Saudi Arabia stunned foreign policy observers this month by publicly agreeing to normalize relations with Iran, under Chinese sponsorship. The deal between the neighboring Sunni and Shia arch rivals, known for sectarian proxy fights, is expected to ease tensions within Islam.
Meanwhile, the kingdom has recently taken less publicized steps toward another religious normalization: public Christian faith.
In this case, Egypt is the supporting nation.
“Nine years ago, I was told, ‘Pray, but don’t publicize it,’” said Bishop Marcos of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church. “This time, Saudi Arabia is publicizing it themselves.”
On January 7, Marcos headlined a month-long pastoral visit by celebrating the eastern Christmas liturgy amid 3,000 Coptic Christians residing in the kingdom. Facilitated by the Egyptian embassy, additional services in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Khobar, and Dhahran were “held under the full sponsorship of the Saudi authorities.”
It was the first public Christmas celebration admitted by the Islamic nation, home to the pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina. Muslim traditions cite Muhammad as forbidding the existence of two religions in Arabia, though scholars differ as to the geographic scope.
But Marcos’ trip was not the first Christian worship permitted.
He began praying about visits to Saudi Arabia after being sent in 2012 to help solve a dispute between authorities and an Egyptian Christian migrant worker. Marcos estimates there are about 50,000 Copts in the kingdom, among 2.1 million Christians—mostly Filipino Catholics.
None have a church to worship in. Open Doors’ World Watch List ranks Saudi Arabia No. 13 among the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian today. Visiting Coptic clergy used to meet the faithful in neighboring Bahrain.
But when Marcos returned in 2014, he said he conducted liturgies for about 4,000 believers. Leaks covered by the Qatari news network Al Jazeera resulted in some attention, but the Saudis told him they were not troubled by it. Weeks-long pastoral trips continued annually, and in 2016 Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz visited Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Egypt.
It was 2018 that led to further openness. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (known as MBS) visited the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo in March, taking a famous photo with Tawadros in front of an icon of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He invited the Coptic pope to visit Saudi Arabia, while encouraging continuation of Marcos’ visits.
That December, the first liturgies were officially reported. Not everyone was pleased. Medhat Klada, spokesman for the European Union of Coptic Organizations…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 29, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.
“Wisdom,” said Jesus, “is proved right by all her children” (Luke 7:35). But sometimes it takes generations to judge, as demonstrated by a new research study that threatens to tarnish the reputation of a legendary biblical paragon.
According to archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, King Solomon disregarded the environment.
Today, his spiritual descendants largely follow in his footsteps.
“We have so many working in evangelism, church planting, and leadership development,” said Michael El Daba, the Lausanne Movement’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). “Almost no one is working in creation care.”
Evangelicals are not alone. According to a 2021 report by the Institute for Economics and Peace, the MENA region demonstrated the least concern for climate change, including 10 of the 20 lowest-scoring nations. Only 18 percent of those surveyed in Egypt, for example, recognized it as a “very serious threat”—even as it exacerbates food insecurity.
Arab Barometer, a regional pollster, found that 68 percent of Egyptians reported running out of food before being able to get more. In half of the other MENA countries surveyed, majorities stated the same. And in 9 out of 10, majorities worried it might happen to them.
Temperatures in the region are rising twice as fast as the rest of the world, according to a study published last June in the Reviews of Geophysics. At current rates, Egypt will be nine degrees hotter by the end of the century. Iraq has already increased three degrees in the last 30 years.
Some of the damage is self-induced. The study identifies MENA as a “dominant emitter” of greenhouse gases, overtaking Europe and India. Resource extraction—as necessary as the hydrocarbons are for national economies and modern society—comes with a cost.
Just as it did with King Solomon’s mines.
Although his mines are not specifically mentioned in the Bible, copper is known to have been extracted from the Timna Valley, north of the Gulf of Aqaba in ancient Edom, a region conquered by his father David. Solomon used the minerals in the construction of the temple.
