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Current Events Jayson

Write-Ups in the Run-Up to the Run-Off

Egyptians vote today, but I am having trouble deciding if I wish or am able to make a prediction (especially after the last disaster). I think probably I will, but my mind is still spinning from recent events, so in all likelihood I’ll wait until tomorrow and gauge the mood after day one.

In the meanwhile I can share with you some articles published elsewhere in advance of the run-off elections.

From Christianity Today: A primer explaining who the Copts are.

This weekend, Egypt will choose as its president either Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood or Ahmed Shafik of the former Hosni Mubarak regime. (That is, unless fallout from a high court’s invalidation yesterday of the nation’s parliament cancels the election.) Few Egyptians are excited about these choices—including many of the nation’s Copts.

But who are the Copts? Generally understood as “the Christians of Egypt,” Copts comprise Orthodox, evangelicals, and Catholics who total 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people. (Egypt also has a sizeable population of Christian refugees from Sudan.) Both the euphoria and disappointment of the Arab Spring have brought these branches of Christianity in Egypt closer together as a community.

However, defining the Copts concretely is more difficult, explains Mark Nygard, director of graduate studies at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (founded in 1863 by American Presbyterian missionaries).

“Copts are the historical Orthodox Church of Egypt. It is a fuzzy term, but strictly speaking it refers to those under the pope’s authority,” he said.

Click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.

From Christian Century: Asking if Copts did, and now will, vote for the old regime candidate.

Coptic Christians, who constitute about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, were in a unique position to influence the first round of the presidential elections on May 23–24, the first election ever in Egypt without a predetermined outcome. It appears that they sided primarily with a representative of the old regime.

The top two vote-getters were Ahmed Shafik, who was appointed prime minister by Hosni Mubarak in a last-ditch effort to save his position, and Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. With Morsi and Shafik set to compete in a runoff election June 16–17, the election seems drawn as a competition between the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi and Shafik each advanced with about 24 percent of the total, edging out Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished third. Sabahi is a long-standing opposition figure and a moderate socialist and Egyptian nationalist. As the centrist candidacies of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa waned, Sabahi’s popularity exploded, especially among the youth, including many Copts. Fotouh is a former Brotherhood member who sought to be a bridge between Islamists and liberals. He attracted some Copts until receiving the endorsement of ultra-conservative Salafi groups, which scared many away. Moussa is a former foreign minister who fell out of favor with Mubarak, which increased his credibility. He attracted Copts who were sympathetic to the revolution but wary of drastic changes.

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, estimated that about 60 percent of Christians voted for Shafik, 30 percent for Sabahi, and 10 percent for Moussa. As the votes were counted, one Sabahi campaign activist lashed out at Christians, claiming that they killed the revolution. He was quickly quieted down.

Yet is the charge true? Did Copts vote solidly for the most counterrevolutionary candidate? One must also ask: Did they feel the threat of the Brotherhood compelled them to make this decision?

For Sidhom, the choice has become clear. “The revolution is now in the hands of political Islam, and Copts must make a bitter choice to support the civil state. I expect Moussa’s supporters will easily shift to Shafik, but how will we be able to convince the youth, who were so dedicated to the revolution, to do so as well?”

Click here to continue reading at Christian Century.

Finally, for any Spanish speaking readers of this blog, please click here to access the Deia newspaper from Spain which is following the Coptic perspective on elections, and interviewed me in the process.

Best wishes and success to all Egyptians.

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Culture Jayson Religion

Applying the Cross (On Your Wrist)

One of the distinctive marks of a Coptic Christian is the cross tattoo worn on the wrist. Sometimes applied as early as forty days after birth (and following baptism), the tattoo is a permanent identification marker signaling to all the faith and community belonging of the bearer.

Girgis Ghobrial

Girgis Ghobrial is an electrical engineer by training and a tattooist by passion. For over twenty-three years he had made a ministry of applying the tattoo to the wrists of Copts.

Translation: Apply Crosses with the Most Modern Medical Procedures

This is his shop at the St. Simon Monastery in the Muqattam Mountains east of Cairo. The location deserves its own description, but in short it is the recently developed church complex dedicated to serving the poor of ‘Garbage City’. This community of Coptic Christians has long been the trash collectors of Cairo, recycling over 90% of collected waste.

Loading trash just outside the monastery complex

Ghobrial contributes to the ministry with his skills and time. He is present at the monastery every Friday and Sunday for services, charging around $4 US for a cross tattoo and $25 US for a more elaborate tattoo, such as in the picture below.

