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How do we respond to the Coptic Crisis in Egypt?
The blood of nearly 50 Coptic Christian Martyrs has dried up on the columns of the churches in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and the once cosmopolitan city of Alexandria following the Palm Sunday church bombings. Well over 100 were injured. Some may not survive. The Pope of Alexandria officiated a Palm Sunday mass at the Alexandrian cathedral. These atrocities follow a similar explosion at the iconic Botrosiya church within the compound of the Papal residence in Cairo in December 2016. Islamist militants have targeted the most sacred Christian sites in Egypt in the space of a few months.
As those who have lost loved ones grieve, hundreds of other families are remembering loved ones lost during similar attacks over previous festive periods, for instance, the families of the Al Kosheh Martyrs who were massacred on New Year’s Day in 2001; the Coptic Martyrs that died in the Alexandria 2011 New Year’s Eve bombing; and the Nag Hamadi Christmas eve massacre in 2010.
Regrettably, consecutive Egyptian governments bear some responsibility for an environment where anti-Christian sentiment is rife. Coptic Christians have been murdered with impunity. Coptic Christian women have been abducted and police are either unwilling or unable to investigate those matters. Copts routinely experience discrimination in almost all sectors. The discrimination is institutional. The few Coptic success stories are in the private sector with the Sawiris Family a prime example.
Extremist preachers incite violence against Copts. Copts have been attacked in poor villages in the hinterland. Just three days ago in the village of Kom Wafie, near Samalot in the Province of Al Minya, enraged extremists, upset that Copts were praying on Good Friday, attacked Coptic families. Those extremists burnt down their houses. The victims are among the poorest in Egypt. These attacks happen regularly in Egypt. The culprits are often freed after pointless ‘reconciliation sessions’.
Copts have been attacked in the province of North Sinai ever since 2011. In late February 2017, seven Coptic Christians were brutally massacred in North Sinai with no police or military intervention. Hundreds of Coptic refugees fled the province. Our understanding is there are very few Coptic Christians left in that region. Copts have been systematically targeted in this province; members of the clergy have been gunned down.
The harsh reality is that Coptic Christians in Egypt are utterly vulnerable. A similar observation can be made for ethno-religious minorities in the Middle East. ISIL has described Copts as their ‘favourite prey’. The Copts were subject to discrimination and persecution under the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood party. The antipathy that this party has towards Copts was evident in the litany of attacks on churches and Coptic property following the ouster of the Islamist President Morsi in response to the largest recorded demonstrations in history for Morsi’s removal even though then General El-Sisi was accompanied by the Grand Mufti of Al Azhar and the Pope of Alexandria in announcing his ouster. There is no sign of the Egyptian Government taking any action in the short term to stop these attacks other than declaring a three-month “State of Emergency”. I am not sure whether this action will make a substantive difference given police had significant powers before this period was declared.
The response of the Egyptian Government and the International Community will in part depend on the response of the Copts inside Egypt and in the diaspora. Of course, it is in the interests of the Egyptian Government and Egyptian Muslims to stop these dramatic images and graphic videos beaming out of Egypt which show powerful explosions ripping churches apart and causing devastation. Tourism, a major source of revenue and foreign currency, will be adversely affected if these attacks continue.
The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, led by HH Pope Tawadros II, seems to have been pressured into supporting the broader agenda of the Egyptian Government. In the name of patriotism, the Church seems to have been co-opted by the State. A few years ago, the Church created a committee to oversee any ‘crisis’. In recent months, the same committee seems to have sent representatives to the United States to mobilise church communities to support President El-Sisi in the streets. The committee should be focusing on responding to crises. They are yet to publish a full list of the martyred and injured. Meanwhile, many non-Coptic organizations and individuals in the West are actively raising funds for Copts even though it is extremely hard for any NGO to work in Egypt.
Unfortunately, there appears to be mixed messages emanating from the Church leadership. In August 2016, the Pope issued a statement that called on US Copts to refrain from protesting against Coptic persecution decreeing that “failure follows those who disobey”. This statement is difficult to reconcile with the Pope’s previous position that his authority does not extend to political matters. Just two weeks ago, various online media outlets ran with the headline “Coptic Pope says Egyptian Christians’ problems are ‘minor’, warns against ‘harmful’ exaggeration”.
I raise the above points as the Copts in Egypt do not have any political leader other than the Coptic Pope. The Coptic Pope is acting as both a religious and political leader even though his role is spiritual and as a fait accompli his authority extends only to spiritual matters. The conflation of these roles is not in and of itself detrimental. It is possible for a person to have a religious role and play an active role in political and social matters. The great and revered civil rights leader and Christian pastor, the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, is an exemplar. But on the current state of affairs, lay Copts cannot operate freely because they are reticent to take positions on political and social matters which contradict the position of the Pope. People will be ostracized from the Church or at the very least frowned upon if they do. This environment suffocates expression and is not an ideal situation.
Copts need a voice to represent them socially and politically. The Coptic Church is currently assuming responsibility for all the affairs of the Copts and when the going gets tough they refer matters to God which then means people start questioning their own faith in God. The Pope’s recent Easter message that the crown of suffering precedes the crown of life and that suffering is part and parcel of Christian life is understandably a spiritual justification for the pain that Copts have experienced. But the proposition that the Christian concept of suffering justifies the predicaments that affect Copts in Egyptian society is difficult to rationalize. Copts are entitled to have their fundamental rights respected and deserve the same protection from the State as other Egyptian citizens. The Christian concept of suffering does not mean that Copts should live in fear about the possibility of a terrorist attack when they attend mass or that they should be subject to routine discrimination and persecution or that those responsible for harming Copts should be allowed to act with impunity. Does anyone remember the 70-year-old mother who was dragged naked in the streets of Minya by the irrational, enraged mobs? Well, no one has been held accountable for this incident either.
