By Tim Scheiderer
The summer of 2017 in Egypt was a little less busy for churches of all denominations due to the halting of all activities outside of church buildings. Summer retreats, conferences, and other events were cancelled because of a security threat posed by ISIS. The intel and the orders came from the country’s security agencies. Church services were unaffected.
The actions taken by churches in Egypt are unthinkable in the West let alone the circumstances that necessitated them. Therefore, the St. Charles Institute spoke with Ramez Atallah, the general director of the Egyptian Bible Society, about the recent violence against Christians, along with the misconceptions about persecution, violence, and the lesser known reasons they occur. As well, he sheds light on the tension between freedom and security in Egyptian society.
St. Charles Institute: The culture of the Middle East is rooted in honor. If one is shamed, then some form of vengeance must be carried out against those who did the shaming. This type of response seems to be largely absent in the Egyptian Christian community though. What type of responses by Christians do you witness as they endure this period of persecution and violence?
Ramez Atallah: “There is a consistent general response of forgiveness. … We see again and again a biblical response of mind-blowing forgiveness and love for the persecutors. The Egyptian media are full of articles and interviews showcasing the radical faith of simple Christian believers. And we hear the words of Jesus repeated over and over, broadcast on TV for all to hear. [Also], compelling testimony of several survivors from [the recent] bus shooting. Along with the testimonies from individuals and the media, this is an example of sermons being preached in the churches.
“The morning after the execution of the Egyptian Christians in Libya , I arrived at the Bible Society office in the morning feeling sad and depressed. I met a young coworker who told me that she was ‘very encouraged.’ I could not imagine what on earth could encourage her!
“‘I am encouraged,’ she said, ‘because now I know that what we have been taught in history books about Egyptian Christians being martyred for their faith is not just history, but that there are Christians today who are brave enough to face death rather than deny their Lord. When I saw these young men praying as they were being prepared for execution, and then many of them shouting, “O Lord Jesus,” as their throats were being slit, I realized that the gospel message can still help us to hold on to the promises of God even when facing death!’”
SCI: These Christians, you are referencing, were threatened with death if they did not renounce Christianity and embrace Islam. Yet, they exhibited tremendous resolve and boldness knowing the cost. Do most Christians you know possess such resolve and boldness?
Mr. Atallah: “Yes, this resolve and boldness characterizes most Copts we know. The deeply entrenched belief that martyrdom can be part of the cost of being a Christian, which Coptic Christians have held since the establishment of the church in Egypt, has been tested in a new way in recent years. When 21 Egyptian Christian laborers in Libya refused to denounce their faith and were, therefore, brutally executed by ISIS, their story became a great source of encouragement to Egyptian Christians to believe that this centuries-old understanding of martyrdom is still relevant for the 21st century church. Instead of frightening or intimidating Egyptian Christians, as ISIS had intended, this video was the source of a real revival of true commitment to Christ among millions in Egypt. After the Palm Sunday bombing, churches were full to overflowing.
“There [exists] a confusing paradox in Egypt today. Christians are both ‘a discriminated minority’ and a ‘thriving community.’ Many Christian entrepreneurs [have] thrived in the post-Sadat, neoliberal economy since the early ‘70s. These Christian entrepreneurs now control a significantly disproportionate portion of Egypt's wealth.
“It is [also] true that many Christians are discriminated against in Egypt, and some are persecuted. It is equally true, however, that churches of all confessions are thriving and flourishing more than ever before in recent history.”
SCI: Why do you say they are thriving and flourishing? What examples are there of this?
Mr. Atallah: “A main example of the flourishing is in every new district of Egypt we see churches being planted and quickly getting full. And even the real estate around them increases in value as Christians want to live near the church; so that they and the children particularly can benefit from all the services provided from the church: from Sunday schools to summer vacation schools to sometimes clinics to be[ing] able to worship close by.
“Living close to the church is, particularly for poor Christians, a sense of security. It is a good thing economically because they save [money]. … Transportation can be very expensive going to church. And many of them go to church several times a week. And their kids in the summer being able to be babysat by the church. And the church is realizing this, tak[ing] full advantage of it and provid[ing] wonderful services. Many of the Coptic churches now have five, six, seven priests, lots of workers, and youth leaders. There is an increase in that. There is an increase in [the] number of churches. Every time we go to a new district, we see a church being planted there and increasing in all denominations as Cairo expands.”
