By Tim Scheiderer
"'I just felt fire grabbing my face,' a hospitalized [Copt] told state TV. “I pushed my brother, who was sitting next to me, and then I heard people saying, 'Explosion!'"
"'I’m not angry at the one who did this,' said [Naseem Faheem’s widow], children by her side. 'I’m telling him, "May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you."'"
In an age of media violence, one might think the collective conscience has grown cold to genuine instances of violence. However, pair violence with an eyewitness’s trembling voice or a victim’s blank stare, and visceral emotions and thoughts are yanked from the recesses of one’s core. But, would forgiveness be one of those thoughts?
The type of violence the Coptic Christians have had to endure in December 2016 and 2017 is horrifically unimaginable. Yet even more unimaginable is the overall reaction by Copts to this violence. The St. Charles Institute spoke with Bishop Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, about this countercultural reaction as well as other aspects of the violent situation facing the Coptic Church in Egypt. His Grace is known globally as an ardent advocate for international religious freedom. In 2015, he was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty The Queen, for “Services to International Religious Freedom.”
The conversation begins with the bombing of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Coptic Orthodox Church on the grounds of the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral complex in Cairo on December 11, 2016. The attack killed 27 people and wounded nearly 50.
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St. Charles Institute: Many Roman Catholics and Western Christians might see the physical attack on the St. Mark’s complex in Cairo in December as also a symbolic attack on Christianity in Egypt because St. Mark’s is the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope. For certain, an attack on the Vatican would be viewed by Catholics and others as an attack on the Catholic faith, and perhaps, more broadly, Christianity worldwide. Do Copts view the attack the same way? With the same significance?
His Grace Bishop Angaelos: “Absolutely. I think at the time it was quite shocking. First, because it was relatively unprecedented that we have bombings in churches. We had one bombing outside a church on New Year’s Eve of 2011. But, this is the first suicide bomber to go into a church. I think, I felt this was a turning point. This was a new strategy. It was a new way of doing things. It was a new stage in the attack on Christians.
“Secondly, of course, the horrific nature, the fact that it was in a church on innocent worshippers. And all but one of those who died were women and children. The way our churches are in liturgical services, women and men stand on separate sides. The suicide bomber ran in on the side where the ladies were and detonated himself. And the only man who died was the churchwarden who ran in and tried to tackle him when he realized something was wrong. That in and of itself was deeply shocking.
“Thirdly, it was a continued targeting and it looks like it was a very intentional targeting of the Christian community. And I think on that front we are now accustomed to it. I do not think it has dampened the strength or resolve or resilience of Christians in Egypt. Coptic Christians are quite strong and accustomed to this. I think their response has been strong and has been gracious. We have seen lots of [online] posts where families of victims have said they speak of forgiveness. And, that in and of itself is quite inspiring.”
SCI: You have just stated that many Copts are forgiving. Could you expound upon that, please? Where does that forgiveness come from? What is the source? And as I ask you this question, I have in mind the non-churched who would be astounded at your statement of a forgiving attitude in the face of such horror and fear.
HG Bishop Angaelos: “It is definitely baffling to non-Christians. But, it is also baffling to many Christians. It’s not what one expects as a reaction. Two things come into play, the first is that we are a deeply spiritual, ascetic church. We are a church of martyrs. We have been for millennia. Our ecclesial calendar starts in the year 284 AD which was the beginning of the reign of Diocletian. [His campaign] was the bloodiest campaign against Coptic Christians in Egypt in which the greatest number died. In order to mark that, we remember the beginning of his reign as the beginning of the Coptic calendar, the year of the martyrs, Anno Martyri.
