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Is Coptic Evangelism in Africa Really on the Rise?
Bernat Armangue / AP
Is Coptic Evangelism in Africa Really on the Rise?

Many Egyptian Christians wear their faith on their sleeve—literally. The cross tattooed on the wrist of Coptic Orthodox believers is a public display which marks their identity for all to see.

Such a quiet witness usually avoids reproach. But recently in Libya, radical Muslim militias detained dozens of expatriate Christians in Benghazi. Amid allegations that captors seared off such tattoos with acid, one Christian died from medical complications during the ordeal, and a Libyan church was repeatedly attacked.

Accusations of evangelism have been at the heart of a series of recent incidents of violence—including the first Coptic martyrs of the modern era—against Copts in Libya, Sudan, and Egypt. Which raises the question: Are Copts starting to recover their missionary heritage?

The region-wide incidents serve as a reminder that the Coptic Orthodox Church is not limited to Egypt alone. It once represented a great missionary force, planting churches in Libya, Sudan, and Ethiopia as well as leaving imprints as far afield as Switzerland and Ireland.

Centuries of life as a tolerated minority under Muslim rule turned Copts inward, and the evangelism impulse waned. Yet this memory is retained in the liturgy, where at every mass the deacon chants, "Pray for the salvation of the world, and this city of ours."

Perhaps Copts are starting to remember as the political struggles following the Egyptian revolution continue to sharpen the lines of religious identity.

"As Islamism increases, so does the Christian commitment to religion," said Atef Gendy, president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo. The seminary offers classes on both dialogue and evangelism. But Gendy notes that personal evangelism, which he urges be mindful of social norms, is impossible to quantify.

Alternately, such accusations of proselytism may be just one more tool to widen sectarianism as Islamists compete to stamp their image on society.

In Libya, this has become the dominant explanation.

"[Benghazi] is a very serious incident," Bishop Pachomious, whose west Egyptian diocese includes the cities of Libya, toldAhram, "in which Egyptian citizens were arrested on the mere suspicion [of proselytizing] and tortured while in detention."

Yet the bishop doubted that members of his flock were guilty of the charge. "It doesn't make sense," he said, "that as many as 100 Egyptian Copts had decided to engage in proselytizing activities in another country."

Indeed, even from video released by their original Salafi Muslim captors, it does not make sense. Seized Christian materials are easily identifiable as in-house products for Coptic religiosity.

"Our relations with Libyans are very good," Father Boula, who serves more than 3,000 Copts in Benghazi as priest of St. Anthony's Church, told CT prior to the incident. "We exchange visits, they respect us for our work, and they even give me hugs in the street."

Most of the arrested Copts have been released and returned to Egypt for failing to have proper residence papers, according to a Coptic priest in Misrata.

"These youth had been here for years, they have no connection to evangelism," said Father Marc. "I think this was in response to those who had been earlier arrested for evangelism."

Marc refers to three foreign Christians and one Egyptian, Sherif Ramses, who were arrested in February. Authorities claimed 45,000 Bibles were confiscated. According to Morning Star News, Ramses allegedly told his captors, when asked why he felt he could distribute them, "They say Libya is supposed to be a free country."

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Is Coptic Evangelism in Africa Really on the Rise?