Copts Pick Up Pieces After Bombings: Q&A With Egypt's Bishop Thomas
Coptic Christians, the Middle East's largest Christian community, account for roughly ten percent of Egypt's population and have endured generations of exclusion and restrictions. Their struggles for equality have been aggravated by a series of gruesome and deadly attacks carried out by ISIS criminals. The latest act was a pair of bombings on Palm Sunday targeting packed churches in Alexandria and Tanta, which took the lives of 45 Christians and wounded more than 100 others, according to Human Rights Watch. ISIS previously targeted Copts in Cairo in a December, 2016, bombing that killed 30 and in a January, 2017, attack in the Sinai peninsula that killed eight. ISIS has stated its intention to extirpate Christianity from the Middle East.
TMP Egypt contributor Jayson Casper spoke to Bishop Thomas, head of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Qusia and Meir, 170 miles south of Cairo, to find out how Copts are reacting to the latest attacks and what they expect for the future. Born in 1957, Thomas became a monk in 1985 and bishop in 1988. In 1999 he founded Anafora, a retreat center along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, which became a community dedicated to ecumenical welcome and human development. Fluent in English alongside his native Arabic, he is a key source of insight on the situation of Christians in Egypt.
[The interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
TMP: The Easter holiday is usually a joyous occasion, but Egypt and its Christians are going through a difficult time after the Palm Sunday bombings. How are Copts doing these days?
Bishop Thomas: There was a blend of grief, shock, anger, and question marks about what’s happening. People recall similar incidents from the past – the December bombing at St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo, the 2010 Alexandria bombing, and further back in history. There has been a development in the attacks against Christians, and people are comparing it to what is happening in Syria and wondering if this will come to Egypt.
But the church holds to Christian principles, giving the people a Christian message. Love, and conquer evil through good. If we believe in the forgiveness Christ gave to us, we have to give it to others. Think positively, and do not be afraid. Don’t generalize, but be fair. We cannot put the work of Islamic extremists on normal Muslims who haven’t done anything.
And normal people from the families of the victims have made statements that are very powerful. The widow of the doorman at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria said she forgives them.
[This raises] the question: How can Copts forgive like this? We are trying to nurture a holistic faith in society. Believing our life is not limited to this world makes it becomes stronger.
TMP: Before we discuss church teachings, I first want to ask about what is seen in the media. Coptic reactions are portrayed as fearful, angry, and disillusioned, saying, "Things aren’t getting better and the government isn’t taking care of us." Is this an accurate picture? How strong and widespread are these feelings?
Bishop Thomas: The Copts have a clearer understanding because we know the growth of Islamic fundamentalism has to be dealt with in a deeper way than just police or military forces. Security measures are only a part. The foundation is the ideology, needing the reformation of education. Copts are angrier at the education system than the security situation.
We look at things realistically, even though we were hoping for a calmer, more peaceful situation with the new government after the Muslim Brotherhood regime. We hoped it would be more active in reform. Some Copts are disappointed, but we are aware it is a long-term change, needing the support of the private sector, NGOs, and the religious sector. The curriculum of al-Azhar has to be looked at, in how they portray Christians, as does the public school curriculum.
We see also two kinds of media. One is trying to understand the situation and sympathize in the tragedy. The other is condemning Christians and encouraging more of the same. This must be dealt with firmly. If someone encourages attacks on others this is a crime against humanity, and it must be declared as such.
These things are being discussed among the youth and on the Coptic street. Even still, we are saying we love and we forgive—Jesus told us to love our enemies and do good to them—so his love encompasses the whole world and our fight is not against flesh and blood. It is against evil principles and thoughts; it is a struggle of ideology. Humanity must be linked with religion, and not to a particular religious group. As Christians we view everyone within the circle of God’s love, so we must love everyone, even those who persecute and attack us. We are against evil, but not against human beings. Instead we pity them.
TMP: You mentioned the importance of ideology. The president has spoken many times about the importance of reforming religious rhetoric. It seems he is aware of the comprehensive nature of this issue, beyond a military solution. But we see crimes against Copts go unpunished and a failure to pursue educational reform. Are Copts still optimistic the government will move in this direction so that it will reach the grassroots over time? Or is their frustration that it is all just talk and politics, or that the state is unable to reform the ideology?
Bishop Thomas: There is a group of people who hope it will change, who say we should encourage the process of reformation. There is another who says it will not happen, it is too long-term and the ideology is fixed among too many scholars. Personally, I think those who are disappointed are thinking about emigration, and I think another wave will come very soon, which is very bad. Christians have to stay in Egypt and be empowered here.
The process of reformation goes beyond just a president. He is trying to do his best, but society has many layers, and the undercurrent is stronger than what the official government says. What we need is to focus more on the undercurrent, which requires lots of work.
This gives Christians the responsibility to build up society. We have to be more active in peacemaking. This is an art that needs training, and helps build trust in the community. But we must also address the power balance, which aids the stability of society. Christians abroad and the international community can help Copts achieve this. We must work on projects and fill professions that the society needs.
TMP: Such as?
Bishop Thomas: In my area of Qusia we created a school that provides education in languages and an open, creative atmosphere, not dictation. Many Christians and Muslims started to come. It is run by the church, but society needs it, and it is unique in the area.
