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Current Events

Copts Pick Up the Pieces: An Interview with Bishop Thomas

A condensed version of this interview was first published at The Media Project on May 4, 2017.

Bishop Thomas
Bishop Thomas

Coptic Christians, the Middle East’s largest Christian community, account for roughly ten percent of Egypt’s population and have endured generations of exclusion and restrictions. Their struggles for equality have been aggravated by a series of gruesome and deadly attacks carried out by ISIS criminals. The latest act was a pair of bombings on Palm Sunday targeting packed churches in Alexandria and Tanta, which took the lives of 45 Christians and wounded more than 100 others, according to Human Rights Watch. ISIS previously targeted Copts in Cairo in a December, 2016, bombing that killed 30 and in a January, 2017, attack in the Sinai peninsula that killed eight. ISIS has stated its intention to extirpate Christianity from the Middle East.

TMP Egypt contributor Jayson Casper spoke to Bishop Thomas, head of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Qusia and Meir, 170 miles south of Cairo, to find out how Copts are reacting to the latest attacks and what they expect for the future. Born in 1957, Thomas became a monk in 1985 and bishop in 1988. In 1999 he founded Anafora, a retreat center along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, which became a community dedicated to ecumenical welcome and human development. Fluent in English alongside his native Arabic, he is a key source of insight on the situation of Christians in Egypt.

The Easter holiday is a joyous occasion but Egypt and her Christians are going through a difficult time after the Palm Sunday bombings. How are Copts doing these days?

There was a blend of grief, shock, anger, and question marks about what’s happening. People recall similar incidents from the past – the December bombing at St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo, the 2010 Alexandria bombing, and further back in history. There has been a development in the attacks against Christians, and people are comparing it to what is happening in Syria and wondering if this will come to Egypt.

But the church holds to Christian principles, giving the people a Christian message. Love, and conquer evil through good. If we believe in the forgiveness Christ gave to us, we have to give it to others. Think positively, and do not be afraid. Don’t generalize but be fair. We cannot put the work of Islamic extremists on normal Muslims who haven’t done anything.

And normal people from the families of the victims have made statements that are very powerful. The widow of the doorman at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria said she forgives them. There is the question: How can Copts forgive like this? We are trying to nurture a holistic faith in society. Believing our life is not limited to this world makes it becomes stronger.

It will be good to come back to the teachings of the church, but first I want to ask about what is seen in the media. Coptic reactions are portrayed as fear, anger, and disillusionment. Things aren’t getting better and the government isn’t taking care of us. Is this an accurate picture? How strong and widespread are these feelings?

The Copts have a clearer understanding because we know the growth of Islamic fundamentalism has to be dealt with in a deeper way than just police or military forces. Security measures are only a part. The foundation is the ideology, needing the reformation of education. Copts are angrier at the education system than the security situation.

We look at things realistically, even though we were hoping for a calmer, more peaceful situation with the new government after the Muslim Brotherhood regime. We hoped it would be more active in reform. Some Copts are disappointed, but we are aware it is a long-term change, needing the support of the private sector, NGOs, and the religious sector. The curriculum of al-Azhar has to be looked at, in how they portray Christians, as does the public school curriculum.

We see also two kinds of media. One is trying to understand the situation and sympathize in the tragedy. The other is condemning Christians and encouraging more of the same. This must be dealt with firmly. If someone encourages attacks on others this is a crime against humanity, and it must be declared as such.

These things are being discussed among the youth and on the Coptic street. Even still, we are saying we love and we forgive—Jesus told us to love our enemies and do good to them—so his love encompasses the whole world and our fight is not against flesh and blood. It is against evil principles and thoughts; it is a struggle of ideology. Humanity must be linked with religion, and not to a particular religious group. As Christians we view everyone within the circle of God’s love, so we must love everyone, even those who persecute and attack us. We are against evil, but not against human beings. Instead we pity them.

There are some voices in Egypt who are promote this idea, but will it always be within the elite? It has to be implemented at the grassroots through the educational system.

