Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Muslims Love Russian Christmas. Eurasia’s Evangelicals Do Too.


Kris Kringle should be in Kyrgyzstan.

If he is efficient, that is. The Central Asian nation, according to a 2007 study by Swedish consultants, is the geographic center best situated for his annual toy delivery campaign.

Regional evangelicals welcome his advent.

With Kyrgyzstan’s snowfall and freezing temperatures from November to April, Old Saint Nick would feel right at home in the mountainous peaks that raise the country’s average elevation to 9,000 feet. But whatever the religion of his army of elves, Father Christmas would have to adjust to Islamic customs in the valleys below.

Quick to seize on the marketing opportunity, the 90 percent Muslim-majority nation declared 2008 as “The Year of Santa Claus.”

There was eventual pushback—though seemingly confused in terms of the calendar. Frustrated with the non-Islamic revelry, in 2012 the Kyrgyz Muslims’ Religious Administration (KMRA) issued a fatwa forbidding New Year’s celebrations.

Not Christmas. Not even Xmas. The birth of Jesus reamins an official holiday.

But it is observed on January 7, not December 25. Nearly half of the nation’s 7 percent Christian population is Russian Orthodox and follows the Eastern almanac. And since Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991, the government has honored its primary religious minority with few Muslim objections.

New Year’s Day celebrations on January 1, however, are a holdover from the Soviet era. The atheistic communists banned Christmas in 1917 but in 1935 reconstituted it as a secular holiday, celebrated one week earlier. No baby Jesus, but no Santa Claus either.

The Russians instead promoted a vague ethereal figure named Ded Moroz, which translates as “Grandfather Frost.” And they kept the trappings of tree decorations, gift giving, and family gatherings. With Islam suppressed as well as Christianity, over time the Muslim peoples of the USSR adjusted to the imposed culture.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islamic authorities in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—as well as Azerbaijan on the western bank of the Caspian Sea—largely left New Year’s alone. Nominal Muslims shared in the festivities, including the sharia-forbidden consumption of alcohol.

It was Santa Claus that offended the KMRA—or rather, the modern, globalized excess of consumerism. Declaring the holiday un-Islamic, the administration asked the faithful to avoid celebrations altogether and instead give to the poor the substantial sums they would have spent on frivolities.

The fatwa found resonance, but not enough to dent the market.

“January 7 is the religious holiday, but the ‘real’ celebrations of Christmas come from the West,” said Ruslan Zagidulin, a lecturer in missiology at United Theological Seminary in the capital city of Bishkek. “But these have nothing to do with Jesus.”

Not that such celebrations are unwelcome. While there is no set custom for the meal, many families welcome the New Year with the national dish beshmarbek, a noodle soup with meat. Others enjoy boiled mutton or horse meat, served in dishes with sour cream or yogurt.

Following a speech by the president, fireworks go off in Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square—and on countless balconies across the country. Children await the visit of Ayaz Ata, the Kyrgyz name for Ded Moroz, and his beautiful granddaughter Snegurochka, known as Kar Kiz, meaning “Snow Maiden.” But where the Soviets merged religious heritage into a secular New Year’s celebration, freedom…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 20, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

Africa Christianity Today Published Articles

Evangelical Ethiopian Helps End Orthodox Schism

Ethiopian Cross

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on August 14.

Ending 27 years of schism, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in their homeland and in America reunited the two feuding branches of one of the world’s oldest churches.

Ironically, the push came from the Horn of Africa nation’s new evangelical prime minister.

“It is impossible to think of Ethiopia without taking note of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which is both great and sacred,” said Abiy Ahmed at the July 27 ceremony in Washington, reported the Fana state-run news agency.

A member of the World Council of Churches, the Tewahedo church split in 1991 due to political manipulations.

After the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) removed the Derg military junta from power, Patriarch Abune Merkorios was forced to abdicate.

He later fled to the United States, where dissidents and diaspora Ethiopians formed a rival patriarchate. According to church tradition, the position is held for life…

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

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Mideast Christians See Russia–not the US–as Defender of their Faith


Russia Middle East Christians
Image: John Holcroft

This article was first published in the July print edition of Christianity Today.

War was swirling in Syria. Rebels were pressing. And Maan Bitar was the only hope for American help.

“Because I am evangelical, everyone thinks I have channels of communication,” said the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Mhardeh. “Syrians believe the United States has the power to stop the conflict—if it wants to.”

In the early years of the civil war, Bitar’s Orthodox neighbors were desperate to convince the US and its allies to end support of rebel forces. Mhardeh, a Christian city 165 miles north of Damascus, was being shelled regularly from across the Orontes River.

But salvation came from a different source. Russian airpower turned the tide, and Syrian government-aligned troops drove the rebels from the area.

Russian intervention on behalf of Mideast Christians has pricked the conscience of many American evangelicals. Long conditioned to Cold War enmity, the question is entertained: Are they the good guys in the cradle of Christianity? Or are persecuted Christians just a handy excuse for political interests?

“The news tells us Russian troops are bringing peace to the region, said Vitaly Vlasenko, ambassador-at-large for the Russian Evangelical Alliance. “Maybe this is propaganda, but we don’t hear anything else.”

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

But here also is testimony from Egypt, unfortunately cut due to word count:

“If Russia helps anyone to save them from death and danger [in Syria], we welcome this,” said Boules Halim, spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church. “Not just for Christians, but for humanity.”

Halim had no comment on Russian political developments with Egypt. But despite technically not being in communion over disagreements with the fifth-century Chalcedonian Creed, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church are growing increasingly strong.

Pope Tawadros has met Putin. Theological students are being exchanged. Russian monks are touring Egyptian monasteries.

“We are coming together in dialogue,” Halim said. “Better communication leads to better understanding.”

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Spanning the Great Schism between Evangelical and Orthodox Christians


Spanning the Great Schism
Image: Benedetto Cristofani / Salzmanart

This article was first published in the June print edition of 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.



Middle East Providence Published Articles

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.


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.

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.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Libya Offers the First Coptic Martyrs Outside Egypt in the Modern Era

Coptic Orthodox Church - Misrata, Libya
Coptic Orthodox Church – Misrata, Libya

On December 29, 2012, an unknown assailant killed two Egyptians praying in a service building attached to a Coptic Orthodox Church in Misrata, Libya. Located to the west of Tripoli, the attacker threw a homemade bomb into a midnight prayer service of 150 people, injuring two others.

According to Fr. Marcos, the Coptic priest in Misrata, the assailant appeared to have targeted the service, attacking the home rather than the more heavily secured formal church building. He did not have any prior warning of an attack, however, nor any knowledge if his church was targeted because it was a Coptic Orthodox Church in particular.

Fr. Marcos wondered if the attacker may have been confused thinking this prayer service was in celebration of the New Year. Two years earlier in Alexandria a Coptic Orthodox Church was bombed on December 31, 2011, killing 21. This prayer service had been ongoing for a month, however, so the priest offered the possibility of no connection at all.

The churches of Libya, however, are included in the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Beheira in western Egypt. This is the diocese from which the current patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, was elected.

The bombing represents an unfortunate continuation of the sufferings of the Coptic Orthodox Church since the Alexandria bombing. Fr. Marcos noted the two who died were the first Coptic martyrs outside of Egypt in the modern era.

Whoever did this, he assured, represented a very small percentage of people. Libyans, he declared, are good people who do not know religious fanaticism as they have only one religion, Islam. The church had lived in peace in Misrata for a long time.

During the Libyan Revolution at one point the church was hit by a bomb. On other occasions it was strafed by gunfire. None of these events targeted the church, and Fr. Marcos related that no injuries were suffered. The Coptic community gathered together as a community and managed as best they could.