The Church seems to have been put into this position by the Egyptian Government. We see the Church change its rhetoric but we see absolutely no change in rhetoric from the leaders of Al-Azhar who represent the majority Sunni population. The Al-Azhar was apparently not interested in supporting one law for regulating Houses of Worship in Egypt. Anti-Christian sentiment has reached an all- time high in Egypt. A simple ‘Happy Resurrection Feast’ post by a TV anchor like Amr Adib is met with vitriol, sarcasm and attacks on Christian feasts by Egyptian Muslims on social media.
The steady exodus of Coptic Christians from Egypt is expected to continue unless the Egyptian Government can turn things around quickly. Christianity is close to being extinct throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They now make up only 4% of the population in that region and most of those now live in Egypt, where estimates of Copts range from as low as 5 million up to 18 million depending on who you believe.
The steady exodus of mainly skilled migrants is a permanent loss for Egypt. These new migrants will temporarily fill Churches in the West and result in many new churches and communities being established. This will be celebrated as a sign of growth for these church communities. Eventually though, many of their offspring will integrate into the wider community particularly with the phenomenon of mixed marriages and increasing secularization. Coptic church attendance in the West is dominated by the elderly, recent migrants or first-generation migrants. If this steady exodus continues, Egypt’s Christian population will become almost negligible with only the poor and vulnerable remaining.
Either way, the remaining Copts will need our help and advocacy into the future and Copts all over the diaspora must mobilize to assist them whilst they are in Egypt and continue to pressure the Egyptian Government to afford protection. The most effective mechanism for preventing attacks on Copts is to send a clear message of deterrence to the culprits. The Egyptian Government must ensure that no single attack against any Copt in the country occurs without the culprits being held accountable, sentenced and imprisoned for their full term. Reconciliation sessions must be dispensed with because they only exacerbate the problem. The rule of law must be applied in Egypt.
It is no longer good enough for Copts, especially in the diaspora, to escape the crisis by preaching to each other and say ‘God will help them and provide’. There is nothing wrong in offering prayers. But the reality is that no Copt can claim to be the Virgin, St George or Pope Kyrollos; that is no Copt can claim to have such a special relationship with God that his or her prayers will be the differentiating factor between peace and persecution in Egypt. It is inexcusable to apply this form of reasoning when in different circumstances it will be decried as irrational. No religious figure or Copt will say that God will help you succeed in your university exams without adequate preparation, so why will God help us if we are sit on our backs and do nothing? We must do all we can to make a substantive and practical difference.
Copts in the diaspora do not face the challenges that Copts in Egypt face. It is precisely because I enjoy the freedoms and rights that Egyptian Copts desperately want and deserve that I believe it is the fundamental duty of Copts in the diaspora to speak out against injustice. In Australia we can make a difference and respond to this crisis. The Coptic Orthodox Church, under the leadership of H.G Bishop Anba Suriel, is receiving donations to assist with the financial burden of the many families impacted by the devastating twin bombings. The Australian Coptic Movement Association is also in need of assistance and seeks to fastback opening a fully resourced office in Canberra to continue its advocacy work with better resources.
I have listed the details of both bank accounts below.
Australian Coptic Movement Association
COPTIC HOPE CHARITY DETAILS
Coptic Hope Charity(CHC) is the official charity set up by Bishop Anba Suriel to provide the gift of hope to those who need support. CHC now has tax deductibility endorsement by the Australian Taxation Office for all donations of $2 or more. To obtain a receipt please contact Mr. Nagy Banu via firstname.lastname@example.org
By Direct Debit
Coptic Hope Charity
Narration: Palm Sunday Martyrs
By Credit Card
Doris Elias on 0403 288 653.
The Australian Coptic Movement Association
The Team at the Australian Coptic Movement Association is also seeking support to continue its advocacy work by opening a fully resourced office in Canberra.
The Australian Coptic Movement Association Ltd (ACM) was founded in 2010.
The ACM is a community advocacy group that fights for human rights in Egypt by exposing the persecution suffered by Copts, advocating for greater political and civil liberties, and calling for the justice and security of Copts.
By closely working with the wider Australian community, government bodies, the media, and other human rights organizations, ACM has quickly grown to become one of the most active Coptic organizations in Australia, accumulating nationwide support. This status is reflected and recorded in Hansard records and numerous national and international media reports.
The ACM has achieved many milestones, which has brought it to the forefront of the struggle for freedom. These achievements include organizing rallies, lobbying the Australian government to pass motions in the Federal and NSW Houses of Parliament, conducting letter-writing campaigns, releasing media statements, providing support to Coptic asylum seekers, and encouraging Copts to assimilate into the wider community. We are currently in the process of introducing younger members to our board in leadership roles and hope to open an office in Canberra soon. Please help us fast-track our plans and donate to help us fully resource this initiative.
Now, more than ever, we are in great need of independent Civil Community groups to play an influential role locally and overseas.
Account Name: The Australian Coptic Movement Association Ltd
BSB: 032 – 273
Donations greater than $2.00 are tax deductible.