Category Archives: Copts

Coptic Christians – Trusting God, Surviving and Thriving

As 2015 drew to a close, church leaders were expressing grave concerns for the future of Christianity in the Middle East. But such fears might be exaggerated, according to a writer for a British Christian website. As one of his points of evidence he cites Egypt’s Coptic Christians, whose “faithful piety” means “there are almost certainly more committed believers in Egypt than there are in the UK!”

It is a valid argument, and it struck a chord, as my pastor had asked me to preach one of our church’s sermons during the Christmas period, and I had spoken at length on the Coptic Church.

The topic of my sermon was the visit of the magi – the three wise men of biblical tradition – to the infant Jesus, and I used this story to discuss the theme of trust.

According to the gospel writer Matthew, it was the visit of the magi that alerted King Herod to the birth of Jesus, whereupon Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys aged under two years in the vicinity of Bethlehem.

But an angel of the Lord had already warned Joseph to flee, and he escaped to Egypt with Mary and the baby Jesus.

In my sermon I noted that, although the Bible says nothing about the Holy Family’s time in Egypt, the Coptic Church believes it knows the route of their journey, and today many of these places are famous pilgrimage sites.

But the key reason I wanted to discuss the Coptic Church was, I told my congregation, because I believe it is one of the finest examples we have today of a church that has trusted God. Right from the start of its existence – tradition says it was founded by the gospel writer Mark soon after the death of Jesus – the Egyptian church has been subject to intense persecution, and this has continued down to the present day.

Yet church members have consistently placed their trust in God. They have chosen death rather than renounce their faith. Is this the reason the Coptic Church has survived and flourished, even as, over the centuries, Christianity was being wiped out in many of the neighboring countries of the Middle East? I feel it might be.

In my sermon I gave an example of what could be termed the “faithful piety” of the Church. I live in Melbourne, Australia, not far from a large Coptic monastery that serves as their local headquarters. They have their own bookstore that is open on Sundays, and a few years ago I went there to buy a couple of books for some writing I was doing.

I got chatting with one of the senior priests, and he gave me some pamphlets about the Church. Then he went away and came back with a loaf of the monastery’s communion bread, which he presented to me. It was a round, flat loaf with a cross stamped in the center, representing Jesus, surrounded by twelve smaller crosses, for the twelve apostles.

The priest explained to me that the bread is made each Saturday by priests who pray and chant psalms throughout the whole baking process. It is round because that represents Jesus, who is eternal, without beginning or end. And each loaf is pierced five times, to symbolise the three nails of Jesus on the cross, the spear that the Romans pierced him with and the crown of thorns.

He told me it is made of wheat and yeast only so as to represent the manna that God gave the Israelites each day in the Sinai Desert, which was intended as their daily sustenance. So the bread never contains salt, as this would give it some taste and might also help preserve it. It is made to be without particular taste, and to be eaten immediately.

As we enter 2016 we see Christianity under threat in many places, not only in the Middle East. I suspect some of us might be tested as never before. Do we have the same strong trust in our Savior that has been shown over many centuries by Egypt’s Coptic Church?

Coptic Christians Needed for Mideast Peace and Stability

Recently it might appear that conditions have not been too bad for the Coptic Christians of Egypt.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made a point of visiting the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo on Christmas Eve, and he has worked to foster good relations with Coptic Pope Tawadros II. He has spoken out on the need for Islam to reform itself.

Meanwhile, the horrific massacre in February of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya, by the barbarians of Islamic State, appeared to have outraged Egypt’s Christians and Muslims alike.

But look more closely and a different picture emerges. And looking more closely is exactly what John L. Allen Jr., author of “The Global War On Christians,” has just done, during a visit to Egypt.

In a report this month at the Boston Globe Media website “Crux,” he stated that his aim was to “reverse-engineer Stalin’s famous dictum that one death is a tragedy, while a million is a statistic.”

In other words, he was seeking out individual stories on the lives of the Coptic Christians in Egypt today. What he found was heart-rending.

For example, he met a Christian doctor who was kidnapped in Egypt’s Sinai region and held for 92 days, blindfolded and handcuffed, until his family paid a ransom.

