Categories
Current Events

The Holy Fire Must Go On

Holy Fire
Image courtesy of Cistern Films

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 10, 2020.

With the new coronavirus canceling Holy Week services around the globe, one of the most severe blows will be felt by Orthodox Christians. On the Saturday before Easter, which the Orthodox will observe on April 19 this year, thousands of pilgrims flock to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre—the traditional location for Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection—to witness the “miracle” of Holy Fire.

The historic church houses six ancient Christian sects—Greek, Franciscan, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian—which more or less cooperate in the administration of its affairs. By tradition, the Greek and Armenian bishops enter the tomb alone, but emerge with a divinely lit flame. The fire is shared candle-to-candle throughout the expectant and jubilant crowd.

Eventually it is transported to Greece in a special container, and then on to Serbia, Russia, and other nations in the Orthodox world.

Despite the social distancing restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Israel is nevertheless facilitating a scaled-back religious ceremony. And to avoid quarantine, foreign dignitaries will receive the flame at their airplane after it lands and immediately return home.

Mentioned obliquely in fourth-century sources, the first Western mention of the Holy Fire dates to Bernard the Wise, a monk from modern-day France who went on pilgrimage in 876 A.D. Disputed by many, its popularity with Orthodox communities worldwide makes the Holy Fire one of the world’s foremost Christian celebrations.

Local Christians are known to chant in Arabic: “We are the Christians, we have been Christians for centuries, and we shall be forever and ever. Amen!”

Filmmakers Reuben and Brittany Browning grew up in Israel and Palestine as children of Nazarene missionaries, traipsing around the holy sites. As adults…

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

Holy Fire is available for rent or purchase at Amazon and Vimeo. A teaser and trailer can be watched on Vimeo.

Categories
Current Events

Arab Christians Have Lost Easter Before. Here’s What They Learned.

Losing Easter Churches
House of St Ananias, Damascus

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 3, 2020.

Christians around the world are about to lose their usual Easter celebration—the highlight of most congregations’ annual life together.

Yes, there will be a livestream. Their pastor will likely call them. They may even chat on Zoom with friends and family.

But it will be different. The community of believers has been sundered by the new coronavirus. And threatened with it is Christ’s body, his bride, his temple for his presence in the world.

If there is any consolation, it is that this is not the first time.

“There are forces of nature—and forces of man—that challenge our ability to experience the presence of Christ,” said Gregory Mansour, the Maronite bishop of Brooklyn.

“[COVID-19] is different from persecution. But it is the same.”

A born-again Catholic led into personal relationship with Christ by the Navigators, Mansour later reconnected with his ancient Lebanon-based church. His clerical colleagues there received thousands of ISIS-fleeing Christians from Syria and Iraq.

“There was a deliberate desire to obliterate churches, hymnals, prayers, and people,” he said. “The only thing we had left was…

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

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Current Events

Happy Orthodox Easter, from the Egyptian President

EGYPT-POLITICS-RELIGION-COPTIC-SISI
President Sisi visits Pope Tawadros in advance of Easter 2014, via AFP.

Happy belated Easter, to Protestant and Catholic Christians who celebrated last week.

But having enjoyed either “Pascha” or “Paas” (or both), please do not be remiss in remembering your Orthodox brothers and sisters today.

After all, even the president of Egypt extends his greetings — and more.

I call on all of us to remember the teachings of Jesus Christ that lead humanity to the ways of love and peace,” he said, as reported by Ahram Online.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a Muslim.

Muslims join Christians in acknowledging the virgin birth of Jesus, but not his resurrection. Most believe he never died, delivered from the cross and taken to heaven.

Many of Salafi orientation go as far as saying that Muslims should not even give Easter greetings, lest they encourage a theological error.

Christmas is a national holiday in Egypt, but not Easter.

Even so Christians are administratively equal. They are given vacation time, and recently have even been legally encouraged in pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Muslims are to Mecca. 

Of course, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is also a politician, and politicians can say many things to curry favor.