Their management included offering service and grace to others. Soldiers connected to Col. Gaddafi at times demanded shelter in the church. This was freely offered, but with the request that all weapons be left outside. Sometimes this was followed, sometimes not.

Fr. Marcos remarked the Copts of Misrata are praying for their own salvation, the salvation of Libya, and the salvation of the world. They ask God to bring peace and love to their city, even to their enemies who committed this crime.

He remarked his church was a praying church, united in seeking blessing for all people, of which God heard their prayers. He wondered if the attack was orchestrated by the devil in an effort to stop them from praying. If so, he assured, this plan would fail.

May God bless their community, the people of Libya, Copts in Egypt and around the world, and the nations of the Arab Spring. May the upheavals they suffer result in peace, prosperity, and good governance in the near future.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Bishop Tawadros Selected by Lot to Become the 118th Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Bishop Tawadros

Mid-Sunday morning, after three days of fasting, the Coptic Orthodox Church selected Bishop Tawadros of the Diocese of Baheira to be its 118th patriarch, succeeding Pope Shenouda III, who passed away in March of 2012. Tawadros’ name was drawn from a wax-sealed glass ball by a blindfolded child, supervised by the acting patriarch Bishop Pachomious.

Immediately after holding the paper with Tawadros’ name aloft for all to see, Pachomious then removed the other names from the remaining two balls to prevent allegations of fraud. Muhammad Hassanain Heykal, a prominent journalist, had disputed the selection of Pope Shenouda in 1971, alleging all three ballots bore the same name. Such a claim was not likely, but it resulted in doubts.

Bishop Tawadros was born in 1952 and is a graduate of Alexandria University with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences. In 1997 he was appointed as an auxiliary bishop to serve with Bishop Pachomious, now the acting patriarch. The lot was cast in his favor on his birthday, November 4, 2012.

The above excerpt is from the article I wrote for Arab West Report, reporting on Bishop Tawadros, the selection process, and issues moving forward. Please click here for the full article. Additionally, please click here for analysis from the AWR editor-in-chief Cornelis Hulsman, and here for a first-hand account from the cathedral from the managing director Hany Labib.

As for a brief description of the new pope-to-be, here is another excerpt:

Bishop Tawadros is also appreciated as one who reached out to the youth of his diocese, and kept good relations between local Muslims and Christians. He is also said to have decent relationships with Islamists.

And from the conclusion:

‘Civil society organizations can enter into confrontation with the state, but the church cannot,’ stated Sidhom. ‘Things are stable now, but it will be the time of crisis and sectarian strife that will be the real test.’

But today, and until then, Egypt’s Copts rejoice in a new leader, having asked God to grant them a ‘good shepherd’. Tawadros will need to prove himself, but he receives his position following a selection process esteemed not only clean, but spiritual – in distinction to national politics.

‘The lot lifts the election above politics as if it were for parliament.’ stated Labib. ‘The last choice is for God; this makes Christians very comfortable.’

It is a day of celebration for the Coptic Orthodox Church. May God give wisdom to their new shepherd.

Related Posts:


Applying the Cross (On Your Wrist)

One of the distinctive marks of a Coptic Christian is the cross tattoo worn on the wrist. Sometimes applied as early as forty days after birth (and following baptism), the tattoo is a permanent identification marker signaling to all the faith and community belonging of the bearer.

Girgis Ghobrial

Girgis Ghobrial is an electrical engineer by training and a tattooist by passion. For over twenty-three years he had made a ministry of applying the tattoo to the wrists of Copts.

Translation: Apply Crosses with the Most Modern Medical Procedures

This is his shop at the St. Simon Monastery in the Muqattam Mountains east of Cairo. The location deserves its own description, but in short it is the recently developed church complex dedicated to serving the poor of ‘Garbage City’. This community of Coptic Christians has long been the trash collectors of Cairo, recycling over 90% of collected waste.

Loading trash just outside the monastery complex

Ghobrial contributes to the ministry with his skills and time. He is present at the monastery every Friday and Sunday for services, charging around $4 US for a cross tattoo and $25 US for a more elaborate tattoo, such as in the picture below.

Still bearing the smudges of ink and blood

All proceeds are donated to the monastery, and if a customer is unable to pay, he offers his trade at reduced prices or for free. Ghobrial made certain to emphasize the cleanliness of his operation. Every needle is replaced for each new job.

Smiling freely

Mina, with the cross tattooed on his arm in the picture above, said the operation does not hurt very much. As for motivation, he was getting the same image a friend of his bears. Many of the area youth were milling around the booth. Tattoos, they say, are just a part of the local culture, usually among youths in poorer areas. Most of their friends chose to do so, and they imitate. Being Christians, however, their choices tend to be crosses or images of the saints.

Available templates, all Christian-related

Local priests, they report, do not provide any special encouragement for or against tattoos, even the common one on the wrist. The tattoo booth, however, signals an official acceptance of the practice, and its location is right before the entryways to the two main churches – both in caves in the mountains – which seat tens of thousands of worshippers each.

Friday night evening service

In the Bible, in Leviticus 19:28, the following command is issued:

You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.

It should be noted, however, that a few verses earlier is another command, seemingly much less important:

Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you.

In the New Testament, I Corinthians 6:19 declares the body to be a temple of the Holy Spirit, without any reference to tattoos but with the designation the body belongs to God and is meant for his honor.

Does a tattoo of any nature honor God? Do the tattoos of these Coptic Christians?

If part of the Christian life is the imitation of God, perhaps Isaiah 49:17 is useful to note:

See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.

Surely this verse is neither command nor outright license for Christians to get tattoos, but it does put the matter somewhat in perspective. If God signals his love for his people through the image of a tattoo, perhaps the Copts’ love for God displayed on their wrists is equally acceptable.

All the same, I don’t like it very much. Why do something you can never get rid of?

Hmmm, but is that not also the demand, result, and promise of faith?

Demand: Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. (Luke 14:28, 33)

Result: Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:3-4)

Promise: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Perhaps a tattoo of faith is easier, but its glory is far less. Either way, let its mark be a choice made in freedom.

Related Posts:

  • Emma’s Saliib (Cross; Emma is our daughter, imitating her friends) – February 26, 2010
Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

Egyptian Wisdom and Easter Hope

Icon of the Resurrection
Icon of the Resurrection

In Egypt, Easter is celebrated today according to the Orthodox calendar. It is a rather strange holiday as it sets off a bit of schizophrenia in the country. Unlike Christmas, which is a national holiday, Easter is a regular day.

Except it isn’t. Christians are allowed the day off, and many Muslims take it also. The Monday following Easter is a national holiday, called Shem al-Naseem (Smelling the Breeze), which is a social holiday going back to the Pharaonic age in celebration of Spring.

The government grants many holidays, both national and religious, and as Muslims and Christians together recognize the prophet Jesus, Coptic Christmas is designated officially. There is little protest of this fact, save for some Salafis who also oppose recognition of Muhammad’s birthday. For Muslims of this ilk, the only proper holidays are designated by Islam – the end of Ramadan and the sacrifice of Ishmael – and does not include the honoring of a mere man, no matter his prophetic status.

Yet whereas Christmas enjoys wide acceptance, Easter is trickier. On religious holidays Muslims and Christians exchange phone calls, wishing friends a joyous celebration. Can Muslims do so in honor of the resurrection of Christ?

Islam holds that Jesus was not crucified but rather ascended directly into heaven. Therefore, he cannot have been resurrected from the dead, as he never died.

Such a denial undoes Christianity, but it need not undo social pleasantries. Many Muslims wish Christians well on the occasion of this feast. The aforementioned Salafis do not, nor on Christmas, but maintain this is only due to religious doctrine. They argue instead we should greet our Christian neighbors and treat them well on every occasion.

