Justice for All

The recent Nag Hammadi murders are yet another sad indication of the deterioration in relations between Egyptian Christians and Muslims. 

While this is not the place for a detailed analysis of Egyptian history, a brief sketch of recent Coptic-Muslim relations may help to bring the recent events into perspective. In the first half of the twentieth century, these relations were perhaps as good as they ever had been. It was a time when Botros Ghali Pasha, a Copt, could rise to the position of Prime Minister of Egypt under Abbas II, the last of the Khedives, from 1908 to 1910. Many Egyptians who lived through this period describe a time when religion was not seen as a barrier to decency and cooperation. Copts and Muslims went to school together, worked together and played together. If religion ever came up, both sides treated the other with respect, respecting each other’s right to worship in their own way without criticism or hindrance. 

Perhaps it was the need to unite as Egyptians against a common enemy, the occupying British, which brought Christians and Muslims closer than has been usual in the long and chequered history of Egyptian religious relations. The famous Egyptian Independence movement lead by Zaghlul Pasha early in the twentieth century counted amongst its chief leaders a number of prominent Copts. But with the revolution of 1952 that brought President Nasser to power (after a short transition under General Naguib), certain trends began that have eventually lead to the sorry state of affairs we see today. Some of these trends are widespread across the Muslim world, while some are specifically Egyptian. 

The new regime sought to shore up its support and protect itself against counter-revolution by making many friends in the Egyptian community. Among these were groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has since developed more and more fanatical Muslim leanings and has built a growing base in Egyptian politics, much to the consternation of many. President Sadat learned the hard way how carefully one must choose one’s friends when he cracked down on the Brotherhood, resulting in his assassination by them in 1983. 

While there have been some rays of hope, the story since 1952 has been one of growing oppression for the Copts of Egypt. For example, while Botros Ghali Pasha’s grandson, Botros Botros Ghali, was seen worthy by the world of being the UN Secretary General, in his own country he could only rise to be a Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and that for only a few months in 1991on the way to going to the UN. Throughout this period, the number of Copts in the Egyptian Parliament has remained woefully low, and nowhere near reflecting the 10-15% of the population that is Christian. In fairness, President Mubarak did make a significant statement by appointing 4 Copts out of 10 Presidential nominees to the lower house in 2005, but given that there are a total of 454 seats in that house, the gesture could not be more than symbolic. 

A glass ceiling exists in almost every area of life in Egypt, a situation that has contributed strongly to the exodus of Egyptian Copts from Egypt since the late 1960’s. Educated middle class Copts quickly realised that their children would face constant stigmatisation in Egypt because of their faith, and made the great sacrifice of leaving the land that had been their home for over 5,000 years to seek a better life, mostly in the West.

 Then again, the troubles in Egypt are not unique, but are a reflection of the growing trend towards religious extremism in the Muslim world at large today. It is well known that widespread economic problems can lead to a growth in religious extremism. Samuel Huntington, in his prescient 1996 book, “The Clash of Civilisations” put forward the prediction that future global conflicts will not be based on national or ideological differences (like Communism versus Capitalism), but on religious-cultural ones. The lack of understanding between the West and the Muslim world climaxed in the horror of the September 11 attacks in 2001. The reprisals against Afghanistan and Iraq that followed have resulted, not surprisingly, in a closing of ranks among Muslims everywhere against all non-Muslims. Egypt has not been immune from this influence.

 And yet, the toxic atmosphere now prevalent in Egypt is frustratingly unnecessary. Consider for example, what might happen if the tables were turned. Imagine for a moment that we wake up tomorrow to read about a small group of young Coptic men who hop into their cars and fire indiscriminately at worshippers emerging from their prayers at a mosque. What would the reaction of the Coptic community be? How would the Church react?

 I would hope and I believe that the reaction would be one of pretty uniform disgust and denunciation. Copts would talk about those Coptic assassins as if they were heretics or betrayers of the Christian faith. Their friends and relatives would ostracise them and denounce them publicly and privately. The Church would very quickly proclaim that such crimes are the total opposite of what Christ taught us and that by committing such crimes the criminals put themselves in danger of eternal damnation, for their actions can never be acceptable before God. There would be no talk of excusing them on account of the persecution they had endured; no excuses on the basis that they were only sticking up for their fellow Christians and defending their faith; no silence from Church authorities that could be mistaken as tacit approval of what they had done.