Still bearing the smudges of ink and blood

All proceeds are donated to the monastery, and if a customer is unable to pay, he offers his trade at reduced prices or for free. Ghobrial made certain to emphasize the cleanliness of his operation. Every needle is replaced for each new job.

Smiling freely

Mina, with the cross tattooed on his arm in the picture above, said the operation does not hurt very much. As for motivation, he was getting the same image a friend of his bears. Many of the area youth were milling around the booth. Tattoos, they say, are just a part of the local culture, usually among youths in poorer areas. Most of their friends chose to do so, and they imitate. Being Christians, however, their choices tend to be crosses or images of the saints.

Available templates, all Christian-related

Local priests, they report, do not provide any special encouragement for or against tattoos, even the common one on the wrist. The tattoo booth, however, signals an official acceptance of the practice, and its location is right before the entryways to the two main churches – both in caves in the mountains – which seat tens of thousands of worshippers each.

Friday night evening service

In the Bible, in Leviticus 19:28, the following command is issued:

You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.

It should be noted, however, that a few verses earlier is another command, seemingly much less important:

Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you.

In the New Testament, I Corinthians 6:19 declares the body to be a temple of the Holy Spirit, without any reference to tattoos but with the designation the body belongs to God and is meant for his honor.

Does a tattoo of any nature honor God? Do the tattoos of these Coptic Christians?

If part of the Christian life is the imitation of God, perhaps Isaiah 49:17 is useful to note:

See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.

Surely this verse is neither command nor outright license for Christians to get tattoos, but it does put the matter somewhat in perspective. If God signals his love for his people through the image of a tattoo, perhaps the Copts’ love for God displayed on their wrists is equally acceptable.

All the same, I don’t like it very much. Why do something you can never get rid of?

Hmmm, but is that not also the demand, result, and promise of faith?

Demand: Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. (Luke 14:28, 33)

Result: Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:3-4)

Promise: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Perhaps a tattoo of faith is easier, but its glory is far less. Either way, let its mark be a choice made in freedom.

Related Posts:

  • Emma’s Saliib (Cross; Emma is our daughter imitating her friends) – February 26, 2010
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Culture Jayson Religion

Egyptian Wisdom and Easter Hope

Icon of the Resurrection
Icon of the Resurrection

In Egypt, Easter is celebrated today according to the Orthodox calendar. It is a rather strange holiday as it sets off a bit of schizophrenia in the country. Unlike Christmas, which is a national holiday, Easter is a regular day.

Except it isn’t. Christians are allowed the day off, and many Muslims take it also. The Monday following Easter is a national holiday, called Shem al-Naseem (Smelling the Breeze), which is a social holiday going back to the Pharaonic age in celebration of Spring.

The government grants many holidays, both national and religious, and as Muslims and Christians together recognize the prophet Jesus, Coptic Christmas is designated officially. There is little protest of this fact, save for some Salafis who also oppose recognition of Muhammad’s birthday. For Muslims of this ilk, the only proper holidays are designated by Islam – the end of Ramadan and the sacrifice of Ishmael – and does not include the honoring of a mere man, no matter his prophetic status.

Yet whereas Christmas enjoys wide acceptance, Easter is trickier. On religious holidays Muslims and Christians exchange phone calls, wishing friends a joyous celebration. Can Muslims do so in honor of the resurrection of Christ?

Islam holds that Jesus was not crucified but rather ascended directly into heaven. Therefore, he cannot have been resurrected from the dead, as he never died.

Such a denial undoes Christianity, but it need not undo social pleasantries. Many Muslims wish Christians well on the occasion of this feast. The aforementioned Salafis do not, nor on Christmas, but maintain this is only due to religious doctrine. They argue instead we should greet our Christian neighbors and treat them well on every occasion.

This does not hold too much weight with Christians, who greet Muslim friends despite non-belief in Islam. Regardless, it is not as if this issue is tearing Egypt at the seams. Photos like the one below demonstrate the general spirit seen among many Egyptians.

Translation: the Pharmacy of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs Wishes Brother Copts Happy Holidays on the Occasion of the Glorious Resurrection Feast (Easter)

This sign was placed on the wall of the church in Kozzika, which serves as diocesan headquarters for the Orthodox of Maadi. The pharmacy in question may simply be seeking good business, but in offering Easter wishes in particular it makes a social statement.

