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Forgiveness: Muslims Moved by Coptic Christians

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Coptic Christians
Coptic Christians in Egypt

Amidst the lingering state of massacre and persecution faced by the Coptic Christians in Egypt, their faith has remained unwavering, doing the unimaginable. As Christianity Today reports:

Twelve seconds of silence is an awkward eternity on television. Amr Adeeb, perhaps the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, leaned forward as he searched for a response.

“The Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel!” he finally uttered.

Moments earlier, Adeeb was watching a colleague in a simple home in Alexandria speak with the widow of Naseem Faheem, the guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city.

On Palm Sunday, the guard had redirected a suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. Likely the first to die in the blast, Faheem saved the lives of dozens inside the church.

“I’m not angry at the one who did this,” said his wife, children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’

“‘You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.’”

Stunned, Adeeb stammered about Copts bearing atrocities over hundreds of years, but couldn’t escape the central scandal.

“How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”

Millions marveled with him across the airwaves of Egypt.

So also did millions of Copts, recently rediscovering their ancient heritage, according to Ramez Atallah, president of the Bible Society of Egypt which subtitled and recirculated the satellite TV clip.

“In the history and culture of the Copts, there is much taught about martyrdom,” he told CT. “But until Libya, it was only in the textbooks—though deeply ingrained.”

The Islamic State in Libya kidnapped and beheaded 21 mostly Coptic Christians in February 2015. CT previouslyreported the message of forgiveness issued by their families and the witness it provided.

“Since then, there has been a paradigm shift,” said Atallah. “Our ancestors lived and believed this message, but we never had to.”

Copts date their liturgical calendar from 284 AD, the beginning of the Roman persecution under Diocletian. Troubles with pagan and Muslim rulers have ebbed and flowed over time, but in his Easter message Pope Tawadros lauded the Coptic Orthodox as a “church of the martyrs.”

This history returned with a vengeance in 2010, when the Two Saints Church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Eve. Copts poured out into the streets in anger, presaging the Arab Spring. In the months that followed, Muslims rallied around them and defended their churches.

Nearly seven years later, the nation has grown weary. The Palm Sunday twin suicide bombings killed more than 45 people and are the second ISIS attack on Christian sanctuaries in five months. Twenty-nine people were killed in a suicide bombing at the papal cathedral in Cairo in December. This week, ISIS attacked the famous St. Catherine’s monastery on the southern Sinai peninsula.

All three Christian denominations canceled Easter Sunday festivities, and the Orthodox postponed the reception of condolences. The state declared a three-day period of mourning and held an Easter service for the injured in a military hospital. Muslims reacted in shock and sympathy.

But while signs flutter in public squares about national unity, the visible outpouring of solidarity appears far less.

The atmosphere has changed, said Amro Ali, a Muslim assistant professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

“Among everyone there is now a sense of melancholy,” he said. “The bombings are part of a larger trend where things are just crumbling.”

Following the bombings, the government reimposed a state of emergency (in effect almost every year since the 1980s), expanding police and military powers. Ali connected the mood to the crackdown on activists and the deteriorating economy, but said the Coptic state of depression was more acute.

Many Christians supported current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after the popular military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned President Mohamed Morsi in the hope they would be protected, he said. However, such support has not been provided.

But even in death, the Copts forgive.

For example, the night of the bombings, Orthodox priest Boules George said he thanks and loves those who did this crime. Speaking to a congregation in Cairo’s Cleopatra neighborhood, his words were broadcast on the popular Coptic TV station Aghaby.

“I long to talk to you about our Christ, and tell you how wonderful he is,” said George, addressing the terrorists. But then turning to the church, he said, “How about we make a commitment today to pray for them?

“If they know that God is love and experience his love, they could not do these things—never, never, never.”

Clearly the Coptic heritage and Jesus’ teaching have an impact on the aggrieved. But will the “never” ever come? Is the scandal of forgiveness wasted?

Forgiveness is necessary for the individual to overcome the pain of trauma, said Ehab el-Kharrat, a licensed psychiatrist, former member of parliament, and an elder at Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church (KEDC) in Cairo. But the traumatic impact and subsequent forgiveness have also overcome Coptic lethargy, reviving the church.

“The Coptic community is definitely in defiance,” he said. “The services of Holy Week have doubled in attendance, and the churches are flowing out into the streets.”

Under heavy security presence, the traditional Easter Eve service passed peacefully. As per Orthodox tradition, priests in a darkened sanctuary quietly reenacted the Resurrection with an icon of the buried Christ. Previously entombed on Good Friday, light then burst forth as the curtain to the altar was opened and an icon of the risen Christ was paraded through the church.

But the Coptic defiance is not only against an enemy outside, according to Bishop Thomas of Qusia. It is also against the Enemy within.

The Libyan martyrs were a turning point, he said, as Copts watched the victims call out to Jesus in their moment of death. In his Orthodox diocese 170 miles south of Cairo, many have since repented of sin and changed the focus of their life, making faith a priority.

“Martyrdom is linked to the Christian life. To carry your cross and follow him,” said Thomas. “Since we are united to Christ, in this life we are his image.

“As he forgave, so must we.”

The martyrs have set an example, he said, but have also left a great responsibility to the church. Christians must fight fear, keep their joy, and strive for justice. While the struggle is not against flesh and blood, forgiveness does not mean giving up one’s rights.

“It is nice to hear about national unity and that we are all part of one family,” Thomas said. “But it must be based in equality and citizenship.”

…“When people see this attitude from Christians and the church, they ask themselves, ‘What kind of power is this?’”… “But with this witness we must also declare the message of Christ, which we are fulfilling—literally. We may not see the response immediately. But we will in the near future.”

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