You mentioned the importance of ideology. The president has spoken many times about the importance of reforming religious rhetoric, it seems he is aware of the comprehensive nature of this issue, beyond a military solution. But we see crimes against Copts go unpunished and a failure to pursue educational reform. Do the Copts still have optimism the government will move in this direction so that it will reach the grassroots, over time? Or is their frustration it is either only talk and politics, or that the state is unable to address ideological reform?

There is a group of people who hope it will change, who say we should encourage the process of reformation. There is another who says it will not happen, it is too long-term and the ideology is fixed among too many scholars. Personally, I think those who are disappointed are thinking about emigration, and I think another wave will come very soon, which is very bad. Christians have to stay in Egypt and be empowered here.

The process of reformation goes beyond just a president. He is trying to do his best but the society has many layers, and the undercurrent is stronger than what the official government says. What we need is to focus more on the undercurrent, which requires lots of work.

This gives Christians the responsibility to build up society. We have to be more active in peacemaking. This is an art that needs training, and helps build trust in the community. But we must also address the power balance, which aids the stability of society. Christians abroad and the international community can help Copts achieve this. We must work on projects and fill professions that the society needs.

Such as?

In my area of Qusia we created a school that provides education in languages and an open, creative atmosphere, not dictation. Many Christians and Muslims started to come. It is run by the church, but society needs it, and it is unique in the area.

People meet and interact, but not in a religious framework. They come for the sake of their children, and discuss ethics and childrearing. We create many educational programs through this platform, and this gives us hope that these meeting points help give us status in society.

Similar things like hospitals and social events help society unite, and the church should take the lead. It presents us to society in a new way and counters disinformation against us.

But this problem is bigger than Egypt, and we have to look at it from a global perspective. Islamic fundamentalism and political Islam must be addressed. We have seen the results over several decades, in addition to the recent developments in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine. The Middle East has been almost depopulated of its Christians, and in Egypt we are the largest community left. Will these conservative forces succeed in pushing our Christians to the West, or not?

Let’s return shortly to immigration, but first address some of the spiritual teachings you mentioned earlier. The wife of the doorman in Alexandria gave a phenomenal testimony of forgiveness, that came from her faith. But as we judge the Coptic mentality between anger and frustration and the church teachings to resist fear and hold on to joy, to what degree does the Christian message of hope truly permeate them as people?

One of the spontaneous reactions has been the full attendance of Sunday evening prayers, right after the Palm Sunday morning bombings. All during Holy Week our churches have been packed. People are praying with enthusiasm and demonstrating persistence that we are here, we’re staying here, and this is our faith. Through their actions they are demonstrating their hope.

No doubt there have been tears, but still they come. There is sadness in their hearts, but they still hold to the responsibility that God has given: We are not afraid, we love, and we ask for justice. These are the three folds the church has been teaching, and the people’s reaction has been a beautiful portrayal.

Many people see only the church teaching suffering and martyrdom, but within this there is justice, a very important aspect that balances with love. Love and forgiveness create peace and positive attitudes, but at the same time love is not weak, it is strong, that is why there is no fear. Love and justice must be intertwined. I love, but I ask for my rights. I’m a human being, and I must be dealt with in my home country like a citizen, with security and equal rights.

The heritage of martyrdom in the Coptic Church promotes acceptance and forgiveness. But what is its connection with justice?

There have been many saints who were martyred because they asked for their rights. St. George, St. Mina, St. Mercorious – they stood up for their faith, defending other people. This is why it was their fate to become martyrs. Martyrdom is not just someone putting a bomb in a church. It is mainly people declaring their faith, hold to their rights, asking for justice, but ending in death.

So I don’t see a contraction, and many in the Coptic community are asking what we must do to achieve justice. I don’t know how it will be implemented. Communication with scholars, writers, and journalists from the Muslim side, to empower the cause?