The owner of this pharmacy has always evaded the question of his political allegiance with me, but his location is within the complex of a mosque which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the days after the revolution he hosted an area wide meeting to esteem national unity, attended by priests of the church, local religious leaders, and representatives of the ruling military establishment.

It would be wrong to say that such public Easter greetings are seen everywhere in Egypt, but they are not uncommon outside of many churches.

One reason why such wisdom is found socially is due to the wisdom of Pope Shenouda. Former President Mubarak established Christmas as an official holiday, and was pleased especially with the Christian response.

Following this decision Mubarak approached Pope Shenouda about designating Easter likewise. Pope Shenouda encouraged him not to, recognizing the majority of the nation did not accept the resurrection of Jesus. Making such a statement on behalf of the state would cause unnecessary social strife and likely a public backlash.

Such an anecdote, whether true or apocryphal, provides a glimpse into the nature of Egyptian society. The state is neither secular nor religious, but maintains an odd balance between the two. Of course, the nature of the state is under deep debate following the revolution, and both fear and hope abound as to the outcome.

Yet the reality of Egyptian society is seen well through the common wisdom displayed by the pharmacist and many others. Despite religious distinctions Egyptians across the nation offer good wishes to their friends and neighbors, even on Easter.

Unfortunately, this reality is also undergoing potential redefinition, as society fractures into different identities and isolated communities. One reason the Salafi refusal to greet Copts on their holidays does not cause much social disruption is that so few Salafis and Copts have a relationship to begin with.

If the Egyptian revolution can be made akin to the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when the crowds shouted in triumph and celebration, these current days may well represent the caustic debates while in Jerusalem, if not his outright death and time in the tomb.

Is a resurrection coming for Egypt? On this holiest of holidays, Egyptian Christians must maintain their hope. Yet more alike to Mary Magdalene and her female companions, they must confront their grief and visit the tomb – perhaps akin to visiting their Islamist nemesis which they believe has buried their Messiah of a civil state?

Parallels must not be stretched too far, but the Gospel resurrection was first experienced at the tomb. Might Egypt’s be as well? Jesus’ resurrection was entirely a surprise, and his form completely different from that of their familiar companion.

What form will Egyptian resurrection take? What surprises are in store? Will Egyptian Christians remain cowered in the Upper Room? Will the resurrected Egypt still appear to them there?

Or will the women be the herald of the new reality? They upon whom all social relationships depend may hold the secret to this resurrection. Women will always greet their friends.

Yet it was men and women together who carried the news of resurrection abroad to all the land. Egypt’s resurrection must be similar. Copts, Salafis, Muslim Brothers, secularists – solutions must be found and proclaimed together.

For Egyptian Christians, will they approach them, even after the loss of their hope? Resurrection can only follow desperation and defeat. Will they trust their Savior? Will they trust their fellow citizens?

Will they trust Egypt?

 

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Current Events Jayson

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Pope Shenouda and the Constitution

God,

Give comfort to the Copts in the loss of their pope. Pope Shenouda was a father figure and the only spiritual patriarch many Copts have ever known. May his death remind them that all die, but their confidence rests in the one of whom their faith claims resurrected the Messiah.

As they find this confidence, God, nurture it through provision of the next suitable pope. Many in the church are divided: Some desire another champion, others wish for a church of spiritual leadership leaving politics to the people. You know what is best, God. Provide the man who will strengthen the church and further your kingdom principles. May he have the Copts be a blessing to all, no matter the manner he interprets your will.

God, may the process of his selection be transparent. In the vagaries of post-revolutionary Egypt, help the church to honor its ancient traditions, while honoring also the public eye. In the end, may the choice be yours, but may the people find consensus with their leaders. Heal division, curb ambition. Preserve the unity of all.

Thank you, God, for the outpouring of condolence offered by Egypt. May it unite also Egypt’s Muslims and Christians, and give them common cause in rebuilding their nation.

Yet there is fear, and the coincidence of history is concerning. During the interim between Pope Kyrollos and Pope Shenouda the state placed Article Two into the Constitution. Young Pope Shenouda railed against it, for it established the principles of sharia law to be the basis of all legislation.

Old Pope Shenouda, however, relied on sharia law to secure what he believed to be Biblical interpretation in divorce and family matters. It is likely the new constitution will be formed in the interim between two popes. Meanwhile, as Egypt prepares, almost no Copts ask for the removal of Article Two.

