LONDON — More than 40 Christians in Egypt, known as Copts, have been deliberately slaughtered for the faith in the past three months alone by militants aligned with the Islamic State terror group, which has been waging a brutal five-year war against Egypt’s forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
As ISIS’ self-proclaimed “caliphate” collapses in Syria and Iraq, it has whipped up its supporters in Sinai to persecute Coptic Christians, their “favorite prey,” forcing many to flee their ancestral homeland, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the Holy Family fled, seeking refuge from the terror of Herod the Great.
Egypt’s government has called for national solidarity and condemned these attacks on its Christians. In December, President Fattah el-Sisi and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II walked together in a state military funeral procession ordered for 29 Copts, mainly women and children, brutally murdered by a suicide bomber at St. Peter’s Church in Cairo.
Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of the United Kingdom and a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, as well as an advocate for religious freedom, told the Register in an interview that Egypt’s Christians need the solidarity of their fellow Christians around the world.
He explained Christians elsewhere also need to honor and embrace the Christlike witness of Egypt’s Christians in the face of these terrorist attacks, which are aimed at destroying Christian-Muslim cohesion, and pray for the conversion of their persecutors.
Your Grace, can you please tell us what has been happening with Coptic Christians in Egypt, with this latest surge of violence?
There has certainly been a pattern of violence against Christians in Egypt, and it has been escalating. We’ve seen this happening ever since 2011, with the uprising [that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak]; there’s an element of lawlessness, and there was an escalation of violence coming into the former presidency; and again, [with] the attitude toward Christians, the situation didn’t improve.
Since the most recent election — the new presidency, the new administration — there has been a better treatment, a greater stability at the official level, but, of course, the fringe terrorist elements continue. What we’ve found is an incitement towards violence against Christians, and they’ve been very targeted, very personal attacks. Whether it’s, of course, the horrendous suicide bombing of the Church of St. Peter in Cairo to innocent men, women and children in more isolated situations being attacked and murdered.
Most recently, there has been the attack in the Sinai area, El-Arish, where people have died; and as a result of continued aggression, scores of families have had to leave. I’ve spoken to our bishop in El-Arish, as well as Bishops’ Social Services, which is heading up the humanitarian aid around this whole situation. They’re doing as much as they can to support the families that have left. Some have been relocated to Ismailia, a neighboring diocese, and some actually to Cairo. They’re providing accommodation and support for them there.
It is meant to be a temporary measure. The security services have said that they are working toward rounding up those who are responsible for these attacks and restoring a sense of law and order in El-Arish and returning those families to their homes.
Where are these attacks mainly happening?
It’s in the Sinai region, but we know that that region has always been a place where there has been criminal activity. There have been attacks on police and military, and now the attacks are focusing more on the Christians.
Of course, we’ve had a priest killed there previously, so it’s not the first attack on Christians, but it seems to be the most recent type of attack.
So these attacks: Are they all coming from Daesh (ISIS), or is it just more from extremist elements within the populace?
Well, I think there is most certainly an incitement from the caliphate, and then there are either affiliated bodies, organizations or individuals, who hear this and act on it. I think it’s a combination of those. As we’ve seen here in Europe, you either get attacks from known affiliates, or individuals who agree with the cause and decide to respond to the call.
From what you can understand, what is the ultimate aim of these attacks on Christians?
The aim that has been publicized is that it is to punish the Christians, but also to, I suppose, reach the result of Christians in El-Arish, where Christians leave. And, of course, it’s difficult to get into the mindset of individuals who are so committed to this kind of eradication of people who are different.
I’m sure they’ll mean different things to different people, but what it all stems from is a total inability to accept others who are different within the same context.
Are these attacks on Christians aimed at undermining the legitimacy of Egypt’s government?