People meet and interact, but not in a religious framework. They come for the sake of their children, and discuss ethics and childrearing. We create many educational programs through this platform, and this gives us hope that these meeting points help give us status in society.
Similar things like hospitals and social events help society unite, and the church should take the lead. It presents us to society in a new way and counters disinformation against us.
But this problem is bigger than Egypt, and we have to look at it from a global perspective. Islamic fundamentalism and political Islam must be addressed. We have seen the results over several decades, in addition to the recent developments in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine. The Middle East has been almost depopulated of its Christians, and in Egypt we are the largest community left. Will these conservative forces succeed in pushing our Christians to the West, or not?
TMP: Let’s return shortly to emigration, but first address some of the spiritual teachings you mentioned earlier. The wife of the doorman in Alexandria gave a phenomenal testimony of forgiveness that came from her faith. But as we judge the Coptic mentality that measures anger and frustration against church teachings to resist fear and hold on to joy, to what degree does the Christian message of hope truly permeate them as people?
Bishop Thomas: One of the spontaneous reactions has been the full attendance of Sunday evening prayers, right after the Palm Sunday morning bombings. All during Holy Week our churches have been packed. People are praying with enthusiasm and demonstrating persistence that we are here, we’re staying here, and this is our faith. Through their actions they are demonstrating their hope.
No doubt there have been tears, but still they come. There is sadness in their hearts, but they still hold to the responsibility that God has given: We are not afraid, we love, and we ask for justice. These are the three folds the church has been teaching, and the people’s reaction has been a beautiful portrayal.
TMP: The heritage of martyrdom in the Coptic Church promotes acceptance and forgiveness. But what is its connection with justice?
Bishop Thomas: Many people see the church teaching only suffering and martyrdom, but within this there is justice, a very important aspect that balances with love. Love and forgiveness create peace and positive attitudes, but at the same time love is not weak. It is strong. That is why there is no fear. Love and justice must be intertwined. I love, but I ask for my rights. I’m a human being, and I must be dealt with in my home country like a citizen, with security and equal rights.
There have been many saints who were martyred because they asked for their rights. St. George, St. Mina, St. Mercurius – they stood up for their faith, defending other people. This is why it was their fate to become martyrs. Martyrdom is not just someone putting a bomb in a church. It is mainly people declaring their faith, hold to their rights, asking for justice, but ending in death.
So I don’t see a contraction, and many in the Coptic community are asking what we must do to achieve justice. I don’t know how it will be implemented. Communication with scholars, writers, and journalists from the Muslim side, to empower the cause?
If I take an American example, in achieving justice for the black community there were three main aspects. The first is Rosa Parks, and how she was made able to ask for her rights. Our teachings can help prepare the individual and create many more.
The second is Martin Luther King, who was a man of faith, but also of truth. He was able to communicate love and Christian principles in a context of injustice. The church has to give the message.
The third, which is very much needed, is Eleanor Roosevelt. She represents the political arena and media, which were not of the black community. If the Christians in Egypt make a better effort to reach out to the Muslim community, its intellectuals and scholars, and discuss with them in more openness to empower them to join in the faithful fight for justice, it will be a great help.
But it is also needs an international effort, for the ideology is global. If conservatism is strong in the world there must be collaboration in the reformation of thought and the interpretation of texts in light of citizenship and humanity. There is much work ahead of us, and if it is not undertaken we may end up in a worse situation.
TMP: Is there something that makes the Copts of Egypt different from the Christians of the rest of the region, something that has enabled them to survive and resist the temptation to violence?
Bishop Thomas: We don’t want to blame the victims, which is important to state clearly. We stand in sympathy and solidarity with the people of Syria, Iraq, and the region. We have seen what happened in Sinai, when the Christians evacuated from the area. We don’t know if this will continue.
A faithful attitude of ‘love your enemies’ and forgiveness gives a positive message to the other side, but we don’t know what will happen. It is a big question mark. Allow me to be spiritual and say it is the hand of God that is protecting this people here for a reason. I don’t know why, but keeping the Christian community in stability in Egypt may give a message of stability to the whole Middle East.
TMP: Yet over the past few decades, as you mentioned, Coptic emigration to the West has increased dramatically.
Bishop Thomas: And it will continue to increase, no one can say it will stop. This makes us weaker, because who emigrates? Those who are able – the rich, the educated, those able to make a living outside. But they leave behind the weaker ones. If someone wants to care for their family we cannot tell them stop, to stay. We can encourage them it will get better, but if they have decided to go, they will.
But we recognize the negative impact. Still, Copts in the diaspora help with financial support, educational programs, and are a voice in the international community. This is very much appreciated. The presence of Christians in the Middle East remains a big question mark these days. If things continue, I don’t know how long we can last.
Yet in Egypt we have a very strong belief in the promise found in Isaiah 19, that there will be an altar in the land of Egypt. This gives the Christians a very strong hope that we will always be here and nothing can break us. This belief gives us power and helps explain why the church is flourishing despite difficulties, attacks, and persecutions. The church is strong, and people are determined to stay and stand firm in their faith.
TMP: Thank you, Bishop Thomas.