This does not hold too much weight with Christians, who greet Muslim friends despite non-belief in Islam. Regardless, it is not as if this issue is tearing Egypt at the seams. Photos like the one below demonstrate the general spirit seen among many Egyptians.

Translation: the Pharmacy of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs Wishes Brother Copts Happy Holidays on the Occasion of the Glorious Resurrection Feast (Easter)

This sign was placed on the wall of the church in Kozzika, which serves as diocesan headquarters for the Orthodox of Maadi. The pharmacy in question may simply be seeking good business, but in offering Easter wishes in particular it makes a social statement.

The owner of this pharmacy has always evaded the question of his political allegiance with me, but his location is within the complex of a mosque which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the days after the revolution he hosted an area wide meeting to esteem national unity, attended by priests of the church, local religious leaders, and representatives of the ruling military establishment.

It would be wrong to say that such public Easter greetings are seen everywhere in Egypt, but they are not uncommon outside of many churches.

One reason why such wisdom is found socially is due to the wisdom of Pope Shenouda. Former President Mubarak established Christmas as an official holiday, and was pleased especially with the Christian response.

Following this decision Mubarak approached Pope Shenouda about designating Easter likewise. Pope Shenouda encouraged him not to, recognizing the majority of the nation did not accept the resurrection of Jesus. Making such a statement on behalf of the state would cause unnecessary social strife and likely a public backlash.

Such an anecdote, whether true or apocryphal, provides a glimpse into the nature of Egyptian society. The state is neither secular nor religious, but maintains an odd balance between the two. Of course, the nature of the state is under deep debate following the revolution, and both fear and hope abound as to the outcome.

Yet the reality of Egyptian society is seen well through the common wisdom displayed by the pharmacist and many others. Despite religious distinctions Egyptians across the nation offer good wishes to their friends and neighbors, even on Easter.

Unfortunately, this reality is also undergoing potential redefinition, as society fractures into different identities and isolated communities. One reason the Salafi refusal to greet Copts on their holidays does not cause much social disruption is that so few Salafis and Copts have a relationship to begin with.

If the Egyptian revolution can be made akin to the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when the crowds shouted in triumph and celebration, these current days may well represent the caustic debates while in Jerusalem, if not his outright death and time in the tomb.

Is a resurrection coming for Egypt? On this holiest of holidays, Egyptian Christians must maintain their hope. Yet more alike to Mary Magdalene and her female companions, they must confront their grief and visit the tomb – perhaps akin to visiting their Islamist nemesis which they believe has buried their Messiah of a civil state?

Parallels must not be stretched too far, but the Gospel resurrection was first experienced at the tomb. Might Egypt’s be as well? Jesus’ resurrection was entirely a surprise, and his form completely different from that of their familiar companion.

What form will Egyptian resurrection take? What surprises are in store? Will Egyptian Christians remain cowered in the Upper Room? Will the resurrected Egypt still appear to them there?

Or will the women be the herald of the new reality? They upon whom all social relationships depend may hold the secret to this resurrection. Women will always greet their friends.

Yet it was men and women together who carried the news of resurrection abroad to all the land. Egypt’s resurrection must be similar. Copts, Salafis, Muslim Brothers, secularists – solutions must be found and proclaimed together.

For Egyptian Christians, will they approach them, even after the loss of their hope? Resurrection can only follow desperation and defeat. Will they trust their Savior? Will they trust their fellow citizens?

Will they trust Egypt?


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Reflecting on the Papal Shrines

My daughter, not a pope

Five people were killed yesterday at St. Bishoy Monastery, crushed to death visiting the shrine of Pope Shenouda. I was nearly there, along with my three year old daughter.

It was meant to be part two of my visits to the shrines of the most recent popes. The second leg was not planned with the first; a day before Pope Shenouda’s death I was with Coptic Orthodox friends on a trip to St. Mina Monastery near Alexandria, to visit the shrine of Pope Kyrillos (Cyril VI).

These same friends then organized a trip the first weekend after Pope Shenouda’s burial, but postponed it out of fear of the expected massive crowds. Instead we set off on the second weekend, but ran into similar trouble.

Feeling semi-guilty for disappearing for the second time over three weekends, I volunteered to take my daughter with me. I had done so earlier with the oldest child, and we had an enjoyable outing. Of course, the country wasn’t exploding at the time.

To avoid the early morning rush my organizing friend decided to first stop at the nearby Baramous Monastery for breakfast. This monastery celebrates two Roman Christian brothers born into a wealthy family who left all and went to live in the desert. As per her custom, my daughter enjoyed playing in the dirt after mass, and then we enjoyed our shared meal of fried bean sandwiches, French fry sandwiches, and lentil dip.

Making a monastery of her own

With friends from our group

It was then we sat and waited, and waited. Monastery trips with Copts are usually festive times of visiting ancient sites, buying lots of religious trinkets, and taking blessing from the monks while seeking their intercession. On this occasion, understandably more somber due to the pope’s death, there was simply a discontented confusion.

Our organizer was incessantly on the phone with someone from St. Bishoy Monastery where we were headed. As the minutes ticked by he received more and more encouragement to stay away. At first it was simply too crowded. Eventually we learned they had closed off the area. Finally he was informed that several pilgrims had been killed.

Even so, it was difficult to convince our group not to continue on. The whole point of this trip was to visit the pope’s final resting place, and for many this meant securing a great blessing. The organizer sought to convince them God would reward them according to their intention, and that even Pope Shenouda himself would be displeased if we continued. Should we contribute to the chaos and disruption of his sanctuary, simply for our personal blessing?

Eventually we left to seek blessing from another nearby monastery, St. Makarios. This 4th Century saint lived celibate with his wife (who was forced upon him by his family) until her death, when he was finally free to devote himself to God. He was the first monk to settle in the Wadi Natrun desert, where four historical monasteries now continue.

The line of buses, after half an hour of waiting to get in

It turns out, however, nearly every other would-be St. Bishoy Monastery visitor had the same idea. We sat in our bus for an hour simply waiting to be processed at the gate. After eventually getting inside, we joined the dispirited crowds milling about the premises for about half an hour, until the monks reclaimed their silence and had everyone leave. From here we had our final meal together, and began the trek back home.

Though disappointed to not see the pope’s burial grounds – the whole reason for the trip – I was pleased to go to St. Makarious where I had resided three days in a monk’s cell and had a few friends. But even this hope failed, as one elderly monk told me there was no way he was leaving his quarters to wade through the masses who would surround him looking for blessing. Then I learned a younger monk I knew also could not greet me, as he was recovering from open heart surgery.

The day was not supposed to be like this, and I am glad I had my daughter with me to pass the time and enjoy her company. She was blissfully unaware of everything but the dirt, happily making her own mini-monasteries wherever she could.

It was supposed to me more like part one of the papal shrine tour, only amplified in both numbers and grief. Two weeks earlier I was among a similar crowd of pilgrims, brought to St. Mina’s Monastery the weekend after the celebration of Pope Kyrillos’ death. St. Mina was a Roman Christian soldier who left the army to practice monasticism, and was later martyred. Pope Kyrillos adopted him as his patron saint.

The grounds were packed, the crowds were in revelry.

Here are some photos of his shrine:

And here is the scene around his tomb:

A Coptic priest seeking the pope's intercession

Ordinary Copts, taking blessing from his tomb

Finally, here is a crowd gathered around his ‘hymn of praise’, chanting his virtues and extolling his life. Click here to watch a video of this scene.

It is difficult to know what to make of such devotion. To provide snide evidence of the backwardness of Coptic spirituality, consider this picture:

At the Baramous Monastery this garden scene has water flowing continually from the ceramic pitcher. Without exploring further, I assumed it was a simple hydraulic function common in many suburban fountains. The assumption of several passers-by, overhearing their conversation, was that this was a miracle of the monastery.