I don’t think they’re attacking the legitimacy of the government. I think they are potentially trying to cause rifts between Christians and Muslims, hoping that the Christians will react differently and therefore retaliate, and it spirals into more violence. Now, thankfully, that has not been the case so far — Christians have reacted very peacefully, nonviolently, even to the extent of forgiving. So that hasn’t worked. I think there is most definitely an agenda there to attack the cohesive nature of communities.
In recent statements, you mentioned that the higher levels of Egypt’s government have changed their mentality toward Christians, but part of Egyptian society has yet to change its attitudes. What can the Church do, or what should the Church do, to help change the social mentality?
I think what we’ve seen the Christian community in Egypt do over and over again is present a very Christlike model of forgiveness and love — and an ability to be proactive and positive members of communities. I think that’s the best thing we can do — to practice what we preach — and what we preach is love and forgiveness.
As long as we stay faithful to that, then the Christian message stays strong. Of course, the easiest thing for some is retaliation, but, thankfully, that has not been the Christian response in Egypt, and I pray that it continues that way.
For Christians who are living in the West, how would the Church in Egypt like us to respond?
I think the best thing for us as Christians in the West to do is to, first of all, pray for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, whether it’s in Egypt or elsewhere. Secondly, to keep this message alive. The fact that incidents come off our news feed doesn’t mean they cease to exist. The more we can keep them alive, the more we can keep focusing on the fact that they are still happening, is very important.
I also think messages of support and love and fraternal wishes are important, because it’s important for Christians to feel that they are most certainly members of the wider body of Christ and that they are not isolated in a certain region of the world.
What I think is unhelpful is some of the rhetoric we’re hearing, and the aggressiveness, and the anti-Islamic rhetoric, which ends up then adversely affecting people in the region. I think we need to speak with strength, we need to speak the truth, but we should never, ever be insulting or derogatory. And I think that’s the importance of our message and the message of Christ. The message of Christ is one of strength and truth and integrity, but always with respect and with love.
So, in many ways, the anti-Islamic rhetoric in the West not only hurts Christians in the Middle East, but it also undermines our collective witness to the Gospel.
Absolutely — it undermines our Christian message, because if we look at even those who have been affected directly in Egypt, it’s superhuman that they’ve all responded so lovingly and graciously. But then we get people thousands of miles away, who understandably are hurt by what is happening, but who respond in such a manner that it really is counter to the Christian message. And this is one thing that I need to keep reminding myself as a bishop in the Church: that, of course, I am in utter pain for my brothers and my sisters and my spiritual children who are being affected, but I need to remind myself constantly that my response must be a Christian one on their behalf.
Because they are fighting the good fight, they are suffering there on the ground, they are presenting a wonderful example of Christian witness, and it is up to us to honor that and to respond in the same way.
How, then, can Christians in the United States and worldwide provide support for the Coptic victims of persecution and their families?
Again, as I said earlier, messages of support, messages of prayers, messages of fraternal greetings, messages of unity in the body of Christ — they’re all very important. Praying for the victims, praying for the government, but also praying for the perpetrators. Because, of course, we pray [for] strength for victims, so that they can face these horrible situations with strength and Christlikeness; but we also pray for the perpetrators: that they realize this is a huge crime against their own humanity, because we undermine our own humanity by being dismissive of the sanctity of life and accrediting fellow human beings with a lesser value.
I think, finally, starting Lent and coming into the week of Passion and the Easter period, we focus on the cross, and we focus on the suffering [of Christ]. But we also focus on the great power of the Resurrection that comes afterward and the victory over any of the crimes. And so God who came in flesh and was able to restore us was there for the whole of humanity. And so, we believe that, just as St. Paul himself changed from Saul the persecutor to Paul the great evangelist and the great father of faith, we’re also sure that prayers and God’s grace can change those who are causing the greatest pain now to be those who cause the greatest hope.
So this should be our great hope and prayer for the Middle East?
Absolutely. We pray for those facing the persecution to have strength to endure it, but we also pray hopefully that one day it could end through those who inflict this pain realizing the sanctity of the lives they are affecting.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.