Over 4,000 acacia trees and 185,000 white broom bushes were cut down to smelt the copper, according to charcoal evidence located by the Tel Aviv researchers and published in the Scientific Reports journal. Their removal “irreversibly affected” the soil’s ability to retain moisture, sparking the desertification that continues today.
Some researchers question the association with Solomon, but contemporary abuses ensure the region grows only drier. To the north, the Jordan River’s historic discharge of 1.3 billion cubic meters of water into the Dead Sea has been reduced to as low as 20 million, according to a 2013 UN study.
A joint Israeli-Jordanian project to lessen pumping in favor of desalination aims to increase flow by up to 40 million cubic meters, but the region suffers everywhere. According to the World Resources Institute, MENA is home to 12 of the 17 most water-stressed nations in the world—and again, some of the harm is self-inflicted.
According to the World Bank, only 18 percent of wastewater in the region is reused.
“Preserving water is fundamental,” said Georges El Copti, pastor of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Amman, Jordan. “We are part of creation, and we have to care for it.”
Copti was interviewed last month as part of the Middle East Council of Churches’ effort to promote the international “Season of Creation,” sponsored in part by the Lausanne/World Evangelical Alliance Creation Care Network (LWCCN). He spoke not only of the importance of raising awareness but also about the rainwater harvesting project at his church.
Collecting even the minimal yearly rainfall in the desert kingdom can supply 30 percent of a household’s annual water need, stated the Jordanian Ministry for Water and Irrigation. Copti’s efforts are contributing to his congregation becoming an “Eco church,” a recognition awarded by A Rocha International, an evangelical environmental organization active in 20 countries.
Since its beginning in the United Kingdom, A Rocha has led thousands of churches to commit to embedding creation care into their preaching, worship, and facility management. Spinoffs are developing in France, Ghana, New Zealand, and Switzerland—though not yet in the Middle East.
“Matter reveals God,” said Dave Bookless, director of theology at A Rocha International. “If we destroy nature, we are ruining opportunities for evangelism.”
Bookless, also a creation care catalyst for LWCCN, spoke last month in Jordan, concluding a 12-region tour to promote the Lausanne Congress conviction, ratified in 2010, that “creation care is a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ.” The message has been…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 14, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
As Egypt reels from the tragic church fire that killed 41 worshipers on Sunday, many search for where to put the blame.
“God forgive the fire department,” said Ishak Henin, a deacon at Abu Seifein Coptic Orthodox Church in Imbaba, a dense urban neighborhood of Cairo. “If they had come earlier, they could have saved more people.”
Egyptian authorities stated they arrived almost immediately after the 9 a.m. fire was first reported. Eyewitness testimony varied; some stated 15 minutes, others over two hours.
Abu Seifein means “the father of two swords” and is the Arabic moniker for second-century martyr Saint Mercurius, whose icon reflects his military origins.
But the word church may give the wrong impression to overseas audiences, as the sanctuary was located between ground floor shops and towering residences. Illegally repurposed in 2007 from one of many tightly packed apartment complexes, the now-charred chapel traced back to an era when Egyptian Christians were unable to obtain permits to build new houses of worship.
The law was changed in 2016, and a Coptic legal expert stated Abu Seifein was officially licensed in 2019. Since the latest batch in April, the slow-moving process has now legalized 2,401 churches and affiliated service centers.
Yet many remain in their original condition, below safety codes, and according to the law full legality can only come once all regulations are satisfied.
Abu Seifein’s four-story building housed two daycare facilities, and 18 children died in the blaze. Around 100 people were present at worship that morning; authorities stated most deaths—which included the local priest—were caused by smoke inhalation and the resulting stampede.
One family lost a set of five-year-old triplets, their mother, and grandmother.
The head of Egypt’s evangelical community was “deeply pained,” and offered condolences to Pope Tawadros, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. “We pray that God will give comfort and patience to the people,” stated Andrea Zaki, “and…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 18, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Committing Egypt to a five-year program of human rights reform, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did not mince words about religion.
“If someone tells me they are neither Muslim nor Christian nor a Jew, or that he or she does not believe in religion, I will tell them, ‘You are free to choose,’” he said. “But will a society that has been conditioned to think in a certain way for the last 90 years accept this?”
