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Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable

This article was first published by Christianity Today on April 20, 2017.

Coptic Forgiveness
Image: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP Coffins are carried to funeral of Egyptian Christians killed in Palm Sunday bombings.

Twelve seconds of silence is an awkward eternity on television. Amr Adeeb, perhaps the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, leaned forward as he searched for a response.

“The Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel!” he finally uttered.

Moments earlier, Adeeb was watching a colleague in a simple home in Alexandria speak with the widow of Naseem Faheem, the guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city.

On Palm Sunday, the guard had redirected a suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. Likely the first to die in the blast, Faheem saved the lives of dozens inside the church.

“I’m not angry at the one who did this,” said his wife, children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’

“‘You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.’”

Stunned, Adeeb stammered about Copts bearing atrocities over hundreds of years, but couldn’t escape the central scandal.

“How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”

Millions marveled with him across the airwaves of Egypt.

So also did millions of Copts, recently rediscovering their ancient heritage, according to Ramez Atallah, president of the Bible Society of Egypt which subtitled and recirculated the satellite TV clip.

“In the history and culture of the Copts, there is much taught about martyrdom,” he told CT. “But until Libya, it was only in the textbooks—though deeply ingrained.”

The Islamic State in Libya kidnapped and beheaded 21 mostly Coptic Christians in February 2015. CT previously reported the message of forgiveness issued by their families and the witness it provided.

“Since then, there has been a paradigm shift,” said Atallah. “Our ancestors lived and believed this message, but we never had to.”

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

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

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

From my new article in Christianity Today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But all ask for prayer.

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

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

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Striking ISIS: Egyptian Participation and Christian Angst

 

bombing-isis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Current Events

Church Relief Effort Highlights ‘1000s Left on Streets’ ahead of Iraqi Winter

Published September 23rd at Lapido Media:

Ehab el-Kharrat visiting refugee children in Erbil, Iraq (credit: SAT-7)
Ehab el-Kharrat visiting refugee children in Erbil, Iraq       (credit: SAT-7)

A former Egyptian member of parliament whose church is distributing aid to Iraqi refugees has spoken out about the gaps in humanitarian provision as the country heads into winter.

He expressed concern about underfunded UN campsites and thousands living on the streets.

Ehab el-Kharrat visited Erbil, a city in the Kurdistan region of Iraq that has attracted thousands of people fleeing conflict in the region.

His church, Kasr el-Dobara church in Cairo, works among relief heavyweights such as the UNHCR, Caritas, and Samaritan’s Purse.

It has sent a delegation to Iraq every ten days for the past two months, trying to stem the humanitarian tide. The congregation, which is made up of the middle and upper classes, has donated $180,000 to the relief effort with a further $120,000 from a fundraising trip to the United States.

So far it has distributed 2,500 mattresses with pillows and blankets, and it supports a network of 2,200 families that receive a food basket every two weeks.

This network is run in coordination with churches of Ankawa, a Christian neighborhood in Erbil. Ninety per cent of recipients are non-Christian – either Sunni Muslims also fleeing Islamic State, or else from the Yazidi minority.

Revd Fawzi Khalil is director of relief ministries at Kasr el-Dobara church.

He explained that the Chaldean Catholic Church of Ankawa has done an excellent job of caring for Christian refugees. Erbil’s population includes 160,000 Christians, and many have taken in fellow Christians.

As a consequence Erbil’s church grouds are packed. The Mar Eliya refugee camp is located on the grounds of the church-run school. Nearby Mar Yousef camp is in the church itself and hosts mostly Muslims and Yazidis.

Kharrat, a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, described a pecking order of beneficiaries. After refugees living in camps in church grounds, the next most fortunate group is those taken in by Kurdish families, he said, followed by those in unfinished buildings but under the sponsorship of church groups. Kasr el-Dobara’s efforts are toward this group, primarily.

Underfunded

But thousands of Iraqis remain on the streets and in underfunded UN campsites in the desert. Kharrat noticed most tents were recycled from an earlier Syrian refugee camp, and are of deteriorating quality.