Yet almost all Christians – and many Muslims – have at least slight concern Article Two will be amplified Islamically. According to the rules of the game as received so far, very little can be done to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis from crafting a fully Islamic constitution, if they so wish.

God, give wisdom to the Copts in these major issues. Should they labor and protest for a liberal constitution seemingly against the wishes of the majority? Should they embrace an Islamic vision and within it trust the protection offered? Or should they fully partner with Islamists to grant a religious charter that guarantees citizenship and full political and religious freedom?

The choice is no longer in the hands of Pope Shenouda, God. Raise up leaders who can guide the Copts in the way of wisdom.

Yet bless the process, God. May the constitution be a document to unite Egyptians, not divide them. May Copts share liberally in the process, while humbly recognizing their minority voice. May Muslims be generous and inclusive. May they hold to the truth nobly as their wisdom suggests. Honor all as they honor the other. May each hold the interests of Egypt above their own. From this, God, grant the interests of all.

Give Copts a good pope, God; give Egypt a good constitution.

Amen.

 

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Current Events Jayson

A Few Thoughts and Links on Pope Shenouda

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria

Living here in Egypt as a writer, I have long worried over the looming death of Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Speaking only personally, it seemed a daunting task to try and summarize his life, as long, influential, and controversial it has been.

This mostly has to do with my preference for writing analysis and context, as opposed to news. Yet the death of a major figure demands quick production. Doing justice to the man and the future of the church of Egypt seemed incredibly complex a task. There is so much about the Coptic Orthodox Church which still escapes me.

Arab West Report has produced a fine obituary on Pope Shenouda, one submitted the day of his death with substantial analysis and contextual content. The author and director of our center has lived long in Egypt and is clearly well researched and contemporary to the events described. I hope to attain such proficiency some day.

Please click here for the link.

Another good report comes from the Guardian, a UK based newspaper. I provide this link not only for its content, but also because it links to a report I wrote several months ago after the Maspero massacre. I was the only foreigner present during a press conference hosted by the Maspero Youth Union, and after all this time it was picked up by the major media.

I hope a more extensive analysis of this situation can come in a few days. I spent today surveying Egyptian Protestant leaders for their reaction, and hope to make this report available tomorrow.

For now, let us pray for Egypt’s Copts, as they are mourning. Analysis can come later. Below are a few pieces I have written about him in the past.

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Current Events Jayson

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Copts

God,

Bless the Copts. Bless their churches. Bless their leaders. Bless their reformers. Bless those with whom they rub shoulders every day.

Give wisdom to the Copts, God. Their leaders were slow to join the revolution; many of their youth rushed headlong. Now they face more challenges. Should they stay with the revolution and agitate against the military, or trust it against the Islamists? What if the military and Islamists are together, as many Copts fear? Is there further justice for which to call, or simple political reality with which to accommodate? Should the church carry the mantle of defending the Coptic community, or stay silent and allow Copts themselves to carry this charge as citizens?

May answers to these questions come from you, God. Give the Copts all necessary political acumen and courage, but may their decisions spring from the virtues and principles of their faith.

Help Copts to support the powers-that-be and pray for them. Help them to identify justice and demand it prophetically.

Help Copts to embrace all of their social and national responsibilities. Help them to enter their churches and pray corporately, as well as their closets and pray secretly, all in reliance on you.

Help Copts to give liberally of their wealth to help the poor of Egypt, both theirs and others. Help them to give liberally to the church, to maintain all necessary places of worship.

Help Copts to create strong relationships with their neighbors and live with them in peace and respect. Help them to live their faith among them, that its goodness might also be known and appreciated.

Help Copts to maintain their unity, when some lean in one direction on these questions, and others in the opposite.

Bless this community, God. Through them and for them, bless Egypt. Yet may they bear your ideal of seeking her interests before their own. May they bear your ideal of sacrifice for the greater good. May they recognize their kingdom is not of this world, while their residence and place of service is beloved Egypt.

May they consider her beloved, and treat her accordingly. Preserve them both, for your great glory.

Amen.

 

Note: Today’s prayer was written before news of the death of Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Certainly prayers for the community are needed even more urgently at this time.

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Current Events Jayson

Islamist Victory: What Next for Copts, Liberals?

