This is an edited version of a talk given by Dwight Randall at the St Mary and Archangel Michael Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church in Victoria Park, Western Australia, in April 2011.
It is apparent from even a casual look at the Coptic Church in Egypt, that its history has been marked by persecution from its origin to the present time.
A suicide bomber, mingling among 1,000 believers at the Saints Coptic church in east Alexandria, killed 21 people just after midnight on New Year’s Day as worshippers were leaving the service. The attack was among the deadliest on Egyptian Christians in recent times. It represented yet another violent assault against Egypt’s vulnerable minority Christian community. The explosion, which was obviously intended to cause maximum Christian casualties, appears to be the work of extreme Islamists—possibly linked to Al Qaeda.
Former President Mubarak promised to bring the perpetrators to justice, but Coptic Christians justly complain that few people are brought to justice for religious attacks upon them. In its 2010 annual report, the US Commission on Inter-national Religious Freedom condemned the lack of determination to prosecute those responsible. The report stated, “The absence of accountability breeds lawless-ness, which encourages individuals to attack, and even kill, others who dissent from or fail to embrace their own religious views, including members of minority religious communities.” With little determination to find and prosecute offenders, religiously motivated attacks against Coptic Christians are on the rise in Egypt. Some now describe it as being more like a purge.
Another attack took place in early March, after President Mubarak had stepped down. It happened in the town of Soul, where Christian homes and the Virgin Mary and St. George Church came under attack by a large mob of Muslims. Copts told the Christian Broadcasting Network news that the Muslim mob that attacked the Christians did so at the urging of Mullah Ahmed Abu El-Dabah. CBN reported that “during noon prayers at his mosque on Friday, March 4, the imam allegedly incited Muslims to rid the town of all Christians.” In response to this alleged provocation, a mob of several thousand Muslims attacked, burned and looted Christian homes and the church. The Assyrian International News Agency reported that the mob chanted “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is Great) as it destroyed the church. Sources told CBN News that police did not respond to calls for help, that fire-fighters were reportedly turned away, and an Egyptian Army unit nearby was slow to respond. Thankfully, no Coptic Christians were killed in that incident, but that in itself is a wonder. It appears God miraculously protected his people.
Since the public uprising against the Mubarak government in Egypt in February, the level of attacks against Coptic Christians has been escalating.The Egyptian army, initially praised for its passive response to massive public protests for democracy, is now facilitating the Islamisation of Egypt by overturning court-imposed sentences, releasing over 1,700 imprisoned terrorists and Salafist clerics*, and permitting the Muslim Brotherhood, which was formerly banned in Egypt, to form two political parties.Indeed, it is clear that the army itself is imposing further restrictions, and permitting and instigating further acts of violence, upon Coptic Christians. The Religious Liberty Monitor recently reported, “Enacting repressive Sharia prohibitions against Christians building or repairing churches, the army surrounded the 5thcentury Monastery of St Bishoy** and the Monastery of St Makarios, firing live ammunition and rocked-propelled grenades at monks and workers, wounding several. Tanks and bulldozers demolished walls built to protect the churches from jihadists attacks. The monks stood their ground, praying and singing, ‘Kyrie eleison’ (Lord have mercy), while the soldiers chanted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (Allah is greater) and ‘Victory, victory’.”
It is particularly alarming to read about a recent poll (Associated Press, 26thApril 2011) that reported that “62 percent of Egyptians believe laws in their country should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran.” This will further cement the dhimmi status of Coptic Christians in their own land (see Mark Durie’s article in this issue of Life News).
Our hearts go out to our Coptic brothers and sisters. Australian Christians enjoy great freedom, including freedom to worship. We have never experienced what it is like to be a persecuted minority. We do not know what it is like to be hated, to have our churches burned down, our people murdered, our leaders slain. But Coptic Christians certainly do. We take comfort from Christ’s words, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”.We read these words in a theoretical sense. We know they are true, but for the most part we have not experienced the reality of what Jesus is saying here.
Our Coptic brothers and sisters know the truth of Jesus’ words at a deeper level than we do, for they have experienced the blessedness that arises from “persecution for righteousness’ sake”, and they know the reality of Jesus’ following encouragement when he adds, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” They know firsthand the truth of Jesus’ words, when he comforts believers by saying, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
At such a troubling time as this, we appeal to God on behalf of our Egyptian brethren. We pray that, in spite of what is presently taking place in Egypt, democracy with freedom of worship will be established, and the persecution of Coptic Christians will brought to a halt. But, if that does not take place in the near future, we pray that God will protect his people, that he will strengthen their faith, that he will help them as they continue to endure persecution for Christ’s sake, and that he will comfort them in the midst of it.
*Salafists hold to a strict interpretation of the Koran and believe in creating an Islamic state governed by Sharia law as it was practised by the Prophet Muhammad and enforced by his companions in the 7th Century. Many Salafists support Al-Qaeda.
**The demolition at St Bishoy’s was filmed and can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edVRFUOSJAw