I contributed additional reporting to this AP article, including its conclusion below:
At Qaraqosh, Francis urged its residents to continue to dream, and forgive.
“Forgiveness is necessary to remain in love, to remain Christian,” he said.
One resident, Doha Sabah Abdallah, told him how her son and two other young people were killed in a mortar strike August 6, 2014, as ISIS neared the town. “The martyrdom of these three angels” alerted the other residents to flee, she said. “The deaths of three saved the entire city.”
She said now it was for the survivors to “try to forgive the aggressor.”
Francis wrapped up the day—and his visit—with a Mass at the stadium in Irbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region. An estimated 10,000 people erupted in ululating cheers when he arrived and did a lap around the track in his open-sided popemobile, the first and only time he has used it on this trip due to security concerns.
On the makeshift altar for the Mass was a statue of the Virgin Mary from the Mar Adday Church in the town of Keramlis, which was restored after ISIS militants chopped off its head and hands.
“Religion is love, grace, forgiveness,” said Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, in advance of the visit. “Religion is a message, and humanity is its core.
“[And] as for us, we are staying until the end.”
But perhaps some Iraq Christians have a vision for even more.
“This is a time of healing for our country,” Farouk Hammo, pastor of Baghdad Presbyterian Church, told CT.
“But we are still praying for a visitation by the Lord Jesus—a revival—and it will happen.”
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 11, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
In the links above you can explore the opportunities I have had to write about this suffering community, and in one article I partially translated a poem circulated on social media that one Copt directed to ISIS. The Arabic original is here, and the full translation is below:
I will not speak (as some have done)
And curse your religion whatever its name.
I have come that it be known:
My fathers’ religion and what it proclaims.
My fathers’ religion has love at its heart,
The meaning of which will call you to peace.
My fathers’ religion, right from the start
Offers forbearance that conflict will cease.
Your hatred and killing in no way suffices
To stop us from loving and praying for you.
My father’s religion, oh dear Uncle ISIS,
Is not a weapon to pierce you straight through.
I wish that you could come to see
Or just one time the answer seek.
That while you bomb and murder, we
Stay strong as if a mountain peak.
My fathers’ religion of spirit consists.
It is not a body whose end is the dust.
And for the spirit—despite death persists—
Awaiting are loved ones residing in trust.
My fathers’ religion, if you could discern,
Offers each wounded the medic of life.
Tomorrow when you will repent and return,
You will come to know just who is the Christ.
It is a phenomenal sentiment. Which is why I was surprised – and then cut to the core – when my Egyptian friend helping me translate it called it: Haughty.
When I showed him my translation he said: Well done. It is even more arrogant than the original.
My friend is a Muslim, but non-practicing, with a respectful dismissal of religion in general. Perhaps one can say such a person of any background might be offended by strong claims of religious conviction. I have previously written critically when it is labeled bigotry.
I don’t think this is true of my friend. He has a generous heart and speaks tongue-in-cheek. But while I cannot judge the heart of the one who wrote the poem, I can discern the heart of the one who translated it.
And my friend is right.
It is my job to represent what I understand to be the reality of Egypt. This poem, I believe, is an authentic expression of the Coptic community.
But it is more than that. It is an expression of the way I would like the Coptic community to be. Many are not there. Many struggle. Yet many of them hold as an ideal that this is what their Christianity calls for.
So the poem represents also my conviction, but once again more. It represents my triumphalism, my sense of the moral superiority of Christianity. I have written about this before, and it is not necessarily damning. We all judge deficient that which we find to be false.
These days, much of the world says this should not be done with religion. Fair enough. It is hard to weigh between metaphysical matters. Even so, is it not right to let each religion be tested according to its merits, its morals, and its history? Few issues are as important, once one believes in an eternity.
But set all that aside. When I translated the poem I was rejoicing in more than my conviction, I was rejoicing in my identity. When I shared it in the article I was not just encouraging fellow Christian readers with the example of brothers-in-faith. I was encouraging also an us-versus-them mentality.
The ‘them’ is everyone else. There is nothing in it particularly against Islam, but Islam is the context. In Egypt, Christians are surrounded. In America, we are media saturated. I wish to be of generous heart toward Muslims and their faith. This too, with the yearning expressed in the poem, is part of what I understand to be Christianity.
But is that yearning for the glory of God, or the wholeness of my fellow man? Too often, it is the yearning for a pat on the back, the placement on a pedestal. And who better to offer, than a forgiving, grieving woman turned into an icon? Do I truly care for her in the loss of her son or husband? Or do I care for the message we can make out of her?
This is haughtiness. This is arrogance. My friend knows me well, and I’m afraid he exposed me. At the least, he helped God reveal.
Perhaps a bit of Arabic and Egyptian context is helpful. The opening line of the poem, my friend explained, recalls a verse from the popular poet Gamal Bakheet. “Their fathers’ religion, what is its name?” was written at the time of the 2011 revolution, and is a thinly veiled jibe at the Muslim Brotherhood. (See his Arabic recital here.)