“It is martyrdom, dying for one’s faith. And, unfortunately, the term, martyrdom, has been so corrupted recently. It now means to kill others and possibly oneself for religious purposes. Whereas for us, it is to die for one’s faith or be killed for one’s faith. It is part of our day to day life. It is part of our heritage. In every liturgical service, we have the Synxarium, the account of the saints and martyrs of the day, read. And inevitably on every day, there will be a martyr. So I think what it does is give a sense of resolve and resilience. And we have not fallen into a victimhood mentality or mindset, which I think is very easily done when one is on the receiving end of such attacks. The fact that it goes the other way and creates a greater resilience and strength means that one, from that place of strength and, but still vulnerability, can actually forgive because we are not intertwined in this powerlessness and victimhood so forgiveness comes from a position of strength.
“The second point is that as Christians, with every struggle or difficulty, we do receive an immense amount of grace from God that will, at least, balance the intensity of the struggle. And I think it is with that grace that people are able to forgive because if you are asking on the outside they will say, 'Well if this happened to one of my relatives I could never forgive.' But, I suppose the difference is that once it happens to any person that person is given much grace. And how he or she decides to use it will offset the anger. Because at the end of the day, in my mind, anger is disempowering. It is crippling. It is a consuming thought, energy, and emotion that just doesn’t lead us to anything positive at all, but, actually, to a greater sense of resentment and potentially retaliation.”
SCI: As you read reports from the West of what is taking place in Egypt to your fellow brothers and sisters, is it being reported accurately? What is not being reported or reported often enough about the Coptic Church in Egypt? What do you wish people understood better about the church and its situation?
HG Bishop Angaelos: “The one explanation that always offends me is when we refer to things that happen in Egypt as ‘sectarian violence.’ And that seems to be what many people use. Now sectarian violence is the type of violence we have seen in other parts of the world when you have two parts, sections of a community, a society warring against each other whereas in Egypt it is by no means sectarian. It is the direct and intentional attack upon the Christian community, which has absolutely been committed to non-retaliation. So, I think to make things easy Western media will sometimes use this term, 'sectarian violence,' because it falls into recognized models. We are not used to communities that are persecuted outright and those communities that are non-retaliatory. I think that is a very important distinction to make.
“The second thing to realize is that persecution only makes the headlines when we see situations like these bombings, and the shootings in Minya, and the beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya and so on. What we don’t see is for decades there has been an alienation and marginalization of Coptic Christians in Egypt. There have been glass ceilings on almost every public sector role and position in the country. There are no Coptic Christians in significant leadership roles. We now have a number of ministers, but in smaller, more junior ministerial posts. In some aspects, the situation is getting better. … But at the day to day level, people are still experiencing glass ceilings. And they are still experiencing a sense of being second class citizens in many parts of the country because of the mindset that has been nurtured over decades and that really does need a very proactive and intentional program of re-education and of changing society.”
SCI: There is a divide in the Coptic Church regarding the relationship between the Church and President Sisi’s government. For instance, there are Copts who perceive and criticize an overly-cozy or close relationship senior leadership has with the president. Many see this as a purely political relationship and Copts are not getting their fair due. What does the West not understand about the relationship between the Coptic Orthodox Church and Mr. Sisi? Is there an unrealistic expectation on President Sisi to bring about change in such a short period of time?
HG Bishop Angaelos: “Like every community, there is a variety of opinion and expectations. And I think that people in the community have different expectations, as far as the government is concerned. After all, it is an independent perception and individual opinion.
“I think that the president does have a fresh perspective and new vision for the country, but we know that a nation is just more than the president. We don’t want a privileged position in the country. What we want is to be citizens, Egyptian citizens, respected by, and supported by the state and the nation for having equal rights, but also equal responsibilities.
“… I just want to set the record straight there is no blind allegiance to anyone or anything. First and foremost, as a church, we look to the interests of our people and we look to the interests of being a presence and an honest and gracious presence in the community, but also to be advocates whether it be for our people or anyone else. So we are not, we have not, are not, will not compromise the interests of our people. But we will, as the largest Christian presence in Egypt, as the Church of Egypt, continue to deal with the state and with its apparatus for the interests of all.”