But one, give credit not only for what could have been tepid acknowledgement, but instead is near fervent preaching.

He calls Muslims also in the teachings of Jesus.

And two, give credit to Egypt that if he is only currying favor, he judges the 90 percent of Muslims as at least non-offended by Easter greetings to the 10 percent minority.

Therefore, follow his example, and greet also the Orthodox minority in your own nations. And when the time comes, greet too the Muslims.

Encourage them both, like Sisi, toward greater love and peace.

And Ekhristos Anesti, for those who believe.

Tawadros Tayyib Easter
The Grand Imam and a delegation from al-Azhar greets Pope Tawadros for Easter 2018, via the Coptic Orthodox Spokesman.
Categories
Current Events

Why the Carnage in Pakistan?

Pakistan Lahore Easter
(via pakistantoday.com)

At least 69 people are dead in the Pakistani city of Lahore, many of them from Christian families celebrating Easter in a public park.

The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility, stating it directly targeted Christians and promises further attacks in the future.

From Lapido Media, an anonymous British NGO worker provides a first-hand account:

A crowd of some 25,000 protesters had gathered in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city, and after prayers, started marching towards the capital. As night fell they arrived in front of the National Assembly building and fighting broke out.  Tear gas was fired, and the rioters smashed Islamabad’s new metro bus stations, assembled at great expense only a year earlier.

As we drove home from Easter Sunday celebrations we could hear the chanting: thousands of people in the heart of Pakistan’s capital city demanding that the government institute a policy of ethnic cleansing.

A challenging question is why such brutality exists, coupled with hardcore support for a blasphemy law that further targets religious minorities.

The author takes note of many signs of tolerance emerging after the tragedy in Lahore, and finds hope:

While there are Muslims who pray for the rights of Pakistani minorities; while there are Muslims who text me condolences on the Christian lives lost in Lahore; while there are Muslims who risk their lives to demand government action against radical clerics who openly declare their support for Islamic State –while such people exist, there is hope for Pakistan.

But he also lays blame on one man in particular who set it all in motion:

It is not easy to step back from three decades of officially-sanctioned Islamism; the retrogressive reforms of General Zia, who strengthened the blasphemy law and degraded the rights of Pakistani women, cannot be undone without a fight.

At such analysis Countercurrents balks:

There is a tendency among historians and analysts to place most if not all of the blame for the current state of affairs on the shoulders of the US-sponsored dictator General Zia-ul-Haq.

Instead, the author faults the very movement that created Pakistan in the first place:

In the late 1930s, elements within the Muslim elite, motivated by narrow and selfish interests, began to aggressively pursue an agenda involving the creation of a separate state for India’s Muslim population.

The oft-repeated phrase “Jinnah’s Pakistan” should be familiar to even the most casual observers. Those who conjure up this tired slogan whenever minorities are targeted must come to terms with the fact that it was the “Quaid” himself who set the dangerous precedent of using communalist rhetoric for political ends.

Jinnah, a westernized, non-practicing Muslim, cynically raised the cry of “Islam in Danger” as part of his campaign to drive a wedge between Muslims and Hindus and gain support for the partition of the Indian subcontinent among the sections of the Islamic clergy.

Based on the bogus claim that Muslims and Hindus constituted two distinct nations, the partition that gave birth to the “Land of the Pure” was a tragedy of immense proportions, resulting in an orgy of violence and untold suffering for millions of people on both sides of the artificial border.

What is happening is simply the inevitable result of official policy…

… rooted in Pakistan’s creation through the partition, that encourages the identification of Islam with the state, consequently diminishing non-Muslims to second-class status while also fanning the flames of religious fundamentalism and strengthening the power of the clerics.

Quartz, however, wants to absolve Jinnah, quoting:

His speech advanced the case for a secular, albeit Muslim-majority, Pakistan: ‘I cannot emphasize it too much. We should begin to work in that spirit and in course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community … will vanish.’