 Compare that to what we see in the wake of Nag Hammadi, and what we have seen in other recent spates of violence both in Egypt and in other parts of the world. The September 11 attacks were disturbing indeed, but what I found far more disturbing was the silence that followed from the Muslim world, and from Muslim leaders especially. As I recall, it was months before the first unequivocal official statement emerged from a Muslim cleric anywhere that terrorist attacks are not acceptable to the Muslim faith. Instead, Muslim leaders were appearing on TV with the message: “Yes, of course this is sad, but you must ask yourself what has the West done to Muslims that lead to such an attack?” No doubt, there are many valid grievances that Muslim world has against the West, particularly in the horrible treatment of the Palestinians over the past six decades. But that can never be an excuse for atrocities. If the persecuted turns around and becomes a persecutor, then they are no better than their enemies.

 This stark contrast in responses highlights a basic difference between the two worldviews today. It need not be so. We need only go back fifty or a hundred years to see that Egypt can be a place where Muslims and Copts live together peacefully and harmoniously.  The kind of hypothetical reaction from the Coptic community I have described above is what we would have seen from the Muslim community back then. What was present then, but is missing now, is a sense of decency, fairness and justice in the Muslim community of Egypt.

 There is always the danger in situations like these that outcries by Copts will make little impact on the rest of the world. Of course the Copts will protest; what else would you expect? Tribalism means that people who share a common heritage will always stick together, doesn’t it? And why make such a fuss over 8 people who were killed when in places like Darfur and Indonesia literally thousands are being killed? In the non-Coptic mind, this can subconsciously devalue the voice of Coptic protesters.

 But I believe there is more at stake here.

 In essence, the Nag Hammadi murders and the deeper unrest that they represent in Egypt are an issue not of tribalism, but of justice and equality. The Egyptian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and equality of all citizens regardless of religious faith, but that is not the reality in the Egypt of today. The American founding fathers were willing to fight and to die for a society of genuine democracy, justice, equality and individual freedom.

 Coptic protests against what has happened in Nag Hammadi are not just about 8 individuals. They are about what is happening to the whole country. They are an attempt to arrest the descent of Egypt back into the medieval distinction of Muslim believers and non-Muslim ‘dhimmis’; second class citizens who are constantly downtrodden and persecuted. All that Copts ask for is to be treated like normal Egyptian citizens. Just as the Muslim Egyptian has the right to pray in peace, to build a place of worship, to be educated and to have a career, to exercise their talents and to partake fully in the civil life of Egypt, so also should the Christian Egyptian.

 The world is rapidly shrinking. Copts in Egypt see a black man become President of the United States: a nation where only a few decades ago in some states, black men were not allowed to use the same toilets or go to the same schools as white men. They ask, why is Egypt still in the dark ages? Why is Egypt still allowing tribalism to dominate her civil agenda? In 2010, when the rest of the world is opening its mind to democracy, tolerance, understanding, cooperation and peaceful coexistence, why is Egypt heading backwards towards a kind of medieval theocracy where the majority constantly put down the minority? Why is the Christian treated so differently to the Muslim today in Egypt?

 While there can be no doubt that the Egyptian government must bear the responsibility for the tone of Egyptian society, one cannot lay all the blame at their feet. To some extent, Egyptians will get the country they deserve. Extremists only emerge in communities where good people turn a blind eye, firstly to small injustices, and eventually to big ones. It is up to the common man in the street in Egypt to take a stand for justice and equality. The Muslim employer, manager and teacher can change his society by treating Christians and Muslims equally and by working to make that the formal accepted policy. And it is up to those who have a public voice, the media, the politicians, the leaders of industry and sport and entertainment, to speak up for decency and justice. The many decent Muslims of Egypt must realise that they can make a difference, and it is time that the silent majority make themselves heard and start to change their society for the better rather than leaving fanatics to set the agenda.

 Most advanced countries today have understood that whatever harms one member of a society harms the whole society. Enlightened societies, both today and in the past, both Western and Muslim, have seen that pluralism is a positive thing, and where the philosophy of “live and let live” predominates, life is best for everyone, including the majority. Muslims revere Christ as a great prophet; perhaps they need to remember one of His key teachings: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

 The Nag Hammadi murders thrust Egypt firmly into the family of unenlightened nations. A Muslim majority that allows such atrocities to go unpunished against a minority may feel big and strong, but they will also lose the respect of the rest of the world, and eventually, their own self-respect. There is simply no place for a society that accepts such internal persecution in the family of modern nations in 2010.