SCI: There are some press reports quoting experts who say violence against Christians in Egypt is more multi-dimensional and less one dimensional, which is the common thought amongst most Western Christians. Could you elaborate on this?
Mr. Atallah: “Often times it is hard to define if the difficulty of life in Egypt is due to general bureaucracy and incompetence and corruption, or if one is being targeted because of Christian faith. Life is very difficult for all. There are indeed separate and sporadic and individual attacks, but many of these as well are often motivated by greed or politics or personal issues, and not simply because of one’s faith. Furthermore, the various church bombings, while targeting Christians because of their faith, they are mainly motivated with the purpose of undermining the government, destabilizing the country, and inciting sectarian tensions. So basically, yes, Christians are often targeted, but the reasons are very often more complicated and involve many issues.
“Christians are free to meet and live out their faith in public. Converts cannot, for that is illegal.* Christians have a strong and vibrant faith and community. This is, in part, due to the pressures from their context. In the West, where people are comfortable, not threatened because of their faith, the church is generally weaker. When one’s faith is always being attacked, questioned, and marginalized, people are placed on the defensive, forced to make a stand and express their beliefs in various ways and situations.”
*Editor's Note: It is not uncommon for the government to arrest, detain, discriminate against, or harass Muslims who convert to Christianity. According to the State Department, 'the government does not recognize conversion from Islam by citizens born Muslim to any other religion and imposes legal penalties on Muslim-born citizens who convert.' The government does prosecute those who proselytize publicly.
SCI: The Egyptian government has striven to improve security for Christians. Yet, there have been some lapses that have led to more injured and killed. In light of this, are Christians demanding more from President Sisi? Are they expressing disappointment in him? If so, what are they desiring of their government?
Mr. Atallah: “Following the recent suicide bombings of two churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday (2017), many Christian and Muslim activists blamed the government for not protecting Christians enough. Many angry voices were heard in the media demanding more ‘protection of Christians’ by the authorities. What these activists don’t realize is that all the government has in its power to do in response to these demands is to tighten security. Because of this the President requested, and was granted by Parliament, emergency powers to allow police to arrest suspects without having to wait to obtain a warrant. This will soon make these very activists accuse the government of reducing human rights in Egypt.
“The purpose of the attack is to use the soft target of the Christians to destabilize the country. It is much harder to attack the police [and] the army, which they want to attack. But by attacking Christians, they embarrass the government internally and externally. And the hope is to create Coptic/Muslim tensions within Egypt, and also their hope is for foreign countries to stop sending tourists or people to Egypt because of these attacks, which, of course, have very little to do with foreigners. And, therefore, they are hurting the economy and the political image of Egypt and, as a result, this would promote the radical Islamic agenda, which has said Islam is the solution.
“Unfortunately, of course, many Christians will not see all of these and simply feel minoritized, attacked, or insecure. But what we have seen is that, in addition to that, many, many Coptic Christians are prepared to accept martyrdom, that is being killed because they are Christians— because they believe if they get martyred they will go to heaven. And they believe this is part of the Christian calling."
SCI: So it would seem the request for more security is quite legitimate seeing the government would not want to be embarrassed by continuing attacks and desires to maintain stability, right?
Mr. Atallah: “[The] issue of security is a catch-22. The very people who are asking for more security turn around and complain when there is less freedom. Because the only way you are going to have more security is by restricting people’s freedom. … So invariably asking for more security means asking for more restrictions in life, and once we have more security we complain of checkpoints, limitations and, of course, injustice. Because people who look suspicious or are perceived as suspicious, may be arrested and kept behind bars for a long time for fear they are really terrorists, and they can be completely innocent. So the intelligentsia, the thinking Christians in Egypt, would not ask for more government involvement, but the masses in their response would emotionally ask for that. And then, they would be the first people to complain when they become the victims of that more restrictive mood.
“If the violence against Coptic Christians was instigated by the Egyptian establishment, then, of course, calling for better treatments of the Copts would be in order. But since this is done by terrorists, who are opposed to the government, the only thing they can do is, the only thing people in the West can do, is deal with ISIS. And by dealing with ISIS, some way or another, it will take the pressure off Egypt.”
SCI: You have mentioned in the past that Western Christians, at times, are fighting for the wrong things on behalf of Christians in Egypt. What are those wrong things and what does the West need to understand about being a Christian in Egypt?