SCI: You have mentioned before that there are diplomatic talks between the church and the state. What is the general nature of those talks currently? And how are the concerns of the Coptic Church being received?
HG Bishop Angaelos: “Of course, there is continued conversation. Of course, there is alarm that is expressed, for the safety and security of Christians individually and the church. And the government, the state is responding. This is a much bigger issue than just protecting churches or individuals.
“As we see in our own communities in the West, one can never fully protect against criminal acts. They happen. They are diabolical. They are unacceptable. But they happen. And we need to do everything we can as communities, as societies, as states to try to make sure people are safe. And I think in that respect, we feel the government in Egypt is doing more. And there is always more that can be done. But my concern is that the perception is oversimplified into being are we pro-Sisi or anti-Sisi, and I don’t think we are either. I think the Church of Egypt is the Church of Egypt. Coptic Christians are Egyptian. They will support their government or they will call it to account when they see it is not fulfilling its role.
“And that is precisely what happened during the Morsi period. Christians and Muslims, religious and secular, men and women, young and old went out into the streets to hold the government to account. So I think that is where we stand. We appreciate the efforts of the government. I think there are honest efforts being made at the moment. And we will always want as much as possible to be done to protect Christians, but also to protect the whole Egyptian society. Because in protecting Egyptian society and Egypt, [the government is] also indirectly and directly protecting Christians.”
SCI: Pope Tawadros has said the violence threatens the unity between Muslims and Christians. How is this unity tangibly demonstrated?
HG Bishop Angaelos: “On a day to day basis, there are relationships between Muslims and Christians. The society is polarized in some areas, but in many, many areas there is a sense of comradery. There is a shared experience. There is a shared life.
“Of course, a fringe element of the society desires Christians to react in order to spiral into a Christian/Muslim conflict. Now we thank God that this has not happened. There has not been a retaliation. And I feel very blessed and honored to be a member, a bishop of a church where its people, and this isn’t just the leadership, its people, day to day members, don’t think of retaliation; and they stand in their faith and by their witness; and they have given an example to the whole world that this is what it means to be a Christian, even within the greatest persecution and in the greatest struggle.”
SCI: Is ISIS striving to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians? Are there any cracks in the relationship?
HG Bishop Angaelos: “It is not happening from our side as Christians because we have not retaliated. We understand that Muslims in Egypt who are not of the same mindset as those who are perpetrating these crimes are equally a target. When you have attacks on the military, on the police, this includes both Christians and Muslims. If you have public attacks, there are Christians and Muslims there. When they attack churches, of course, it is targeted, but we know that those [who] do not follow the same understanding or the same ethos [are] also equally demonized by radicals.
“It is having an effect on the other side where this mindset seems to be radicalizing some Muslims into feeling that Christians are the enemy. And, on that side then, the polarization is happening from those who are now ready to carry out those attacks. But, from the Christian perspective, we still maintain our identity as Egyptian Christians. And, therefore, so not separating ourselves from anyone else.”
HG Bishop Angaelos’ final thoughts: “From a Christian perspective, I feel these struggles and difficulties of the past five years have brought the Christians of Egypt together. Of course, Egypt’s Christians are predominantly Orthodox. Yet we do have Coptic Catholic, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Episcopal, and other communities as well. What has happened, since the first uprising, is there has been the establishment of the Egyptian Council of Churches, and we see that having brought the Church in Egypt closer together. So we are very thankful for that.
“And it has brought Christians globally together as we have seen a visit from His Holiness Pope Francis, His Beatitude: the Patriarch of Constantinople, His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other Christian leaders. So I think it is very important that we see that this is bringing the Christian family together in Egypt, but it is also bringing our humanity together because there are people standing up saying this is not right. It should not happen. And when we speak for one another, I think we present our faith as Christians, but also all faiths properly because there are many in this world now who look at religion, at best, as being irrelevant and unnecessary and, at worst, as being the cause of all evil. I think when we act courageously and appropriately then we dispel that.”