 We can only pray that Egyptian authorities will make an example of this disaster by properly and justly enforcing the rule of law against the perpetrators and sending a clear message to the whole nation that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated. We must also pray that good and decent Muslims in Egypt, and especially their religious leaders, will find the courage to say openly, “No! This is not the society we want for our children”, and reach out to their Christian neighbours with courage and compassion. Not just because of Nag Hammadi, but because they believe in justice, tolerance and equality for all.

 In the meantime, if you are able, please do attend the peaceful rally to be held this coming Tuesday 19th January.

 Fr Ant

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14 Replies to “Justice for All”

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxkV0L829v8&feature=PlayList&p=C971699FBA19BB33&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=10

    Lecture by Bishop Thomas of Al-Kouseya, Assiut regarding Egypt’s Arabisation, Islamisation and the myth of Islamic tolerance (PART 1 OF 7 ATTACHED ABOVE…ALL 7 CLIPS WELL WORTH A LISTEN)

    Just a note worth mentioning…President Mubarak’s appointment of Copts to the Lower House as mentioned above is spoken of by Bishop Thomas…he says that appointment to the government is a right not a gift for appointment…so the fairness being shown is nothing but a massive façade…

    Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the book of the Maronite Christians and take up arms???…

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  2. Take up arms? Did not Jesus say to His disciples “Enough!” when they brought the two swords? From my understanding, it was as if He was saying “stop such foolishness!”- even though He had requested of it in the first place. (And those who have doubts of the intention can recall that when it was used Jesus admonished Peter, and healed the assailed).

    Haha you are probably being sarcastic, but just needed to post this in case.

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  3. umm, actually I wasn’t being sarcastic, I really do think that the Copts in Egypt should take up arms. How else is a man ment to protect his family when they ramsack his village, how else is a man ment to protect his daughter from kidnap, rape and forced conversion?

    I’m not saying that his should have anything to do with the Church as it does in the case of the Maronite Christians or the Crusaders many years ago. It’s about self-defense, and a persecuted people protecting themselves. I mean what else are they meant to do?

    We can all be angry about what happened in Naj Hamadi, but it’s not enought to demand justice or equal rights. We can protest all we want, it’s not going to change anything. The situation in Egypt is never going to change, so what we need to do is encourage them to protect themselves, with whatever means necessary.

    So when Egypt breaks out in civil war, then the government will be forced to change things.

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  4. I suppose you may be right, if it really is as endemic as you think it is. There are reports that offer a different perspective, so I am still slow to think that the evil that is occurring in Egypt is profoundly different to the abuse of human rights and ethnic fighting in countries like Indonesia or China (where in the latter we would be startled to think of the need for civil war).

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  5. You can sit and talk until you’re blue in the face about human rights abuses around the world. Examples abound; the oppression of Tibetans, the ethnic cleansing in Darfur and Rwanda, the Armenian genocide, the Iranian fight for democracy, and the Palestinian fight for freedom being but a few examples.

    I have to admit that the plight of the persected Copts of Egypt often does not compare to what has occured and is still occuring to other peoples.
    But that’s not the point.

    The point is this, and herein lies the problem; that the Egyptian Government has denied any of this of occuring, putting up a facade in front of the world that Egypt’s Muslims peacefully coexist with their Christian brothers, and that the sectarian violence is nothing more than village conflict. So the world sees Egypt as a ‘moderate’ Arab country, with a stable and fair government, unlike others in the region.

    So Egypt is lying to the world. The image Egypt is portraying is far too different from it’s reality, and as long as this continues, nothing will change. The Islamic Brotherhood will continue to be funded by the Saudis, fundamentalism will continue to grow, and the Government will continue to turn a blind eye, blaming the outside world of meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs.

    That’s where the problem lies, that’s what makes the Coptic persecution different to the persecution of other peoples; that it’s all under cover.
    Admittedly, in a country where Islam exists with other faiths, there will always be sectarian violence. That is not the issue. It’s when this sectarian violence is downplayed, denied and encouraged that there becomes a problem.

    And not until the Coptic people start to fight back, and I mean REALLY fight back, that the world will become fully aware of their plight and the reality of Egypt will be exposed.
    We can protest from the outside all we like. The Sydney protest a couple of weeks ago has come and gone and it achieved nothing. The fighting, the protests and the demand for equality and peaceful living has to and needs to come from the inside of Egypt.

    We did not fight the Arabs when they entered our land in 616 AD because we saw their coming as a possible freedom from the previous oppression under Byzantium. We were wrong, they let us down, maybe now it’s time for us to fight and defend our land as fervently as we defended the Alexandrian faith and fathers against the Byzantine.