Yet to provide sympathetic evidence of the suffering depths of Coptic spirituality, consider these pictures:

Translation: The martyr Mina Wagdy Fakhry

Our group leader, in contemplation

Translation: The martyr Peter Sami

Translation: Verse from Ps. 65:4; the martyr Sabri Fawzi Wissa

Translation: The righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father (Mt. 13:43)

St. Mina’s Monastery hosts also the remains of Christians killed on New Year’s Eve 2010, when a bomb exploded outside the Two Saints Church in Alexandria. I have written earlier about the shrine dedicated to these martyrs inside the church, but I had never seen such a memorial previously.

In the United States one can often see a small cross erected on the side of the road where a loved one was killed in a traffic accident. There are memorials for those killed in war, during 9-11, or in other national tragedies. Yet America, best I know, has no religious martyrs.

Egypt, on the other hand, is full of them. The Coptic calendar dates from 284 AD, when Diocletian became Roman emperor and ushered in the bloodiest period of Christian persecution.

Popes Kryillos and Shenouda died natural deaths, but they provided historical leadership for the church of martyrs. Celebrated saints have interceded through miracles for countless Copts through the centuries. Pope Kyrillos has done the same, and now Pope Shenouda is poised as well.

Perhaps the cynic points out: Could he not then have prevented the deaths of three Copts in Cairo, and five at the monastery – all who were there out of love for him?

As I mentioned, it is difficult to know what to make of such devotion.

For those who share in Christian faith, these are your brothers and sisters. As much as they stand to benefit from Western experience in hydraulics, we stand to benefit from Coptic experience in spiritual immanence.

As Pope Shenouda has placed on the lips of every Egyptian Christian: God is present.

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Selecting the Next Pope

From Left: Makram Ebeid, Hulsman, Windfuhr, Casper, Labib

Near thirty journalists gathered at the Cairo Foreign Press Association headquarters to gain insight on the process involved in selecting a successor to the recently deceased Pope Shenouda. Arab West Report presented its research on the subject, accepting also further inquiries.

The March 27 meeting was opened by FPA board member Sayid Ghuriyat, and presided over by FPA chairman Volkhard Windfuhr.

AWR Editor-in-Chief Cornelis Hulsman began by mentioning the 1957 regulations which govern issues concerning papal selection. AWR published a translation of these regulations into English on the internet for the first time in history, which can be accessed here.

The 1957 regulations make it clear that all papal candidates must be a minimum of 40 years old and have at least 15 years of experience living as a monk in a monastery. Yet other questions of eligibility can be perplexing.

For example, until the 20th Century only monks were eligible for selection as pope, not bishops. This changed for the first time in the 1920s when a diocesan bishop was selected, breaking with church tradition going back to the Nicene Council. The influential but controversial Makarius Monastery in Wadi Natrun supports the idea of returning to this ideal.

Hulsman noted another eligibility interpretation allows for the election of general bishops who do not serve in a diocese but rather in specific fields like education. Then Bishop Shenouda was the first general bishop in Coptic history, and was elected as pope from this position. Given the legitimizing popularity of Pope Shenouda, current Coptic consensus would allow for the election of another general bishop.

Finally, a minority position in the Coptic Church believes it is acceptable for a diocesan bishop to be elected pope. Though done in the past, it is widely believed such an action would contradict the 1957 regulations. The number two man in the church, Bishop Bishoy, is general secretary of the papal council, but also the bishop of Damietta, thus disqualifying him in the process.

Hulsman concluded his presentation by summarizing the research of AWR Managing Editor Hany Labib, introducing the leading candidates for the papacy from the community of bishops. Details of this research can be accessed here.

AWR Researcher Jayson Casper then presented the influence of expatriate Copts on the selection process. Though the population of Copts both within Egypt and abroad is disputed, both high and low estimates establish that between 10-25% of Coptic Orthodox Christians live outside of Egypt.

Many expatriate Copts logically complain they have no voice in the process of selecting the next pope, given the 1957 regulations reflected a situation before widespread Coptic emigration. Two factors limit this complaint however. First, ordinary Copts in Egypt also have little to no voice in the selection process, as it is a largely internal process conducted by the church, and explained further below.

Second, the most influential voice in the electoral process belongs to the bishops of the church, of whom roughly 20% preside over foreign dioceses. This is in approximate accordance with the population of Copts living abroad, so through their bishops they maintain an influence.

Casper provided statistics for these bishops, mentioning them by continent:

  • Africa: 4 bishops in 14 countries with 90+ churches and three monasteries, most of which are indigenous
  • Asia/Australia: 3 bishops in 11 countries with 70+ churches and two monasteries
  • Europe: 10 bishops in 10 countries, including the indigenous dioceses of England and France
  • North America: 5 bishops serving 240+ churches and two monasteries
  • South America: 2 bishops in 2 countries, including an indigenous movement in Bolivia

Nevertheless, foreign Copts have put forward a proposal to have each overseas bishop present ten or so lay members of his diocese to serve on the committee selecting the pope. Approximately half of these bishops are conservative and traditional say these Copts, and ignore the issue. The others have at least sympathetically listened, but it is not anticipated this proposal will be adopted.

Finally, Casper noted that among the often overlooked achievements of Pope Shenouda’s reign was his ability to institutionalize the Coptic Orthodox Church around the world. Not only may this extension of the hierarchy prevent Copts from dissolving into their adopted culture, but positively may result in a revival of Orthodox Christianity around the world, fitting with the church’s original missionary posture.

AWR board member Amin Makram Ebeid, from a prominent and historical Coptic family, then briefly provided his personal reflection on the process. He hopes the next pope will be transitional, so as to eventually return the church to its traditional spiritual role. He nevertheless noted that the sacred and the secular have been mixed in Egypt since the days of the Pharaohs, noting the difficulty of the task.

Finally, Labib provided the details of the selection process through the forum of questions and answers. Specifically, those who will select the pope are constituted from the Holy Synod (the presiding bishops), the Community Council (20+ lay members who tend to administrative affairs), and the managing group for Coptic properties. In addition to these are a select number of public figures, journalists, and politicians.

This group of over 100 members first selects a nomination committee of 18, to be composed of nine clergy and nine laity (their names have been made public here). These will tend to all proposed candidates, of whom either five or seven will be accepted. These names return to the larger group for the official vote, and the top three names will then be put forward by ecclesiastical lot, with the final choice made by God.

Unless there are extenuating circumstances, the process should take between two to three months.

Labib noted that interim chairman of the Holy Synod Bishop Pachomius insisted the 1957 regulations will remain unchanged. New interpretations, however, will be considered. Some journalists present believed this would open the process up to undue controversy, but Labib and others disagreed. They found it to be an appropriate adjustment to changed circumstances as well as favoring greater transparency.

For example, Labib returned to the question of whether or not a diocesan bishop could become pope. Though often reported as ‘no’ in the media, the 1957 regulations stipulate that any bishop may become pope. Regulations stipulate also the candidate must be celibate, but herein lies the rub. In traditional Coptic understanding, a bishop is ‘married’ to his diocese. Should this then preclude eligibility for the papacy? Traditionally, yes, but the question is open for reconsideration. Labib echoed church voices, however, in insisting the church is not Tahrir Square. It is an ancient institution not subject to the whims of the street.

Labib was asked about the different trends present in the church. He described two, suggesting the choice of pope might be determined as a choice between these two trends.

One trend he labeled the rigid, almost confrontational. Labib believed this trend was growing due to tensions over the emergence of Islamist groups. Bishop Bishoy is at the head of this trend, as is Bishop Armiya.

The second trend he described as moderate, seeking consensus and conciliation. Bishops such as Musa, Yu’annis, and Marcos represent this trend.

