Cairo is an amazing place. I lived and went to school in this city of over 9 million in the early 1990s. On top of the recent governmental conflict and unrest, it’s a city that has for a long time been devastated by pollution and environmental problems. The smog alone is a constant irritant to the senses.
During my time in Cairo, one of the most dramatic and life-changing events was visiting “Garbage City.” This neighborhood is where many of the Zabaleen people live and they have been sorting the trash in Cairo and using their entrepreneurial skills for decades. To see so many people living in that kind of poverty put my own life and blessings into perspective. When I heard that they were a Christian community, at that point their plight and just the blessing of being an American became very clear. I’ve talked about the Zabaleen people before on the PowerBlog. Because of their Christian faith, they have also been maligned and marginalized in Egypt. They were even forced to destroy their vast drove of pigs (300,000) because of a swine flu outbreak, even though the pigs had no role in the outbreak. The pigs were instrumental in the garbage recycling process for Cairo. Their absence has been detrimental to the excessive amounts of rotting food in the streets.
A few weeks ago,The Guardian ran an excellent story on what the Zabaleen people mean for Cairo and how the new government is aiming to finally give them official status for Cairo’s cleanup. It explains why they are so essential to the success of Cairo. Below is an excerpt from the piece:
“It’s an aberration. Over the years the Zabaleen have created an efficient ecosystem that is both viable and profitable, with a recycling capacity of almost 100 percent. It provides work for women and young people who are the first to suffer from Egypt’s unemployment. We need to use this local organisation,” said Leila Iskandar, who became minister of the environment after the fall of Morsi in July. She has worked for years with organisations in the working-class neighbourhood of Manchiet Nasser, where about 65,000 Zabaleen live. (more…)
“We did not hold prayers in the monastery on Sunday for the first time in 1,600 years,” Priest Selwanes Lotfy of the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram Monastery in Degla, just south of Minya, told the al-Masry al-Youm daily. He said supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi destroyed the monastery, which includes three churches, one of which is an archaeological site. “One of the extremists wrote on the monastery’s wall, ‘donate [this] to the martyrs’ mosque,’” Lotfy added.
Asianews reports the toll from violence in Egypt over a mere three day period. Hundreds have been killed, but there is little doubt that Christian churches, businesses, and organizations have been targeted. Here is what Asianews is calling a “representative” list:
Catholic churches and convents
1. Franciscan church and school (road 23) – burned (Suez)
2. Monastery of the Holy Shepherd and hospital – burned (Suez)
3. Church of the Good Shepherd, Monastery of the Good Shepherd – burned in molotov attack (Asuit)
4. Coptic Catholic Church of St. George – burned (Minya, Upper Egypt)
5. Church of the Jesuits – burned (Minya, Upper Egypt)
6. Fatima Basilica – attacked – Heliopolis
7. Coptic Catholic Church of St. Mark – burned (Minya – Upper Egypt)
Sky News talks with Bishop Angaelos, the General Bishop of Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, about the ongoing bloodshed in Egypt. (HT: Byzantine, TX)
Bishop Angaelos also issued this statement through The Coptic Orthodox Church UK media office today: Comment on the on-going situation in Egypt by His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of The Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom – 16 August 2013
As a clergyman for over twenty years, and a Christian for the whole of my life, one thing I recognise as un-debateable is the value and sanctity of human life. We believe that God has created us all in His image and likeness and has given us a rational and reasoning spirit to be able to experience and understand Him while at the same time appreciate and value His creation.
What we have witnessed on the streets of Egypt over the past weeks, and particularly earlier this week, is nothing short of devastating. To see so many lives lost whether of victims or perpetrators is not only a loss to families and communities, but a loss to the nation and to humanity as a whole. At this point and without reservation or exception we offer our prayers for all those who mourn; those who have lost loved ones, who have been injured, or who feel more powerless than they did. (more…)
Hundreds of supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi were killed in Cairo this week by Egyptian security forces. The protestors, mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, responded by destroying Coptic Christian churches throughout the country.
Here’s what you should know about what’s going on in Egypt.
Founded by Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood – or al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun in Arabic – has influenced Islamist movements around the world with its model of political activism combined with Islamic charity work. The movement initially aimed simply to spread Islamic morals and good works, but soon became involved in politics, particularly the fight to rid Egypt of British colonial control and cleanse it of all Western influence. While the Brotherhood say they support democratic principles, one of the group’s stated aims is to create a state ruled by Islamic law, or Sharia. Its most famous slogan, used worldwide, is: “Islam is the solution.”
Ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party.
In The Wall Street Journal, Michael J. Totten reviews Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity (Hoover Institution, 236 pages, $19.95) by Samuel Tadros. Totten says the book offers a scholarly account of the ongoing exodus of Christians from Egypt, where the “most dramatic” decline of Christianity in the Middle East is now occuring. Since the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Totten writes, “the rise of Islamists and mob attacks” have driven more than 100,000 Copts out of Egypt.
