi. But this mobilization was not advertised out of fear that their participation would allow labeling it as a Coptic movement. Affiliated members also carried out documentation of the subsequent August 14 attacks on churches across the nation, he said.

But even granting their continuing activity, the question is fair: What influence do they maintain on the Coptic street? What relevance do they have in the political process? For many Coptic observers, the answer is nil.

Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, lauded the MYU for its role in mobilizing Copts into the political process through their protests. But after June 30, he said, the power and place of demonstrations has declined, and the MYU has not evolved sufficiently into a viable organization.

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, agreed. He finds them genuine and positive in demanding justice for the incident of the Maspero massacre. But their composition as a religious-identity based group is not helping the Coptic cause, which is best addressed under Muslim leadership with great intermixing. And in the chief issue of the day—the shaping of liberal alliances in the coming parliamentary elections—the MYU has been absent, he finds.

Save for assertions of their influence among Coptic youth, the MYU largely agrees with these critiques. But the group is currently in a period of reorganization to set themselves right.

On October 17, Magdy won internal MYU elections against a challenge from Ewida, for a one year renewal of his position as general coordinator. He is tasked with reformulating the statutes and bylaws, while parsing the membership list and defining its criteria. He hopes to officially register the MYU with the government, and prepare for formal election of the group’s political office and six other standing committees.

Magdy realizes the MYU is not well connected to political or revolutionary groups, though he forswears participation with the April 6 Movement or the Revolutionary Socialists, due to their ongoing issues with the regime. However, he lends the MYU’s voice to calls to rescind the protest law and free imprisoned activists who protested against it. Ewida adds there is not enough transparency to distinguish between regular protestors and the terrorists of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Indeed, the two candidates for leadership of the MYU had similar perspectives on almost all matters, administrative and political. Besides their stance on the protest law, they argue for full freedom of expression and the regular litany of Coptic issues: building and rebuilding churches and a law against discrimination. Rather boldly, they also advocate rescinding the blasphemy law and regulating conversion both to and from Islam. They insist they do not want to be a sectarian organization, but rather a pressure group on any government.

But even within the election are signs they have a long way to go. Early on during the height of their street demonstrations, the MYU claimed 10,000 members. Now they measure their active members in the hundreds. Only those most active were given the right to vote—twenty-three.

This number included six representatives from the governorates, where MYU representatives operate in Alexandria, Port Said, Suez, and Ismailia. But Ewida contested the election vote, saying procedural issues prevented six others from casting ballots and that members in other governorates were not sufficiently recognized. The official tally was 16-6 for Magdy (with one unable to vote), and the MYU legal committee ruled against Ewida’s appeal.

Ewida described his candidacy, though, as an exercise in educational democracy. He did not plan to win, but wished to have the group experience a true election and witness an opposition. He hopes the results push Magdy to recognize minority questioning of his leadership, to seek group consensus for his decisions, and to be held accountable for efficient MYU reorganization.

For his part, Magdy is eager to see the elections demonstrate something more—a Coptic political group experiencing a peaceful election cycle. This experience, he hopes, will compare positively with so many other post-January 25 entities which have suffered splits and divisions. Perhaps this, above all, is what may win the Maspero Youth Union relevance. Now it is up to Magdy, Ewida, and their activist colleagues to demonstrate the utility of a democratic order.

This article was originally published at Egypt Source.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Infighting Between Coptic Groups Not Helping Maspero Justice Campaign

Regla Gamal
Regla Gamal, standing next to her brother’s memorial plaque, translated: The martyr, Subhi Gamal Nassif

Three years after Maspero and Regla Gamal is still wearing black.

On 9 October 2011 her 26-year-old brother, Subhi, was shot dead during a mostly Coptic demonstration in what became known as the Maspero massacre.

Twenty seven Egyptian Christians were killed by the army as thousands protested against attacks on their churches, the majority crushed under the wheels of swerving military vehicles.

To date only three lower ranking soldiers have been convicted, each being sentenced to between two to three years in prison. Despite the best efforts at justice by Coptic activists and relatives of the victims, their differences have led to infighting that is hindering their cause.

‘These are clothes of mourning,’ Gamal, 39, told Lapido Media. ‘I will not stop wearing black until justice comes and those responsible are judged.’

Egyptian tradition dictates female relatives of the deceased wear black for a period of 40 days, up to a maximum of one year. But at the memorial service held in the Cairo church where their remains are interred, most of the women among those now known as ‘the families of the martyrs’ were similarly dressed.

The night of the massacre Wael Saber, one of three official spokespeople for the Union of the Families of Maspero Martyrs (UFMM), watched horrified as his brother Ayman was hit by an army personnel carrier.