In answering a separate question Labib noted Pope Shenouda was between the two trends, especially over time. While very confrontational before his banishment to the monastery in 1981, he became much more conciliatory after his return. Thereafter his conduct varied issue by issue as he deemed best.

Another question concerned whether or not these trends pertained to intra-church issues such as divorce and relations with other denominations. Another pertained to whether or not ordinary Copts are putting pressure on the selectors for their papal preference.

Labib stated that social issues are not a resonating factor and do not serve to be discussed by the church at this time. These intra-church matters must wait until the election of a new pope and then probably about six months or so afterwards, before they re-emerge for discussion or decision. In any case, if there is a semblance of popular pressure, it consists in the fact that the ordinary Copt is fearful the community no longer has a representative or protector in front of the state and/or Islamists.

One question wondered if the current constitutional crisis and threatened Islamist dominance affects Coptic concerns over the selection of the pope. No, Labib replied, as the selection is a wholly internal matter unaffected by parliament or the constitution. If the church purposed to amend the 1957 regulations this would have needed ratification in parliament, which could have complicated the issue.

To close the press conference after this note Windfuhr remarked that which binds Egyptians together is much stronger than that which divides them, believing Egypt would ultimately succeed in its transitional phase, however difficult it may be. Along these lines he noted that the great majority of all Egyptians received news of Pope Shenouda’s death with emotion and sympathy. Even those who made a show of their rejection in parliament by failing to stand for a moment of silence probably went home and regretted it, he remarked. If not, they were surely rebuked by their families upon arrival.

In appreciation, the Foreign Press Association ended the press conference with everyone standing for a minute of silence.


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Pictures, Video, and Observations from Pope Shenouda’s Funeral

The atmosphere at Pope Shenouda’s funeral today was not what I expected. At first it was dull, and then sympathetically chaotic.

Entrance to the church itself could only be secured with a personal invitation, so I made my way early to the courtyard of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral to witness the swelling throngs. Over the past few days since his death thousands upon thousands of Copts gathered to collectively mourn both outside and inside the church, where Shenouda’s body was sitting-in-rest, perched upon his papal throne.

The only issue: The crowds did not come.

The inside of the church was packed with dignitaries, as was visible from the giant movie screen set up both in the courtyard and in the garden below. I maneuvered to a platform by the side of the stairs, to try to capture a picture of when the whole area would lurch with mourners.

As the sun beat down and I tired from standing as the funeral service proceeded, it became apparent the crowds were not coming. The upper level of the courtyard at the entrance to the church was packed, but with hundreds, not thousands. This entryway was shut to seal off the proceedings, while dignitaries entered from a smaller door to the side.

I walked around wondering. The entrance I came through amid tight security had now been shut, as had the other gates to the cathedral. Temporary cloth walls cordoned off other areas.

Apparently, authorities wanted to keep the official funeral as peaceful and ordered as possible. The day before three Copts died and dozens were injured as a semi-stampede erupted among those trying to pay their last respects.

At this point I wondered what would happen if all the doors remained closed. Despite the fewer numbers there were still over a thousand people outside the church, not including the several thousand inside. Might there be another stampede when the service ended?

Yes, but in the other direction.

Near the close of service the funeral leader read off the list of names present. These included top military brass, major presidential candidates, senior figures from the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties, and ambassadors from around the world. Nearly all major religious denominations were also present. It was an impressive list.

But not to the crowd waiting outside. They listlessly attended to the names, and awaited the final farewell video of Pope Shenouda.

When it came, they raised their hands and tearfully waved him goodbye.

Video: Copts Wave Goodbye to Pope Shenouda

Then when they were bid farewell in peace, the crowd rushed across the entranceway courtyard to the balcony for one last glimpse of his physical body. He was taken from his throne and escorted outside to the street, where he would be flown for burial at St. Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Natroun.

Video: Copts Rush to Balcony to Witness Shenouda’s Final Departure

When this scene ended, as most were unable to see, a small contingent started to physically break down the cathedral door to enter inside. Only the rapid reaction of the church’s scouts prevented this from happening.

I did not quite notice how it happened next, only that a few minutes later another door was forced open. It may have been aided by those inside seeking a more rapid exit, but before long the crowd was jamming itself through the narrow entrance, past the cries of those inside forbidding the action.

Video: Copts Enter Orthodox Cathedral for One Last Look at Pope Shenouda

Once inside, all propriety was lost as many started climbing over the pews to get to the front.

Video: Copts Scale Church Pews to Approach the Papal Throne

The object was Pope Shenouda’s throne. Before too long scores of Copts had surrounded it, trying to get close enough to touch. These were seeking blessing, as the pope had only minutes early been occupying the seat. Most would never get that close to either a pope or his chair again.

Video: Copts Seek Blessing at Papal Throne

Many Copts believe in the physicality of blessing, and they have scriptural warrant to do so. It says in Acts 19:11-12,

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

The Coptic Orthodox Church believes itself to be an extension of the original apostolic authority. As Peter became pope in Rome, so did Mark the gospel writer in Alexandria. Their power given to work miracles continues today.

I cannot say whether the following is official doctrine or not, but one mourner told me that no injections had been given the corpse of Pope Shenouda. He died three days ago but his body has not yet begun the process of decay. He has sat-in-state since then, for public display and affection, as a mark of God’s approval.

I found the example of the priest in the video to be inspiring. His spiritual leader had just died, all order was breaking down inside the cathedral, and he sat patiently in the papal chair serving the crowd. Instead of rebuking them, he assisted the gathering of tissues from those who were too far away, touched the chair, and gave them back. May God bless him.

Today was a sad day, and I wish I was not so occupied with gathering pictures so as to more fully join in. The Bible commends us to mourn with those who mourn. At times I did, especially when witnessing others shed tears. But for the most part I was too distracted with the surroundings.

May God bless the Copts, give them space to mourn and sympathy from their neighbors, and an eventual next good pope to come.


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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christianity Today on Pope Shenouda

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope of the Co...

Just a short post today to direct to the article I contributed to Christianity Today on why the death of Pope Shenouda is also mourned by Egypt’s Protestants. If you click on the link above today you will see it highlighted as the lead story. Afterwards, please click here for the permanent link.

I hope the article will help the largely evangelical American audience better understand Coptic Christians, and the great affinity between the two communities. May they pray for the church here during this period of mourning, and for wisdom, in selecting a successor.

Here is the article opening:

Pope Shenouda, the controversial yet beloved head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, passed away on Saturday after 40 years of leading and reforming the ancient Christian sect. His death complicates the uncertain position of Orthodox believers—who represent 90 percent of Egyptian Christians—now that Islamists have surged to leadership following Egypt’s revolution last January.

Coptic Protestants respected and appreciated the pope.

“Shenouda was a pope of the Bible,” said Ramez Atallah, head of the Bible Society of Egypt. “We are the fifth-largest Bible society in the world because [he] created a hunger for the Scriptures among Copts.”

Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, described Shenouda’s commitment to interdenominational understanding. “I have known him since before he was pope, and we served together on the Middle East Council of Churches. He would meet with us for hours and listen to our views.”

Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.



A Few Thoughts and Links on Pope Shenouda

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria

Living here in Egypt as a writer, I have long worried over the looming death of Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Speaking only personally, it seemed a daunting task to try and summarize his life, as long, influential, and controversial it has been.

This mostly has to do with my preference for writing analysis and context, as opposed to news. Yet the death of a major figure demands quick production. Doing justice to the man and the future of the church of Egypt seemed incredibly complex a task. There is so much about the Coptic Orthodox Church which still escapes me.

Arab West Report has produced a fine obituary on Pope Shenouda, one submitted the day of his death with substantial analysis and contextual content. The author and director of our center has lived long in Egypt and is clearly well researched and contemporary to the events described. I hope to attain such proficiency some day.