Erbil has a permanent population of 1.5m people, and UN figures show there are 1.8m displaced Iraqis. But according to UN-Iraq, the three established UN camps can host only eight per cent of the refugees.

Local families and churches take in the rest, but thousands sleep on the streets, under bridges, or in partially completed buildings, said Khalil.

In speaking to Kurdish officials, he related their complaint that under the Maliki government, Baghdad ‘failed’ to send Erbil its constitutionally guaranteed share of the budget. The new government, formed on 8 September, has promised to do so ‘but not yet delivered’, he said.

This has left the Kurdish regional government in a bind, as the UNHCR is a refugee agency, but those fleeing are technically considered internally displaced persons. With no agency possessing a clear mandate, the UN looks toward the government to lead.

Even so, UN documents detail over 346,000 people who have been reached to some degree, with Saudi Arabia touted as a particularly generous donor.

Grateful

But this effort has not impressed the Kurds, says Kharrat.

‘Kurds are grateful to the US in particular and the West in general,’ he said, ‘but are wondering why the Arabs are so slow – in both humanitarian and military aid.’

Khalil and Kharrat stated they were busy with their own work in the area but neither recalled seeing any Muslim groups among the refugees.

Islamic Relief, however, has been working in the Anbar province to the west of Baghdad. It also distributed food parcels to 1,500 Christian families displaced in Nineveh.

According to Eva Boutros, director of volunteer ministry for Kasr el-Dobara, the fact that Egyptian Christians have been present has made an impression on many.

‘Muslims and Yazidis appreciate very much that they are cared for,’ she said. ‘They know it is the church that is doing this in Iraq.’

But whether Christians, Muslims, or the UN, no one is doing enough. By December if no solution is found, the already tragic situation will turn catastrophic.

‘Hundreds of thousands are unprepared for winter,’ Kharrat said, anticipating average lows of three degrees Celsius.

‘Conditions are horrible. They survived the summer – the heat did not kill, but the freezing snow might.’

 

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Ehab el-Kharrat: A Protestant Political Leader in Egypt

Ehab el-Kharrat

I met with Ehab el-Kharrat in his office just off Tahrir Square on March 15, 2014, shortly before the presidential elections. Kharrat is one of the founding members of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and though the party remained neutral, he endorsed Hamdeen Sabbahi, one of the few high profile Coptic leaders to do so.

As we know now, it turned out to be a losing proposition, as he was crushed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But as Kharrat explains, it was a principled vote more than one to back a likely winner. Being principled is important to Kharrat, and the interview explores this theme in relation to his Christian faith and deep involvement in politics.

The following is an excerpt from the transcript published at Arab West Report.

You grew up in a leftist home and had a personal conversion. Perhaps this is not the normal story of Christians in Egypt?

My father is one of the most prominent intellectuals in Egypt. He is old now at 88. He is a novelist, literary critic, and short story writer who has been acclaimed and received the most prominent awards in Egypt and the Arab region. He was even nominated by Naguib Mahfouz to be the second Nobel Prize winner from Egypt.

He used to be a Communist Party leader as a young man though he moderated as he became older. He was imprisoned two years under King Farouk. I read Marx and Freud and Sartre before I read the Bible, actually. I had a personal experience with the Lord when I was 18 with the youth of Kasr el-Dobara Church, and it was an intense spiritual experience.

I became very active in the church and I had to struggle with the question of should I still be politically active or not. I had been an active member of leftist groups at Cairo University, though never a member of secret organizations.

I became a preacher, a youth leader, and an assistant pastor at Kasr el-Dobara and was instrumental in our phenomenal growth from a couple of hundreds to our current count of five or six thousand. I was the interpreter for Billy Graham and Louis Palau, and for a number of years I was an evangelist. I think I got thirty or forty thousand professions of faith. I was counting at that time.

Most American evangelical Christians tend to lean toward the right rather than the left. Why do you find the left is a better fulfillment of your Christian faith?

If you study the Bible carefully and its emphasis on justice, the rights of the poor, anti-exploitation, and protection of the weak and vulnerable, you cannot escape that this is the brunt of the political position of the Biblical writers.