Youssef Sidhom

During the January revolution in Egypt many, including Christians, feared the worst. Behind the euphoria of courageous demonstrations for freedom lurked an Islamist threat believed to be anti-Western and anti-Christian. Nearly a year on, early results foretell its decisive victory. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is tagged to receive 40% of the vote, while the ultra-conservative Salafi Muslim coalition won an additional 20%. Liberal parties, socialists, and those connected to the former regime divided the rest among themselves. The early pessimism appears to be warranted.

Yet according to a leading Egyptian Coptic intellectual, Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, pause should be given before adopting this sentiment. Most important to realize is these early results pertain to only one-ninth of parliamentary seats. Due to Egypt’s complex election structure, the polls of November 28-29 included nine of twenty-seven governorates. Each governorate elects only one-third of seats through traditional single-winner competition. The remaining two-thirds are determined by proportional party vote, and these will not be revealed until after all three election stages have been completed. ‘Though Copts and liberal groups have been greatly disappointed,’ states Sidhom, ‘we must encourage their continued participation in the next two rounds.’

Yet it is true that preliminary results are not encouraging for those opposed to the Islamist project, as the greatest concentrations of liberal sentiment, including Cairo, were part of first round voting. Of concern is the current plan for parliament to draft Egypt’s new constitution. If an absolute Islamist majority rules, they may be able to pressure the military to ignore agreed upon principles to define Egypt as a civil state guaranteeing rights for all its citizens. An optimist by nature, Sidhom is prepared for this worst-case scenario. ‘If Egypt is hijacked into an Islamic state we will oppose this in the ratification referendum. If it is passed, Copts and liberals, representing 40% of the population, will take again to the streets. A parliamentary majority has the right to pass legislation, but the constitution, which governs legislation, should reflect the will of the whole nation.’

Nevertheless, Sidhom does not expect this dire outcome. Having participated in dialogue with Islamist leaders including the Muslim Brotherhood, he believes them to be ‘decent people’ despite the ‘vast area of mistrust which has not been overcome through their nice words’. He is puzzled by why Islamists reject efforts to craft a ‘Bill of Rights’ type document to bind all political parties to certain civil constitutional principles. Yet, ‘I believe the Muslim Brotherhood wants to prove they can create a type of democracy which respects the rights of all Egyptians. Perhaps they reject the document because they do not want it said they did so only by being forced.’

To ensure this result, Sidhom believes liberal parties must not adopt the role of opposition and reject Islamists in the upcoming parliament. Rather, as the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has intimated, they should join a coalition government. ‘This does not mean liberals give up their values, but instead represent their national duty not to leave the scene entirely for Islamists. In order to keep any vicious Islamist appetite at bay we must be at the table with them, to remind them they promised not to hijack Egypt.’

As for the Christian community, this is also a time of transition. Coptic turnout is estimated around 70%, exceeding the national percentage. Yet as Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church ages, the future is uncertain. Sidhom states, ‘Too many priests either encourage Christians to stay in the church, or else to go into the streets and fight.’ It is good Copts are operating politically independent of the church, he believes, but their manner of demonstration often does not reflect Christian values. ‘Copts do not know how to do this; our culture is hurting us now.’

As for whether or not Christians have gained anything since the revolution, Sidhom says, ‘I believe we should give democracy a chance to work. It is illogical to imagine changes by now, but this will rectify itself over time.’ He does not fear great sectarian troubles as in other countries, as long as Christians fulfill their responsibilities. ‘Egypt is not Nigeria or Lebanon; Copts are scattered throughout the whole country. Our only hope is to integrate completely into the political and social arenas.’

Sidhom’s hope will be put to the test in the coming few years. May his vision prove true, over much prevailing fear.

 

note: This text was written following the close of the first round election phase. The third and final phase begins in a few days.

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Current Events Jayson

In Memoriam: Dr. Ahmed al-Sayih, Azhar Scholar

Fully deserving of his many titles, the glorious scholar and professor, Dr. Ahmad Abd al-Rahim al-Sayih passed away on July 7, 2011, fully engaged in life at the age of 74. Dr. al-Sayih died while filming an interview for the revolutionary-born al-Tahrir Television channel, speaking about his lifelong efforts in international popular diplomacy, to display a peaceful image of Islam and Egypt wherever he went. The world will miss him, his sharp mind, and his openness to people of all faiths.