Please click here for the link.

Another good report comes from the Guardian, a UK based newspaper. I provide this link not only for its content, but also because it links to a report I wrote several months ago after the Maspero massacre. I was the only foreigner present during a press conference hosted by the Maspero Youth Union, and after all this time it was picked up by the major media.

I hope a more extensive analysis of this situation can come in a few days. I spent today surveying Egyptian Protestant leaders for their reaction, and hope to make this report available tomorrow.

For now, let us pray for Egypt’s Copts, as they are mourning. Analysis can come later. Below are a few pieces I have written about him in the past.

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St. John the Short

The Relics of St. John the Short

The Coptic Orthodox Church is filled with the stories of saints, so much that the production of their movies has become a cottage industry. They are not always the best acted or of the highest Hollywood production value, but they open a window into the worldview of Egyptian Christians.

I first heard of St. John the Short when I visited the Monastery of St. Makarious, located in the Wadi Natrun Desert between Cairo and Alexandria. It is there I saw his relics; the monastery also houses those of John the Baptist, Elisha, and the Three Makarii, after one of whom the monastery is named.

The Relics of John the Baptist and Elisha the Prophet

The Sign above the Previous Photo

Relics of the Three Makarii

St. John the Short’s relics came to settle here as it was his abode for most of his monastic life, indeed, his life entire. John left Bahnasa near Minya in Upper Egypt at the age of 18. He was raised by Christian, God-fearing parents, though his mother was distraught he fully followed his spiritual commitment into monasticism. His father was more accepting, as was his older brother who bore family responsibilities preventing his own monastic choice until after his parents passed away.

John’s path to monasticism led him to a company of hermits who abused him incessantly in tests to decipher his commitment. In general a monk is by nature an individualistic solitary; the film presents them with few social skills. Yet for the most part it was a ruse, and John proved faithful. Eventually an angel appeared to the abbot and commanded him to accept John into their band.

Even so, the testing continued, leading to the event for which John is best known. The abbot instructed John to find deadwood in the desert, plant it, and then water it every day from a river twelve miles away. Faithfully, John did so, as obedience is a mark of Christian character. The abbot was astonished, for John kept at his work, never complaining a word.

This was only the beginning of the astonishment. After a long duration (stated in Coptic records as three years), the deadwood sprouted leaves, produced fruit, and became a full-grown plant. In popular Coptic lore it is known as the Tree of Obedience.

The Tree of Obedience, in Wadi Natrun

Years later John would give example to the fact that however monks desired independence and were often caustic with each other, beneath it all was a foundation of love. The abbot who abused John for so many years grew to love him like a son, and John cared for him in his debilitating illness over twelve years.

John’s miracles were many. The film displays him driving out a demon from a woman who aimed to kill him. He gave sight to the child of a woman to whom he was led from charity to give bread. He healed the stuttering of a man for whom he also cured his withered hand.

Yet despite his miracles he cared most for the cure of souls. A wealthy woman in the nearby village discovered the joy of the Lord when she gave away her possessions to the poor. Yet upon their exhaustion, none cared for her in return, and she slipped gradually into a life of ill repute. John went to her and rebuked her, but with the love of one who cried over a broken masterpiece.

The woman repented and followed John through the desert to take residence in a nunnery. John pushed her, urging her on as penance for her descent into sin. When she could go no further John allowed the opportunity for both to sleep, yet awoke in the morning to find her dead. He wept at his error, cursing himself that he allowed her to die before her sins could be expunged. Yet an angel appeared to him to lift his sorrow. God had forgiven her sins at the moment of repentance, and had now accepted her into paradise.

Eventually John moved from Wadi Natrun to the present day area of Suez. The film does not give the reason, but Coptic records state it was in response to Bedouin raids on area monasteries. Yet in Suez he faced another danger; the Roman prelate Clopas demanded to see who was giving comfort to the tortured village Christians.

He did not have opportunity to torture John himself. God struck Clopas with a painful disease, semi-comically labeled in the film as ‘chicken pox’. It drove him blind and gave him unbearable shivers. A palace servant instructed Clopas to beg healing from John, as he had healed others. When all other options failed, he humbled himself to do so.

In what struck me as odd, John refused. He sent message to Clopas he would not come unless he renounced his gods and worshipped Jesus, the Son of God. Encouraged to come, John heard his confession, and restored Clopas to full health.

John came to Suez in 395 AD, and died in his nearby isolated cave in 409 AD. An angel visited him the day of his death to declare his acceptance before God, that he had finished the course. Coptic records state he led the majority of Suez’s inhabitants to Christianity.

In an earlier post I wrote about Coptic miracle stories and the pervasive acceptance of these throughout the community. I also wrote once about the value of monasticism, though I don’t wish to rehash either of these reflections here.

Perhaps the only remark is the didactic simplicity of these films, seeking to bring the life of the saints into greater focus for the modern world. The cheesiness factor relates mostly to them being dated, but didactic films are often not that entertaining anyway.

Pope Shenouda opens each of these films with footage from one of his weekly meetings forbidding the improper copying and distribution of these films. He states that those who made them have a right to their intellectual property. In Hollywood, the FBI issues such a warning, threatening imprisonment or fine. In Egypt, it is the head of the church, threatening nothing in particular, but you know where this can go…

I mostly jest. I do enjoy the films, though their re-watch-ability is nil. But as I opened, they are a wonderful window into popular Coptic spirituality. The question is if I profit spiritually myself, or only as a sociological student. The former is far better, and St. John the Short offers lessons, to be sure.

Yet I am far too Western to give too much credence to the details of the story. Perhaps here there is a spiritual lesson to come, when I receive my comeuppance.

There is another question: Tonight, should we watch the more modern tales of Sister Irini, or Pope Kyrillos? Any suggestions?

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Remembering Alexandria

Translation: Martyrs of the Two Saints' Church; New Year's Eve, 2010

One year ago this evening Egypt was rocked by an explosion in Alexandria, killing twenty-one and injuring over 170, at the Two Saints’ Church in the Sidi Bishr region. One year before that, at Coptic Christmas on January 7, six Christians were killing along with a Muslim security guard at a church in Nag Hamadi, in the governorate of Qena, when a Muslim opened fire as they exited following mass.

It has been a difficult spell for Egypt as a whole, and for its Christians in particular. This year opened with a revolution holding great promise of Muslim-Christian unity, but has been largely displaced with liberal-Islamist political competition and attacks on Copts in Atfih, Imbaba, Maspero, and elsewhere. The nation is trembling, but some hopeful Copts see connections, in which God intervenes to avenge his children.

In Egyptian culture a death is commemorated on the 40th day, as loved ones gather to remember the deceased. Back in September of 1981 then-President Sadat arrested over 1500 political opponents, and within this sweep he banished Pope Shenouda to a monastery withdrawing official recognition of his leadership. Before the 40th day fell, Sadat was assassinated by the hand of a Muslim extremist.

Fast forward to Alexandria, and a similar pattern emerges. The Two Saints’ Church was bombed on January 1. Though the government blamed Islamic extremists from Gaza, it is widely believed to have been the work of Habib al-Adly, President Mubarak’s Minister of the Interior. Roughly forty days later, on February 11, President Mubarak resigned his position following a revolution which appeared out of nowhere.

Incidentally, it was also roughly forty days after the massacre of mostly Coptic protestors at Maspero on October 9, that the government of Essam Sharaf fell during the clashes of Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

Has God been at work in Egypt, redeeming the blood of Christians through political events? While largely open to interpretation, it is noteworthy this has not been the desire of the Two Saints’ Church.

