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.
Two stories here, so the article deck is an important follow-up to the headline:
Meanwhile, Coptic activist who insists true religious equality does not yet exist goes to prison on terrorism charges.
Here’s the intro to the first:
Coptic lawyer Huda Nasrallah may have won a great victory for Christian women in Egypt. Last week, a Cairo court ruled in her favor, dividing the family inheritance equally between her and her two brothers.
Nasrallah’s verdict followed the decision of two other courts to reject her appeal on the basis of the sharia law stipulation that a male heir receive two-thirds of the inheritance.
This past summer, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) took up her cause. In a campaign called “Christian on ID card, Muslim in Inheritance,” it claimed millions of Coptic women suffer similarly.
Coptic men are sometimes all too willing to go along with it, Nasrallah told the Associated Press. But she is “thrilled” by the verdict, and hopes it will inspire other women.
“It is not really about inheritance; my father did not leave us millions of Egyptian pounds,” she said. “If I didn’t take it to court, who would?”
And here is the second:
But a few days earlier, Coptic activist Rami Kamel may have suffered a great setback for all Egyptian believers. He was arrested for his reporting of sectarian tension, and accused of joining a terrorist group.
A founding member of the Maspero Youth Union when Egypt’s military tanks rolled over Coptic protesters in 2011, he later documented sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians.
He is now facing charges of joining a terror group and spreading false information, his lawyer told Agence France-Presse. Additional charges include harming public peace, inciting strife between Muslims and Christians, and agitating against the state.
“There is no credible evidence to support these charges,” said Thabet, who last spoke with Kamel a few days before his arrest. Around 10 days prior, security called Kamel in for informal interrogations as a warning to stop his activity.
But Kamel continued, speaking out against the recent arrest of Khalil Rizk, a Coptic labor rights activist charged with joining a terrorist group.
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
This article was first published in the Summer 2019 print edition of Light magazine, produced by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
In January, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt stood side-by-side with Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Inaugurating the Cathedral of Nativity, the largest church in the Middle East, he uttered two remarkable words that reverberated through the national broadcast to Muslim homes throughout the nation.
If some Christians find this phrase under siege in America, they have no idea the power unleashed by the president’s words. Eight years earlier, emboldened by the Arab Spring and empowered by the Muslim Brotherhood presidency of Mohamed Morsi, ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims sparked nationwide controversy by declaring no pious Muslim could utter the words.
Their point was theological—Christmas celebrates God becoming man in Jesus, and a Muslim cannot congratulate a Christian neighbor for such blasphemy. But the impact was social. Easygoing Egyptians had long wished each other good greetings on respective religious feasts. Salafis are better practicing Muslims than we are, many would admit, and a chill began to spread in community relations.
When then-defense minister Sisi overthrew Morsi following widespread protests against his rule, he did so with Pope Tawadros—and the head of al-Azhar, the leading Islamic institution in Egypt—standing nearby in support. As president he became the first to attend a Christmas mass, a practice he has continued. He speaks strongly about the rights of Christians and their place in the nation. And in building a new capital city he made sure the centerpiece landmarks would be the region’s largest mosque and church, built side-by-side. There is no Merry Christmas controversy today.
But do Sisi’s words fall on deaf ears? Are the arms of the state too weak? Or might he be of double mind, grandiloquent in gesture, apathetic in implementation? Two other church examples counterbalance the cathedral…
Please click here to download the print edition; my article is on page 54.
Egyptian Christians now have an additional 168 legal church buildings.
On November 30, a cabinet committee approved the requests of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic churches to formally register facilities long functioning as centers of worship.
Prior to a new law passed in August 2016, churches faced an arduous task to secure recognition by the government. Local authorities could delay or deny paperwork, often on security grounds placating neighborhood Muslim refusal.
CT previously reported how this new law was not without controversy, but that it designed to streamline the process, allow judicial review, and transfer final approval from Egypt’s president to the local governor.
The law also established a committee to review church requests to license existing church facilities. Consisting of the prime minister, ministers of justice, housing, antiquities, and others, it officially convened in January 2017.
A total of 3,730 requests were submitted for approval, pending review of structural soundness and compliance with local regulations. The first batch of 53 church buildings was approved in February of this year.
According to the government statement, the current decree brings the total number of approvals to 508.
“I am pleased,” said Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. “The process has been slow in the beginning, but I think going forward it will be better.”