‘The state has dragged its feet,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘We demand transparency and justice, and will not be silent in front of their blood.’

Purposefully silent, however, were the mostly Coptic activists of the Maspero Youth Union (MYU). Formed in solidarity with Egypt’s revolution, they called for the march that ended in tragedy. To mark the anniversary the MYU braved Egypt’s current security crackdown with a candlelight vigil.

Sympathisers

Dozens of sympathisers gathered, but included only two relatives of those slain.

This is because the UFMM was formed in response to the MYU and other activists speaking in the name of the victims’ families and soliciting donations on their behalf, Saber explained.

Fady Yousef, president of the Coalition of Egypt’s Copts called the MYU a ‘corrupt entity’.

‘They are not loved because they have made profit off their blood,’ he said, referring to money raised by MYU that didn’t reach families of the victims.

Mina Magdy, a spokesman for MYU, denied any wrongdoing, stating they have spent countless hours with Saber and the families to demonstrate their innocence.

One of the founding members of MYU, Mina Thabet, attributes the discord to the corrupt media. ‘The regime depends on people repeating the same accusations [against activists] over and over until they believe it, and this is what is happening,’ he said.

Bickering

But the bickering between activists and families carried over into the memorial service, attended by busloads of relatives. The hubbub and media show offended many.

‘Ninety per cent of those here today have come to be seen and to have their picture taken,’ complained Wagdi Gamal, Regla’s brother.

Veteran Coptic activist Hany el-Gezery was there and also criticized the MYU. ‘They want to be a hero and to show they exist,’ he said. ‘But in this case the only voice that counts is of the families of the martyrs.’

Political father to many of the activists, Gezery recently dissolved his own Coptic movement to merge more fully into the national effort to support the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But he wants the former top brass held accountable.

‘I saw General Hamdy Badeen [Egypt’s former head of military police] with my own eyes, standing there as it began,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘I accuse him directly.’

During the candlelight vigil, some protestors held a banner with Badeen’s picture, along with former leaders of the military council Generals Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan, quietly calling for justice. President Sisi, though director of military intelligence at the time, was not mentioned.

That is, until unaffiliated youth arrived and began chanting against him, calling for the end of military rule. The MYU got them to quickly quiet down and shortly afterwards ended the protest.

Saber, Gezery, and Magdy are all critical of the government for delaying attention to Coptic issues, but so far do not hold Sisi personally responsible.

‘Sentimental’

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the leading Coptic newspaper Watani, notes that most Copts are still being patient with the new president, and believes it is a ‘sentimental’ accusation that activists accuse the former top officials without sufficient evidence.

The MYU did solicit donations, he recognizes, but knows of no lawsuit leveled against them for fraud.

Similar to both activists and families, however, he wants the Maspero case to reopen.

Until then, Regla Gamal will continue to wear black.

‘We have no hostility toward the army, but we want the case to reopen and if the military leaders are guilty they must be judged,’ she said.

‘Why this hasn’t happened yet we don’t know.’

 

This article was originally published at Lapido Media on October 15, 2014.

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Excerpts

Ancient Egyptian Church Renovated

Hanging Church

It is often said of Egypt that it is impossible to build or repair a church without presidential permission, even simply to fix a toilet or change a light bulb. There are historical reasons for this statement and contemporary examples of the difficulty.

But this article in Ahram Online celebrates the full reopening of the 4th Century ‘Hanging Church’, following sixteen years of renovation.

Work was carried out under the supervision of the Ministry of Antiquities with a $14 million budget.

He explained that the restoration work was carried out in three phases to reduce water leakage and strengthen the church’s foundations and the Babylon fortress located beneath it, to protect them from potential future damage. The walls were reinforced, missing and decayed stones were replaced and masonry cleaned and desalinated. The decorations and icons of the church were also subject to fine restoration in collaboration with Russian experts. New lighting and ventilation systems have also been installed.

Located in a heavily populated area, says Wadallah Mohamed, assistant of the head of the projects section at the ministry, the Hanging Church was suffering from environmental hazards including air pollution, a high subsoil water level, a high rate of humidity, and leakage of water from the outdated and a decayed 100-year-old sewage system. Other damage included decorations of the church’s wooden ceiling being stained with smoke and the impact of the 1992 earthquake, which resulted in cracks in the church’s walls and foundations.

“The church is now safe and sound and its restoration was carried out according to the latest technology,” asserted Mohamed.

The church was beautiful before the renovation, I look forward to visiting it now. It is located next to the Coptic Museum, which also has opened recently after a long period of repair.