And again:

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State …

Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

That this has not happened is a fault that rests in the decline of the state itself:

Pakistan’s most prominent human rights activist, Asma Jahangir, warns that the worst is yet to come. ‘Past experience has shown that the Islamists gain space when civilian authority weakens,’ she pointed out in an article a few years ago.

‘The proliferation of arms and official sanction for jihad have made militant groups a frightening challenge for the government. Pakistan’s future remains uncertain and its will to fight against rising religious intolerance is waning.’

I am no expert in Pakistan, but right or wrong, this is analysis. The greater question is what can be done about it.

Categories
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)

Categories
Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Easter Visits

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Easter, and the national celebration of Shem al-Naseem the following day, were both quiet in an otherwise quiet week. But even quiet palpitations within can be heard and affect the national scene. For good, God, only for good.

Because all events are subject to your evaluation, even if natural to those involved. For some used Easter to celebrate politics, while others used politics to denigrate Easter. Judge between them, God, but only in mercy.

For political candidates visited the papal cathedral to join in on Easter; one in particular received a rousing ovation. All candidates were Muslims, who believe neither in Jesus’ death nor resurrection. Their presence can be seen as a great gesture of solidarity, or, a great exploitation of an electorate.

What is the proper place of Easter in Egypt, God? Should it be made equal with other religious feasts and become a national holiday? Or should it be left an oddity for minority Christians, neither prevented nor acknowledged? Is anything in-between viable, or a capitulation?

For a political movement opposed to these candidates put the holiday’s name in quotation marks. Criticizing a supposed normalization between the Orthodox Church and Israel, it described pilgrims going to Jerusalem to celebrate “what is called ‘the feast of the resurrection’.” The pilgrims did go but the church did not sanction; the rumor reported served only to discredit – church and Easter alike.

Show Egypt the level of value to give Easter, God, independent of belief. It cannot be easily shared, but can it be communally honored? Jesus unites Egyptians even as he divides. Help society to emphasis the former, with all appropriate allowance for the latter. Guard this balance, God, even as you guard the disputed truth.

But show also the believers in Easter the proper relation of their faith to society. At times they are honored; at others, marginalized. Give them wisdom in both situations.

Is the cathedral a place of political judgment, God? Or does your sovereignty demand the voice of faith in politics as in all else? As Muslims debate this issue, let Christians do the same. Lead each individual to the candidate of choice, and if a community coalesces, discern between them. For good, God, and with mercy.

Allow all holidays in Egypt to pass quietly, and their palpitations to be joyous. May all celebrations, national or otherwise, enrich the national scene.

Amen.

Categories
Personal

Ostrich Eggs and Coptic Easter

On Easter in much of the Christian world, believers celebrate Jesus’ resurrection by painting chicken eggs in various colors. The tradition is old and has been extensively secularized, enjoyed now without a necessary reference to faith.

In Egypt it is the same; one day after Easter is Shem al-Naseem, an ancient Pharaonic holiday enjoyed by both Muslims and Christians. Both enjoy painting eggs and other traditions that are not as common in the West, such as eating near-raw, salty fish. It is good not everything translates across cultures.

But imagine the artistry – or, envisioning children, the mess – if an ostrich egg was used instead. A bigger canvas invites more elaborate design, as seen in this egg hung from a church in the Monastery of St. Bishoy in Wadi Natroun.

Bishoy Ostrich Egg

St. Bishoy is the one pictured, washing the feet of Jesus according to one of the Coptic traditions. It is hung today in front of the altar as a reminder of God. This is common in many Coptic churches and meshes with other Egyptian traditions carried over into the Christian era.

Four ostrich eggs hung from the church in St. Makarios Monastery in Wadi Natroun.
Four ostrich eggs hung from the church in St. Makarios Monastery in Wadi Natroun.

In ancient Egyptian mythology the ostrich had an association with Amenti, the jackal-headed goddess of the dead. The egg in many cultures symbolizes easily the emergence of life from death, and the Coptic church took it as a pointer toward resurrection. Additionally the ostrich was believed to hatch her eggs through intense staring and concentration, a fitting description of the spiritual life and the attitude of worship recommended at mass.