If I take an American example, in achieving justice for the black community there were three main aspects. The first is Rosa Parks, and how she was made able to ask for her rights. Our teachings can help prepare the individual and create many more.

The second is Martin Luther King, who was a man of faith, but also of truth. He was able to communicate love and Christian principles in a context of injustice. The church has to give the message.

The third, which is very much needed, is Elanor Roosevelt. She represents the political arena and media, which were not of the black community. If the Christians in Egypt make a better effort to reach out to the Muslim community, its intellectuals and scholars, and discuss with them in more openness to empower them to join in the faithful fight for justice, it will be a great help.

But it is also needs an international effort, for the ideology is global. If conservatism is strong in the world there must be collaboration in the reformation of thought and the interpretation of texts in light of citizenship and humanity. There is much work ahead of us, and if it is not undertaken we may end up in a worse situation.

Is there something that makes the Copts of Egypt different from the Christians of the rest of the region, something that has enabled them to survive and resist the temptation to violence?

We don’t want to blame the victims, which is important to state clearly. We stand in sympathy and solidarity with the people of Syria, Iraq, and the region. We have seen what happened in Sinai, when the Christians evacuated from the area. We don’t know if this will continue.

A faithful attitude of ‘love your enemies’ and forgiveness gives a positive message to the other side, but we don’t know what will happen. It is a big question mark. Allow me to be spiritual and say it is the hand of God that is protecting this people here for a reason. I don’t know why, but keeping the Christian community in stability in Egypt may give a message of stability to the whole Middle East.

Yet over the past few decades, as you mentioned, Coptic immigration to the West has increased dramatically.

And it will continue to increase, no one can say it will stop. This makes us weaker, because who emigrates? Those who are able – the rich, the educated, those able to make a living outside. But they leave behind the weaker ones. If someone wants to care for their family we cannot tell them stop, to stay. We can encourage them it will get better, but if they have decided to go, they will.

But we recognize the negative impact. Still, Copts in the diaspora help with financial support, educational programs, and are a voice in the international community. This is very much appreciated. The presence of Christians in the Middle East remains a big question mark these days. If things continue, I don’t know how long we can last.

Yet in Egypt we have a very strong belief in the promise found in Isaiah 19, that there will be an altar in the land of Egypt. This gives the Christians a very strong hope that we will always be here and nothing can break us. This belief gives us power and helps explain why the church is flourishing despite difficulties, attacks, and persecutions. The church is strong, and people are determined to stay and stand firm in their faith.

Thank you, Bishop Thomas.

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Current Events

Experimental Egyptian Community Serving Dropouts Reaches Milestone

Sara Hanna
Sara Hanna

Sara Hanna has spent her last five years in a desert oasis, but despite this she is as normal a young adult as you could find anywhere: a 29-year-old university graduate keen to make a difference with her life.

‘I want to do something with meaning, to give my life for other people,’ she told Lapido Media. ‘I have a good education but others haven’t had the chance. I must create these opportunities for others.’

Many restless youth will dabble in volunteer social work for similar reasons. Others will seek a career in the field. But few can match Hanna’s experience on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, or hope to witness the transformation she will help create.

Her last five years were spent at Anafora, an experimental community created by Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

And on 23 November in Anafora, she was one of 26 Egyptian MA graduates of the Catholic University of Lyon, France, in a ceremony coordinated with the community’s fifteenth anniversary.

‘I have lived here because I believe in the vision of Bishop Thomas and the message of Anafora,’ Hanna said. ‘It is to lift up every person.’

The name Anafora means ‘to lift up’ in the ancient Coptic language, and is used of the sacrificial offering presented in the Orthodox liturgy.

Bishop Thomas presides over the diocese of Qusia, 270 kilometers from Cairo in the heart of Upper Egypt. The Asyut governorate where he is based suffers from 70 per cent poverty and 33 per cent illiteracy.

Couple these statistics with a traditional, conservative mentality, and Bishop Thomas concluded that drastic measures were necessary.

