In October, 2014, St. Michael’s Church held an Evensong for the Persecuted Church. We invited His Grace Bishop Youssef, a bishop in the Coptic Orthodox Church, to come speak to us about the problems facing Christians in Egypt and in all of the Middle East. We hear of ISIS and the massacring of Christians in the Syria and Iraq, but often have difficulty engaging in a personal, tangible way. Therefore, in anticipation of doing another event this November (which this year will focus on the Syriac Church), I travelled to Dawsonville, GA, to interview His Grace Bishop Youssef at St. Mary and St. Demiana Coptic Orthodox Convent.
When I asked about the biggest problems facing the Coptic Church, H.G. proceeded to give a brief history of the Church. Before Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, there was unity and lack of division. H.G. stated,
“You know, in the 3rd and 4th century, when the Roman empire was persecuting Christians, they were one. So Satan could not divide the church from persecution, outside. But the church was divided from within when we turned against one another, when Arius, and then you know Nestorius, then the council of Chalcedon, then the great schism in the 11th century. This is actually when we became divided and lost our unity. So persecution brings us together, but when we are divided against one another, this is when we lose our unity.”
At the fourth ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon, the See of Alexandria, the Patriarchate of the Coptic Church, split from the rest of Christianity over the Christological controversy of whether or not Christ had natures: one divine and one human, or one nature: both divine and human (monophysite/miaphysite vs diaphysite). Those who now constitute what are considered non-Chalcedonian Christians, or Oriental Orthodox include the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox (among others), many of whom are the Christians being persecuted at the hands of Islamic radicals today. After this split, there was much violence between the Byzantine Empire and the Copts, the Greeks having set up their own Patriarch in Egypt who exiled the Patriarch of the Coptic Church. A few hundred years later, Islam took over Egypt, and the Christians were either highly taxed and persecuted or systemically killed. H.G. explained, “Peaceful times are the exception, not the norm of the Coptic Church.”
He also addressed other issues facing the modern-day church. He mentioned the poverty of Christians in Egypt. He related, “I can say more than 70 percent of the Coptic population is either poor or very, very poor,” and “ you can go and visit villages and see how people still live. They don’t have shelter above their heads. Maybe 5 families share one bathroom, families not persons.” However, poverty also extends to those who have been fortunate enough to immigrate to the United States.
“Some apply and they don’t get visas., I’m sure you hear about youth who travel by sea illegally, for example to go to Greece, and many of them drown and die. Many others are deceived and told they would take them to greece, and on the way they die or are taken captive… And when they do have the chance to come here, they apply to get asylum and this takes time. During this time, many do not have visas that allow them to work, and thus they have no financial support, which is another challenge they face. And many, when they get work permits, can’t work in the degrees they have. For example, if they are a physician in Egypt, they come here and cannot work as physicians, and many professionals in Egypt come and work here in restaurants and gas stations. So, their income is not enough, and their emotional self-confidence is affected.”
Other issues he raised were living in the midst of a society in which people are constantly trying to convert their youth. “Although,” he said, “this actually makes the church develop a strong sense of apologeticism in order to teach the children how to defend their faith, how to be strong.”
Especially poignant was his response when I asked him about the involvement of the US in the Middle East, especially with regards to supporting the rebels in Syria. His response:
“It is very, very sad that a big country and nation like the US that claims all the time that they support minorities and democracy is doing these things. They are not supporting democracy or minorities. They are actually supporting their own interests in the middle east. If supporting rebels in Syria is in their best interest, they do this, regardless of whether or not it is in the best interest of Syria. So if this is true, it is very very sad. It is unexpected from a great nation like the US which was founded upon Christian principles, and by people fleeing from religious persecution. It had a Biblical foundation. It is very sad, but in spite of this I think it is a lesson to us not to rely on any country and not to rely on any power except the power of God who is greater than the greatest nations. But on the other side, we believe in true separation of state and church. Actually, in the church’s history, the worst times for the church were when there was no separation between church and state. So, we don’t go and ask support from any country, whether it is the US, or Russia. We have our support from God and only from God. But when something is wrong, yes, it is our responsibility to stop and say that this is wrong.”
I continued and asked him about his opinions for how the US and the church in the US should respond to ISIS.
On one side we are praying for them, and we ask God to reach their hearts. What they are doing…. they are blind spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, physically. When i say physically, because a person kills somebody and doesn’t even see. On the other side, I think, according to the teaching of the Bible, evildoers must be punished in order to establish justice and righteousness… as the Lord said in Romans 13, the ruler does not bear the sword in vain, but to avenge the evildoers.
But I also wanted to know how the Coptic Church themselves dealt with the burden of persecution. Do they doubt God’s goodness? How do they make it through the pain of losing loved ones, having their daughters kidnapped and raped, and having their churches burned?
I asked H.G. to help us understand the theology of suffering. His response:
Our life here is vanity and it is not permanent. So this actually makes you think more of eternal life and put all your hope and trust in eternal life. Second, St James says that when we endure and we are perfect in our endurance, we actually become a perfect people. So endurance of persecution helps our personality to be perfect and to be transformed into the image of God. Thirdly, it teaches us to rely on God, rather than to rely on people, because we can see how God protects the church in the middle of this persecution. Fourth, now we perceive persecution as a gift from God, as St. Paul said to the Philippians, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” (Phil. 1:29) So it is a gift. But a gift in what way? Because when we suffer with Him we will be glorified with Him. That is the road for eternal glory, and that is the practical application of denying one’s self carrying your cross and following the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m sure you heard about the 21 martyrs ISIS killed in Libya. These martyrs, they had little kids, parents, spouses, but they did not deny their faith, and they put Christ before everybody else, as our Lord says, “He who loves his father, mother, spouse or children more than me is not worthy of me.” In the same way many of their families, and their spouses who had become widows said, “If they denied Christ and came here, we would not have accepted them.”
He mentioned these martyrs yet again when I asked him how the church does evangelism in the midst of persecution,
“Evangelism is done by at least 6 ways, but the highest way of evangelism is by shedding your blood for Christ or being persecuted for Christ. The word martyr in Greek, martyrion, means witness. Again, these 21 martyrs made the Coptic Church known to the whole world better than 21 great preachers speaking about the Coptic Church. And many who were not even facing persecution, and were not affected by persecution, were made stronger in their faith. And after they bombed the Church in Alexandria, the Church of the two saints, it was the New Year’s Eve, (our Christmas is Jan 7), the church was packed, people essentially saying, so we are ready, not just for you to bomb our churches, but we are ready to go to heaven.”
Finally, I wanted to know of tangible ways that the Anglican Church could support his suffering people.
Somethings like the meetings you held last year and joint activities between the two churches, away from the dogmatic differences can be very helpful.
And also, as you are willing to support and to help with our needs, actually it is our pleasure to support and help. I cannot deny that when we started services in many cities, many Protestant, Anglican and Catholic Churches opened their churches happily for us so we could hold our services there. And many of them offered their churches even without charge. Also, I think churches can help if there is any way to sponsor or facilitate immigrants to get their visas, to help them get established here by helping them find decent jobs, especially in their career. Definitely financial help is needed, for families and also for churches who support these families.The number of immigrants in the last 2-3 years have doubled or tripled and the resources sometimes are not enough to cope and adapt with all the flood of immigrants.