Cross at the Entrance to the Memorial; See Translation Below

The Coptic Orthodox Church maintains its identity as a church of martyrs. The church calendar begins Year One counting from the time of the Roman Diocletian persecution in the 4th Century; saints are commemorated in icons, relics, and hymns of praise. Following this spirit, the Two Saints’ Church dedicated space to the memory of these modern day martyrs.

The cross in the picture above houses a bloody cloth salvaged from the bombing, but the selected verse is telling. Quoting Steven, the first Christian martyr, it calls out: Oh Lord, do not hold this sin against them (Acts 7:60).

It is very powerful, considering further the commemoration to the right of the cross.

Jesus, Surrounded by his Slain Children

The mural of Jesus was originally outside the church at street level, when it was damaged by the blast. Damaged also was the façade of the church, splattered with blood. Damaged completely were those whose pictures now ring the mural of Jesus, having received the crown of martyrdom. They now have their own hymn of praise to the left (translated below), and the maroon box overflowing with paper represents prayer requests for which their intercession is asked.

When the explosion happened I had never been to Alexandria. Inquiries about the area gathered that the Sidi Bishr area in which the church was located was a poorer district, and I imagined the church to be along these lines as well. Original video from inside the church at the time of the explosion does not suggest a place of great wealth either. It appears to be just a simple place of worship.

A recent visit to Alexandria revealed it to be quite the opposite.

Sanctuary of the Two Saints' Church

Jesus, with the Four Evangelists in a Mural above the Sanctuary

Facing the Street are St. Mark and Pope Peter, Patrons of the Church

The Church is Directly Opposite an Equally Massive Mosque

Upon reflection, it is fair to wonder about the oft-repeated Coptic practice of building elaborate churches amidst areas of poverty. It is also fair to wonder about the dueling massive places of worship on opposite sides of the street, and what this conveys of Egypt. Yet the primary impression I received from my visit was the audacity of the attack in its chosen location.

Alexandria as a city is the birthplace of Christianity in Egypt and the original seat of the Coptic papacy. I cannot say why the Two Saints’ Church was chosen out of the many places of Christian worship in Alexandria. Clearly, however, a message was delivered – striking at a place of Coptic ecclesiastic pride. This was no small and easily targeted church. It was a slap in the face targeting Coptic comeuppance.

What was the message exactly cannot be known, at least until the perpetrators are properly convicted. Until now the revolutionary government has not reopened investigations, despite repeated legal requests from Alexandria’s local church leadership. Yet given the uncertainty, and given the carnage, the response is all the more Christ-like:

Oh Lord, do not hold this sin against them.

As the Egyptian revolution sputters along, at times bloodily, this is a message in dire need of remembrance. One year following Alexandria the blood of these pre-revolutionary martyrs calls out from the ground, saying, ‘Where is your brother?’ Muslims and Christians must rediscover such unity, if the gains from the revolution are to be preserved.

Song of Praise for the Martyrs of the Two Saints’ Church

Note: After each line is a repeated refrain: The martyrs of the Two Saints’ Church

  • In the Church of the Two Saints – There are victorious martyrs – We praise them every moment
  • Our Coptic Church – Is worthless in Alexandria – Martyrs of Christianity
  • At the beginning of the year – Their spirits rose peacefully – With the Lord of humanity
  • The time of St. Mark has returned – With the beginning of celebrations – With our new martyrs
  • Your blood dripped like liquid – Like of St. Mark the Apostle – In the surrounding streets
  • Oh children of the seal of martyrs – Heaven has called you – And you answered the call
  • The oppressors killed you – And we ask of God – Always lifting up prayer
  • Give all consolation – To the families of the martyrs – And give us faith and hope
  • With shouts and wailing – Rachel has cried once more – Over all martyrs in this generation
  • We all announced our mourning – Throughout the whole country – After the explosions
  • Their limbs flew off – As their intestines also exited – From the bodies of the children
  • You have consecrated our lands – We in the midst of your blood – For the sake of our Redeemer
  • We make a record of – Our patience over the departure – of the martyrs of Iraq,
  • Nag Hamadi, Umraniyya – Kushh and Alexandria – Rejoice Oh Orthodoxy
  • Hearts have been broken – Over every beloved martyr – Blessed are you, children of Job
  • Your path is sweet and beautiful – We sing it in our hymns – A bouquet of long remembrance
  • In your remembrance we welcome you – As you arrive to your Redeemer – And we call to you in our prayers
  • Light us to be a candle – As our eyes are full of tears – Mention us before Jesus
  • Today St. Mark is joyous – As well as Pope Peter – That you have joined them now
  • You have become our intercessors – In the monastery of St. Mina – With Pope Cyril and St. Mina
  • Pray at all times – For Pope Shenouda the faithful – That the Lord the Helper will support him
  • Oh children – You have become our treasure – Mention every soul

The final refrain: The mention of your name in the mouths of all believers – Everyone says: Oh God of the martyrs of the Two Saints’ Church, take care of us all

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Coptic Iconography: From the Pharaonic Age to the Arab Spring

Magdy William is one of the world’s premier Coptic iconographers, having studied under the renowned reviver of the long neglected art, Isaac Fanous. William discussed his craft, its history, and spiritual impact during an exhibition hosted by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Maadi, Cairo, on October 21, 2011, under the sponsorship of Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler. Jessica Wright served as curator for over fifty commissioned pieces, and provided translation for William’s presentation, entitled ‘The Making of Coptic Icons’. The event was part of ‘The Eternal Eye’, an exhibition desiring a new Egyptian society, which honors all its religious diversity. Bishop Daniel, bishop of Maadi and assistant to His Holiness Shenouda III, pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, opened the event.

Rev. Chandler, Bishop Daniel, and Magdy William

There is a direct connection, William states, between Coptic icons – indeed all icons – and the artistic heritage of Egyptian Pharaohs. When a Pharaoh died, his portrait was drawn and placed on his sarcophagus to lead his spirit back to his body at the resurrection. The portrait was idealized, imagining his appearance at age 25 – the prime of life, but intended to be faithful in representation. So also do Coptic icons not seek to be a realistic picture of a saint, but to convey his spiritual reality to both teach and impact the viewer.

Production of icons also mirrors its Pharaonic history. Only natural pigments are employed, to preserve color for thousands of years as witnessed in the pyramids and royal tombs. William first prepares a piece of wood to use as the base, covering it with gelatin and then a cotton cloth. After an initial twenty-four hours he removes the cloth along with any excess, and reapplies the hot gelatin mixture. He repeats this process ten times over five days to smooth it properly for application.

Thereafter William applies a thin gold leaf over the wood, and adds first the darker colors. To this broad lines are added shaping the landscape for where lighter colors are added. A black outline then completes the picture to highlight distinction, and a final varnish covers the icon for preservation. It is a detailed process, and William is a perfectionist.

Jessica Wright, curator and translator

Early Christians in Egypt, like elsewhere, often worshipped in tombs, caves, or secret places, but drew their holy images upon the walls. Icons developed, at least in part, as a way to make their images mobile should their worship locations be discovered. Demonstrating continuity of culture, Egyptian Christians imitated the style and production of their heritage, and exported the use of icons throughout the Christian world.

This process came to an abrupt halt after the 6th Century when icons came under fire as idolatry, and many were burned as the art declined in Egypt. Elsewhere, however, Christian emperors became great sponsors of iconography, as Byzantium and Russia developed their own distinct styles. Yet except for a revival during the Fatimid period, Egyptian iconography stagnated until the 18th Century.

During this time Egypt produced only poor quality icons, as local rulers and patrons sponsored art and architecture from within their religious traditions, drawing the best artists away from the church. Seeking to outfit their community the Coptic Orthodox Church recruited Armenian iconographers, who produced worthy material on Egyptian soil.