So if you paint your eggs this Easter, wherever you are, cherish your own traditions, marvel at others, and remember how much we share without even knowing it.

The opening picture and much research for this post are received with thanks to Viveka Anderton.

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Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Emigration at Easter: Fight, Flight, and Resignation

From my latest article in Egypt Source, culling attitudes on emigration from a recent trip to Upper Egypt:

Sara Shuhdi
Sara Shuhdi

“I have nightmares every couple of days,” said Sara Shuhdi, a 23 year old assistant professor of analytical chemistry at the German University of Cairo. “I don’t see a bright future for Egypt; maybe it would be better for me if I left.”

Fifty-five days of fasting concluded on Coptic Easter, celebrated this year on May 5 according to the eastern calendar. Always a period of reflection and joy for Egyptian Christians, this year the community is deeper in the former and subdued in the latter.

Here are the photos of each person sharing, with a quote from each:

Fr. Seraphim, an Orthodox priest in Dayrut
Fr. Seraphim, an Orthodox priest in Dayrut

“Of course we must stay here,” he said. “Our history, family, and churches are here – we cannot leave Egypt.”

Emad Awny, a businessman in Asyut
Emad Awny, a businessman in Asyut

“The civil current – Muslims and Christians together – must provide a different way of thought and raise consciousness through business,” he said, “especially in poorer areas susceptible to extremism and ignorance.”

Fr. Kyrillos, an Orthodox priest in Saragna
Fr. Kyrillos, an Orthodox priest in Saragna

“Twenty years ago, I tried to convince Copts not to emigrate, but now because of the bad economy I bless them if they want to go.”

Bishop Thomas of Qussia
Bishop Thomas of Qussia

“I raised people here, trained them, and watched them grow and become productive members of society,” he said. “And then they leave? It is sad.

“I can’t prevent them but I encourage them to stay. I try to speak to their conscience to make their land a better place. Why would someone leave their home and become a foreigner forever?”

The article concludes with a stinging quote by Bishop Thomas for the conscience of humanity; please click here to read the whole article at Egypt Source.

Categories
Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Easter Greetings

Flag Cross Quran

God,

There is much that Egyptian Muslims and Christians agree upon, much which unites the two and allows them to pray similarly. But at one point the religions are rather irreconcilable: Jesus was not crucified, and therefore was not resurrected. There is no Easter, celebrated by Copts this coming Sunday.

Fair enough. There are plenty of common troubles in Egypt these days. But Easter risks becoming another one, a further point of division in a polarized nation.

God, may it not be so.

The Egyptian status quo of good neighborliness has Muslims and Christians exchange greetings on all their holidays. The Muslim purist status quo of Islamic fidelity forbids congratulating religious error. Both have been around for some time.

The purists have generally been confined to Salafis, but now the Muslim Brotherhood is caught in the middle. Their mufti has given allowance to greet on Christmas, but Easter should be avoided.

The middle ground makes some sense, as Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet born miraculously from the Virgin Mary. But in Muslim eyes Christians are in religious error to hold the prophet born as the Son of God; why should neighborliness cover one and not the other?

God, bless the purists and give them wisdom and discernment. Honor them for fidelity to unpopular conviction, especially as many behave as good neighbors every day of the year. Give them love for these neighbors even as they seek to guide them to the right path. May it be for the sake of truth, and involve no division or discrimination.

God, bless the Copts as they interpret this refusal as a public insult. Honor them for fidelity to minority religion, especially as many esteem Muslims for their faith every day of the year. Give them patience and grace for those who find offense in them. May it result in greater love between all and honest discussion in that which divides.

But for all who play with the issue, God, issue your divine condemnation. Some purists seek to isolate the Copts and those who stand with them. Some non-Islamists seek to demonize their opponents as agents of social disintegration. Where accusations are true may you muffle their voice and end their influence.