This news should not let Egypt off the hook for its record in facilitating church construction. A high profile worship site and tourist attraction is far different from some church in an obscure village. It should be said, however, that obscure village churches are often built in a style far more grandiose than local need might warrant. It should also be said, further, that once a church is built, a mosque springs up next to it, so that local Christians will call it ‘the church’s mosque’. There is often a competition over height; both religious adherents often prize the building for its social statement over its functional purpose.

But this requires a full and separate analysis. For now, simply celebrate that Egypt has cooperated to repair a grand church together – toilet, light bulb, and all.

Hanging Church Outside

Here is the message given on the occasion by church and government official figures, as related by Paul Attallah:

Pope Tawadros II gave three messages on this occasion:

First message: A message of gratitude towards our ancestors who built this church on the Roman Babylon Fortress ruins.

The second message is a “promise” to all Egyptians: Egypt is a museum of civilization and history. Each archeological spot is a jewel. We need to be aware about this richness to rejoice and to preserve our monuments.

The third message is a peace message given from this place thanks to the State efforts to deliver a message of peace to the whole world that everyone can coexists in peace. In fact, Egypt is carrying a part of all religions.

The religions don’t exist for rivalry but for peace, and when we begin our celebration with the national anthem it gives a model to the whole world that we can live in peace in the middle of an region full of conflicts and violence. But in Egypt we provide a model and example of religions coexistence.

The Egyptian Prime Minister gave a speech: I remember Pope Shenouda III saying: Egypt our homeland lives in us. It gathers people and don’t divide them. It’s a country which knows love and peace and never give up. Look to the whole region: as long as we are united we will not be scared and we will build our country.

 

 

Categories
Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Remembering Maspero

Flag Cross Quran

God,

It is hard to judge the weight of Maspero on the conscience of the nation. Three years ago 27 Copts were killed while demonstrating, some by gunshot, some by the weight of military vehicles which plowed through the crowd.

This week the anniversary was commemorated by a small protest in downtown Cairo, and a small memorial at the church which houses their remains. The families of those killed call for justice, unsatisfied with the minor sentences given to three lower ranking soldiers.

Maspero marked the first blood shed by the army; whether by army or police much more has followed. To date, few have been held accountable, by any of Egypt’s successive regimes.

God, comfort the families of all who lost loved ones, but especially those on this anniversary. Comfort soon those others on the many anniversaries to come.

But comfort is cold without justice, God. You know those guilty, as well as their degree of guilt. Share this information with the people, to balance appropriately between mercy and judgment, between forgiveness and retribution.

For much of the nation has reconciled already with the military, relegating the sins of the past to the past. Others find aplenty the sins of the present.

Will the sins of the future come through ignoring this blood? Without proper rendering, will more blood flow?

Touch the conscience of the nation, God, that all might remember. Touch the conscience of the leaders, that investigations would be transparent. Touch the conscience of the guilty, that they might confess.

And with a healthy conscience, God, may Egypt heal. May Maspero – with all other blood – leave no permanent stain.

Amen.

 

Categories
Personal

Striking ISIS: Egyptian Participation and Christian Angst

 

bombing-isis

Many Christian religious leaders in the Middle East expressed great reserve against the US plan to strike at ISIS in Syria. But one particular Egyptian politician, a Christian, argues forcefully for it—including Egyptian participation. Now that the bombs have begun to fall, his words are also worthy of consideration.

“We should go, if only symbolically with a few planes,” said Ehab el-Kharrat, a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. “We must not give a message to our local terrorists that we are backing off.”

Egyptian President Sisi has promised coordination with the US-led coalition, but has not contributed any forces. He recently stated Egypt is neither for Assad nor the opposition, though it does maintain membership in the Friends of Syria group organized early against the regime. Sisi has, however, compared the Islamist forces fighting in Syria to the Muslim Brotherhood, accused of coordinating ongoing attacks in Egypt.

Kharrat believes Egypt, and the international community in particular, should have been much more forceful, from an earlier date, but narrowly focused. He says many in his party agree, though it has taken no official stand.

“The decision not to arm the Free Syrian Army was a serious mistake and we must do so now as soon as possible,” he said. “Assad is not the answer, he is a cruel dictator, worse than Mubarak, similar to Saddam.”

Kharrat criticized the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis for understanding the procedures of democracy, but not its philosophy – unless they reject it to begin with. But leaning on Assad, like some Christians are at least reluctantly willing to do, does not work either. It has produced the ills Christians are currently suffering.

“Autocratic regimes give ground to breed Muslim extremists like bacteria,” he said.

Bishop Muhib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land agrees. “We have relied on secular autocrats who oppress others,” he said, “but must recognize also that democracy is a damaged concept.”

