Thirty Coptic Christians were gunned down by ISIS, ambushed in a church bus on a weekend outing to a popular monastery in the Egyptian desert. Their families gathered to receive their loved ones in a local hospital, but were met with a mixture of ill-equipped facilities and overwhelmed staff. They even had to fetch their own water.
As if another reason was necessary, Coptic anger turned the funeral march into a protest.
“With our souls and blood we will redeem you, oh Cross!” they shouted. Some seemed to take aim at Islam. “There is no god but God,” they chanted, before changing the second half of the Muslim creed, “and the Messiah, he is God.”
Other chants took no aim at all, thrashing wildly in anger. “We will avenge them, or die like them.”
Many observers say such anger plays right into the hands of ISIS, which is keen to turn Egypt against itself.
Six weeks earlier, after twin suicide bombings on Palm Sunday, Bishop Boula of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Tanta found himself in a similar situation. Hospitals did not have enough refrigeration units to keep the 25 bodies of those martyred at St. George Church. Crowds were gathering, and anger was surging.
Quickly, he made the decision to bury them together in the church crypt reserved for bishops. Honoring the dead with their leaders of ages past, he then marshaled the youth to provide order and security for the semi-spontaneous funeral service.
“It cooled the fire of all the people,” he later recounted on satellite TV. St. George was renamed to include “the righteous martyrs of Tanta,” with a shrine erected outside the crypt.
A condensed version of this interview was first published at The Media Project on May 4, 2017.
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.
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.
Attacks at two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt’s Nile Delta killed more than 40 people and injured more than 100 others during Palm Sunday services—including the one where Pope Tawadros II was worshiping.
ISIS claimed responsibility. In February, the Egypt chapter of the Islamist extremists had released a threatening video calling Coptic Christians “our priority and our preferred prey.” Soon after, about 100 Christian families fled their homes in the Sinai Peninsula amid a string of murders.
Reuters reports more details on the bombing in Tanta at Mar Girgis (St. George) Church, which killed at least 27 and injured more than 70. CNN reports more details on the Alexandria bombing at St. Mark’s Cathedral, which killed at least 16 and injured more than 40. [Before ending its live updates, state media outlet Ahram Online put the final toll from Egypt’s health ministry at 29 dead in Tanta and 18 dead in Alexandria.]
Nader Wanis, director of the Arkan Cultural Center in Alexandria, was worshiping at the Anglican Pro-Cathedral only two streets from St. Mark’s when the bomb went off. “It was only a few minutes before serving communion and it shook our whole church,” he told CT. “We were scared, but insisted to continue.”
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A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview Bishop Boula of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Tanta. While we discussed several subjects, the timely publication stemming from our meeting concerned how local Christians are preparing for parliamentary elections, under the guidance of the church. Click here to review if you missed it earlier.
The bishop’s schedule was busy and unpredictable, and I was obliged to stay three days in order to meet with him. This afforded a pleasant opportunity to understand local relations, and to enjoy the comfort of St. Mina Monastery. On the site of an ancient monastery which was the birthplace of St. Mina, an early Coptic martyr under the Roman persecution, it is no longer a residence for monks but serves as a guest house and retreat center.
Please enjoy a walk through the grounds in these two videos. The first is about nine minutes long, and the second is five. I narrate as I walk, based on what I learned while there.
The pictures below highlight certain aspects as well:
The monastery lies in the village of Ebiar. From the train station in Tanta to the village would cost a simple 1 LE ($0.18 US) in a microbus, and then an additional 3 LE from the village center to the monastery in a smaller tuk-tuk (three wheeled motorized rickshaw).
Ebiar has approximately thirty Christian families which make up an estimated 10% of village population. They have good relations with neighboring Muslims, though they mention the occasional harassment of a Christian girl or the under-the-breath cursing of a successful Christian businessman. Christians, like Muslims, tend to be farmers, traders, or government employees. Though they interact in all manner of relations, Christian families live almost exclusively around the church – which is not unusual in village settings in Egypt.
The St. Mary Church is over 200 years old. The icon of the Virgin Mary is well known in the area as being a source of healing to those who intercede through it. The church is presided over by Fr. Boula, who was appointed in 1981 and is beloved by all. He is celebrated for his assistance to the poor, attracting people from surrounding villages as well as Tanta itself.
Muslims in Ebiar fall into three categories. The first and traditional category is that of a simple farmer. In this they would be nearly indistinguishable from village Christians. Over the last few decades, however, several from Ebiar now identify with the Muslim Brotherhood. Their percentage equals about 30-40% of the village. Practically every family, however traditional, has a Brotherhood member – if not a Salafi – influencing the rest. Salafis make up an additional 30% of the population, but have less influence due to their recent public emergence. Though my visit was substantially before elections, the Salafi Hizb al-Nour (Party of Light) banner flew prominently over the main road.
As I spent most of my time in the monastery complex I was unable to experience the reality of Ebiar village life. Yet through testimony and extrapolating conventional wisdom about village life, it appeared to fit the norm. Christians make up a small percentage, center their existence around a church, and enjoy traditionally good relations with a rapidly politicizing Muslim population.
In the weeks and months to come, it will be interesting to see if elections have any impact on Christianity in Ebiar. The village is traditional and poor, yet hosts a massive and elaborate Christian monastery. Bishop Boula – from Tanta – is mobilizing Christians to vote, and while he does not give instructions, nearly all Christians are motivated by worry over Islamist government. Meanwhile, the emerging political identity of village Muslims is exactly that, whether Brotherhood or Salafi.
Will traditionally good relations keep politics a separate slice of life, allowing Muslims and Christians to interact as always? Or will the language of suspicion on both sides inject a subtle poison, unintentionally damaging much? Will Fr. Boula’s love for the poor characterize Christians of the village, or will his simplicity be trumped by the grandness of the monastery?