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  6. Lord have mercy. I have never felt more sick to my stomach reading these responses. Take up arms? Fight back? You have got to be kidding me. This is not what Christians do.

    Whatever happened to turning the other cheek? What ever happened to loving our enemies? What happened to following the example Christ set for us?

    When are we going to realize that our actions (i.e. protests, meetings with government officials, etc.) have done nothing for us in the past? When are we going to realize that it’s not our actions that will stop this madness, but rather the grace of God.

    Seriously. When I read stuff like this, I worry for the future of the church.

    Amen, come Lord Jesus.

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  7. What you are saying is all well and good…

    It’s easy for you to make these comments while watching from afar, but imagine going to the victims of this recent massacre and saying those words. I am quite sure that your comments will not be well received.

    This has nothing to do with the Church and everything to do with the people protecting themselves and demanding their civil rights.

    I agree with you that the situation in Egypt is never going to change unless God decides to intervene, but in the mean time the people have the right to feel safe.

    The issue is not really about these isolated incidents which we hear about such as the massarce of Naj Hamadi or the conflict at Abu Fana Monastery to name the most recent; the issue is that the people are constantly living in fear. In fear of theft and injury, in fear of kidnap and rape, and in fear of general discrimination in their schools, work places and societies. These things are occuring everyday, but because we never hear about them we think everything is fine, and we only cause an uproar when one of these larger incidents occur.

    To live without fear and in saftey is the most basic of human rights and the Copts are being denied this and instead are living in constant fear and anxiety, which is the worst way to live.

    So the Coptic people, as a minority, need to become a force of strength. This has nothing to do with the Copts and their Church, but everything to do with the Copts as a people.

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  8. Maybe it is easier for me to make these comments from afar, but I hope and pray that if I was ever in a situation like this, I would still react in the same manner.

    We pray for the deliverance of the Copts in Egypt. Well, were these victims not delivered into the bosom of our Lord? What more could we ask for? They got the ultimate reward for what they went through, and now they are no longer suffering.

    I’m sad that my brothers and sisters in Egypt will constantly live in fear. I’m sad that the simple things in life, such as going to church, could prove to be fatal. I’m hurting with them. But we need to understand that this is reality – this is how it has always been. The most we can do for our brothers and sisters is pray for their safety and hope for God’s will to be done. No, Mubarak will not save the lives of the Copts in Egypt. No, the Australian/Canadian/American/European government(s) will not save the lives of the Copts in Egypt. This is a matter we need to leave at the feet of Christ, because we cannot resolve it.

    Just to quote a good friend of mine, “The riches of this world are money, fame, power, freedom, equal rights, and anything else that is desired.  So what are we fighting for here?  Are we fighting for the things that are of Heaven or that which decays and tomorrow will be thrown into the furnace with the chaff?  If we have our hearts, our minds and our spirits focused on God, then what does it matter what they do to our bodies?  Shall we trade an eternity in Heaven for a few decades of peace on the perishing Earth?” I think he raises a very valid point. So yes, living in safety is a basic ‘right’, but it is also one of the riches in this world.

    I’m also not sure how “this has nothing to do with the Copts and their Church, but everything to do with the Copts as a people.” Well, first off, I’d like to say that I would like to hope that the Copts and the Church would determine the behaviour of the Copts as a people. And if that’s not the case, then I’m not really sure why they would associate themselves with the Coptic Orthodox Church. Second, if we truly believe that is true, the same can be said about Islam. These actions did not have to do with the Muslim faith, but rather it was the actions of [a few] Muslim people. This thought does not seem to be exhibited by the majority of the Egyptian Christians who have spoken about this matter…

    All in all, if you would like to take up arms and ‘fight for your rights’, by all means, go for it. I for one, will do my best to follow the example that Christ set for me. No one said it would be an easy road… “strive to enter through the narrow gate.”

    Pray for me,
    /sm

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  9. Dear sm,

    We are all to pattern ourselves after Christ. That said, I believe you are severely limiting yourself to God revealed in Jesus during His few years of His earthly ministry (and even them superficially, I feel). You may have neglected to recall or take to consideration of God in the Old Testament- how angry He was at the abuses the Jews suffered under Egypt, the Chaldeans, the Phillistines and Assyrians.

