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How Do Copts Endure their Martyrdoms?

From my article published at Providence Magazine:

Copts Endure Martydrom
Photo Credit: Egyptian Coptic Christians attend Orthodox Good Friday mass at the Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo, Egypt, on April 10, 2015. Xinhua/Pan Chaoyue, via Flickr.

“On a day like today,” Fr. Samaan Shehata was murdered in Cairo. The day was October 12, but he likely read those very words in mass just one day earlier, introducing the lives of the saints.

Hunted down and stabbed repeatedly by a Muslim extremist, his name now joins their list. Dozens have preceded him in the last few years alone, gunned down in a bus, bombed in a church, beheaded in Libya.

Godfather to Shehata’s children, Fr. Yuannis Anton said these deaths are a “tax” that Copts must pay for the peace of the church and nation. These are difficult days for Egypt, he said, and the fight against terrorism is a fight for stability.

“In the language of the church, it is our cross to bear,” he said. “But we pray with Jesus not to hold this sin against them. We are not angry nor ask for vengeance, this is not our spirit.”

Similar stances have repeatedly wowed the world as Coptic faithful forgive their enemies. But even when their call instead emphasizes justice, there is an odd sense of jealousy that indwells many in the community.

“I wish I was with him, and lost my life with him,” Fr. Biemen Muftah told C-Sat, who was with Shehata at the time of the murder. “I wish I was as ready as he was, and could be in the place he is now.”

Choking back tears, he said, “We have lost a good priest on the earth, but gained the best intercessor in heaven.”

It is these intercessors Copts learn about “on a day like today,” every time the mass is celebrated.

Called the Synaxarium, the liturgy features daily hagiographic biographies of the celebrated saints of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Read after the Acts of the Apostles and before the Gospel, it features 726 entries, 237 of which involve martyrdom. In daily readings, nearly half the year encourages the faithful to suffer even unto death…

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Providence Magazine.

 

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Current Events

Coptic Martyrs of Cairo, Remembered in New Jersey

coptic-martyrs-in-new-jersey

Forty days later, the pain of terrorism in Egypt resonates as far as New Jersey.

On December 11, 2016 the Coptic community of Egypt was shaken by a suicide bomber, killing 28 worshippers in the St. Peter and St. Paul Church adjacent the Coptic Cathedral.

“Deliverance from our enemies comes only from God,” said Archbishop Karas, patriarchal exarch for North America in the Coptic Orthodox Church.

“But this is not new, martyrdom is part of living our lives in Christ.”

Archbishop Karas was one of many religious and political dignitaries present during a commemoration service at the St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Holmdel, NJ. Copts sometimes jest that their diaspora in New Jersey is the ‘Shubra’ of the United States, referring to the mixed but heavily populated Coptic neighborhood in Cairo.

Approximately 1000 visitors gathered on January 13 to honor the martyrs who lost their lives, fitting with the traditional Egyptian custom of mourning the deceased on the fortieth day after their passing.

This corresponds to January 20, but host Fr. Michael Sorial explained the service was moved forward to avoid scheduling on the presidential inauguration.

Fr. Sorial offered thanks to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for his response to the tragedy. Immediately he promised to restore the Cairo church to its original condition in time for Coptic Christmas on January 7, and honored the victims with a state funeral.

The work completed, Sisi visited Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II for Christmas mass in the Coptic Cathedral for the third year running. He is the first Egyptian president ever to do so.

Fr. Sorial also hosted a number of New Jersey political figures, among them longtime friend of the Coptic community Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).

“We look up to God, for only faith can truly comfort us at a time like this,” said Menendez. “And in each other we find the strength to move forward.

“As long as I have a vote and a voice in the US Senate, I will be a bold advocate for tolerance and acceptance, for freedom of religion, peace, and security – both here at home and around the world.”

Menendez was joined by fellow senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who offered his condolences in a recorded video.

“I am grateful the Coptic community lives those values of joy, of peace, of mercy, of compassion,” said Booker. “You evidence the values that are needed now more than ever to combat that kind of violence.”

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ-4) dispatched an official letter.

