The Coptic Church: Egypt’s Scapegoat

Churches are burning in Egypt today.  The number keeps changing.  It was 40 the last I checked.  Pro-Morsi supporters are taking their revenge on their Christian neighbours, setting fire to their churches, their institutions, their homes and businesses.  Even the 4th century church of the Virgin Mary in Minya has not been spared.  What’s behind all the burning?  Pro-Morsi supporters believe that the Christians in their midst, the Coptic Church in particular, conspired with General El-Sisi to remove democratically-elected President Morsi from power.  They point to the fact that when El-Sisi went on TV to announce that President Morsi had been forced from office, Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Church, stood with him (as did the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University as well, it should be noted).  Pope Tawadros II’s speech in support of the “roadmap” presented by the Egyptian military was interpreted by pro-Morsi supporters as a sign of Christian collusion in Morsi’s ouster.  And so pro-Morsi supporters are taking their revenge. To see Egypt’s churches in flames now is heart wrenching!

We in the West are so accustomed to viewing the Middle East as a “Muslim monolith” that I wonder how many TV viewers are even aware of Egypt’s very ancient connection with Christianity. It begins with Jesus’ birth.  Matthew relates in his Gospel how Joseph was warned by an angel in a dream to take the infant Jesus and his mother and escape to Egypt.  They were to stay there until God told them otherwise, for Herod intended to search for the Christ-child and kill him.  Joseph followed the angel’s instructions and took Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt where they remained until Herod died (Mt 2:13-15). It’s not known how long Jesus and his parents took shelter in Egypt before returning to Israel (Mt 2:19-21).  The Feast of the Coming of the Lord to Egypt, held on June 1, is an important feast day for Egypt’s Coptic Christians.  In Old Cairo, the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus is situated, or so it is believed, on one of the stopping points of Jesus and his parents.  

Four decades or so later, Mark the Evangelist, author of the oldest canonical Gospel, arrived in Egypt, as recorded by Eusebius who wrote his Ecclesiastical History  in the first quarter of the 4th century.  Mark came to Alexandria in AD 41/42 or 43/44 and planted Egypt’s first church.  On 8 May AD 68 he was martyred in Alexandria.  The Church of the Holy Virgin at the Monastery of the Holy Virgin in al-Qusuja was the first church built in Egypt.  The monks believe their church was built after Mark’s arrival, sometime around AD 60.  Mark is regarded by the Coptic hierarchy as the first patriarch in their unbroken chain of patriarchs.  Mark’s current successor—and the object of pro-Morsi supporters’ ill will–is Pope Tawadros II, patriarch number 117.

I would argue that the unenviable position in which the Christians, 10% of Egypt’s population, find themselves today–that of scapegoats, namely–is due in large part to President Barack Obama’s misguided embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood.  When President Obama delivered his keynote address on foreign policy to the Muslim world at Cairo University in June 2009, ten members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood were invited and given front row center seats. The official invitations to the ten Muslim Brotherhood members were sent out by Cairo and Al-Azhar  Universities, true, but the White House helped make up the guest list.  Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, on the other hand, was not in attendance. For some reason unfathomable to many, the Obama administration views the Muslim Brotherhood as  “moderate.”  Is it ignorance or naïveté or something else?  Rashad Hussain, the Obama administration’s envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) assisted Pres. Obama in writing his Cairo speech.  Interestingly enough, this same Hussain has had contact with members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the past.  There is nothing to indicate that the Muslim Brotherhood has abandoned the goals set by their founder, Hassan al-Banna, in 1928. The motto of the Muslim Brotherhood makes their goals abundantly clear:

Allah is our objective.  The Prophet is our leader.  The Qur’an is our law.  Jihad is our way.  Dying in the way of Allah is our highest aspiration.