Bishop Thomas
Bishop Thomas

‘We wanted to be more free, more relaxed,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘To do this we needed to have Anafora outside their local setting.’

Today around 100 people, mostly from Qusia, have come to work in the retreat centre and various farming and educational programs on the 120 acre property. Hundreds of young people come every year and mix with international visitors, cross-pollinating in cultural exchange.

And like Hanna, some of them stay.

She is from Cairo and now directs the educational programs at Anafora. She supervises the tutoring of 50 high school dropouts, aged 16-41, to prepare them to return to Qusia and complete their high school degree. Fifteen others are in a vocational training program, learning skills through which they can gain employment or start small businesses back home.

In development is a nine-month certificate course in addiction counseling, in cooperation with the NET Institute in Florida.

Sister Partheneya, Hanna’s fellow graduate, estimates 40 per cent of male students in the Qusia ‘Son of the King’ youth program suffer from addiction to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or pornography. Five priests are enrolled and plan to create Qusia’s first addiction recovery center, which will be open to all.

But the joint program with the Catholic University is Bishop Thomas’ highest level of educational investment. Hanna and her colleagues received the equivalent of an MA in Local Development and Human Rights.

Furthermore, within five years Hanna will become the leader of an Anafora team and take on all the training. Until then professors will come from France and adapt their teaching to the local context.

It is the first extension program offered by the university, but they hope to replicate it elsewhere.

‘Bishop Thomas is a visionary and helped create a new idea,’ Olivier Frerot, the vice-rector at the Catholic University of Lyon, told Lapido Media. ‘He is creating civil society from the bottom up.’

Anafora Graduation

Among the graduates were 15 priests and two sisters. It is normal in Qusia for the better-educated priests to also serve as community leaders. The next batch of students has much more laity.

‘When you want to implement a new culture and elevate the whole society, you must convince the leaders first,’ said Fr. Angelos Faltas, one of the graduating priests. He partners with Muslim NGOs to combat illiteracy, and has begun an internship program with five local factories to train 100 men for the labour market every three months.

But it is not just the leaders that Bishop Thomas needs to convince. It took 10 years before Anafora finally saw local acceptance of his transformative vision.

One proof is in the prestigious American University of Cairo’s scholarship program. Each year since 2004 the university selects two students from each governorate, and 60 per cent of those from Asyut have come from the diocese of Qusia, said the bishop.

These students are honoured as role models for the community, representing Egypt at the highest levels. The only challenge is to get some to stay. Internal migration draws the best and brightest away from nearly all villages in Upper Egypt.

The priests will stay, as they are bound to the church. But from distant Anafora, Hanna explains her hope for the training.

‘It helps people know how to develop their local community,’ she said. ‘Now they will think how to stay and serve, rather than how to leave.’

 

This article was originally published at Lapido Media.

 

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Excerpts

Copts Unite with Muslims after Islamist Attacks

Bishop Thomas of Qussia
Bishop Thomas of Qussia

From Egyptian Streets, elaborating on how Bishop Thomas defended his church in Upper Egypt, which I briefly mentioned in this report:

“We learned that extremists were going to attack us with machine guns, but we did not prepare ourselves for the attack with weapons. We did something simple,” says Bishop Thomas, about that day he received a message that armed hardliners were on their way to his episcopal residence in the Al Quosia-region of Lower Egypt.

Determined to defend themselves without violent means, the church fathers applied soap and water on the rocky path leading to Bishop Thomas’ residence.

“I saw them coming with their machine guns far down the road. They tried to get to the house, but they slipped and fell. They tried over and over again, without succeeding,” says the Bishop, smiling with grief as he talks about the episode.

The grief is over the many homes in his diocese which were attacked. But he is resisting the urge to demonize:

“Fear and anger does not come in my heart. Fear is the biggest enemy – this makes you lose wisdom and power,” said the Bishop gently when asked about the impact of the violence on life as a Copt. “Hatred is the biggest disease – full of revenge and the source of all evil.”