Village life has always faced challenges, and the free exercise of politics is simply the newest visitor to Ebiar. Perhaps the mutuality, integration, and respect of traditional village life prevail over unavoidable trends. Perhaps Bishop Boula, Fr. Boula, Brotherhood and Salafi leaders, and village elders all find common cause in love and support, rather than rivalry. I bet the Egyptian nature of the village holds; elections will come and go as life goes on.
Cairo is the beating heart of Egypt, but her villages are the nation’s lifeblood. I only wish I knew more about their reality.
From before the revolution, many Copts have realized their community suffers from a dearth of political and civic participation. The Coptic Orthodox Church’s Bishopric of Youth, for example, has an area of focus entitled ‘Promoting Coptic Participation in Society’, which I encountered when a representative spoke at our local church encouraging the congregation to register to votein the 2010 legislative elections. When he informally polled them for who planned to vote, only a handful indicated any interest at all.
That was before the revolution, when everyone knew that election results were rigged. Yet conventional wisdom still suggests the Copts of Egypt are reticent in their political participation. Recently, a representative of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party presented a brief primer on basic civics in a Sunday School meeting at church, and while the subject received more apparent interest than earlier, the attitude still seemed subdued.
It was not always such. Copts were equal participants with Muslims when British colonialism was repulsed, and helped shape a liberal democratic polity under the Egyptian monarchy. The revolution of 1952 steadily put an end to the budding democratic system, and Copts began to feel excluded from the corridors of power. The increasing religiosity of the state under Sadat accelerated the feelings of marginalization, and Mubarak succeeded in concentrating the Coptic voice within the walls of the church, with Pope Shenouda as its spokesman in both religion and politics. Whatever merits the Copts gained from their direct line to the president, it cemented their tie to the autocratic state, especially against the feared possibility of Islamist rule.
This line of reasoning was heard recently from Bishop Boula, head of the Clerical Council of the Coptic Orthodox Church and bishop of Tanta, a city in Delta region an hour’s drive north of Cairo. He spared me a few minutes of his time in between meetings with the supreme military council, in Cairo – to discuss the Maspero affair – and an election preparation meeting with the priests under his charge, in Tanta.
He related to the priests that despite the military council being much in the wrong in Maspero, where twenty-six people were killed following protests, almost all being Copts, Christians must still support the army. It is the only functioning institution left in Egypt, and Islamists are chomping at the bit. Much of his counsel, however, was to keep the anger of Copts at bay. Priests should work to prevent other political forces from getting Copts all fired up, and too many were going out to demonstrate during a time of economic trouble. The military is having trouble running the country, and Copts should be careful not to make things worse.
There was Biblical counsel in his words as well. Christians should take care not to chant against Field Marshal Tantawi, head of the military council, as this was against Christian teaching. In response to the Maspero tragedy, the church must remind its flock that as the Bible says, ‘All things work together for good,’ and that now was a time to increase societal dialogue, not protest.
The thrust of the meeting, however, was in application of an unmentioned Biblical concept: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Coptic attention during this time must focus on the vote of every single Christian – a chief responsibility of citizenship. Bishop Boula then reviewed the homework he had each priest prepare.
Each priest had reams of paperwork – maps, graphs, or hand drawn versions of the same. They demonstrated the results of previous instructions to select a church volunteer to be responsible for every fifty houses in his area. Many priests had done admirably; others had not done enough. These had failed to map their constituency down to the details of names and exact street location. The bishop wanted nothing left to chance, or for anyone to slip through the cracks. Not only should the volunteer know each and every Christian under his responsibility, he must also be readied to give clear instructions on voting procedures. He must master the content of www.elections2011.eg, so there would be no confusion the day of the vote.
Bishop Boula issued further instructions during the session as well. Many Christians in Tanta have their official residence outside the area, and several poorer professions, such as the doormen, come from Upper Egypt. Each priest must identify these Christians as well, and study arrangements to assure they are present in their home district for elections. If this involved the church paying their transportation back home, it is worth the expense. Even beyond the coming legislative elections, priests also must help mobilize for the more immediate syndicate board elections. All Christian professionals – engineers, doctors, journalists, etc – must be located and encouraged to vote.
It was a very impressive meeting. Bishop Boula went far beyond exhortation to convince Copts of the necessity of political participation; he actively served as campaign coordinator. It should be noted he gave no instructions on which candidate or party to vote for, only that a vote be cast. The necessity, however, was lost on no one.
According to the results of the March referendum, the elected parliament will appoint the delegates charged with writing the new constitution. The importance of these first elections, therefore, goes far beyond simple legislation. It will set the ground rules for future governance.
If as expected the Islamist parties perform well at the ballot box, will they craft a civil, democratic constitution? Only a handful of Copts admit to the possibility they would fare better under an Islamic system; the rest lean overwhelmingly with the liberal parties, at least among those who have a political inkling. Copts are commonly constituted as 10% of the population. They may be as low as 5-6%, and one partisan estimate tallied them as high as 20%. Regardless, if all mobilized they would have much electoral sway.
Does the effort of Bishop Boula represent illegitimate church interference in politics? Does it represent wholesome spiritual impetus for civic engagement? Or, does it represent the desperation of a religious community pressed between the history of autocratic rule and the fear of Islamist? How much is it a combination of all three?
The Copts of Egypt are well represented in many aspects of business and professional life, but the political arena requires savvy and acumen long left unpracticed. The Egyptian revolution has opened wide the doors to politics, but many Christians are only in the aperture. Bishop Boula is trying to push them through; God may weigh the intentions of his heart, but the ballot box will measure the extent of his success.