Africa

Righteous Anger: Egypt’s Christians Respond to ISIS

With 100 massacred in five months, leaving vengeance to the Lord is getting harder for Copts.
Righteous Anger: Egypt’s Christians Respond to ISIS
Image: Amr Nabil / AP
Relatives carry the coffin of one of the Minya martyrs.

They couldn’t even wash their dead.

Thirty Coptic Christians were gunned down by ISIS, ambushed in a church bus on a weekend outing to a popular monastery in the Egyptian desert. Their families gathered to receive their loved ones in a local hospital, but were met with a mixture of ill-equipped facilities and overwhelmed staff. They even had to fetch their own water.

As if another reason was necessary, Coptic anger turned the funeral march into a protest.

“With our souls and blood we will redeem you, oh Cross!” they shouted. Some seemed to take aim at Islam. “There is no god but God,” they chanted, before changing the second half of the Muslim creed, “and the Messiah, he is God.”

Other chants took no aim at all, thrashing wildly in anger. “We will avenge them, or die like them.”

Many observers say such anger plays right into the hands of ISIS, which is keen to turn Egypt against itself.

Six weeks earlier, after twin suicide bombings on Palm Sunday, Bishop Boula of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Tanta found himself in a similar situation. Hospitals did not have enough refrigeration units to keep the 25 bodies of those martyred at St. George Church. Crowds were gathering, and anger was surging.

Quickly, he made the decision to bury them together in the church crypt reserved for bishops. Honoring the dead with their leaders of ages past, he then marshaled the youth to provide order and security for the semi-spontaneous funeral service.

“It cooled the fire of all the people,” he later recounted on satellite TV. St. George was renamed to include “the righteous martyrs of Tanta,” with a shrine erected outside the crypt.

Shrine to Tanta martyrs at St. George's Church
Image: Jayson Casper

Shrine to Tanta martyrs at St. George's Church

It was perhaps the most practical of Coptic efforts to process their anger. Forgiveness is another, as Copts have moved Muslims and wowed the world with their example.

“The normal reaction of normal Middle Easterners in a shame-based society is to retaliate,” said Ramez Atallah, head of the Bible Society of Egypt. “The terrorists want to infuriate the Christians enough that they forget their principles and go out on a rampage.

“What is countercultural is that the leadership of the church has been so insistent that Christians do not retaliate. So by the grace of God, there has not been a reaction.”

This teaching has filtered down to the people. Circulating on social media is a poem Copts have shared to encourage themselves—and to remind themselves of the ideals of their religion. Two of its six stanzas read:

“Your hatred and killing in no way suffices
To stop us from loving and praying for you.
My father’s religion, oh dear Uncle ISIS,
Is not a weapon to pierce you straight through.

My fathers’ religion if you could discern
Offers each wounded the medic of life.
Tomorrow when you will repent and return
You will come to know just who is the Christ.”

But the Minya bus ambush is the fourth massacre in five months, and the poem’s “tomorrow” has not yet come. For many Egyptian believers, the ideals of Christianity are becoming harder to hold.

“The priests, bishops, and parliament members don’t have the same respect from people anymore,” Mina Adel, friend of one of the victims, told the Guardian. “Now no one takes their soothing words seriously. We’re fed up.”

Even those who hold to Christian principles seem tempted to hardness of heart.

“We can do as they do and kill every day,” shouted one woman at the Minya funeral to Youm7, defiantly. “But we are Christians, and Jesus has taught us love and faith. God will defend our rights.”

“God will avenge us,” one mourner told Reuters. “We will not do anything violent, because we are Christians and love is in our hearts. It is enough that they will go to hell.”

Another social media post sought to redirect traditional Coptic spirituality.

“After every Coptic massacre, we are filled with nausea at the words of our leaders,” wrote Sabry Makar, describing the counsel by clergy to patience and how God will fight on their behalf.

“Romans tells us the leader does not bear the sword in vain, and it is our duty to urge him to use it correctly.”

Such frustration has filtered up to church leadership.

“Anyone would be angry with the cross we are bearing,” said a Coptic Orthodox bishop from Upper Egypt, who preferred not to be named but who lost some of his parishioners in the Minya attack.

“We request our rights. But at the same time, we resort to God.”

Bishop Raphael, secretary of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod, went further, criticizing a government most Copts have supported. He told the popular newspaper Shorouk that there is no true citizenship in Egypt, and that Copts are one of the marginalized groups in society.

“[The state] must take this seriously,” he said, “instead of offering well-sounding slogans and promises that do nothing to lessen the suffering of the injured.”

What has not happened yet—despite the vague funeral threats—is a Coptic act of revenge. Some fear that ISIS wishes to turn Egypt into civil war-era Lebanon. Christians in Lebanon warn against this.

“Our experience taught us that it is legitimate for Lebanese who happen to be Christian to defend communities under attack, including Christian communities,” said Martin Accad, chief academic officer at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut.

“But it also taught us that it is never ok for that to be done in the name of Christianity, or in a purely sectarian way where all those not belonging to our own community become the enemy.”

Accad, also a professor at Fuller Seminary in California, had high praise for the Copts.

“By forgiving and deciding not to retaliate in this culture of honor, shame, and revenge, they are demonstrating incredible strength,” he said.

But shelving revenge is also a practical necessity, said Atef Barnaba, associate pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church in Cairo. Fellow pastors tell him that some Protestants in Upper Egypt are among those with weapons in their home—for self-defense.

“Revenge is not an option,” he said. “They are outnumbered by far. They know what will happen if they use weapons in aggression. It will be very bad.”

But a loose tongue among pastors can be as dangerous as an itchy trigger finger.

“If our preaching escalates their anger, blaming this group or that, what will follow?” he said. “People will hate the country and want to leave, and we don’t want this.”

Instead, his church has been preaching on forgiveness, the witness of the Christian community, and the commandment not to deny Christ.

“The people expect their leadership to take some action towards the government, but what can it do?” he asked. “It is not the government that is against the people.”

Barnaba praised the decision to replace the local security chief after the Minya bus attack. Meanwhile, Atallah put into context Egypt’s bombing of Libyan terrorist camps following the atrocity.

“The government is trying to meet society’s need for revenge,” he said, “and take the lid off the pressure cooker.”

A card commemorating the Tanta martyrs
Image: St. George's Church

A card commemorating the Tanta martyrs

But there is no pressure like that felt by a survivor.

Emil Wadie was among the deacons at the front of the church in Tanta at the time of the explosion. As friends fell left and right, he escaped with only a shrapnel wound in his leg.

“A feeling of bitterness, being heartbroken, extremely dismayed, and sorrowful beyond measure, was only little of what I felt then, afterwards, now, and perhaps for a long time to come,” he said.

“What made matters much worse was that a sense of forgiveness could not emerge anywhere inside me.”

Counselors have come to the church, he said, and Bishop Boula has urged the people to devote themselves to prayer. Martyrs have an honored place in Coptic history and culture. But with each attack, something sinister grows.

“A culture of fear is challenging our culture of faith,” said Wadie. “The fight takes place deep inside of us. But so far, faith is stronger.”

July/August
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