The Western church responded in grief and solidarity when ISIS representatives beheaded 21 men on a beach in Libya several months ago. The victims were targeted for being “People of the Cross,” members of the Coptic Church.
Last month, Focus on the Family announced a project to aid the martyrs' families, building homes for them and providing job training. President Jim Daly called the outreach a “physical demonstration of unity within the worldwide body of Christ.” In a time of crisis, our prayers and support have turned to a marginalized group of Christians tucked in the Muslim world.
Eight years ago, when my husband and I moved to Cairo, I became an unlikely member of the Coptic community. We were welcomed into the largest Christian community in the Middle East and one of the oldest Christian bodies in the world. While Christians make up just 10 percent of Egypt's population, the Coptic Church’s history and unique position offers lessons for today.
Though different from our evangelical congregations back in America, the Coptic community offered us a vibrant place of faith where the gospel was preached, people were healed, and members strengthened each other. We sat through large open-air services with lively worship led by a praise team. We also attended solemn masses in hushed Arabic tones. Led by a soft-spoken priest simply called Abouna (“Our Father”), we often felt like we were discovering the early church.
We found ourselves in a church that identifies strongly with ancient traditions. The 13-month Coptic calendar is marked by a specific liturgy for feasts; two-thirds of the Coptic year is spent in times of prayer and fasting. Icons from the past surrounded us, with more than one million saints recognized as having come out of the Egyptian church.
The Coptic Church traces its roots back to A.D. 42, when the apostle Mark founded a church in Alexandria. That church experienced its first major split in 451, due to a dispute over whether the nature of Jesus was dominated by his divinity or his humanity. The Coptic Church argued that Jesus’ human nature was absorbed into his divine nature, a view that the Chalcedon Council found heretical. For much of church history since, Copts were not only cut off from the rest of the Christian world. They were also isolated in their own country, often subject to sectarian violence.
When we would mention our friendships with Muslim neighbors, our Coptic friends often reacted with surprise. You’re friends with Muslims? Why? Our Coptic friends rarely reached out to the Muslim community or built deep relationships outside of the church.
Various Egyptian rulers have discriminated against the Copts, and we have watched reports of an increase in religion-based violence since the ousting of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. In the weeks following his departure, Human Rights Watch registered at least 40 attacks on churches.
As violence from extremists continues throughout the Middle East, Christians and Muslims in Egypt have started to show respect for each other’s tradition and a desire to protect each other—even though many still hesitate to form friendships across faiths. With their homeland under attack, Muslims and Christians have found a common enemy in radical Islam.
The country’s current leader, Adel Fattah el-Sisi, is the first Egyptian president to attend Christmas Eve Mass. He has urged Copts to see themselves as Egyptians first. And Christians and Muslims alike are increasingly willing to overcome their faith divide for the sake of their country and communities.
For example, Muslims north of Cairo recently partnered with Copts to raise money to build a new church. During the 2011 revolution that removed President Hosni Mubarak, Christian protestors stood together to protect Muslims as they gathered in the streets to pray. Likewise, Muslims have guarded Coptic churches against violence.
One Coptic leader, Bishop Thomas, said he saw Muslim families bring blankets to Christians who had lost their homes after Islamic extremists torched their village. “No one who has not experienced sectarian violence close up will be able to imagine what this solidarity means to us, as a society,” the bishop said.
When we lived in Egypt we visited beautiful monasteries and learned how Christian monastic movements stem from this region, where the Desert Fathers wrote and prayed. The first monastery in the world was founded in Egypt, on the shores of the Red Sea. Eventually, the practices from these remote ascetics spread to influence Christians worldwide.
And in the wake of tragedy, Coptic Christians are once again moving out of obscurity in the desert into the spotlight. Their willingness to resist the longstanding sectarian divides to support their Egyptian brethren proves an inspiring witness to the global church.
Our time in the Coptic Church stretched us to love those outside our own tradition. Our theological differences ultimately had little bearing on the community we experienced with fellow Christians, or even with our Muslim neighbors.
We left Egypt newly sensing the need for unity across the body of Christ. We've been encouraged to see believers opening their arms to the Coptic Church. We have also been challenged by stories of Coptics and Muslims, stepping across the great religious divide to seek reconciliation and unity.
We have since seen the Arab Spring and the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram. Even from afar, these events stir fear in Americans, and among some, escalate Islamophobia and suspicion toward Muslims, including the refugees displaced alongside Christians the Middle East. This summer, Franklin Graham advised halting Muslim immigration into the United States, a strategy many believe will backfire. In the middle of the refugee crisis and ongoing terrorists threat, the world will be watching our response not only toward our brothers and sisters in Christ but also to those outside the faith.
During this situation, we can listen to the lives of our brothers speaking to us from the deserts of Egypt.
Nicole T. Walters is a writer from metro Atlanta who has written for Relevant.com, SheLoves Magazine and is a member of the Redbud Writer’s Guild. Nicole blogs about faith and being on mission wherever God has placed you at nicoletwalters.com.