The Copts are indigenous inhabitants of the Nile delta, children of its ancient Pharaonic civilization. They have been Christians for as long as Christianity has existed. (Egypt is part of the greater Holy Land, and St. Mark, one of the disciples of Jesus, spread the gospel there and founded the Church of Alexandria, which today belongs to the Copts.) The Copts have their own Eastern Orthodox rite, their own pope and for hundreds of years they’ve made up roughly 15% of Egypt’s population.
Mr. Tadros, an Egyptian Copt who immigrated to the U.S. in 2009, makes it clear that the story of Egypt’s Christians isn’t one of relentless abuse. Copts have received both good and bad treatment at the hands of the region’s succession of reigning powers. But mostly it’s been bad. They were persecuted by the Roman and Byzantine empires long before the Islamic conquest in A.D. 639, after which they were cast as second-class citizens subject to additional regulations and taxes. Isolation from Christendom and survival in the face of adversity are etched into their soul. “Coptic history has been an endless story of decline and despair,” Mr. Tadros writes, “but it has also been a story of survival.”
Writing for National Review Online, Andrew Doran looks at how Christians have become “convenient scapegoats” and targets of violence for Islamists in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. A consultant for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State, Doran says that “had the Muslim Brothers not been stopped, they would have continued to radicalize and Islamicize Egypt, further isolating and persecuting their enemies — secularists, liberals, and religious minorities, especially Christians.” More:
The peaceful rising of the Egyptian people against the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi constitutes the first popular overthrow of an Islamist regime in the Middle East. Beyond revolution, it was a restoration of Egypt’s heritage of secular moderation. Had the Muslim Brothers not been stopped, they would have continued to radicalize and Islamicize Egypt, further isolating and persecuting their enemies — secularists, liberals, and religious minorities, especially Christians. Egypt is the largest nation-state in the Arab world, with strong traditions of secular governance and a Christian minority that constitutes approximately 10 percent of the population. That this was the site of the first revolution against an Islamist regime is of inestimable significance, not merely for Egypt but for the Arab world, whose moderates look to Egypt as the standard bearer. If moderation fails in Egypt, it bodes ill for moderates elsewhere.
As Joseph Kassab, a Chaldean Christian and human-rights advocate, has observed, Christians are vital to the Middle East because they are a bridge to the outside world. Without Christians and other minorities, the entire Middle East would soon come to resemble the uniform extremism of Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most brutal and oppressive regime in the world — a state sponsor of extremism, anti-Semitism, and arguably terror. According to Amnesty International, crucifixion still occurs in Saudi Arabia. The fact that such regimes do not advance American interests ought to be self-evident. Apparently it is not.
Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Oct. 16 after the session of the Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church.
In an interview for Acton’s Religion & Liberty quarterly, the Russian Orthodox bishop in charge of external affairs for the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk, warned that that the situation for the Christian population of Syria has deteriorated to an alarming degree. Hilarion compared the situation today, after almost two years of fighting in Syria, as analogous to Iraq, which saw a virtual depopulation of Christians following the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been among the most active witnesses against Christian persecution around the world, particularly in the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East. In November 2011, Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, visited Syria and Lebanon. In a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Kirill said that he shared a concern with Assad about the “spread of religious radicalism that threatens the integrity of the Arab world.”
That sentiment has been expressed widely in Christian communities in Syria — some of them dating to apostolic times — as civil war has progressively taken a heavy toll. Now almost two years on, as many as 30,000 people may have perished. Despite having few illusions about the nature of Assad’s autocratic rule, many Christians feared that the Islamist groups, involved in what the West initially viewed as another “Arab Spring” uprising, would eventually turn on them. Indeed this is what has happened. Entire Christian villages have been depopulated, churches desecrated, and many brutal killings have taken place at the hands of the “Arab Spring” insurgents. Most recently, Fr. Fadi Haddad, an Orthodox priest, was found murdered with brutal marks of torture on his remains. Car bomb attacks are now being waged against Christian neighborhoods. (See these backgrounders on the Syrian crisis from the Congressional Research Service and the Council on Foreign Relations). (more…)
Statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation October 29, 2011 Washington, DC The Plight of Churches in the Middle East
The “Arab Spring” is unleashing forces that are having a devastating effect on the Christian communities of the Middle East. Our Churches in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine report disturbing developments such as destruction of churches and massacres of innocent civilians that cause us grave concern. Many of our church leaders are calling Christians and all people of good will to stand in solidarity with the members of these ancient indigenous communities. In unity with them and each other, we the members of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, gathered October 27-29, 2011, add our voice to their call.
We are concerned for our fellow Christians who, in the face of daunting challenges, struggle to maintain a necessary witness to Christ in their homelands. United with them in prayer and solidarity, we ask our fellow Christians living in the West to take time to develop a more realistic appreciation of their predicament. We ask our political leaders to exert more pressure where it can protect these Churches, many of which have survived centuries of hardship but now stand on the verge of disappearing completely.