Dr. al-Sayih was born in 1937 in Ezbet al-Sayih, a community roughly thirty kilometers from Nag Hamadi in the governorate of Qena, in Upper Egypt. Late in his life Nag Hamadi witnessed the horrific killing of six Christians and a Muslim police guard on Coptic Christmas Eve in 2010, an infamous incident which raised questions about Muslim-Christian relations. Dr. al-Sayih’s interaction with Christians, however, was completely different. He was a member of the noble Qulaiyat branch of the Arab tribe, and grew up with warm, friendly relations with the five or six Christian families of Ezbet al-Sayih. As he matured in his studies these Christians proudly recognized him as ‘our’ sheikh. Following the murders he helped organize an interfaith delegation from the Moral Rearmament Association to visit the families of those killed, explore the cultural environment of the crime, and discuss ways to overcome the national tragedy.

The journey Dr. al-Sayih pursued, however, did not begin as it ended, with real exposure to and open embrace of the Copts of Egypt. Though never an extremist, he pursued his studies with Muslim particularity, coming to master Islamic doctrine and philosophy after leaving his village and enrolling in the Azhar University. After several years he engaged in a professor exchange program, teaching five years in the Faculty of Sharia Law at the University of Qatar. Here his scholarly insight took the attention of the prestigious Umm al-Qurra University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, but contractual regulations with the Azhar required him to first complete his doctorate while teaching at the Cairo-based institution. After obtaining his PhD in Islamic doctrine and philosophy in 1986 from the Azhar, serving as dean in the Faculty of Da’wa (the Islamic Missionary Call), he accepted the post in Mecca, where he taught for nine years.

After many years of exposure to religious thought in the Gulf, however, Dr. al-Sayih began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with its extremist Islamic trends, especially Wahhabism. Wahhabism is an austere interpretation of Islam, seeking imitation of the manner of life as lived by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Unfortunately, it often results in a reactionary attitude to modern life, as well as rejection of other viewpoints and commonality with other religions. With growing awareness of the danger Wahhabism proved to authentic Islam, Dr. al-Sayih dedicated his life to exposing its errors.

This zeal resulted in a scholarly output of over 150 books and hundreds of articles written for Arabic journals around the world. Some of these books were co-authored by such luminaries as Dr. Ahmed Shawqy al-Fangary, Dr. Abdel Fatah Asaker, Dr. Rifaat Sidi Ahmed, Dr. Mohammed al-Halafawy and Sheikh Nasr Ramadan Abdel Hamid. His boldness in critiquing Wahhabism led also to the finding that much of what is attributed to Islam today is actually based on pious misunderstandings from poorly transmitted hadith, the stories recorded of Muhammad’s words and deeds. Never one to shy from controversy, Dr. al-Sayih was committed to discovering and teaching the truth as it revealed itself, finding in this the path to God.

Though he never committed himself to an actual spiritual guide or designated path, Dr. al-Sayih found sympathy with the Sufi interpretation of Islam. Over the course of his life, he attended over fifty international Sufi conferences, promoting an open and tolerant picture of Islam. This was more than a simple intellectual position. Dr. al-Sayih visited Makarious Monastery in Wadi Natroun, Egypt, and prayed over the grave of John the Baptist and the Prophet Elisha. He esteemed the monks there to be the truest of Sufis, who represent the best of Islam.

Furthermore, Dr. al-Sayih’s openness towards Copts facilitated his frequent collaboration with Arab West Report. Together they found commonality in the belief that Islam is not to blame for the often true difficulties Copts face in Egypt, but rather the ill interpretation of Islam which exasperates social tensions, giving ordinary community problems a religious face. This phenomena is often made worse when these tensions are manipulated by politics or religion. Dr. al-Sayih’s contribution toward promoting Coptic understanding in Egypt resulted in his commendation by no less an organization than Copts United, an American based group highlighting Christian difficulties in Egypt. Following the death of the Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, Copts United nominated him for succession.

Dr. Ahmad al-Sayih leaves behind a wife, three sons, and five daughters. He was buried in his village of Ezbet al-Sayih, and on July 12 received a commemorative farewell in Al Rashdan Mosque in Nasr City, near his home in Cairo. He was a man of both great mind and great heart, and will be missed by all who knew him. May Egypt produce similar scholars, who are able to follow in his footsteps.

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Jayson Religion

Post-Revolution Checklist for Egyptian Christians

The aftermath of the January 25 Revolution has brought unprecedented hope to all Egyptians, including Christians, but has also resulted in significant challenges. One of the chief challenges has been navigating the increasing incidences of sectarian tension. From one angle, the spirit of Tahrir Square is still evident, as people extol that Muslims and Christians are ‘one hand’; from another, violence has targeted Christian locations. Egyptian Christians have been caught between these two realities, and many are losing heart.