The Easter issue does not warrant such rhetoric, God; calm things down. If you gave your son to be crucified your followers can take an insult. If you alone rescued your prophet from violent rejection your followers can allow you to continue this battle.

God, you know best the truths of religion, but you know also the needs of Egypt. Help the people to mind the balance, finding both in love and unity.

Amen.

 

Categories
Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

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?

 

Related Posts:

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Easter, Reluctantly

Easter in Egypt is a negotiated reality; this is true for both the nation’s Christians and myself.

All last week at work I wondered about the holiday schedule. Ours is a multi-religious and liberal office; if someone wishes a religious holiday, they can pretty much have it. The Copts who work with us would take the day off and go to be with family, some traveling six hours away by train to Upper Egypt. What about the foreigners, though? Or the Muslims, would they be expected to work? Unlike Christmas, Easter is not a national holiday in Egypt. Islam celebrates the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary, but denies the resurrection indirectly, for it denies first the crucifixion, believing Jesus ascended into heaven before his arrest. Though the government is not Islamic, in this matter it toes the line with the Muslim majority by not confessing the holiday.

Toeing the line is partial, however, as I discovered at work. National law allows Christians to take the day off from work en masse, but reckons it as a claimed vacation day. Given the reality of a national holiday the day after Easter – Shem al-Naseem, or literally, ‘Smelling the Breeze’ – this policy allows Christians to celebrate their holiday, but allows all citizens to create for themselves a four day weekend. Shem al-Naseem is a cultural vernal festival dating back to Pharaonic times; Muslims and Christians celebrate it equally, though I have not yet researched why it is tied to the Easter holiday. Some Copts see this as an implicit national recognition of Easter, though it is missing from the official calendar.

An event at our office disclosed to me another shade of Easter in Egypt. We have been trying to arrange an interview with a prominent Muslim scholar from al-Azhar University, and my supervisor told me we would meet Tuesday after Easter. I was quite happy with the news, but she continued adding that he originally asked for Saturday evening, but we proposed Tuesday instead. This news meant little to me, though I was somewhat glad not to have a work appointment on the weekend. I shrugged my shoulders however, saying, “OK, whatever the sheikh wants would have been fine.” I figured we should bow to his schedule, but at this my supervisor, a Coptic Christian, was aghast. “What,” she exclaimed, “don’t you celebrate Easter?” It took me a few seconds of puzzlement, but then I remembered that church celebrations always occur on the eve of a holiday, not the day of. The day of is a feast; a day to indulge after weeks of fasting. Children gather at the church to play and the priests open their offices to receive the well wishes of visitors, but there is no mass.

In the West we celebrate Christmas Eve, but there is no such thing as Easter Eve. Yet if you remember the events of Nag Hamadi, the murderer targeted the church around midnight the day before Christmas. As there is no correlation between Coptic Christmas and the Western calendar of December 25, this fact can easily be lost on the non-Orthodox reader. This year it so happens that Coptic and Western Easter fall on the same date. Yet even I, living here now for eight months and more tuned in than most foreigners to Orthodox affairs, was caught off guard by an Easter Eve service.

Unfortunately, once I had learned of it I was not that excited. We experienced the Christmas Eve service in Maghagha, which was wonderful as we enjoyed it with the family of a local priest in his small village. Yet we arrived by train halfway through the service, so we did not have to endure a four hour mass ending at midnight with two squirming, sleep deprived children. Managing them for an hour and a half was enough, but once it was over we went to the priest’s home and enjoyed a sumptuous feast of meat, meat, and more meat. You can read about this experience here.

Easter Eve in Maadi had none of these advantages. Though we have been attending the local Orthodox Church since shortly after arrival, we have yet to make good friends there. In saying this I do not blame them; there are many legitimate reasons for this, which I describe here. Yet even so, the celebration for us would be the four hour mass, with two children, and no meat. We decided to pass.