The comment sent shockwaves through Egyptian society.
“Listening to him, I thought he was so brave,” said Samira Luka, senior director for dialogue at the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. “Sisi is fighting not only a culture, but a dogma.”
Last month, the government released its first-ever National Human Rights Strategy after studying the path of improvement in 30 other nations, including New Zealand, South Korea, and Finland. The head of the UN Human Rights Council praised the 70-page document as a “key tool” with “concrete steps.”
Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and worship and gives international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the force of law. But Article 98 of the Middle Eastern nation’s penal code stipulates up to five years in prison for blasphemy and has been used against atheists and Christians alike.
Will Sisi’s words signal a change?
Since his election in 2014, Egypt’s head of state has consistently spoken about the need to “renew religious discourse,” issuing a challenge to Muslim clerics. And prior to the launch of the new strategy, his comments even hinted at a broader application than atheism.
“We are all born Muslims and non-Muslims by ID card and inheritance,” Sisi stated. “Have you ever thought of … searching for the path until you reach the truth?”
Egypt’s ID card indicates the religion of each citizen. It can be changed to state Muslim in the case of conversion, but cannot be changed to Christian. Prominent public figures have called to remove the label, and debate ensued at the new strategy’s launch. Some argue the ID’s religion field is used by prejudiced civil servants and private businesses to discriminate against the minority religion.
Sisi’s timeframe of “90 years” roughly corresponds to the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Luka’s “dogma” indicates a widespread social acceptance of interpretations of Islam that privilege the religion’s place in law and culture.
According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims believe converting away from Islam should be punishable by death.
Calling for the application of sharia law, the Brotherhood won Egypt’s presidency in 2012, only to be overthrown by then-defense minister Sisi the following year after massive popular demonstrations.
Since then, Egypt declared the group to be a terrorist organization, and has moved to eradicate their influence from public life. Thousands—including unaffiliated liberal activists—are in prison or self-imposed exile. Bahey Eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), called Egypt’s human rights situation “catastrophic.”
Concerned, President Joe Biden withheld $130 million of $1.3 billion in yearly aid to Egypt last month, conditioning it on the release of human rights and civil society activists.
Three days earlier—on September 11—Sisi launched the new human rights strategy to a national television audience. In addition to his comments about religion, he declared 2022 to be the “year of civil society.”
But a new law passed this summer to regulate NGOs was largely panned by human rights advocates. And Hassan stated that the 9/11 timing indicated the document’s primary audience. So too did the fact that the drafting committee was headed by the foreign minister.
“Before it was circulated in Egypt,” he said, “the strategy was published on the webpage of the Egyptian embassy in DC.”
A week later, charges were dropped against four NGOs.
Egyptian Christians, however, are far less critical…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on October 18, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
The Islamic State has claimed another Christian victim.
And Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church has won another martyr.
“We are telling our kids that their grandfather is now a saint in the highest places of heaven,” stated Peter Salama of his 62-year-old father, Nabil Habashi Salama, executed by the ISIS affiliate in north Sinai.
“We are so joyful for him.”
The Salamas are known as one of the oldest Coptic families in Bir al-Abd on the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Nabil was a jeweler, owning also mobile phone and clothing shops in the area.
Peter said ISIS targeted his father for his share in building the city’s St. Mary Church.
In a newly released 13-minute propaganda video entitled The Makers of Slaughter [or Epic Battles], a militant quotes the Quran to demand the humiliation of Christians and their willing payment of jizya—a tax to ensure their protection.
Nabil was kidnapped five months ago in front of his home. Eyewitnesses said during his resistance he was beaten badly, before being thrown into a stolen car. It may be that these were kidnappers, because in the video that shows Nabil’s execution, he said he was held captive by ISIS for 3 months and 11 days.
On April 18, he was shot in the back of the head, kneeling.
“As you kill, you will be killed,” states the video, directed to “all the crusaders in the world.”
It addresses all of Egypt’s Christians, warning them to put no faith in the army. And Muslims which support the Egyptian state are called “apostates.” Two other Sinai residents—tribesmen who cooperated with the military—are also executed in the video.