Losing heart, however, is the absolute wrong response, according to Fr. Eliya, a Coptic Orthodox priest of Sts. Mina and Augustus Church, in Dar al-Salaam, Cairo. He outlined a checklist of activity that Egyptian Christians must undertake, in order to live properly after the revolution. Like most Egyptians, Christians were confined to a passive role under the Mubarak regime. This posture must change, and these are the actions that will help change it:

1)      Pray.

The first and foremost responsibility for a Christian, prayer has power to change realities. The priest spoke that Christians must pray boldly, as did the New Testament church, whose prayers freed Peter from prison, and as did the medieval Copts, whose prayers split Muqattam Mountain in Cairo, demonstrating the power of the Gospel to the oppressive caliph.

2)      Allow anger.

But in your anger, do not sin. Many acts of aggression have been suffered by Copts since the revolution; anger is an appropriate response. Yet instead of anger leading to frustration, violence, and loss of hope, it must be channeled. From anger Christians must demand their rights, but if done in anger they risk transgressing both Christian and social bounds.

3)      Dialogue.

This must be at all levels, but especially with reasonable and moderate Muslims in order to establish common bonds. Furthermore, it must be with the rulers, so these have contact with the Christian community and know its concerns. Too often it is assumed dialogue falls on deaf ears, or does not result in significant change. Perhaps, but this attitude is self-defeating if the effort is not made.

4)      Participate.

Under Mubarak, Christians had largely taken cover – socially and politically – under the protection of the church, allowing it to represent them. It is now required that individual Christians emerge from that seclusion and participate in society. They must join political parties and vote in elections. They must be viable citizens. After all, other Egyptians are doing so; their negative inertia risks them being left behind.

5)      Be optimistic.

Many Christians look around them at the political situation, and fear the worst. These fears are legitimate legal concerns, but Christians spot the wrong mark. It is not the progress of democracy in which hope is placed, but the sovereignty of God. God is preparing the best future for the church, which may well be greater democracy and freedom, but may also be greater suffering. The personal attitude of each Christian must be positive, reflecting faith in God’s goodness, no matter which way his will leads them.

6)      Expel fear.

While fear is natural, it can also be binding. Unsure of the new path to tread, many Christians seem troubled. Yet the Bible says perfect love drives out fear, and this is necessary for Christians to move wholeheartedly in society. Those wreaking havoc in society toward Christians desire to drive them back into the walls of the church, to find safety there. Christians overcame fear to join the revolution and come out from the walls; they must still overcome fear in order to stay there.

7)      Be aware.

Fear should not be combated in naïve belief there are no threats. Rather, some do wish to harm national unity. This is not the vast majority, but even those who do are not the enemy; Satan is. Yet the devil’s schemes move against the church and Christians must be vigilant to stand against them.

8)      Meditate.

The above actions reflect spiritual truths, as well as socio-political ones. The spiritual health required for implementation, however, must be nurtured. Within their difficult circumstances, Christians must reflect on God’s character and their own faith needs. The deliberate practice of meditation will strengthen Christians for the challenges ahead.

9)       Change.

Some Christians have bad habits, including a negative attitude toward Muslims in general. One specific change is simply to exercise caution in how they feed their mind. While Egyptian Christian satellite channels highlight Coptic concerns in a moderate way, many foreign channels broadcast in Egypt enflame tensions and reinforce stereotypes. Avoid these; do not let the mind be poisoned.

10)   Be prepared.

Ultimately, this is for the possibility of martyrdom. The Egyptian church celebrates its history of accepting death for the sake of faith, and modern Christians must not shrink back from the possibility. Yet while this attitude must be present, it should not be foremost. Rather, Christians must consider, if they are to die, they should die having lived correctly.

This checklist does not represent simple spiritual theorizing; it is the message the priest has been preaching to his flock. Whether or not it takes hold is up to his congregation, and beyond them, the Christian community of Egypt. Many points apply equally to Muslims. In times of trouble, there can be a tendency to find hope and comfort in one’s religion. While this may increase religious identity and fervor, it can also divide and isolate. The hope of this list is that the opposite occurs. In this specific case, Christian faith must drive the individual closer, not only to God, but also to society. In post-revolution Egypt, this seems the solution necessary for all.