I continued to waver. I was fully agreed that our girls should sleep and Julie would be home with them, but what about myself? I could go alone. In the days leading up to it I went back and forth on this decision several times. As a family we went to the international church Good Friday service, and we were content to let that be our Easter church attendance. We figured we would join the children’s escapades on Easter morning at the Orthodox Church, and in the afternoon a Coptic friend from the Bible Institute had invited us to join them for lunch Easter afternoon. So all in all we set aside time for the holiday, both by ourselves, with foreigners, and with Egyptians. I could appreciate a quiet evening home on Saturday, so why bother with another mass?

On the other hand I kept being jabbed by a conscious that reminds me we are trying to belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Who could confess this desire and yet ignore Easter, the holiest of holidays? There is a virtue in discipline, but I will not claim it here, for my assessment of personal motivation is far too cloudy, with a likelihood of showers. Is worshipping God and being thankful for the Resurrection anywhere near my decision making process? Hardly. Part of the reluctance of going alone is that there will be no ‘credit’. Usually, my daughter Hannah sits on my lap during the service, so I get ‘credit’ for being a good and spiritual father. Furthermore, the service will be packed and any individual will be lost among the crowd. Somewhere in my mind is the idea that if I am faithful in attendance over time I will be noticed and get ‘credit’ in this quest for acceptance and belonging. There would be none of that on Saturday. Worse, I was fully conscious that I could get at least get ‘credit’ in this blog, which would be impossible if I didn’t go. I will not bother to untangle these threads of condemnation, but in the end, go I did.

As I approached the church I was glad I did. I arrived at 8:45, less than an hour after it had begun. On most occasions the church would be about quarter full at this juncture in the mass, but tonight I noticed they had set up two outside areas with live feeds supplying the action on big screen TVs. These already had numerous people sitting comfortably in the cool evening breeze, but I pressed inside anyway and found a seat on the stairs leading upwards in the balcony. If nothing else, this was to be an experience.

As I took my place I noticed my supervisor with a friend of hers in the opposite corner. Ah, credit! The evening was starting out great. About half an hour later it got even better. During this time most of the mass, unfortunately for me, was held in Coptic. Coptic is a dead language except in liturgy, but it has been aggressively promoted in recent decades by church leadership seeking to strengthen Christian identity by, among many other methods, resurrection of the ancient Egyptian vernacular tongue. Many in the audience were chanting along, having memorized the hymns, reciting along with words they would otherwise have no idea of the meaning.

Suddenly, they switched into Arabic, chanting, as slowly as possible as the lights dimmed and the curtain was drawn across the opening in the iconostasis, “al-Masih qaam, bil-haqiqati qaam,” translating the phrase any Easter-going Christian would recognize, “Christ is risen; he is risen indeed.” Except that in accounting for the solemn, deliberate rendering it would more be like this: Chri-i-i-i-i-i-ist is rise-e-e-en; he-e-e-e-e-e-e is ri-i-i-i-s-e-e-e-e-en i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-inde-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e, e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ed. It was eerie, but effective.

Meanwhile, in the Orthodox Church the iconostasis serves to separate the altar from the congregation, holding icons of Jesus, Mary, and the twelve disciples on a lattice which allows preparation of the Eucharistic host to be viewed by all. The main view, however, is through a wide opening in the center, which as mentioned was closed by a curtain as the lights dimmed. Symbolizing the curtain in the ancient Jewish temple which divided the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest could enter once a year, the mass continued for several minutes in near darkness. Then, with the loud clash of cymbals the lights flashed on and the priest reopened the curtain, setting off a spell of ululation from the women congregants. The curtain was torn in two; Christ had risen from the grave. The mass continued, appropriately, with the reading of the Gospel account of the empty tomb.

I wish I could say the euphoria continued, at least in me. Sadly, though ultimate responsibility rests only in my own human heart, I can find blame in all others around. Allow me to explain.