According to Allen, this man was sometimes put in a car and driven around listening to verses from the Koran, while his captors beat him with a rubber hose for refusing to accept Islam.

Another encounter was with Ayman Samwel, a pharmacist and a member of the Zabbaleen, Cairo’s underclass of “garbage people” who are almost entirely Christian.

Allen wrote: “Last week Samwel was rousted from his bed by police at 3:00 am and dragged off to a station house, where he says he was beaten for four hours and subjected to verbal abuse about his faith. As Samwel describes it, it’s part of routine harassment of his community.”

For the past year the eyes of Christians have been focused on Iraq and Syria, and the horrors being perpetrated by Islamic State. But the eyes of many Mideast Muslims have also been focused on Islamic State, and its rhetoric and actions have seemingly emboldened them to step up their persecution of Christians.

Several months ago I wrote a commentary titled “More Christians, More Peace.” I quoted an American journalist who had just returned from his third visit to Iraq as affirming that real peace in the Middle East would require a sizeable Christian presence. “Where there are Christians in the world there is more peace,” he told me.

Allen reached a similar conclusion after his visit to Egypt. If Christians go down in Egypt, then they will go down across the entire region, he stated. And that will be the end for any realistic hope for pluralism, democracy and stability in the Middle East.

But – and this is my own opinion, not his – the outlook is not promising.

Egypt’s Coptic Church – An Inspiration for the West

The exciting but controversial discovery of what could be the oldest known fragment of a Christian gospel – scraps of recycled papyrus used to make an Egyptian mummy’s mask – puts the spotlight on Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

At present, the earliest known texts of New Testament writings are from the second century. But this new fragment, containing part of the Gospel of Mark, is believed to be from around 90AD. It confirms again that the Coptic Church traces its origins right back to the beginnings of Christianity.

In ancient Egypt discarded papyrus sheets were often used, together with paint and glue, to create masks that were placed on a mummified body. Until recently it was generally not possible to read these sheets, because they were glued tightly together.

But a new technique allows scientists to remove the glue from the mask while leaving the writing intact. The texts can thus be read, although the mask is essentially destroyed, and so the practise has caused much controversy.

Unconfirmed stories about the gospel discovery have been circulating since 2012, but re-emerged in January 2015 when the LiveScience website posted an article stating that the scholars involved were planning to issue a full report on their findings later this year.

Egypt holds a special place in the history of the church. Mary and Joseph fled there with the infant Jesus. Saint Mark founded the Egyptian church just a decade after the death of Christ, possibly wrote his gospel there and was martyred there.

In addition, few places better symbolized the third-century church father Tertullian’s famous statement, that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.

Coptic Martyr3In the words of the Tour Egypt website: “It was in Egypt that some of the greatest defiances of the Romans by Christians were done. While their Roman counterparts worshipped in catacombs and underground vaults, the Egyptian Christians built their churches openly and performed their ceremonies in full view of the Empire. And for every one that the Empire struck down, more would be converted by the example of the martyr.”

For several hundred years Egypt was a proudly Christian nation. Then the Muslim invasion of the seventh century saw the country slowly turn into an Islamic state. Today Christians number only around 10 per cent of the population.

But the martyrdoms continue. Recent years have seen some particularly grotesque attacks on Christians from Saudi-inspired Islamists. The Islamists even try to deny the Christian heritage of Egypt, which makes the recent papyrus discovery important.

Yet Christians in the West generally know little about the Coptic Church. This is unfortunate, as it has much to teach us.

In the early centuries it taught that to become a Christian was possibly to enter a world of suffering.

Now, with persecution on the rise in many parts of the world, we see a praying church that, despite enduring many centuries of hardship and martyrdom, stands strong, proud and defiant. For nearly 2,000 years it has remained true to its calling – true to Christ, true to the Bible, true to its teachings and unafraid of death. This should be an inspiration to us all.

Copts Have Georgia on Their Mind

Egyptian Coptic Christians are migrating to Georgia – formerly part of the USSR – in growing numbers, according to AhramOnline.

The reason is simple.