When one part of the body suffers, all suffer (cf. 1 Cor. 12:26). As Christians in the West, we therefore have the vital responsibility to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters who live in fear for their lives and communities at this moment. As Orthodox and Catholic Christians we share this responsibility and this concern together.
Copts are protesting government foot-dragging in the investigation of the Oct. 9 Maspero massacre that killed more than two dozen protesters. Al Ahram reports that Copts are still grieving and many “cannot get past the nightmare of 9 October’s carnage, or the fear of further attacks on churches.” Nadia, a Copt woman who was interviewed by the newspaper as she entered Mar Girgis Church in Heliopolis, fears for her family:
For me, the question is not one of opening closed churches or giving us license to build more churches; the question is rather that when I go to pray on Sundays I cannot but think would there be an attack on the church when I am there with my kids.
On The Hill newspaper, Dina Guirguis points to “mounting pressure in the last four decades” directed at the Coptic community, which represents 10 percent of Egypt’s population. This year the attacks have taken a terrible toll:
… in 2011 alone, before the Maspero massacre, Copts had been the target of 33 sectarian attacks, 12 of which involved an attack on a church, leaving a total of 49 dead. Counting the bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year’s Eve, which added an additional 23 casualties, the death toll rose to 72, with dozens injured and a number of Christian homes and properties burned down. After Maspero, the death toll of Egypt’s sectarian violence rises to 97, with over 400 injured–and immeasurable psychological damage.
For years, rights groups have decried the Egyptian state’s complicity in the growing sectarianism targeting Egypt’s vulnerable religious minorities, but had held hopes high after Egypt’s peaceful revolution that had toppled a brutal dictator of 30 years. Now, the self-proclaimed “guardians of that revolution,” Egypt’s military rulers—SCAF—have extinguished hopes for genuine equality for all of Egypt’s “children” by itself undertaking this heinous massacre in cold blood, and scheming a cover up that would make Mubarak proud, indicating that the repressive ways of the past are alive and well in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Here’s an interview with a UK-based Coptic bishop, recorded last month:
Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg tackles the question of religious liberty in Islamic states this morning, over at The American Spectator. In a piece titled “The Arab Spring’s Forgotten Freedom,” Gregg describes the tensions between Christians seeking religious freedom in the Middle East and the Islamic states they inhabit, and then looks hopefully to the source of a resolution.
For at least one group of Middle-Easterners, the Arab Spring is turning out to be a decidedly wintery affair. And if confirmation was ever needed, just consider the escalation of naked violence against Christians throughout the region. The recent instance of Egyptian army vehicles crushing and killing Coptic Christians protesting against a church burning was merely one of numerous incidents that must make Middle-Eastern Christians wonder about their future under the emerging new regimes.
These trends appear to confirm that despite all the current freedom-and-democracy talk, much of the Islamic world continues to suffer from one particularly severe blind spot when it comes to human liberty. And that concerns the acceptance and protection of authentic religious freedom.
Gregg points out that the Christian population of the Middle East has plummeted since 1900 (when it was about 20 percent) for ethnic and for political reasons.
Islam confronts two specific dilemmas that raise questions about its ability to accept a robust conception of religious liberty.
First, from its very beginning, Islam was intimately associated with political power. That’s one reason why there is no church-state distinction in Islam that limits (at least theoretically) the state’s capacity to coerce religious belief or unreasonably inhibit religious-shaped choices.
Second, since approximately the 13th century, the dominant theological understanding of God’s nature within Islam has been one of Voluntas (Divine Will) rather than Logos (Divine Reason). And this matters because if you believe in a God that can, on a mere whim, act unreasonably, then it isn’t so problematic for such a Divinity’s adherents to engage in plainly unreasonable practices such as killing apostates.
If, however, God is Logos, the case for religious liberty is much easier to make insofar as a reasonable God would never demand compulsion in religion. Why? Because as St. Augustine wrote long ago, “If there is no assent, there is no faith, for without assent one does not really believe.”
Gregg sees hope, however, in thinkers like Turkish journalist and devout Muslim Mustafa Akyol, whose recent book Islam Without Extremes makes the Islamic case for religious freedom. Though most Western religious thinkers do little to plead the cause of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians, Gregg thinks the central cause of the persecution, and thus the ultimate solution, is to be found in Islamic thought.
In the end, non-Muslims can’t resolve Islam’s religious liberty challenge. Only theologically educated, historically informed and believing Muslims can do that. In the meantime, those reading the Arab Spring as a uniformly-positive event might like to consider that it appears to be doing little to secure the freedom, if not the very existence, of ancient Christian churches, many of which were founded by people who in all likelihood knew Christ or his first disciples. The loss of such a civilizational and religious heritage would be immeasurable — and not just for Christianity, but for the future of liberty within the Islamic world itself.
Mustafa Akyol happens to be speaking today at a luncheon hosted by the Cato Institute. Acton’s executive director Kris Mauren will be providing commentary. If you are in Washington, D.C., you won’t want to miss it!