Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 8th September 2013
8 September 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
كلنا ىد واحدة We are all in this together.
It was one of the most striking images of the protests which took place in Tahrir Square in central Cairo in February 2011.
Many of our mental pictures of the Middle East pit fundamentalists and radicals from one tradition against another. Rarely, if ever, are those in the middle ground envisaged to be working together, hand–in-hand, كلنا ىد واحدة, all in this together.
But that’s exactly what happened in Tahrir Square. As groups of Muslims turned to their evening prayers, laying out their prayer rugs سجادة, they were vulnerable to attack by pro-Mubarak supporters who stood on the other side of the Square.
Suddenly, and spontaneously, groups of Christians started to circle, clasped hands, forming a human chain. Bibles and Q’rans were held aloft. And the shout went up: ‘كلنا ىد واحدة / We are all in this together’
This was not some dewy-eyed, well-meaning, inter-faith initiative: too many Christians and Muslims had lost their lives in atrocities perpetrated by the Mubarak regime to allow for such romanticism.
Rather this was an entirely practical expression of a deep-seated national identity: Egyptians – whatever their religious identity – were united in a struggle against a long-standing dictatorship; a struggle which has mutated in the last two years but continues to this day.
However, one of the side-effects of the current conflict in the Middle East is to bring into our consciousness here in Western Europe the situation facing Christians in that region. No longer are we able to paint with a broad-brush a picture of Islamic homogeneity, because it is increasingly obvious that there are significant Christian minorities at play there. And in this series of sermons at Matins during September, I am giving an overview of just who these Christians are, and why they are so important. Having looked at Syria last week (available on the web), today I am turning to Egypt.
To say that Egyptian Christians go back a long way would be a gross understatement: they trace their roots to the months following the birth of Jesus, and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. Matthew 2 tells us: ‘When [Joseph] arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod the Great, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt I called My Son’.
St Mark is reputed to have settled in Alexandria, the once great city on the shore of the Mediterranean, and in his honour the head of the Coptic Church, their Pope, is known as the Pope of Alexandria. An important Theological School was established in Alexandria, and the country witnessed the birth of the Monastic Movement with St Anthony the Great and St Pachomius in the 4th century, predating Benedict – to whom this Abbey owes allegiance – by 200 years.
These Coptic Christians come from the Orthodox part of the Church – but are from the Oriental Orthodox – a group made up of Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptian, Iraqi, Armenian and Ethiopian Christians who formed their own churches following the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Muslim conquest two centuries later was not a sudden event, but a gradual process of Islamicization. However, even now, some 10% of Egypt’s population are Christian – about 10-12 million souls, making them by far the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
So why are these Coptic Christians important to us, and why should we be particularly concerned about their plight?
The first thing to say is that there’s a case for not calling them ‘Coptic’ at all. The word ‘Coptic’ is simply a corruption of the Greek ‘Αιγύπτιος’ meaning ‘Egyptian’. In Liturgy, the Coptic language – a late version of Egyptian – is used, though Arabic spoken in everyday language.
These are not foreign imports. These are not late arrival converts of western Missionaries. They are the real deal: like so many of the Christian minorities of the Middle East, indigenous, authentic, rooted.
Secondly, in the same way that the Church of England is wedded to our English national identity, so Egyptian Christians are wedded to the future of their country. In so many countries, Christian communities which were thriving until the last century, have gradually leaked away – marginalised, or seeking better opportunities away from interreligious conflict.
But Egypt is different: in scale they dwarf all the other Christian communities combined. In one week in August alone, there were over 100 attacks on churches and Christian community centres in Egypt, but as their leader in the United Kingdom, Bishop Angaelos, put it recently:
It has been proven over centuries that the nature of Christians in Egypt is not to retaliate but rather to continue striving as loyal and law-abiding citizens of their indigenous homeland. While Christians in Egypt have been accused of being Western sympathisers and seeking Western intervention for decades, in actual fact what we have witnessed in our contemporary history, and in particular over the past few weeks, is quite the opposite.
But thirdly, كلنا ىد واحدة/ We are all in this together.
This phrase has been used by politicians in the United Kingdom to some derision, but we have to take it with utmost seriousness for the future of Christian witness in the countries in and around Jesus’ homeland, what we dare so foolishly to call ‘The Holy Land’.
And if we turn our backs on them, who will be there when persecution stands at our door?
Let me end with some words from Farag Hanna, Director of the Anglican Church’s Unit for the Deaf in Cairo, whom the Abbey as supported.
Showing love to our neighbours brings unity.
In Ramadan, the Deaf Unit invited our Muslim neighbours to break the fast together. The deaf and hearing young people from the church organized the meal and made everyone happy.
Although it was a time of difficulties in Egypt, we did our best to overcome the tensions. One of our neighbours said, ‘Your young people grow up loving others’. These words touched my heart.
Two weeks later in the time of demonstrations, these people defended our church and the Deaf Unit, when it was under threat from fire. Thanks be to God for our neighbours.