Peter said that in the effort to drive Nabil from his faith, his teeth were broken.
His daughter Marina joined in the tribute. “I will miss you, my father,” she wrote on Facebook. “You made us proud…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on April 19, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
Egyptian Christians have long struggled to build their churches.
But now, they can have Muslim help.
Last month, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawki Allam issued a fatwa (religious ruling) allowing Muslim paid labor to contribute toward the construction of a church. Conservative scholars had argued this violated the Quranic injunction to not help “in sin and rancor.”
The ruling is timely, as the governmental Council of Ministers recently issued an infographic highlighting the 2020 land allocation for 10 new churches in eight Egyptian cities. An additional 34 are currently under construction.
Prior to this, two prominent examples stand out. In 2018, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated the Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Homeland in al-Our, a village in Upper Egypt, to honor the Copts beheaded by ISIS in Libya. And in 2019, he consecrated the massive Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in what will become the new administrative capital of Egypt, alongside its central mosque.
This is in addition to restoration work at 16 historic Coptic sites and further development of the 2,000-mile Holy Family Trail, tracing the traditional map of Jesus’ childhood flight from King Herod.
And since the 2018 implementation of a 2016 law to retroactively license existing church buildings, a total of 1,800 have now been registered legally.
Persecution has long been a term applied to Copts in Egypt, ranked No. 16 on the Open Doors 2021 World Watch List of nations where it is hardest to be a Christian. But shortly after the mufti’s fatwa, which restated a ruling last given in 2009, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar gave a pronouncement of his own…
[But there are dissenting cases also.]
Ramy Kamel, a 33-year-old activist, was once dodgingtanks near Tahrir Square, protesting for Coptic equality. Ten years later, he is in jail for “spreading false news” about Coptic discrimination, and “financing a terrorist group.”
Soad Thabet, a 74-year-old Coptic grandmother, was in the Upper Egyptian village of al-Karm, minding her own business. Ten years later, she is fighting for justice after having been stripped naked and paraded through town, with her Muslim attackers acquitted.
These examples show that the term persecution remains “appropriate,” said Kurt Werthmuller, a USCIRF policy analyst specializing in Egypt…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on February 22, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
Anne Zaki is assistant professor of preaching and practical theology at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. Raised in a Presbyterian home in Cairo, at age 16 she left the Middle East to travel alone to a progressive boarding school on Vancouver Island, Canada.
In 2000, she married a Syrian-Canadian pastor, and as a mother of four, she completed her master of divinity degree from Calvin Theological Seminary in 2009. Zaki was always confident she would return to Cairo, and the family relocated there nine months into the chaos of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
CT spoke with Zaki about the transformative power of Scripture in her own life and in the Egyptian church.
How did Scripture shape your early faith?
I grew up in an environment that was saturated with Scripture. My father was a pastor. My grandfather was a pastor. After retirement, my grandfather came to live with us. I would wake up every morning to hymns and Scripture being read out loud. His prayers were incredible, almost as if he was echoing God’s words back to him.
Eight months before going to Canada, I had an experience of personal encounter with Jesus. I knew I was different. Even my family noticed the change.
But in my new school, for the first time I was being exposed to religions other than Christianity and Islam. And it wasn’t just exposure. It was a school that was set up to appreciate and promote diversity. I had my first big spiritual crisis. I had to ask myself: Why do I believe what I believe? Is it just because I grew up in it?
I sort of made a deal with God. I told him, If you really are who I have known you to be, who they told me that you are, then prove it to me through your Word without the influence of anyone else. So for me that meant no church, no youth group—not even Christian music. And during that period of six months, God’s Word was sufficient to reveal himself, to prove himself, to be his witness.
How did you sense God revealing himself to you through his Word? Can you explain further?
Every day, I would read a certain portion of Scripture, meditate on it, and pray it back to God. The things that didn’t make sense I would throw back at him, and we’d have a debate about them. Usually…
This article was originally published in the special September print edition on women’s voices in scripture engagement. Please click here to read the full text, where you can download the entire issue for free.
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.