 Clearly, there is no place for Christians—or secularists, for that matter—in the shari’ah state envisioned by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.  Morsi’s brief tenure revealed where Egypt was heading.  Now General El-Sisi wants to drive the Muslim Brotherhood out of Egypt’s politics.  I say, “Go for it,” and let well-meaning meddlers like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham stand well back     






Six Days in Savannah

What do you see with your mind’s eye when you hear the words ‘Deep South’? A scene  from “Gone with the Wind”?  Stately antebellum mansions, their long winding driveways flanked by towering trees draped with tufts of Spanish moss?  For me, that was the image–and only image, really–that came to mind. But that was before I spent six days in Savannah.

Three weeks ago, I joined family members in Savannah, Georgia for a week’s holiday. (It was a working-holiday for one of us.) My family had rented a spacious house that was part elegant antebellum home, part modern add-on, complete with air-conditioning and swimming pool, of course.  From this comfortable home base the six of us would set out each morning to explore Savannah and the surrounding region. Over the course of the next six days I did indeed encounter the Deep South of my imagination.



 Savannah’s majestic trees, with their trails of ghost-like Spanish moss–especially those in nearby Forsyth Park–were even more spectacular than I had pictured.



Magnificent magnolia trees, many massive in size, were everywhere (not at all like my 5-year-old magnolia that eventually succumbed to ‘wet feet’ back home in a more northerly climate).

I encountered flowers I have never seen any place else.  This one reminded me of a bottle-brush.


Who does not think of alligators when they think about the southern US?  This is a gator I saw at the Oatland Island Wildlife Center.


Over the next six days my family and I visited historic Fort Pulaski, checked out Georgia’s wildlife at the Oatland Island Wildlife Center, explored the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, swam in the crashing waves of the Atlantic at a beach on Tybee Island, sampled the catfish at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, ate lots of Georgia’s world-famous peaches and peanuts–I could go on and on.  Savannah did not disappoint!

Then, one evening, walking along River Street in Savannah’s Riverfront district with its candy shops, restaurants, and stores, I encountered a monument which would alter forever the way I pictured the Deep South.  It was a bronze statue erected in 2002 depicting four members of an African-American family–a father, mother, and two children–embracing each other after emancipation, the chains which once held them lying broken at their feet.


The poem by Maya Angelou inscribed on the base of the monument continues to haunt me:

We were stolen, sold, and bought together from the African continent.  We got on the slave ships together.  We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together.  Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy.

Of course I knew about Savannah’s connection with the slave trade, but that night, in the midst of the crowds milling about on Savannah’s Riverfront, I comprehended the horrors of slavery in a way I never had before.  Savannah was established in 1733, and by the 1740s slaves were being openly sold in the colony. With the establishment of rice and cotton plantations in the region, slaves were imported directly from the rice-growing areas of West Africa.  The port of Savannah was an important receiver of those slaves.  I saw a model of one of those slaving ships in Savannah’s Maritime Museum, its hold filled with tiny black figures lined up next to each other like so many logs.

Slaves who survived the unspeakable horrors of the Atlantic crossing were branded and confined to holding pens, like the ones below, til they were sold. 


Thankfully, the nightmare of slavery came to an end.  In December 1864, Savannah was occupied by the Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and his army. I saw the church, Second African Baptist Church, where Sherman read the Emancipation Proclamation to Savannah’s citizens.  Second African Baptist church had been founded in 1802 by Andrew Bryan, Georgia’s first native African-American religious leader and a former slave. General Sherman, speaking from the steps of the church, promised the newly-freed slaves 40 acres and a mule.  This was the same church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would later preach his “I Have a Dream” sermon.


Image I arrived in Savannah the day after the verdict in the George Zimmerman-Martin Trayvon trial was handed down. I wondered if I would encounter protests, and if not protests, then maybe hateful looks.  I encountered neither.  The African-American population was friendly and welcoming.  I even thought I sensed some of that ‘joy’ that Maya Angelou talked about. I’m glad I spent six days in Savannah.  Now, whenever I hear the words ‘Deep South’, I will see the slavery monument on Savannah’s Riverfront, and the trees decked out with Spanish moss.