“We Forgive”: Messages Among Charred Remains of Egyptian Churches

Catholic Aid Agency Speaks on Future of Christianity in Egypt

Supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi staged massive demonstrations throughout Egypt today, two weeks after a spate of protests in Cairo led to the killing of hundreds and the devastation of Christian communities and churches.

The Muslim Brotherhood reportedly blames Christians for the military’s ousting of Morsi; he was removed from office July 3 following months of protests against his regime. The conflict came to a head on Aug. 14 when hundreds were killed in clashes between the military and Morsi supporters. The bloodshed was followed by violent attacks against Christians by the Muslim Brotherhood, who went on to destroy scores of churches and monasteries, many of them centuries old.

John Pontifex, who is editor-in-chief of the Religious Freedom in the World Report, Aid to the Church in Need International (ACN), has been in touch with Christian leaders in Egypt, where communities there are still recovering from the violence earlier this month. In an interview with ZENIT today, he shed some light on how Christian communities are responding to the crisis.

ZENIT: What sort of reports is ACN receiving out of Egypt from Christian communities there, especially over the past week? As they recover from the recent violence, is there fear of more violence ahead? What is their outlook for the future?

Pontifex: Such is the pain and misery inflicted by the catastrophic events of August 14-15 that even now it is too early to say that Egypt’s Copts are coming to terms with what happened on those terrible days when more than 50 churches and other Church centers were attacked and burned. Bishop Joannes Zakaria in Luxor told me today that there was continuing anger both within the Muslim and Christian communities and deep fear. He said that both communities “need time” before they can really begin to heal and move on. But he also said: “If we want to find hope, we need to look to the past.” He underlined that violence and oppression against Copts were by no means new and that on each previous occasion of violence against Christians, they had been able to put the pain behind them and move on. However, he said such a process was difficult especially on days like today when he said the Muslim Brothers were planning protest “manifestations” demanding that Mohammed Morsi be returned to the presidency. Bishop Joannes said that Christians were spending the day in their homes and in their churches, keeping a low profile in case the protest marches turned ugly.

Christians are undoubtedly being scapegoated for the downfall of Morsi, described as a coup by his supporters and as the just outcome of a popular uprising by his opponents. This is a primary reason for the ongoing sense of fear among Coptic communities. What allays those fears to some extent at least is the widespread deployment of police and other security personnel who have sought to prevent a recurrence of the mid-August attacks. The fact that things have been relatively calm for the past two weeks is being treated as a sign that maybe peace and stability are returning but at a time of continuing volatility there is a real danger of pre-judging the situation and allowing hope to take the place of realism.

ZENIT: Many of the Churches and monasteries destroyed during the protests were centuries old. What is the future for Christianity in Egypt, taking into account how so much of its cultural heritage has been destroyed?

Pontifex: Few Christian communities are as proud of their heritage as the Copts in Egypt. And what a heritage successive generations of Copts left behind. Ancient monasteries and other church buildings are a touchstone in any assertion of Coptic identity in Egypt and their place at the heart of their country’s political, social, economic and indeed religious life. It’s hard for us in the West to appreciate just how much it hurts for Copts to witness wanton attacks on their ecclesiastical structures.

But more damaging than attacks on churches is the threat of emigration: Reports state that at least 200,000 Copts fled Egypt in the two years that followed President Mubarak’s fall from office in February 2011. Obviously in a country where Copts number 10 million or more, such emigration figures are not alarming as they would be in most other Middle East countries where Christian communities are much smaller. But just looking at the figures themselves can be misleading. In a message sent today from Cairo, Father Rafic Greiche, a respected and well-informed commentator on Coptic affairs, told me: “Yes, Copts are emigrating. It’s a pity – those choosing to leave the country are the most educated and wealthy.”

When I went to Egypt as I did in the early weeks after Mubarak fell from power, I was struck by the desire of many young Copts to be educated – including at university level – and their desire to enter professional life. They know that Copts’ happiness as a community depends on them pushing back the aims of extremists to reduce them to a ‘Dhimmi’ disenfranchised status. Hence the decline of the Coptic community’s professional class will be sorely felt and will only trigger wider emigration among the young. They are the ones, after all, who are most likely to leave, and yet they are the ones on whom the future of the Church in Egypt depends. What Fr. Greiche did draw out, however, was a deep desire among many Copts to rebuild their country and the place of Christians within it. In a powerful statement, he said: “Copts are willing to pay the price [of freedom]… because we have hope in God and we know that the bloodshed will give birth to a new Egypt.”

ZENIT: We know that the destruction was brought about by more extremist Muslims. Could you speak about the relations between Christians and moderate Muslims at this time?

Pontifex: When I spoke to Bishop Joannes today, he described a very moving scene. He highlighted the case of one particular Coptic Orthodox church which had been almost completely destroyed. The church is in the province of Minya, which bore the brunt of the anti-Christian violence. He said that Copts had left messages among the charred remains of the church stating: ‘We forgive’.

I suspect that this willingness to forgive is much enhanced by the police’s efforts since mid-August to round up alleged instigators of violence – both Muslim Brothers and Salafists. This is important since as Bishop Angaelos, the general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, has made clear the attacks of mid-August were not spontaneous; they were apparently planned. Following the situation in his country with great care and attention, he has noted: “While we recognise that the priority now is for the peace and restoration of order in Egypt as a whole, the unprecedented attack on our churches, carried out almost simultaneously over a 24-hour period, indicate a premeditation and coordination that goes beyond specific acts of instantaneous anger.”

Efforts to remove from local communities extremists who are culprits of violence will do much to restore calm. This is important for all sorts of reasons not least because, as Fr Greiche is keen to point out, moderate Muslims suffered from the terrorists as well as Christians. There is this sense of them forming a joint front in the face of a common enemy. Time and again, I have heard Copts highlight the successful relations between Muslims and Christians at a local level. You see this in the ancient communities spreading out either side as you go down the Nile. Bishop Joannes spoke of reconciliation meetings taking place between Christians and Muslims in order to draw a line under the past. Many more are planned but the process has to be undertaken a step at a time, especially recognising the increased levels of resentment and suspicion since the events of mid-August. Bishop Joannes had a good phrase to describe it: “What we are doing now is to forget and forgive, to start a new age of relations between our different communities. It certainly will take time.”

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