“They burnt the house and went in and dragged me out, threw me in front of the house and ripped my clothes,” recounted 70-year-old Souad Thabet. “I was just as my mother gave birth to me and was screaming and crying.” She was paraded naked through the streets by a mob in Menia, Egypt, where a number of Christian homes were looted and destroyed. The allegation was that Souad Thabet’s son had been romantically involved with a Muslim woman, and so the Muslim mob had to mete out a just humiliation on the family. Old Coptic Christian ladies are easy targets. Who cares if the romantic rumours were false? All this happened in May. There have been no charges to date.
“We don’t want a church, we will knock down the church building, Egypt is an Islamic country,” bayed a mob of 5,000, incensed by rumours that Coptic Christians in Baidaa were intent on converting houses into churches and worshipping as infidels do. “One way or another, we’ll bring the church down to the ground. No church will stand here in the village. It’s either us or you, infidels!” And so their homes were ransacked while the police watched on. This was in June: six Copts were arrested, but no Salafists.
Coptic Priest Father Rafael Moussa was killed instantly when a man shot him in the head in North Sinai capital El-Arish in June. This month, Coptic pharmacist Maged Attia was stabbed and beheaded in Tanta. Five Coptic Christian homes have been torched in Abu Yacoub, Minya, after rumours spread that a church was being constructed in the area. The Archangel Mikhail Coptic Church was burned to the ground in village of Naj al-Nassara in Madamoud. And a 27-year-old Coptic Christian man stabbed to death in the village of Tahna al-Gabal, Minya, where the local priest’s family was also attacked.
We’re not hearing much about this.
His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, has issued the following statement:
Egypt is undoubtedly going through a formative stage of its contemporary history. Having emerged from uprisings and changes in Government, dealing with resulting pressures on its economy and infrastructure, and with the loss of foreign investment and tourism, it has become more vulnerable to a disturbing wave of radicalism.
One of the manifestations of this radicalisation is that despite a short period of apparent reprieve, it is regrettable that the time has come yet again to speak of heightened, targeted attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt. Tensions against Egypt’s indigenous Christian community have again escalated over the past few months, and will spiral even further if not immediately addressed.
The exponential rise in attacks against Christians and Christian property in recent months can largely be attributed to three main catalysts: inflammatory false rumours and accusations regarding alleged extra-marital relationships between Christians and Muslims, incendiary rumours relating to the building of new churches, and a growing trend towards the direct targeting of priests and their families. At their most brutal, these recent attacks have culminated in the burning of churches and places of worship, the stripping and public parading of 70-year-old Souad Thabet, and the senseless murder of Father Raphael Moussa.
What must be considered very clearly and with great concern however is that an attack on any individual member of a society is an attack on that same society and what it stands for, so our prayers are not only with those who have suffered these unspeakable and horrid violations, but for the society that is undermined and made more vulnerable with each and every one of these incidents. The system of law and order in Egypt is not one for Christians, Muslims or any other individual group of people, but it is for all Egyptians, and so when violated this violation is against all.
While there are clear efforts at the national level in Egypt to attempt to curb such acts of religiously-motivated violence and lawlessness, what we have repeatedly seen at the local level is, at best, carelessness and, at worst, criminal negligence in the reaction and lack of reaction of local security service officials. This gives a clear and direct message that certain crimes will go unchallenged and unchecked, especially when perpetrators are not brought to justice. The resulting sense of impunity not only means a lack of justice for crimes already perpetrated, but also gives greater encouragement to those who will seek to do even more, and more aggressively.
While there is a rejection of these attacks on Christians by the vast majority of Egypt’s 85% Muslim population, themselves often targeted by the same radical and intolerant elements, there is a need for a robust system of law and order that appropriately responds to crime, irrespective of who it is perpetrated by or against. If this does not happen, the concern is that hopes for a more cohesive nation will disappear, and that recent events will give way to a re-emerging religious divide.
In light of all this, it is of course difficult to have a sense of hope or promise in the current situation, but mine still remains rooted in the way Christians in Egypt and elsewhere have faced persecution for millennia. They continue to draw strength from their confidence and trust in an omnipotent God, and forgive through grace that only He can provide. In this, those suffering directly from this persecution provide a great example and inspiration for us not to be engulfed by anger or resentment but in calling for justice, remain forgiving, no matter how hard, and work towards a hopeful future, no matter how seemingly impossible.
The brutal and personal nature of many of the attacks against our brothers and sisters in Egypt warrants our prayers and support for them as they continue to endure heightened levels of persecution while refusing to lose their admirable and resilient spirit, and unyielding ability to forgive according to their Christian devotion and commitment. We also pray for Egypt and its leadership, hoping that hearts and minds will be led to greater inclusiveness, justice, equality, and refuge for the oppressed, remembering that our Lord Himself once took refuge from persecution within its gracious and welcoming borders.
Egypt’s courageous Coptic Christians have been persecuted for two millennia. They take up their crosses daily with dignity, humility and grace. And they go on forgiving their persecutors, in the hope and pursuit of peace and reconciliation. Even as 21 of their family were beheaded on Libyan beach last year, still their faith cries out “Forgive them”, even though the Islamists know full well what they do.
Coptic Christians need more than prayer: they need robust advocates and workable solutions in the face of police disinterest, political complicity and Western indifference. If we leave the Salafists to slander, humiliate and murder the Copts, it won’t be long before the ecumenism of blood reaches our shores. ‘(I) now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church’ (Col 1:24). Their suffering is ours.