The trouble is that many Middle Eastern Christians, and certainly Egyptian Copts, feel trapped. Their experience with Islamists leads them to mistrust open democratic procedures that may bring them to power. But the secular states they have relied upon do not necessarily protect them beyond rhetoric.

Some in Egypt, such as Mina Fayek, a Cairo based blogger and activist, complain the Egyptian state has not yet rebuilt the churches attacked by Islamist mobs following the dispersal of the pro-Morsi Rabaa sit-in. The army promised it would be done; over a year later little work has progressed.

Others, such as Rami Kamel, a veteran Coptic activist, see both state and church inaction over the recent Gabl al-Tayr incident, where 22 Copts and three policemen were injured dispersing a sit-in protest over a missing woman believed to be kidnapped. “Sisi and the state will never go to the church,” he said, “because the church’s role has ended.”

But to imagine these sentiments as indicative of Coptic opinion would be greatly misconstrued. Christians are among Sisi’s greatest supporters.

If he follows through with his rhetoric, perhaps they should be. Commenting on the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria to the AP, Sisi said much more was necessary.

“The comprehensive strategy we’re talking about — part of it would be the security and military confrontation, correct, but it would also include fighting poverty,” he said. “We are also talking about improving education, which is important, as well as changes in the Islamic religious discourse.”

This coincides exactly with Kharrat’s opinion, though the second part awaits a demonstration of Sisi’s commitment.

“In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and all our states, the question of religion and politics must be resolved,” he said. “The only solution is a democratic and liberal system.”

As for Syria, Kharrat believes the practical only solution is to strike a deal with Assad to remove him from power, but assure him of non-prosecution, and the Allawites of non-persecution. Both Allawites and Christians must be incorporated into the new government, but only from outside the Baathist regime.

But the immediate task is to fight the Islamist rebels: ISIS, Nusra, and whoever else. Whether or not anyone else is left standing to take on Assad is a fair question, but not a few Christians, at least for now and however much they distrust America, are glad that ISIS is being hit.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Coptic Activist Dissolves Movement ahead of Sisi’s Electoral Triumph

Hany al-Gaziri
Hany el-Gezery, on the streets of Shubra, a Cairo neighborhood with a high percentage of Copts

From my recent article in Lapido Media:

The founding father of modern Coptic activism retires a happy man.

Egyptian Christians celebrate the election of a new president in hope of a new dawn of equality.

Two days before the vote, Hany el-Gezery, the sixty year old founder of Copts for Egypt, announced the dissolution of his pioneering movement.

‘In light of our great confidence in the noble knight that will govern, whatever his name,’ he wrote in his final statement, ‘we call on all revolutionary and Coptic movements to follow our lead and stand as one to build the future of Egypt.’

Gezery began his activism in 2005 as one of the few Christians in the Kefaya movement opposed to then-President Hosni Mubarak. Throughout his activism he labored to involve Copts in the secular political struggle.

But in 2009 Gezery made a more direct religious appeal, partnering with an Orthodox priest to found Copts for Egypt. Fr. Mattias Nasr published a popular newspaper detailing cases of discrimination, but distributed it only within the church.

The alliance aimed to shift an emerging Coptic activism from church to street.

‘We were the first Coptic movement to work in the streets,’ Gezery told Lapido Media. ‘At that time no Christian was bold enough to even open his mouth, and any demonstration would be held inside the cathedral.’

Copts for Egypt differed by coordinating with opposition political parties to recognize and oppose discrimination within the Mubarak regime.

On February 14, 2010, they led the first Coptic protest outside church walls. On January 7, 2011 they concluded a week-long rally against the bombing of a church in Alexandria.

Eighteen days later the January 25 revolution erupted. Youth activists from Copts for Egypt were active throughout, going on to found or join many other diverse movements.

Gezery now calls for them also to end this stage of the struggle. ‘All Egyptians must dissolve back into society,’ he wrote, ‘which after June 30 is free from religious factionalism.’

On June 30, 2013 the popular revolt began against President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. After one year in office he was ousted by now president-elect Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the landslide winner in last week’s elections.

In declining to name ‘the noble knight’ of his statement, Gezery was keen to emphasis his respect for both candidates, and rest his confidence on the era, not the man.

But the man causes worry among other Coptic activists, including his own disciples.

One of these activists is now the general-coordinator of the Maspero Youth Union. Another is an advocate for missing underage Coptic girls. Please click here to read their objections and the rest of the article at Lapido Media.