Zaki is optimistic…
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
Three brief excerpts in the efforts to unite evangelicals and Orthodox believers.
Four years ago in Istanbul, a humble Turkish book partially reversed the 11th century’s Great Schism. Catholics joined Eastern and Oriental Orthodox—alongside Protestants—to publish a slim, 12-chapter treatise on their common theological beliefs.
“You can’t find a page like this in all of church history,” said Sahak Mashalian, an Armenian Orthodox bishop and the principal scribe of Christianity: Basic Teachings. “It is akin to a miracle.”
If this is contemporary, here is history…
“The Copts largely resisted conversion,” Suriel wrote, “[but it] awakened in them a spirit of inquiry and an impulse to reform.”
Missionaries supplied Girgis [Orthodox founder of the Sunday School Movement] materials, and the Bible Society of Egypt gave him free or low-cost Bibles for his students, said Sinout Shenouda, the Orthodox vice-chair of its board. “The Americans initiated the idea, and the Orthodox came to imitate,” he said. “It was competition, but useful in that it profited from the missionaries rather than just attacking them.”
So what about the future?
Evangelical principles seep into traditional churches. Evangelicals do too—and the cross-pollination continues.
“I don’t think it is possible to overstate the influence of evangelical converts to Orthodoxy in terms of missions,” said Alex Goodwin, annual giving director for the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). “It has been transformative for many of us who are ‘cradle Orthodox.’ ”
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
My wife had just dropped off our kids at the local Coptic Orthodox Church we attend in Cairo and sat down with her Egyptian friend at the adjacent church-owned cafe. After initial pleasantries, she spoke of this current article I was then researching.
“Oh, do Americans have Sunday School also?” inquired the mother. “I never knew.”
My wife and I have lived in Egypt for nearly nine years and consider ourselves of evangelical faith. But we wish also to learn about ancient Christianity and, to the degree possible, worship within the Coptic Orthodox Church, which many Protestants here respectfully call “the mother church.”
We have been impressed by their biblical fluency. We have marveled at their forgiveness after martyrdom. But to entrust our own children to them?
We have been blown away by their care for the next generation. It takes two years of training to even teach a kindergartener.
It was not always so, and they have the Americans to thank—sort of.
This article is about Habib Girgis, the recently canonized Coptic saint who doubled as a humble educator. This past month the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrated the 100th anniversary of what he set in motion: the Sunday School Movement.
Girgis lamented the situation of his time, when Western missionaries were making inroads among the Copts.
But then again, they left fallow their own fields:
“Is there among us anyone who is capable of responding to those who ask him about his religion and why he is a Christian?” Girgis asked in a student lecture four years later.
“I am sure that most of us do not have an answer, except to say that we were born from Christian parents and hence we are Christians.”
Please read the article to see how Girgis sparked the solution, but spark it he did. Today the Coptic Church is among the most devout in the world. Here is testimony from one of Girgis’ disciples, who carried forward his teacher’s reforms once he reached the highest levels of the church:
Looking backward eight decades, the beloved Pope Shenouda III, known as “the teacher of generations,” described the solution with primordial imagery.
“Our teacher … started his life in an age that was almost void of religious education and knowledge,” said the patriarch, who died in 2012.
“Then, God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And the light was Habib Girgis.”
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
And if you are interested in an earlier post, excerpting a book review on Habib Girgis, please click here.
Ireland is in fierce debate over its future with abortion. Such high-stakes battles are often called a culture war.
Abortion, like war, is a terrible thing. Even if one believes it is necessary, it is still death. Defining it otherwise, depending on one’s convictions, makes it almost worse than war. It is the prevention of life.
From war, at least, can come great virtue. All too often, abortion comes because of convenience.
Except in Egypt. Even when a willful choice, it is anything but convenient.
The good journalists at Mada Masr wish Egypt could be otherwise. On Safe Abortion Day, September 28, they posted a heart-wrenching two-part article, telling three stories of women aborting.
So as background, here are the essential facts:
Egypt has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. The law, which has remained largely unchanged since the 1930s, punishes women who intentionally abort a pregnancy with imprisonment. Abortion is not permitted on any grounds, including rape or incest.
The only exception is that a woman does not face punishment if she attempts to abort unsuccessfully. The Doctors Syndicate Code of Ethics also allows physicians to perform an abortion if the woman’s life or health is threatened, but this is a moral, not a legal, duty.
While there is a widespread assumption that this restrictive stance to abortion is rooted in religion, the origins of the law are colonial in nature. Articles that are still in force today were based on items in the French Penal Code.