Mr. Atallah: “The promotion of the concept that Egyptian Christians are persecuted is counter-productive for Christians in Egypt because it puts, it makes the government very defensive— at times very, very hard. It belittles the efforts they are making which are phenomenal efforts. They are doing the best they can in a difficult situation to help Christians, to protect Christians.
“But by pushing the government to protect Christians more, Egypt becomes more of a police state. The only way you can make sure there is less terrorism against Christians or against Westerners is by lining up everyone who could be suspected of being a terrorist or related to a terrorist. So our jails are cracking at the seams because anyone suspected or heard saying something that does not completely jive with a moderate view of Islam could be in jail. That makes these people more radical.
"That makes the situation in Egypt more tense because Christians can be taken in the mix, can be accused of different things. And because the government tries to be equitable if they are arresting so many Muslims then they sometimes need to arrest some Christians who may otherwise not be arrested. So it is counter-productive. Yes, there is persecution. There is discrimination in Egypt. But the main discrimination against Christians is more a cultural thing.
“If our purpose in life is to be comfortable, then 10 million Egyptians would want to go and live in the West and that’s an impossibility. To reinforce the idea of Christian persecution is not good for Egyptians because it gives them the sense that they are victims—that it’s awful here and wonderful there [is not helpful]. Life is much more nuanced than this. From a Christian point of view, I think it’s easier to be a committed Christian in Egypt.
“Any Christian, no matter where they live, will be persecuted for their faith if they are faithfully living for Jesus. In fact, here in Egypt, Christians have many more freedoms than their brothers and sisters who are restrained and paralyzed by the materialistic, secular, apathetic, politically correct state of Western societies. Furthermore, a case could easily be made to show how the spiritual and social lives of Egyptian Christians are richer by far than many in more comfortable, affluent parts of the world.
“In a relaxed and flexible Middle Eastern context that places high value on relationships, there are endless social and religious gatherings, opportunities (and the time) for service and outreach. The local church is the center of the Christian community in Egypt. From early morning to late at night, the church is a beehive of activity where security and real community can easily be found.”
SCI: Pope Tawadros has said the violence threatens the unity between Muslims and Christians. How is this unity tangibly demonstrated?
Mr. Atallah: “In most cases in schools, and offices, and in neighborhoods, Muslims and Christians get along fine. … There is no perceived tension in normal relationships between Muslims and Christians in Egypt. There are places where this may be so. There are fanatical people on both sides. But in the day to day interactions, Muslims and Christians work together as co-citizens in Egypt. And in general, and there are exceptions, that can be perceived everyday on the streets.
“[It should be noted that even] though Egyptian Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet, tensions in Egypt have always existed between the Christian community and some of their Muslim neighbors. Such tensions are often linked to issues like building churches and conversions, and spill over into ugly violence especially in rural or crowded inner-city areas in large cities where the rule of law is weak.”
SCI: It is understood, the forgiving nature of Christians, hence they are not retaliating against their Muslim neighbors. But why are Muslim Egyptians not joining IS in order to participate in the attacks against Christians?
Mr. Atallah: “Egypt was a solidly Christian country when Islam came. Muslims in Egypt have come from Christian ancestry and this Christian ancestry, I believe, this is a personal opinion, [it] made Egyptian Islam, until recently, be soaked in Christian values. [These values] are in Islam, but are not highlighted. Love is not highlighted in Islam as a great value, but because Christians valued it, many Muslims valued it as well. Not knowing they get that emphasis from the Christians religion.
“So, until recently, Islam was a watered-down Islam or what you may call a contextualized Islam, the idea that women being veiled, the idea of two communities separate is a new thing. It came from the ‘60s when Egyptians went and worked in the Gulf states, came back with Salafi, with Wahhabi Islam that was foreign to Egypt. But, unfortunately, it has become, because of money and investment, and gulf state power, … a mainstream in Islam. And the Muslim Brotherhood had a part to play in that.
“… I think one of the reasons Egyptian Muslims may be milder and a good example of that is how [the] President and many other elected leaders, most of the well-known Egyptian thinkers, writers, are modern day Muslims who coexist happily with Christians, who respect Christians, and respect the Christian faith. And that’s because of the fact they were brought up in an ancestry that comes out of the Christian soil.”