    And we notice that God’s delivery of the Israelites did not come from peaceful means, but by violence- and that israel was never a passive observer, but active. I understand that they were acting as a Nation, but it does show that violence has a place (the place though is up for discussion, not the existence of violence itself).

    There is a difference between grown-ups offering the other check like Christ exhorted us to ;and offering your child or brother or sister to constant fear, a life of disadvantage, bondage and death (and worse), as Nathan and many others attest to as to be happening. The former is humility; the latter is lack of responsibility and hardness towards suffering.

    The prophets spoke up for the poor, the widows, the captives of the land. They did not just pray for it, but there was an imperative on them to make it known. This imperative should now be ours, I believe, because I think that God has given us freedom to speak up for His people, and these issues to whoever this happens to.

    Here is a particular example of God speaking through a Prophet speaking out on injustice:

    1 Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,

    2 to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
    making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless. (Isa. 10)

    We are not talking about “rights”, we are talking about life and death. I feel we have a responsibility before God to ensure justice.

    Here is a particular exhortation:

    17 learn to do right!
    Seek justice,
    encourage the oppressed. [a]
    Defend the cause of the fatherless,
    plead the case of the widow. (Isa 1)

    If your child died in untoward circumstances, and you could have protected him or her, would you not feel responsible?

    That said, I am not entirely convinced that a civil war is in anyway justified. But protesting, and speaking up for the oppressed in a peaceful way is certainly Christian. A man or family, defending a family member from violence with violence is also not unchristian.

    For evil to happen, all is needed is a few good men to do nothing.

    Well that is how I see it anyway.

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  10. 2 “How long will you [a] defend the unjust
    and show partiality to the wicked?
    Selah

    3 Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless;
    maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.

    4 Rescue the weak and needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Ps. 82:2-4 NIV)

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  11. I haven’t been able to come on here and reply to this, and now that I’m here, I feel like I shouldn’t reply. I just finished reading Fr. Antonios’ blog titled: “The Art of Uncertainty”… To sum up what I believe, “It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man.” (Psalm 118:8). You’re welcome to believe as you wish, but I will withdraw from discussing any further…
    Pray for me,
    /sm

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  12. I was thinking the same thing after Abouna’s post. Funnily enough, I digress. I will leave these profound matters to those God entrusts. I know that a University student thousands of miles away, with a predilection for being outspoken in controversy is not that person. I guess that the verse you quoted means to get a lead from God and not be worried about results, and without anxiety go about living the life we are called for- leaving the rest to God’s hand?

    That verse you hold to reminded me of this passage:

    17 Though the fig tree may not blossom,
    Nor fruit be on the vines;
    Though the labor of the olive may fail,
    And the fields yield no food;
    Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
    And there be no herd in the stalls—
    18 Yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
    I will joy in the God of my salvation.
    19 The LORD God [c] is my strength;
    He will make my feet like deer’s feet,
    And He will make me walk on my high hills. (Hab 3:17-19 NKJV)

    Maybe there is a lesson here that those who have no qualms for protest, should not neglect to rejoice in the Lord among the horror.

    GBU.

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  13. hmmm…but surely, trusting in the Lord doesn’t mean that I can’t defend myself?

    It’s just like trusting that the Lord will get you the job you want, and so you don’t bother preparing for the interview…it doesn’t work that way…

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  14. The analogy is incorrect, I believe, because unless we are concerned with God’s will and abide in Him, trusting in the Lord for our wants is not the right way.

    So, first with the job interview, trusting that the Lord will provide, or will get the job that glorifies Him is perhaps more Biblical that getting the desire of your heart (without concern for the glory of God or being led by the Spirit). I suppose that in trusting the Lord, one would not lie in the interview or do things ungodly to get the job.

    In that vein, our defense against persecution would need to be God-directed, especially since there is a plethera of verses in the Sermon in the Mount, that would suggest quite the opposite. I showed there is a precedent for the people of God to act with violence against aggression, but that always was in direction of God. There is no precedent for us to will a war, and fight it- but quite the contrary- all of Joshua’s and the Kings campaigns without consulting God (or His prophet) ended in failure.

    We can’t just forget what we have read in the Bible about glory in tribulation, bless those who curse you, turn the other cheek, in the world you will have tribulation, be of good cheer I have overcome the world, blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake and act on instinct.

    There are a lot of Copts, including myself, who think that our plight is not much different to the mistreatment of other minorities. Whether that is true or not, that is not the point, but with such hesitance and disunity, it is almost inconceivable to think of such a drastic action, apart from the usual way of legislating freedom of rights.

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