Christian Copts of Egypt Claim Their Roots, Witness to the World
We're ready to be martyrs. We're ready to be with Christ, to live with Christ
As a former tour guide on Nile cruise boats and now a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University in California, David Pinault is no stranger to the Middle East. He was there during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in January 2011. He recently went back again and wrote an article, "Ready To Be Martyrs." It offers us a unique perspective from which all Christians can learn.
According to his article, two things stood out for Pinault on his most recent trip to Egypt: the modern-day martyrdom of Christians in Egypt and the Egyptian heritage of the Coptic Christian community. He recalls his driver in Cairo, a Copt by the name of Sami, telling him about the persecution of the Copts by Islamists since the demonstrations in 2011. Islamists want an Islamist government with sharia law as its foundation. But sharia law discriminates against non-Muslims and more liberal-minded Muslims.
Sami said that it had not been as bad for the Copts when President Mubarak was in power because he had suppressed the Islamists. But since Mubarak was forced to step down, the Islamists have felt emboldened. Now, they are burning churches, inciting riots against the Copts and openly calling for the expulsion of Christians without fear. As a result, over 100,000 Copts are believed to have fled Egypt since Mubarak was ousted; but Sami insisted, "I'm staying. I'm not leaving my country."
Sami added, "We're ready to be martyrs. We're ready to be with Christ, to live with Christ. . . . Christ is testing us. I tell my friends to stay. Christ could end this suffering, this trial, at any time. How will you feel, I tell my friends, if you're in Canada instead of Egypt when Christ returns?" Pinault pondered Sami's statements as they passed by the burned-out ruins of the Institute of Egypt, and he felt something stir within him.
He recalled how the institute had been founded by the French after Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798. Its archives contained many ancient maps, books and manuscripts. Then in 2011 when Egyptian soldiers stood on its roof and shot at the demonstrators in the square below, some demonstrators responded by fire bombing the building to shouts of "Allah is great" and "there is no god except Allah." Much of the priceless collection was destroyed. Kamal 'Arafah, an Egyptian poet and commentator, compared the destruction of the institute to the burning of the Library of Alexandria and the destruction of the learning centers in Baghdad by the Mongols.
But it was when they visited a section of the city called Old Cairo that the impact of Sami's words hit Pinault with full force. This is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Cairo and a center of Coptic culture. Pinault tells us that his favorite church is located here. It is called al-Kanisa al-Mu'allaqa, which means the Suspended Church. It was given this name because it is built on the remains of an ancient Roman fortress. During the liturgy, they still do the chants in the ancient Coptic language, which is descended from the pharaohs.
In the courtyard of the church, men were selling newspapers directed at a Coptic readership. One of the articles referenced the October 2011 Maspero incident in Cairo. The incident occurred when the military ran over dozens of people with armored military vehicles crushing them during a protest over the burning of Coptic churches. The headline referred to the murdered Copts as martyrs. The headline of another article read, "The blood of the martyrs cries out from the darkness, and the tears of the Copts will not dry. But our Lord is present." It was accompanied by photos of horrified women and a photo of our dead Lord and Savior.
The Maspero incident was absolutely horrifying. I have attached a video at the top of this article on Cynthia Farahat's testimony before the Human Rights Commission in the U.S. House of Representatives. It includes a chilling account of the incident at Maspero. Farahat's testimony helped me understand the depth of hostility that the Coptic Christian community faces in their own country, even from their government. It is shocking.
Pinault also mentioned another newspaper, the Theban Legion. It addresses contemporary religious and political issues which are of concern to the Copts. According to an article in this paper, besides the recent election results which brought the Islamists to power in Egypt, one of the main concerns among Copts, and some liberal Muslims, is the fear that the Islamists will destroy what is left of the Egyptian identity in their culture in their efforts to unite Arabs under a caliph who will rule based on sharia law.
The name for the Theban Legion newspaper, Pinault tells us, comes from "a revered third-century band of martyrs, an Egyptian ...
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