Doing so enables him to take a path different from many Copts, who have embraced the current crackdown on Islamists:

“I need to embrace the victims with love and communicate forgiveness. When the worst assaults are over, my task is to promote and facilitate reconciliation,” said the Bishop calmly while smiling. “The Coptic church is training people to see the situation from different perspectives, we teach them the difference between autocracy and democracy, and the meaning of a civil state. We are working against both a religious – and a marshal state.”

The attacks, some might say paradoxically, have brought the Muslims and Christians of his area closer together:

“Poor Muslim families brought blankets to the Christians who lost their homes, and together we formed a civil front– not Christians against Muslims– but civil society against extremism,” explained the Bishop.

Among the issues discussed jointly were defense-tactics and how to prevent any new attacks.

Images and video-clips from Muslims and Christians, who hand in hand formed a protective ring circle around churches, were shared on social media across the globe.

“No one who has not experienced sectarian violence close up will be able to imagine what this solidarity means to us, as a society,” said Bishop Thomas gratefully. “We did actually lose hope under Morsi. Now we are hoping and praying that the price Copts are paying now will benefit generations of Egyptians in the future.”

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Personal

Bishop Thomas: Almost a Jonah

In typical Coptic Orthodox clerical fashion with his flowing black gown and long white beard, you would never know Bishop Thomas was almost a Jonah.

The Jonah of old is characterized for his rebellion against God. He was commanded to preach to the people of Nineveh, went instead on a boat to Tarshish in the opposite direction, and met up along the way with a famous whale.

A point often missed in the story applies equally well to the case of Bishop Thomas: Jonah was a man of God already, at the point of his calling. He was a prophet with a well established ministry in Israel.

Bishop Thomas, meanwhile, was a missionary monk serving in Kenya. He had already dedicated his life to God, when, at the age of thirty, God interrupted.

The interruption came through Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, now deceased. He identified Thomas for the position of bishop of Qusia in Upper Egypt, giving him one day to prepare for his ordination.

Thomas actually said no to the pope – an almost unheard of boldness in clerical circles. Yet his spiritual father encouraged him to wait and pray before making any final decision.

At the cathedral in Cairo Thomas knelt alone before the altar of God and cried the tears of resistance. He begged God to take this burden from him. The word ‘bishop’ implied title, respect and responsibility of men. Thomas preferred his quiet, unknown service among the Africans.

It was then God revealed to Thomas exactly where he was kneeling.

In the Coptic language, ‘anafora’ means ‘offering’ – that placed in sacrifice upon the altar. Thomas pictured himself no longer weeping beside the altar, but surrendered upon it.

God showed him a bishop was not a hand to rule over people, but a hand to come beneath them to lift them up. With this his heart rested and he accepted the mission – to own the work of a bishop, and not the title.

Moving to Qusia his vision – in particular the word ‘anafora’ – remained with him. He purchased empty land along the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway over two hundred miles from his parish. Here he oversaw a reclamation project he named Anafora, an offering of spiritual retreat for all who were in need.

Anafora became a retreat center open to all Christian denominations, local and foreign. It also provided employment for the people of Qusia suffering from a difficult job market. These he formed into a team able to administer the center independently in democratic manner. He teaches them even to positively say ‘no’ to the bishop, as he once did in error to the pope.

Anafora is being developed additionally into an education and training center for personal capacity building. Its focus is on women’s development, but also on men, to allow their wives to develop. Furthermore, Bishop Thomas is creating a life-size Biblical panorama to aid in scriptural education, as well as a school of mission to train in service for fields abroad. Currently France is asking for trained Arabic speakers, in cooperation with the University of Lyon.

Jonah, though he repented, remained a bitter servant even after seeing the harvest of his preaching in Nineveh. In contrast, Bishop Thomas did not succumb to rebellion but embraced the call of God. He remains full of joy in the life God has given him, a servant to all he comes across.

A whale can chasten, but not transform. Only God can change a heart.

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