The article does not tackle the controversy of whether abortion is legal in Islam. For those interested, here is how BBC and Wikipedia cover it. For many of our Muslim friends it is a non-issue.
But as will be seen, judicial rulings made little difference to the following three women.
Story one concerns a woman who had to hide away for her abortion, as she afterwards struggles with the morality of her choice.
Story two is of a woman in a forbidden relationship despite a knowing mother, which the abortion threatens if the wrong people find out.
Story three is of a married woman whose pregnancy puts her life in danger, only to be left unattended by doctors reluctant to get involved.
Please click here and here to read the article, but I’ve excerpted the most poignant sections below.
Had I been married, I would have had the abortion at home. There would have been no need to make up excuses to escape my family during that time. I would have been able to receive my friends at home, or at least I would have been able to use the bathroom freely without having to kneel whenever I passed in front of the window so the neighbors wouldn’t notice me.
Had I been married, I would have been able to go to any hospital as soon as the bleeding started. I would have been able to pretend that this was an accidental miscarriage and I would have received medical attention.
Had I been married, I would have received the news of my pregnancy differently, even if I decided to abort in the end.
Much of my resentment arose from the feeling that I was doing something illegal, even though it’s my own body. If I were in a different country, I might have been able to go to a hospital and request counseling. It’s disturbing not to be able to ask for help, to feel oppressed under a guardianship imposed by law and society.
Even though I had read over and over that a fertilized egg has no soul, I felt that I was killing my son or daughter. I felt the pain of loss and I was troubled by my questions:
Why did I have to do it this way? Perhaps I was worried more about the standard of living and the kind of life we had — if I didn’t have to struggle so much to eat and drink and do everything else, would I have opted to keep the baby?
I had always heard that male partners disappeared in these situations and that the whole relationship would end soon after. …
Every time I used the bathroom, he waited for me and took the sanitary pad to throw it away. This comforted me. I felt accepted. He wasn’t disgusted by my blood. I didn’t have to worry about the practicalities. I stayed focused on the pain I felt in my lower abdomen.
It’s such a false notion that only a husband will act responsibly and care for you — the notion that you should get married in order to have a man by you. No, the truth is that the man who took care of me during that period was one with whom I had what society sees as an illegitimate relationship.
Despite my persistent need to have a woman by my side at this time, I never imagined that my mother could be that woman. Our relationship wouldn’t allow it.
Everything I do goes against everything she believes in. I am in a relationship, which she knows about from Facebook. The idea of being in a relationship was itself too liberal for my conservative family.
The more important point was the future of my very small family, whose escape from my father was brought about by circumstances in which I played a key role.
Our separation from my father made my presence at home a source of strength to my mother. I was the eldest daughter and always supported her. I was the one who encouraged her to leave home when she was still with my father.
We were a family paying the price for choosing our own peace of mind. That price was living in a home beneath our social standing and having much less money to spend than we were previously accustomed.
So I faced a dilemma: If I left them, this might drive them back to my father. Also, if my father learned of this, he might force them to return, arguing that my pregnancy was proof that my mother was unable to handle us on her own.
I closed my eyes to the sight. My son was wrapped in a transparent plastic bag. His heart was beating slower and slower, until it came to a complete stop. I stopped screaming. My mother stopped crying. And I drifted out of consciousness.
I saw blood and wished I were asleep. I wished I hadn’t been awake for that experience, and that I didn’t relive it dozens of times in my nightmares.
I felt my soul escape my body to watch me from above. I was knocking my head against the wall. My sister’s skin was under my nails mixed with her blood. I grabbed at her with a strength I didn’t know I had.
She was crying, my mother screaming. My father was looking for the doctor who had already told us he wouldn’t help until he saw a head coming out of the womb.
“Haram [it’s wrong],” he said, very simply, judging me in my worst moment, as I both pitied and hated myself. From one in the afternoon until 11 at night, he left me to kill my son on my own.
The two doctors were in agreement, saying that the fetus would die. They provided the reports that they told me would allow me to have an abortion in any hospital.
I was allowed an abortion because I am a married woman and because the pregnancy was a risk to my health. They insisted, however, that neither would perform the abortion himself.
The first told me nicely that he doesn’t do abortions, and the second said that he wouldn’t do anything. I went to see a third doctor, but he was religious and said it was haram. His voice joined the first two: Even if I went through labor, I would still have a dead child. I surrendered.