 

Categories
Excerpts

An Anecdote on Christian Kidnapping

From Slate, a unique first-person account of travels to Upper Egypt, to witness the alleged surge in weapons trading. The journalists find a sleepy town filled with older arms models, feuding families, and unengaged police, but little evidence of proliferation.

But they do encounter a local thug:

A man in a karakul hat—a favorite with Soviet party leaders and Bond villains—strides up to our table and sits next to the omda [village mayor]. He regards us with a rather unctuous smile, revealing his coffee- and nicotine-stained teeth.

Before he arrived we had been talking about government negligence. He offers us a curious anecdote. We’re, it seems, in the company of a kidnapper.

He is a kidnapper armed with what he and the omda’s pals think is unassailable logic. That is, without loans from agricultural banks—who refuse them on “security grounds”—he and other farmers are left without a steady income. Kidnapping, being a very lucrative trade, allows him and others like him to purchase property and build.

“Some ask why we target Christians and not Muslims,” he says with a smirk, looking at my colleague and me. “Because our [Muslim] men are not worth as much.”

He turns to one of the omda’s friends, a Christian who is seated at the table. “It’s nothing personal.”

Often amid the evidence of Christian persecution in Egypt is the tragedy of Christians being kidnapped. Many times the stories say the victims, usually underage girls, are forced to marry and convert to Islam. Surely some of these stories are true, sometimes perhaps not.

But this anecdote reminds us the reality is very complex. Some might use this version alone to deny the more obvious persecution accounts. But a single, simple narrative is best to advance a cause, on whatever side of the issue you advocate.

Meanwhile, muddying the waters in complexity works well to promote confusion and immobility, denting outrage through a fog of uncertainty. It elevates the status of the ‘expert’, but does little to help everyday realities.

God help us. The task is a commitment to both truth and justice. Truth includes the diversity of anecdotes, testing every narrative to divide the wheat and the chaff. Justice proceeds further, to process the wheat and cast off the chaff. The former is made useful into sustaining bread; the latter deemed worthless and thrown to the wind or fire.

May we remember, and act accordingly. And, may all kidnapping cease.

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Nadia Mostafa: The Hypocrisy of the Coup and its Constitution

Nadia Mustafa
Nadia Mustafa

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series on the composition of Egypt’s constitution. Nadia Mostafa is the former director of the Program for Dialogue and Civilizational Studies at Cairo University. She is also an Islamist, though not a formal supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. But she is a severe critic of the events which removed him from power.

She did not want to even discuss the content of the constitution, unfortunately, deeming it illegal. But she was very willing to express her displeasure with several contributing forces:

Chief among them are the very Salafis the Brotherhood cooperated with, in error. In supporting their demand for Article 4, giving the Azhar a role in legislation, and Article 219, defining the principles of sharī‘ah, the Brotherhood gave into unnecessary, non-historical, and ultimately fear-inducing intimations of a religious state. But when the Salafis sided with the coup leaders, Mustafá notes, look how quickly they dropped these two articles. All the Nour Party desired, it seems, is to take the place of the Brotherhood in the political spectrum.

Next she takes aim at the liberals:

Early in the transitional period these same liberals bemoaned the extremism of the Salafis and the interference of their Saudi Arabian backers. Now, they speak of the Salafis as possessing political acumen and of the Saudis as important financial backers for Egypt.

Similarly, liberals rejected the constitution of 2012 because it was an unrepresentative document crafted by an Islamist majority. But this did not prevent them from orchestrating an unrepresentative majority of their own, which all but excludes political Islamists, except for those who play by the measure of the coup. And as for their rhetoric saying the Muslim Brotherhood was invited but refused, what sort of invitation can be accepted when the president and his aides are held incommunicado, and the organization brandished as terrorists? Their goal, Mustafá believes, is to eliminate political Islam, or at the least any political Islam that has leverage.

Finally, she criticizes the church:

Excited by the possibility of gains in the constitution, some Coptic groups threatened to boycott or urge a ‘no’ vote if they did not win a special parliamentary quota. But when this failed to materialize, Pope Tawadros stepped in to support a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. Christians, Mustafá believes, are not seeking their rights but to limit the rights of political Islamists, allied with seculars against the Islamic identity of the country.

But she also has critical words for the Brotherhood:

She and others of similar mind advised the presidency that Mursī was leaning too heavily on the support of Salafis rather than maintaining unity with liberals and other moderates. She believes there should be a separation between the preaching of a religious organization and the rhetoric of its political spinoff. A civil system must allow for religion in the public square, but politicians should not play with religion for political gain. When many call for the leadership of the Brotherhood to leave, she agrees, provided the same be true for current leadership across the board. The old guard, everywhere, must yield to the youth.

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