“My prayer is that following this darkness and evil, the light of the Christian community in Egypt will burn brighter than ever before,” he wrote.

“I commit to you to work toward a more secure future for Christians in Egypt and in the region.”

Also joining the commemoration was Ambassador Ahmed Farouk of the Egyptian General Consulate in New York.

“In Egypt, that fact is that we are all Copts—whether we are Muslims or Christians,” said Farouk. “The 28 martyrs are in a better place than all of us, for sure.

“The only big loser is terrorism, and it will keep losing as long as we stand united.”

In his keynote address, Archbishop Karas reminded the audience that these martyrs cannot be remembered without also remembering other Christian and non-Christian victims of terrorism around the world.

But he impressed upon those in attendance that such witness is not only for those who are killed. It is meant also for the living.

“For most of us, martyrdom means we die to ourselves, and give our lives completely to God,” he said. “We honor Jesus Christ and the sacrifice of the 28 martyrs by taking up our cross, to follow our Lord.”

For complete video of the memorial service, please click here or watch below.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

More Martyrs: ISIS Executes Dozens of Ethiopian Christians in Libya

Ethiopian Christians LibyaA few excerpts from my article for Christianity Today, published April 20:

Once again, ISIS has orchestrated and filmed the dramatic mass killing of African Christians who refuse to deny their faith.

This time, the approximately 28 men targeted by the Libya affiliate of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as Daesh) were Ethiopian Christians. In February, the killing of 21 mostly Egyptian Christians drew widespread horror and fears of future massacres, but also led to Egypt’s largest Bible outreach.

The video was released the same day the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, arrived in Cairo to offer condolences for the previous martyrs in Libya: 20 Coptic Orthodox Christians and a sub-Saharan African. (CT reported how their deaths were unifying Egypt and inspiring Muslims throughout the Arab world, as well as honored in the Coptic calendar.)

“Why has Libya spoken so powerfully to the world?” asked Welby during a public sermon. “The way these brothers lived and died testified that their faith was trustworthy.”

The Ethiopian government has not yet been able to confirm the video, or certify the victims are its citizens.

But Grant LeMarquand, the Anglican bishop of the Horn of Africa, says they certainly appear to be.

“If they were given the chance to convert and did not,” he told CT, “they should be considered what ISIS calls them: ‘People of the Cross’, and therefore true followers of the crucified one.”

Bishop Angaelos, the general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, underscored the Ethiopians’ testimony.

“Once again we see innocent Christians murdered purely for refusing to renounce their faith,” he said in a statement.

“As Christians, we remain committed to our initial instinct following the murder of our 21 Coptic brothers in Libya, that it is not only for our own good, but indeed our duty to ourselves, the world, and even those who see themselves as our enemies, to forgive and pray for the perpetrators of this and similar crimes,” he said. “We pray for these men and women, self-confessed religious people, that they may be reminded of the sacred and precious nature of every life created by God.”

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

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Who are the Copts?

Muharraq MonksWorld attention has turned to the Coptic Christian community of Egypt, following the beheading of 20 of their migrant workers in Libya at the hands of the so-called Islamic State.

The Coptic Orthodox Church considers them martyrs. A new icon venerates their death and their names have been added into the Synaxarion, the liturgical church history commemorating the saints.

But who are the Copts, and what is their understanding of martyrdom?

The word ‘Copt’ derives from the Pharaonic word ‘gypt’, which through the Greek ‘Aigyptus’ became the modern-day ‘Egypt’.

Copts are therefore Egyptians, descendants of the ancient Pharaonic civilization. As such, the Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic Egyptians call themselves Copts, as do some Muslims.

Coptic population figures are highly contested. Some Muslims estimate as low as 3-4 percent; some Christians as high as 20-25 percent. The CIA world factbook estimates 10 percent. Official Egyptian ID cards list the religion of every citizen, but these figures are not released. Roughly 90 percent of Copts belong to the Orthodox denomination.

Coptic tradition says the church was planted through the missionary preaching of St. Mark, writer of the second Gospel in the New Testament. He was martyred in Alexandria in 68 AD.

The Coptic Orthodox Church dates its calendar from the year 248 AD, the first year of Roman Emperor Diocletian. His reign witnessed up to 800,000 Christian martyrs in Egypt.