I went home and listened to all the things I didn’t want to hear on that day. “You will be compensated. You will be rewarded. God’s will is never bad,” my family said.
Throughout, I felt my son resisting my body’s attempts to eject him. I was his home, but I was kicking him out. I was his safety, but I was expelling him. I felt him fight to stay alive, as I fought for him to die.
“Just open my stomach and get him out!” I screamed. I felt guiltiest at this point: He was still alive. His heart was still beating. My body wants to get rid of a living baby, a baby I claimed to love beyond belief, a baby whose ultrasound pictures I cherished, a baby whose every heartbeat was precious.
Every two weeks, I’d gone to the doctor just because I wanted to see this baby. But in that moment, I would have done anything just to get rid of him. I just wanted it to be over.
My father ran again through the corridors looking for someone to cut the cord, yelling like a man who was about to lose two lives, one of whom was struggling for his last breath.
Finally, the hospital manager intervened and severed the umbilical cord himself. He refused to give us any documentation of his involvement, or of any other doctor’s in my case, perhaps fearing legal ramifications. Before we left, and based on his request, a friend of my father’s, a gynecologist, came and cleaned my uterus in an operating room.
I walked to the room with blood dripping down my legs. My son was dead, and I was in a room lacking the most basic hygiene. I felt I was a woman having an abortion in a shady backroom clinic in Cairo.
I parted with my placenta and my faith. He departed to a new world, and I remained here for them to blame me for the loss. They forbade newlyweds from visiting me. “It’s a bad omen,” they said. I was faced with judgment from beginning to end. I was made to be guilty for a mistake I never made.
And then, a few months later I found out I was pregnant again and my first reaction was that I couldn’t deal with this.
I carried my pregnancy to term. I have a baby girl who is coping with a chronic disease for which there is no cure. I love her, and I accept her. My pregnancy and labor with her was very different. I continued to hear the same provocative consolations, however, things like, “You see, God rewarded you well.”
Story one struggled with guilt. Story two worried about shame. Story three was hit with religion.
Legal abortion in a culture of tolerance promises to do away with these pains. Pains they are, and they are not the only ones. The issues are real, and compassionate care is necessary.
There is forgiveness from guilt. There is freedom from shame. There is redemption in religion.
But I think that like war, abortion – legal or otherwise, necessary or convenient – would do well to keep its stigma. The barriers should be high, lest death, and life, lessen in sanctity. Like war, abortion should never become an easy option.
Like the reception of soldiers returning from war, however, all depends on a culture and community ready to embrace them.
Most pro-life people I am familiar with in the United States are like this. Media often depicts those angrily protesting in front of abortion clinics. I’m not sure who is more numerous, and there is no necessary distinction.
One can rail against cultural license one moment, and comfort a licentious teenager the next.
Listen to her stories. They may not be as frightful as the ones above. But they are all felt fully, in the moment, as a great war.
War is Hell? Yes. Abortion?
Whatever your answer, heaven is waiting. Consider both carefully in the ranking of priorities.
Egypt strives to be a good neighbor. She was once also a good host. What future does she desire?
What do you?
Over the past many months Egypt has cultivated its relationship with the Mediterranean nations of Greece and Cyprus. The have a sea to share, natural gas to protect, and economies to integrate.
They have similar vision for their region.
But this week they recalled their past. Egypt invited the two presidents to ‘Nostos,’ which in Greek means ‘return to roots.’ Thousands of Greeks and Cypriots used to live in Egypt, Alexandria in particular.
There are far fewer today. ‘Egypt for the Egyptians’ discouraged their welcome; over time, so did declining economy.
But Nostos celebrated their heritage, and invited their families back for a visit.
Their churches still function. The monastery at Mt. Sinai is theirs. Egypt is still much Mediterranean.
It is a beautiful neighborly gesture. But is it an openness for return?
God, bless Egypt in her hospitality. She is still a good host. African and Syrian refugees in the thousands call her home – at least temporarily. They live, work, and are part of society.
Guide her also in wisdom. Egypt is for the Egyptians. But Greeks and Cypriots – and Italians, and Armenians, and Turks – were also Egyptian. Many still are.
God, if you prosper Egypt, perhaps more will seek her. Wealth often extends welcome.
But the reverse is also often true. Welcome brings material reward.
God, what of the spiritual? Does multiculturalism dilute authenticity? Does a mix of religions tepid them all? Does culture thrive? Do values change?