As I described, I was getting caught up in the presentation. Before the darkness the Bible readings were of such inspiring passages as the resurrection body of I Corinthians, the first Pentecost sermon in Acts, and the Petrine celebration of Christ’s once-for-all death and descent into Hell to preach there the Gospel. When the lights dimmed I was caught completely by surprise, but found myself one with the worshippers even shedding a tear in the darkness. Why, then, did I find the flood of light just a little bit cheesy? Why did the ululation ring hollow, and end sooner than it seemingly should have? For me this was a first time experience, but for everyone else it was observed for however many years that person had been alive. In the darkness, there is no choice but to be silent; with the light comes rejoicing, but who can fake an excitement when it is completely expected? Worse, once the lights came back on several in the congregation began to exit.

I could only guess that most of these were women who needed to get back home to prepare the after mass feast. Surely they were to be excused, but their number increased as the mass continued on. Another large contingent left after the sermon, and the congregation dwindled to about the size of a normal, non-holiday mass. I looked at the time and noticed there was still another two hours to go, and the original ideas of wishing a quiet evening at home as opposed to yet-another-mass returned. If everyone else was leaving, why shouldn’t I? If only from stubbornness to see it through to the end, I stayed.

As I anticipated, it became just an ordinary mass, only on speed, which made things worse. Because of the additional events of the holiday the rest of the liturgy was accelerated to make sure everything ended by midnight. This included my favorite sing-along hymns, which stood in stark contrast to the earlier ‘He is risen’ solemnities. Not only was I conscious of everyone leaving, wondering why I was there, I was also growing tired and sleepy. Still I soldiered on – not the best attitude for worship, but still.

At the end communion was distributed, which surprised me, since there was no communion at the Christmas Eve service. For Lent the Orthodox will fast all day Friday, and then again for eight hours on Easter Eve leading up to the midnight Eucharist. After all had partaken the priest turned to address the congregation, rebuking them for failing to maintain an attitude of reverence in the church, beginning early their Easter revelry. With this, announcements were given, holy water was sprinkled on all, the Lord’s Prayer recited, and everyone exited.

I had told Julie that if offered I would accept an invitation to join someone for the Easter midnight feast. I did not really expect one to be given, but neither did I go out of my way to be friendly. Perhaps this is either a virtue or vice – I was not engaging but at least I held back from worming my way into someone’s hospitality. Instead I went forward to greet the priests, again straddling the line between sincerity and duplicity. On Easter one is to call all friends and wish them a happy holiday, and doing so in person now with the priests I whom I know additionally from the Bible Institute is an even better gesture. Of course, it also grants me the ‘credit’ I earlier was not expecting, grand manipulator that I am. Pausing to see if the third priest I know was also available (he was not), I made way to leave.

Exiting the church I maneuvered between a wonderful scene of Copts dressed to the nines, mingling with friends and exchanging Easter greetings in the cool air of 12:15am. I also exited to witness two other scenes which return to the theme of Easter negotiation in Egypt. Stretched grandly across the street between the trees of the traffic circle was hung a cloth banner impossible to ignore. In bold lettering it wished the brother Christian Copts of Egypt a ‘Glorious Resurrection Holiday’, to translate literally, presented by Muhammad Murshidi and Hussain Magawir, members of the national parliament. Remembering the earlier statement of Islam about Easter, these two Muslim names can either be praised for their commitment to tolerance and national unity or else admonished for shameless pandering for votes. In my opinion, I think the first is more likely, and this was my initial reaction, nearly causing another tear to trickle.

The second scene dried it up, though further reflection might stimulate the tear duct further. As I was walking away back home I saw on the other side of the banner six policemen keeping watch in the center of the traffic circle. I stopped to count; altogether around the church I found sixteen policemen on patrol. For context, churches in Egypt are always under guard, but only two or three are usually to be found, at least in Maadi. It was a clear and immediate reminder of Nag Hamadi, and the efforts of the government to prevent any similar tragedy from marring a second Christian holiday. Praise God, all was fine, as things are 99% of the time in Egypt. It is the 1%, however, which reminds the Egyptian Christian, and this foreign observer, that Easter is a holiday necessary to negotiate with a Muslim majority nation.