According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad said that after conquering Egypt [649 AD] the Muslims should treat its inhabitants well. To come under the protection of the new rulers Copts had to pay the jizya tax. Those unable had to either convert or risk death.

Historian Phillip Jenkins, author of The Lost History of Christianity, says that periods of persecution waxed and waned until the end of the 12th century, when Islam became the dominant religion.

Islam considers a martyr to be one who is killed while striving in the path of God, often interpreted as participation in jihad.

In Christianity, the early church defined martyr as a technical term to mean one who was put to death for their faith, in imitation of Jesus.

Christology was an issue that divided Coptic Orthodoxy from emerging Roman Catholicism. In 451 AD at the Council of Chalcedon the Copts were anathematized over the issue, but in 1998 the two churches reconciled. Copts prefer to be known as ‘miaphysites’, where Jesus’ humanity and divinity unite to make one nature.

In many issues the Coptic Orthodox are similar to Roman Catholics, following a traditional liturgy, holding to seven sacraments, and believing that during Eucharist the bread and wine become Jesus’ actual body and blood.

They differ in that the Copts have their own patriarch. Pope Tawadros II is the 118th in a line stretching back to St. Mark. Coptic priests are free to marry, though bishops must be celibate and are drawn from monastic communities.

Coptic ascetic spirituality is exhibited through the practice of fasting. But unlike complete abstinence as in Islam’s Ramadan, faithful Copts maintain a vegan diet while fasting 210 days of the year.

Monasticism as a Christian expression is traced back to St. Anthony in the Third century. St. Benedict and John Cassian visited the Egyptian desert monks and introduced the practice to Europe.

Being a bishop-led church independent from Rome has also contributed to close relations with the Anglican Church in the UK. According to Heather Sharkey, author of American Evangelicals in Egypt, the Church Missionary Society worked to revive the Orthodox Church in the Nineteenth century, as opposed to US Presbyterians from whom most of today’s Egyptian Protestants are descended.

Competition between denominations has often led to tension, but especially since the Arab Spring Copts have deemphasized distinctions in light of the challenges of Islamism.

It has also resulted in a surge in spirituality. The late Pope Shenouda III encouraged biblical literacy and winsome preaching. Today the Bible Society of Egypt is the fourth largest in the world.

Over the past 30 years the Coptic Orthodox Church has spread throughout the world, establishing over 15 dioceses in Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Commenting on the martyrs in Libya, Bishop Angaelos of the UK demonstrates Coptic—and biblical—spirituality.

‘As a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness,’ he said to CNN. ‘We do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.’

This article was first posted at Lapido Media.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

How Libya’s Martyrs are Witnessing to Egypt

Two Rows by the SeaThis article was published first on Christianity Today, on February 23, 2015.

Undaunted by the slaughter of 21 Christians in Libya, the director of the Bible Society of Egypt saw a golden gospel opportunity.

“We must have a Scripture tract ready to distribute to the nation as soon as possible,” Ramez Atallah told his staff the evening an ISIS-linked group released its gruesome propaganda video. Less than 36 hours later, Two Rows by the Sea was sent to the printer.

One week later, 1.65 million copies have been distributed in the Bible Society’s largest campaign ever. It eclipses even the 1 million tracts distributed after the 2012 death of Shenouda, the Coptic “Pope of the Bible.”

The tract contains biblical quotations about the promise of blessing amid suffering, alongside a poignant poem in colloquial Arabic:

Who fears the other?
The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

“The design is meant so that it can be given to any Egyptian without causing offense,” said Atallah. “To comfort the mourning and challenge people to commit to Christ.”

The Bible Society distributed the tract through Egypt’s churches, but one congregation went a step further.

Isaaf Evangelical ChurchIsaaf Evangelical Church, located on one of downtown Cairo’s busiest streets, hung a poster on its wall at eye-level with pedestrians. “We learn from what the Messiah has said,” it read over the background of an Egyptian flag. “‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you….’”

Pastor Francis Fahim said the poster was meant to express comfort to all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian.

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Christianity Today.