Alexandria is now known as a city conservative in its Islam. Yet Christians have their historic see.
May all believers be faithful. May all neighbors be kind. May all nations be friendly.
You determine the exact times and places for all peoples to live.
Honor Egypt for celebrating her past. Direct Egypt in treading her present. Bless Egypt in shaping her future.
Many do well in returning to roots. But from where there is strength, spread wide the branches. Allow the birds of the air to rest in their shade.
For the first time in two years, Aeroflot returned to Cairo. Russia had suspended all air travel following a terrorist attack on a tourist carrier, and security precautions still prevent direct flights to the popular Red Sea resorts.
Let it not happen again, God.
But as Russian-Egyptian relations return to normal, give discernment in current affairs.
How should the government consider accusations of poison in the UK, and gas in Syria?
Let the truth be known, God, if only to the privy of world leaders. Let Egypt’s president act accordingly.
But give knowledge also to the world community.
Allow heads-of-state the discretion to maneuver. But disclose secret deeds done in darkness. Give no cover to illness in conduct.
None can stand on your holy hill, God. But the heart of a man may yet be made pure. May such men lead their nations well.
Help Egypt stand with many. As necessary, help Egypt stand alone.
The election is over, and there were no surprises. President Sisi won re-election with 90 percent of the votes cast. His opponent – 3%. Spoiled ballots – 7%. Overall turnout – 41%.
It is a respectable show of support. Critics say the best candidates were discouraged or prevented from running. They say the government mobilized to get out the vote. They say the media was either complicit, or bullied.
Decide between them, God. But bless the Egyptian people in their choice.
And now, and continue, bless the Egyptian head-of-state.
Give him wisdom to handle the ongoing challenges. Economy. Water. Reform. Terror.
Give him wisdom to handle the coming choices. Constitution. Legacy. Politics. Friends.
Lead him, God. May he seek your leading.
And with him, Egypt entire. Let these be four years of peace, stability, prosperity, and justice.
May all surprises be welcome. May all turn out to the good.
Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church was known as the ‘teacher of generations.’ I had the privilege of attending the beloved 87-year-old deliver one of his Wednesday weekly sermons back in 2010.
Five years later, in post-revolutionary Egypt, I watched his successor Pope Tawadros continue the tradition. He preached on Esther, and for unrelated reasons, a mini-protest broke out.
Now in 2018, for the first time I have noticed the weekly sermon translated into English, provided by the Coptic Media Center.
I am not certain if this will become a new tradition, but if so it will be fitting. The Coptic Orthodox Church is international, with many English-speaking congregations in the US and Canada (and the UK).
For those interested in the spirituality of the Coptic pope, here is an excerpt from his text. Pope Tawadros spoke on Mark 10:46-52, the story of blind Bartimaeus.
It is entitled: What Do You Want Me to Do for You?
Lessons we can learn from the story of the blind man for our spiritual journey:
1. Be persistent in prayer: don’t stop asking God for help, with patience & confident faith. Continuous crying out (praying) demonstrates a strong need for help.
2. Jesus hears your prayer from amongst the crowds: your short & simple prayers are heard by Christ and He responds to them.
3. The #1 goal of Satan is to prevent you from reaching Christ: just as the people tried to prevent/discourage the blind man from reaching Christ, Satan does with us when we are praying. FOCUS on the goal: to reach Christ, & do not listen to thoughts of doubt – your own or others’.
a. Remember the miracle of the demon-possessed man who was also blind and mute? (Matthew 12:22) It reveals that sin denies a person 3 things: thinking about Christ, talking to Christ, and seeing Christ.
4. Throw away anything that stands between you and God: be ready to QUICKLY detach from things, habits, etc. God reveals to you to let go of.
5. The importance of your will: “What do you want Me to do for you?” shows that God not only respects your will, but that your CONSENT IS NECESSARY to allow God to work in your situation.
6. You are a partner with God: God will give you the ability to do what is needed to do, but you must participate with your faith, your repentance, your prayers, your persistence, and your will.
7. Be definitive in your prayer request to Christ: Imagine if the blind man’s response to Christ had been, “I want some money,” or “I don’t know what I want,” that would have been a wasted opportunity. Go to Christ prepared, knowing what it is you want Him to do for you.
8. Follow Jesus after He heals you: after Jesus heals/helps you, will you follow Him?
Click here for the full sermon on the Coptic Spokesman’s Facebook page.