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Reflections on Coptic martyrdom

Monday, 29 May 2017  | Chris Marshall

Egypt’s longsuffering Christian minority, the Coptic Orthodox Church, has been struck another blow in the Islamic State-inspired assault on the ongoing Christian presence in the Muslim-majority nations of the Middle East.

Yesterday (Friday 26th May 2017), in central Egypt, a bus full of Coptic Christians – many of them children – was stopped by Islamic extremists, who opened fire with machine guns, killing 28 people and wounding some 24.

They were on their way to the monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor, a Coptic Orthodox monastery founded in the 7th century by the godly Samuel, a priest and prophet who was himself subjected to extreme torture for his faith.

Yesterday’s horrific event follows similar acts of mass murder at Coptic churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday (9th April) and in Cairo on 11th December. Many have been killed and many more maimed and wounded in countless attacks in recent years.

In the more recent attacks, Coptic Christians meeting for worship were the victims of jihadist bombs – innocent people blown to pieces as they gathered in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

These events are seen as part of a systematic attempt on the part of radical Islam to drive Christianity from Egypt, the land of the Desert Fathers, where Christian faith long predates the arrival of Islam and runs deep in the cultural consciousness.

Psalm 44:22-25 provides an apt description of the Coptic experience in these times:

… for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. Awake, O Lord! Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.

And the media reports today have been accompanied by images of bodies lying on the desert sand near the bus.

In an email the day after the Palm Sunday attacks in Tanta and Alexandria, the Coptic Bishop of Melbourne, Anba Suriel, spoke of a ‘clear attempt at ethnic cleansing against the Copts in Egypt’ and also of the ‘clear bias’ of Western reporting, whereby ‘the blood of Christians in the Middle East is cheap in the eyes of the Western media’.

We might well ask why a terrorist bombing in Manchester would seem to warrant so much greater media attention than the recent bombings of Christian worshippers in Egypt. Are not both equally horrendous? Do our hearts not break for Egyptian innocents as much as they do for Mancunian innocents?

But, putting aside the matter of media responses and speculation about media hostility to Christian belief and institutions, there are important questions about how we Western followers of Jesus should view the traumas of the Egyptian Copts.

The Australian Christian blogger, Stephen McAlpine, has recently suggested that the Coptic experience ‘drives home the reality that Christianity in many parts of the world has run out of options’, and that the lesson from North Africa and large parts of the Middle East is that, if enough blood is spilled, ‘the church will have the life crushed out if it’.

He dismisses such notions as ‘the blood of the martyrs as the seed of the church’ as being those of ‘comfortable Western Christians looking on from safe vantage points’ and largely unaware of the extent of the bloody destruction that is taking place across the globe.

While his tough assessment is not inappropriate, it is Coptic Christians themselves to whom we should look in forming our views of these matters. In the same way that it ideally will be Indigenous people in this country who should guide and lead commentary in relation to matters of Indigenous marginalisation and disadvantage, so it is the faith perception of Egyptian Copts themselves that should be the starting point for Christian assessment of the existential threat they now face.

Bishop Suriel, in an email recently sent to me, wrote that, while his community is ‘heartbroken’ and has lost family members in the recent attacks, ‘we are a resilient community and we trust in our suffering Christ’.

I myself spent time at a Coptic monastery in Egypt last year, having retreated there to seek God following the death of my wife. I was profoundly affected by the generosity of their hospitality, the vitality of their faith and the richness of their liturgical worship. In conversation at the monastery following reports of an attack on Christians in a village near Alexandria there was a clear consensus that their times are in God’s hands and that, if they should be killed for their faith, the Lord Himself would ensure that their deaths were not in vain.

But it was also evident that the situation of Egyptian Christians in these times is anything but easy and that, even if they are not being blown up in their churches or murdered on the roads to their holy places, they are never far from oppression and persecution in an increasingly dangerous nation.

A highlight for me was a meeting with one of their bishops, who simply asked that we pray for them and who spoke of his deep trust in the risen Lord, come what may.

And so we pray:

Loving God, sustain and strengthen our brethren in Egypt

who are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

Do not hide your face from their misery and oppression,

but let them even in their toughest times know your presence

and your vindication of their trust

– through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Chris Marshall
has worked with Aboriginal people and their organisations for many years and is currently working in a corporate development role with the Taungurung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, a Koori First Nation entity.


Andrew Reid
May 29, 2017, 6:51PM
I found the reflection by Bishop Angaelos from the Coptic Church in the UK very helpful in responding to these attacks:

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