The poem speaks of “our fathers’ religion” in the context of sublime values. It praises not only Islam, but also Christianity and Judaism – and even the non-monotheistic religions. And it criticizes those outsiders who want to bring something more defined, more exclusive, and more politically instrumental to Egypt.
My friend has no love for the Muslim Brotherhood, but his father – of whom he speaks respectfully – was a regional leader.
There is another context, even more illustrative. “Your fathers’ religion” is a common insult in Egypt. You can say it to anyone, regardless of their faith, to curse them and their whole ancestry.
In this light, the Coptic poem dips deep into Egyptian waters. It says it will not curse – but even in mentioning the phrase it practically does. It is a redirect, yes, to speak instead of “my fathers’ religion.” But it is soaked in the context from which it emerges. How many Copts have heard this expression hurled by wayward Muslims?
So let us salute them all the more, when they rise above and bless those who go far beyond insult. But remember, and be chastened by, the inherent temptation to pride.
The Bible tells a story of Abraham coming back from a battle, reclaiming his goods taken during a regional war. Upon meeting a friendly king he receives a blessing and yields a tenth of the spoils.
New Testament commentary establishes this king as a prefiguration of Jesus, establishing his covenant of grace as superior to the covenant of law that would be developed through Abraham’s descendants.
For the non-Christian reader, allow the logic to be complicated. But note the verse concerning Abraham and the king. “And without doubt, the lesser person is blessed by the greater.”
How easy it is, when we rightly note and idealistically contemplate the near-impossible calling to bless the enemy, to put ourselves in that superior posture. How easy it is to imagine ourselves in a greater community.
How easy it is to be haughty.
Is the poem a healthy encouragement and impassioned exhortation, or an arrogant celebration and smug self-validation? Only the poet knows.
The translator? The question hits too close to home. It is better to lean toward repentance.
I knew Hamilton existed, but very little beyond this. My editor’s linking to ‘unimaginable‘ may have helped the article go viral.
It was already a compelling story. Forgiveness offered by the widow of the Coptic doorman who save the lives of dozens, intervening against a suicide bomber.
It was a morbid type of fun to watch the article circulate online. I was very glad to tell the story. But so very sad there is a story to tell.
So it is a similar feeling being interviewed about it. Pilgrim Radio is a Christian network in the northwest United States, and they asked me to share with their listeners. If you like, here is the 27 minute program.
And here is the original article at Christianity Today, if you’d like to refresh your memory before listening.
I was interviewed by Pilgrim Radio once before, on the churches and Christians of the Arabian Peninsula.
Thanks for following along. Just remember to aim for more than appreciating the Coptic example. To the best of your ability, with God’s help, imitate. It can now be imagined.
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 previouslyreported 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.
A prime example of Ghalab’s wish for loving children: 10-year-old Myriam from Mosul, Iraq.
Her family fled their home last July with hundreds of thousands of other Christians, finding safety in Kurdistan’s Irbil. Essam Nagy of SAT-7 Kids visited the refugee camps and connected with Myriam, a faithful viewer who praised God for not allowing ISIS to kill them.
Asked about her feelings toward those who drove her from her home, Myriam wondered why they did this. Then she said: “I will only ask God to forgive them. Why should they be killed?”
To date, more than 1 million people have seen her witness online. [Full video at the bottom]
SAT-7’s five channels reach an audience of 15 million in North Africa and the Middle East, though it’s impossible to measure how many people watched Myriam. However, numbers can be tracked through the social media campaign, which has reached 25 times its normal audience, with subtitles of the video provided in English, Spanish, Turkish, and Chinese. Word spread not only through SAT-7 affiliates, but also in the local secular press.
Pan-Arabic al-Arabia praised Myriam for confronting ISIS with love. “Everyone who listens to her is astounded,” echoed the Egyptian Youm 7. Leading Lebanese daily al-Nahar called for the clip to be shown in the nation’s schools as a lesson in humanity.
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
This video – with transliterated subtitles – was produced by a church choir in Minya, Upper Egypt, a region which witnessed several severe church burnings. They stand within one church’s charred remains, and sing about love and forgiveness.
May they truly live these words.
Many Christians have spoken that if these heinous attacks are the price they must pay to secure a civil state of free and equal citizenship, they are willing. But are they willing also not just to forgive alleged Islamists who committed these crimes, but also reach out to them in love and understanding? Right now, their temptation is to celebrate the upswing of their fortunes and join in the condemnation, if not demonization, of all things Islamist.
For a view of some of these crimes, please see this video, recently released by the Bible Society showing the attack on its branches in Minya and Asyut.
Yes, if they wish, condemn all things Islamist, but not all people Islamist. This is the test of their song: All crimes notwithstanding, can they differentiate between actions, ideas, and the people themselves? The love of which they sing demands they stand against the tide and seek transparent justice for all currently accused.
And then, amidst it all, to forgive. This is far easier in song than in deed, but meditation in song can transform the heart. Can it transform the Copts? Can it transform the nation? The outlook is bleak, therefore, keep singing…