Those waiting in line at the embassy say many Copts are increasingly afraid to live in Egypt. They attribute this fear to April’s Al-Khosous incident – in which six people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians – and subsequent clashes outside Cairo’s Abbassiya Coptic-Orthodox cathedral.

…”My son is a doctor and was attacked by thugs. He received severe head injuries on a normal weekday in a main street,” explains 60-year-old business owner Osama Shehata. “Just give Egyptians one thing – security – and they will never think of leaving their country.”

Some reports say that many thousands of Copts have made the move. However, Egypt’s Coptic Pope Tawadros II has denied that Christians migrating from Egypt has become a trend, adding that there have only been individual cases.

A Week of Depressing Headlines

By Martin Roth

In Brotherhood’s Egypt, blasphemy charges against Christians surge ahead

The Arab Christians’ existential crisis

Intense Christian persecution in the Central African Republic ignored by the world

Mob Attack Copts and their Businesses in Northern Egypt

Abduction of Young Coptic Girls in Egypt Showcased to Western Journalists

Muslim Persecution Against Christians Is ‘Spreading, Intensifying,’ Says Egyptian Copt

Religion vs Religion in New Zealand

By Martin Roth

I grew up in New Zealand where rugby football often seems to have the status of a religion. So it is interesting to view a conflict in Christchurch, NZ, between a local rugby club and Coptic Christians, who plan to build a new church nearby.

The whole issue is complicated, but the club is aggrieved that it may lose access to facilities it had taken for granted.

“It’s a community asset and it’s been that way for so long . . . I know we don’t really have a leg to stand on because it’s privately owned by the church now but the whole thing is just disappointing.”

He felt the club had been locked out of a facility that “is part of our history” and the council had not considered the “loss of services” to park users.

But not everyone feels aggrieved:

Deb Jackson, from the Airport Guesthouse opposite the clubrooms, said she had “no problem whatsoever” with the proposed church. “When that was a rugby club, we had issues with drinking and people throwing bottles . . . and peeing in letterboxes.”

Egypt in Exchange

By Martin Roth

The headline to this opinion piece in Britain’s Daily Telegraph says it all:

The Muslim Brotherhood wants Spain back. Can the Christians have Egypt in exchange?

Our Church Is In The Hands Of God – No One Can Hurt It

By Martin Roth

According to the First Things blog:

Copts have no illusions about the possible consequences of their new assertiveness: more persecution. But it seems a price they’re willing to pay. A senior Coptic monk told the AP, “Our church grows stronger with martyrdom. My faith and confidence tell me that so long as our church is in the hands of God, no one can hurt it.”

This reflects what I wrote in my novel “The Coptic Martyr of Cairo:”

“You said something during the demonstration that I didn’t quite understand. You said that each stone the protestors throw makes you stronger?”

“That’s exactly right. When I am not afraid of death, when I know that I might die, but when I also know that by dying I will be going to a much better place, then I am made stronger. And my assailant is made weaker by comparison. The victim becomes the victor. If he kills me I shall rise up to eternal life and become stronger. I will be together with Jesus. The assailant has lost all his power. He is defeated. When you spend several decades in a monastery you learn truths like that.”

“So you actually want your churches to be attacked? Your people killed?”

“No, of course not. It causes great pain within our community when that happens. But we strive to be like Jesus, who died a martyr. Our founder was the apostle Mark, who wrote the earliest of the gospels. He was executed and died a martyr. The Egyptian church has been built on the blood of our martyrs and is renewed and strengthened by them. Far more than in any other country. Because God is faithful to those who are faithful to Him. I can quote to you by heart the beautiful words of the Book of Revelation. ‘When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony.’ Many of our people know this verse.”

“But if you keep having martyrs, soon there’ll be no one left.”

“Do you truly believe that? Christians have been in this land for two thousand years. The baby Jesus moved through our land. The apostle Mark, who wrote one of the gospels, he founded our church. Do you think God will allow our church to fall?”

“There are lots of countries that used to be Christian. The whole of North Africa…”

“I can’t speak about those other countries. Maybe the people there were not true believers. But I do know that God is faithful. And He will respond to our faithful witness to Him.”