Category Archives: Egypt

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?

“Deeply Troubling” – Terrorism Now the Biggest Threat to Christians

Christians will find little of comfort in the US State Department’s newly released International Religious Freedom Report. For, sadly, it confirms what many of us already knew – that the new phenomenon of non-state terrorism has supplanted oppression by government to become the main threat to religious freedom. And conditions are getting worse.

In the words of US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David N. Saperstein, speaking to journalists in Washington DC on October 14th at the release of the report: “The single greatest challenge to religious freedom worldwide, or certainly the single greatest emerging challenge…is the abhorrent acts of terror committed by those who falsely claim the mantle of religion to justify their wanton destruction.”

He singled out Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for particular condemnation, along with Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

But a second challenge is also sadly familiar to Christians – blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan that are used to oppress minorities, especially Christians, whose religious beliefs offend the majority.

Nevertheless, the report did find a modicum of good news amidst the gloom. It noted “encouraging improvements in the status of Christians in Egypt,” including court convictions for some of the perpetrators of violence against Copts.

It applauded the new Egyptian constitution for providing increased human rights protections, including a stipulation of equality before the law irrespective of religion. “It also requires that parliament pass a new law facilitating the construction and renovation of Christian churches, which is without precedent,” said the report.

In his remarks to journalists, Ambassador Saperstein noted another pleasing development. He said he had visited China and found that, despite continuing abuses and restrictions, “many places of worship were nonetheless full and flourishing. In areas of the country where the government’s hand was lighter, faith-based social service and welfare agencies operating homeless shelters, orphanages and soup kitchens made highly positive contributions to the wellbeing of their society.”

He also found in Sri Lanka that, after some years of growing religious conflict, a new government was working to ease tensions.

But overall there was little to reassure Christians. When asked by a journalist if conditions were getting better or worse, the ambassador stated bluntly that over the past several years there has been a steady increase in the percentage of people living in countries with serious restrictions on religious freedom.

Then he added: “And of course…the escalation of the violence perpetrated by non-state actors, often in the name of their interpretation of religion, is a new phenomenon that has really escalated in the last 18 months. So on that level, there are trends that are deeply troubling.”

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.

Soccer Riots in Egypt – Why My Novel Sometimes Reads Like a Daily Newspaper

My Brother Half Angel thrillers are based on current events, so it is little wonder that, now and again, some particular news item seems to be lifted straight from one of my books.

It has just happened again, with news that rioting at a soccer match in Egypt has led to the death of around 25 fans from the Zamalek club.

Coptic Martyr3Soccer fans from Egypt are not the only ones with a proclivity towards violence. But what marks them out is that they are also involved in the country’s politics.

Soccer club supporters were involved – often quite murderously – in the Arab Spring demonstrations and in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

In my novel “The Coptic Martyr of Cairo I featured a violent soccer club fan as one of the main villains. Here is an excerpt –

But still, it was summer and he was bored. It wasn’t just the intense heat. It was the lack of soccer. Here in Egypt he followed Al Ahly, the country’s top team, and was a member of the Ultras, their fanatical supporters. The Ultras specialized in beating up the supporters of their opponents. Mohamed was just thirteen when he and his friends began traveling down to Cairo to watch Al Ahly games. The best were always those against their hated Cairo rivals Zamalek, when the taunts and provocations of players and supporters alike usually turned the pitch into a war zone. In fact, the Egyptian soccer authorities often imported foreign umpires just for this game, such were the passions on and off the field. Just as enjoyable – and bloody – were the matches between the Egyptian national team and their hated rivals the Algerians.

It was their fighting prowess that led the Muslim Brotherhood to recruit the Ultras when the Arab Spring uprisings began.  Mohamed had been on the front lines in Tahrir Square, braving the tear gas and the bullets, along with the other Ultras, fighting for an end to the hated Mubarak regime. He had little doubt that it was the muscle of the Ultras, not the weak-kneed protests of the democracy advocates, that had brought down the government.

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

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?