Of course there is the aspect of creation of wealth and this is a social democratic position too. I am not against personal entrepreneurship, being creative, or being rich. Many evangelicals in America are not giving enough attention to justice or the poor, but if you can find a political tendency in the Bible this is it.

It is not ‘name it and claim it,’ ‘be as rich as you can,’ or ‘trickle down policies.’ You cannot find these in the Bible. Even ‘compassionate capitalism’ as Francis Schaeffer says. When the Bible talks about the rights of the poor it is clear it is not about mercy or compassion. It is about justice.

Please click here to read the full transcript at Arab West Report, including extensive comments about his participation in the January 25 and June 30 revolutions. Here is a sample:

You don’t want to over-spiritualize the situation, but here is a spiritual question. In recent days some of the leaders of the popular opposition against Morsi have said there was police and military involvement. This suggests it was not just a grassroots movement, it was also a state manipulated movement.

Look, the movement started from our ranks, young people from the National Salvation Front. They gathered many signatures against Morsi and it was clear they had popularity. They were approached by the police and the military intelligence, and they talked to them. It is not like they became their agents, they cooperated, which is legitimate because we made clear we did not want to destroy state institutions only topple Morsi.

The signature campaign started the first of May, and I signed publicly the 10th of May with all our leaders. By early June it was clear the police and military intelligence were not going to oppose us. We made friends with the institutions, yes, but the movement was not manipulated by the government.

So this is my question, then: A Christian in politics must be straight in all he does, but politics can be about maneuvering, even manipulation. I don’t know if or where the line is crossed, but as a Christian, were lines crossed in the movement against Morsi?

I did not do any under the table negotiations and I think politics should be a clean game. The Brotherhood said that politics is a dirty game, and they played it dirty and paid the price. Whoever is not of integrity will lose. I believe politics should be straightforward whether you are a Christian or not. If you play by principles at the end you will prevail.

If the police or military intelligence dealt with us fair and square, it was ok. If they want to manipulate us we will not be manipulated. If they want to intimidate us we will not be intimidated. But if they ask if we will burn buildings and attack the Ministry of the Interior and we give them our word we will not, this is clear politics, it is clean.

 

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Ideological Distinction in the Coming Parliament

Kharrat (L) and Abadir (R), which is ideologically appropriate if currently politically muddled in their parties.
Kharrat (L) and Abadir (R), which is ideologically appropriate though politically muddled in their current party rivalry.

From my latest article in Egypt Source:

Many have argued that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s likely election as Egypt’s next president is an indication of a return to Hosni Mubarak-era policies. However apt the comparison may or may not be, the analysis overlooks one key advantage Sisi lacks. There is no longer a National Democratic Party (NDP), the party faithful to ousted president Mubarak, through which the presumed President Sisi can enact policy. He is on the record to neither form nor join a party through which to govern.

In its place exist a large number of smaller parties, which are in one sense a result of the revolution and its aim to diffuse presidential power. Sisi will need to work closely with these elected representatives; according to Article 146 of the constitution his choice of prime minister and the cabinet he is tasked to form must meet with legislative approval. Otherwise, the majority party will form the government.

The old NDP did not threaten Mubarak’s choices, for it was less an ideological vehicle than a means of access to executive favor. The coming parliament stands to be different, for most parties have already staked out distinct positions in electoral competition. But the phenomenal pull of Sisi is exposing fault-lines within these parties, blurring the lines of ideological distinction.

This is the joint explanation of the recent defection of thirty-one members of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) to the Free Egyptians Party (FEP). Both parties were created after the 2011 revolution. They ran together as the Egyptian Bloc in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, and were equal partners in the National Salvation Front to overthrow former President Mohamed Morsi.

The article continues to analyze why the defection occurred and what it means for political life and the coming parliament. It quotes extensively from a founding member in each party, and touches also on the Salafi challenge.

From the conclusion:

But until the political situation stabilizes, there is little likelihood of ideology coming to the forefront of campaigns. With the Brotherhood sidelined, the question of religion is largely replaced by the question of Sisi, and his discourse of security and stability. Should he win, the interplay between him parliament may determine whether or not the decay of ideological distinction continues.

Please click here to read the full article at Egypt Source.