This arrangement continued until 1965, when Pope Cyril sent Isaac Fanous to study iconography from a Russian living in Paris. He received a PhD, as well as a blessing from the Russian, who told him we received this tradition from you, and now we give it back. Returning to Egypt, Fanous revived indigenous Egyptian iconography, founding the neo-Coptic school, which William joined in 1986.

At the time William was an artist of a different sort; he created the templates for promotional movie posters, which were then mass distributed. He credits his wife for helping him turn to art of a more spiritual variety, which he called a transformation.

William was keen to impress that Copts do not worship their icons, which serve to remind of the person or event depicted. It is a lesson, recalling Biblical tales or stories of the saints, which among millions of illiterate Egyptians impart the values and knowledge of divine history. But it is more than a lesson; it is communion. Copts believe the spirits of the saints are present in prayer, drawing the believer into a wider fellowship. This is one reason icons are prominent in Orthodox churches, and many Copts set up a prayer corner with an icon in their homes.

Stories abound as well of the intercession of the saints being multiplied as an icon is contemplated, resulting in miracles of healing or fertility. Some icons are celebrated as having cried tears, which drip from their painted eyes. Such miracles happen around the world, not just in Egypt, William asserts, and is due to the choice of God, having nothing to do with the skill of the iconographer.

An exhibition attendee, contemplating an icon of St. Macarious

Today, many in the Western Christian world have turned their eye to the East, seeking additional sources of spirituality which ring with authenticity and history in a material and disjointed age. Stories of miracles may cause these sons of the Enlightenment to pause, but for Copts they are simply the continuation of the faith, for which God has worked miracles through his saints throughout the ages.

Regardless, the continuity of history is source of great comfort for Copts, especially in this current age, as Egypt and Egyptian Christians are facing an unknown future. Many fear the worst, worrying that sectarianism, even persecution, could be on the horizon.

If so, icons are a worthy reminder of God’s ultimate triumph. What are St. George, St. Mina, and even Jesus, but martyrs of earlier ages? Yet their icons are serene, reflecting the idealized portrait of their eternal restoration. The Coptic Orthodox Church is a martyrs’ church, from whose blood the seed of faith has sprouted. If Copts today fear, then a greater contemplation of their artistic heritage is recommended.

Icons are a tool to aid in connecting with the divine, and divine comfort and rebuke vary from age to age and from person to person. Magdy William is only one in a long chain of men who assist others in their path to God. Though his rendition of each saint varies slightly from the next, the eternal eye binds them as humanity, universalizing the individual, placing him in the divine story and spiritual reality of God. God’s means are many, yet the icon is there for all who wish to enter in.


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Rebuilding the Social Fabric: Muslims and Christians in Community Service Organizations

Yousry Fu'ad Abdel Latif (and me)

Civil society is one of the hallmarks of a strong nation. Conspicuously, it was rather absent in pre-revolutionary Egypt. President Mubarak did his best to depoliticize the people, with even extension of social services neglected. While religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Orthodox Church picked up the slack on both counts, this also contributed to the increasing polarization of the two religious communities, especially Christians, who felt discriminated against in the public square and thereafter largely abandoned it.

These faults have been recognized since the revolution; overcoming them is the current challenge. Yousry Fu’ad Abdel Latif is one man who is trying.

Yousry is a lawyer, aged 44, who lives in Hadayak al-Maadi. Following the revolution he has created and coordinated the Coalition of Dar al-Salaam Youth, submitting paperwork to establish it as a legally recognized community association. Dar al-Salaam is a traditional, working class area to the north of the affluent Cairo suburb of Maadi; Hadayak al-Maadi belongs more properly within its ensign.

I stumbled upon this group quite by accident. Wandering through the Hadayak neighborhood I saw signs posted calling the youth of the area to join in a trash cleanup campaign. Two things were noteworthy: One, the signs were posted on both the mosque and the church, opposite one another across the street. Two, the campaign was taking place the very hour I was passing by. I met three or four of the youth, wearing surgical gloves and mouth coverings, hauling garbage bags behind them. They introduced me to Yousry, and we set up an appointment.

Poster for the Coalition of Dar al-Salaam Youth

The goal of the coalition is to begin transforming Egypt from the local community outward. Individuals must take responsibility for themselves and their area, seeking reform, development, moral consciousness, social justice, and cultural awareness. It is meant to deliberately include Muslims and Christians together, ultimately producing a democratic society in which all are free to participate. Though the coalition organizes seminars and medical testing to accomplish its goals, garbage collection was the starting point. It is the practical work that will forge youth of the area together as a team.

Yousry introduced me to a few members of the coalition. Mahir Fayiz is a 24 year old Copt, of Orthodox heritage but involved with an evangelical social group. He possesses a high school diploma and works in his family’s neighborhood shop, selling rugs and tapestries. One day he heard the calls of a few youth, who he knew but was not necessarily friends with, to come out and clean the streets of Hadayak. Thinking it was a good idea, he joined in.

Mahir asked specifically if he could clean the steps of the mosque, and was so designated. He saw the goals of the coalition as worthy in their own right, and wished to promote community integration by taking this symbolic act of service. He stated that doing so earned him respect among his peers in the coalition, most of whom were Muslim. “The more we focus on our nation,” he says, “the more our country will grow. The more we focus on religion, the more we will divide.” Yousry was particularly impressed by his attitude and actions.

Sharif Muhammad Zakaria is a 21 year old Muslim. He possesses a high school technical degree and works as an interior painter. He knew of Yousry previously as a neighborhood lawyer, and as such has been involved from the beginning. What originally took his attention for the garbage cleanup campaign, however, was the pile of trash accumulated on the side wall of the church. This was unacceptable, he said, and dishonorable for a place of worship. Sharif is a practicing Muslim, but finds groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to focus too much on religion. “Religion is for God,” he says, “but the coalition is united around service to our country, which is for all.”

Yet despite the intentions of the coalition to integrate community Muslims and Christians, so far it has been slow going. Yousry states there are about 70-80 committed members of the group, but only 3-4 of these are Christians.[1] Meanwhile, though the coalition consists of eight separate committees, none are coordinated by Christians.

Fayiz stated that he hoped to bring other Christians into the coalition, but as his friends are primarily among the fewer evangelicals in Hadayak, he is not part of the much larger Orthodox youth group. Sharif stated he has found a good reception to the coalition among his friends in general, but he has not yet invited the one Christian friend he has. He plans to, however.

Yousry noted this was an issue, and stated he desires to increase Christian participation in the coalition. He noted his instructions to the youth to ask permission at the church and mosque before posting their flyers. In separate conversation with Fr. Arsanius of the local Orthodox church in Hadayak, he signaled receptivity to meet Yousry, which was appreciated when I relayed the news. Hopefully, the two will be able to sit down soon.

Yet instead of critiquing the coalition makeup, it should be remembered the effort is only five months old. The forces which have worked to separate Muslims and Christians in Egypt have been operating for decades, largely overcoming the inherent national inclination for tolerance and cooperation. What is necessary now is commitment to fight the status quo.

Sharif noted that about 80% of his friends reacted positively to the ideal of the group, but far fewer have joined. “They are used to initiatives coming to nothing,” he says. Post-revolution Egypt has given new hope, but old mindsets are hard to change. The power of inertia requires great effort to reverse.

Time will tell if Yousry and his team possess the dedication necessary. Time will tell if Christian youth will emerge from the church to join a Muslim majority community effort. Yet Yousry’s focus may appeal to their Christian virtue: “Love is the basis of my organizing. If they feel you love them, they will follow you.”

Love can be a fickle emotion, or it can be the most powerful force in the world. To be the latter, it requires commitment to serve the interest of the other. May the youth of Dar al-Salaam find the means to discover it together.

[1] This equals about 4%, whereas the Christian population in Egypt is about 6-7%. I am unaware of the percentage split in the Dar al-Salaam area.