Egypt

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

After one trip into Libya as a migrant worker, Tawadros Youssef Tawadros reported that he had been warned that his Christian name -- "Theodore," in English -- might anger Muslim radicals.

His widow, Maleka Ayad, recalled him saying: "Anyone who starts changing his name will end up changing his faith."

Malak Ibrahim Seniut was more blunt, in a final talk with his priest. Told that Christians could be witnesses by living a long, faithful life, the young man replied: "That's not enough for me. I want to do it through death."

On Feb. 15, 2015, both were among the men beheaded by Islamic State soldiers on a beach in Libya. All 21 -- 20 Egyptian Copts and a Ghanan who professed his Christian faith -- were soon declared martyrs by the Coptic Orthodox Church. This is the latest chapter in a long drama, detailed by writer Martin Mosebach, of the German Academy of Arts.

"The Coptic Church, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist, is among the earliest manifestations of Christianity. In 1,400 years of suppression after the Islamic conquest, it has still preserved its original form and it has proven to have the most amazing vitality," he said, at an event this week in New York City, marking the release of the English edition of his book, "The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs."

"The faith found in this church was and is stronger than all of the economic and social disadvantages Christians have to suffer. The Coptic Church has never been broken by political oppression. The Christianity of the first millennium is still to be found there and is … a living reality."

After immersing himself in the village culture surrounding these new saints, the Catholic author reached this conclusion: For these men, liturgy and martyrdom were "two sides of one and the same coin."

There was something truly iconic about those 21 men in orange jumpsuits kneeling on that beach, said Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London.

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Once again, Coptic Christians faced bloody bodies in the sands of Egypt, as terrorists killed seven pilgrims who had just prayed at the Monastery of St. Samuel.

No one was surprised when the Islamic State took credit for that November attack south of Cairo. After all, 28 pilgrims were massacred near the same spot in 2017.

In Syria, Orthodox believers marked the fifth anniversary of the kidnapping of Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church -- who were trying to negotiate the release of priests seized weeks earlier. Today, their followers know less about the identity of the attackers than they did in 2013.

In the Nineveh plains of Iraq, Christians slowly returned to communities in which their ancestors had worshipped since the first century after Christ. Zero Christians remained in Mosul after ISIS demanded that they convert to Islam or pay the jizya head tax, while living with brutal persecution.

But nothing remained of the 1400-year-old Dair Mar-Elia (Saint Elijah's Monastery), after invaders blew it up twice and then bulldozed the rubble.

Try to imagine the faith it requires for believers to carry on after all this has taken place, said the Prince of Wales, speaking at a Westminster Abbey service last month celebrating the lives of Christians who endure persecution in the Middle East.

"Time and again I have been deeply humbled and profoundly moved by the extraordinary grace and capacity for forgiveness that I have seen in those who have suffered so much," said Prince Charles, who has worked to build contacts in the ancient Christian East.

"Forgiveness, as many of you know far better than I, is not a passive act, or submission. Rather, it is an act of supreme courage, of a refusal to be defined by the sin against you. … It is one thing to believe in God who forgives. It is quite another to take that example to heart and actually to forgive, with the whole heart, 'those who trespass against you' so grievously."

The persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East was not one of 2018's big news stories. Instead, this parade of horrors became a kind of "old news" that rarely reached the prime headlines offered by elite newsrooms.

Islamic State leaders attempt to read Pope Francis a theological riot act

Islamic State leaders attempt to read Pope Francis a theological riot act

Moments before the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians, an Islamic State leader warned "Crusaders" that this rite was being held on a North African beach for a reason.

Previous videos of ISIS fighters "chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time" were filmed in Iraq and Syria, he noted, in fluent English. "Today, we are … south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

When the slaughter was over, the lead executioner stressed again: "We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission."

Time after time, Pope Francis has refused to take this bait -- consistently stating his conviction that true Islam promotes peace, not violence. He said this again when a reporter asked about the murder of the elderly Father Jacques Hamel in France.

"I don't like to speak of Islamic violence," said Francis, flying home from World Youth Day in Poland. "When I browse the newspapers, I see violence, here in Italy -- this one who has murdered his girlfriend, another who has murdered the mother-in-law -- and these are baptized Catholics! …

"If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence. … Not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent. It is like a fruit salad -- there's everything."

The terrorists who slaughtered the Egyptian Christians, he added, were quick to "show us their identity cards" as part of the Islamic State. "But this is a fundamentalist group which is called 'ISIS.' But you cannot say -- I do not believe -- that it is true or right that Islam is terrorist."

The pope's stand has caused debate among Catholics and other Christians, as well as quiet tensions with Christians in the ancient Middle Eastern churches. However, he has drawn praise from mainstream Islamic leaders, who stress the fact that ISIS has massacred countless Muslims who have rejected its radical vision of the faith.

Now, in a new issue of its magazine Dabiq -- entitled "Break the Cross" -- ISIS has responded directly to the pope of Rome, arguing that Francis has been misled by Muslims who are themselves heretics.

What would Pope Francis pick as top 2013 news story?

Popes come and popes go, with a new pope elected every few years or decades. Thus, when viewed through the lens of history, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was a stunning event in the history of Roman Catholicism and, thus, all of Western Christianity. He was the first man to resign St. Peter's throne in 600 years. Surely this was the most important religion-news story of 2013?

But when seen through the lens of the mainstream press, the bookish Benedict's exit was a mere ripple in the news flow compared to the tsunami of headlines inspired by the rise of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as the first Latin American pope. During his remarkable media honeymoon, Pope Francis has been humble and savvy, pragmatic and charismatic.

Most of all, this pope has shown that he wants a mission-minded church that balances a defense of Catholic doctrine with a renewed commitment to offering mercy and pastoral care to the poor, the powerless and those of little or no faith. He wants to build a church defined by its actions, not just by words.

To no one's surprise, the election of Pope Francis was selected as the year's No. 1 religion story by the journalists in the Religion Newswriters Association, with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI the No. 2 story. Pope Francis was also named Religion Newsmaker of the Year.

But here is an interesting question to ponder: Based on his own words and actions, what 2013 event or trend would Pope Francis have selected as the most important?

As the year came to a close, it appeared the pope's attention was increasingly focused on the persecution of believers around the world, especially endangered Christian minorities in Egypt, Syria and throughout the Middle East. In a sermon on Nov. 28, he even urged his listeners to recall that when people are forbidden to worship, and faith is driven from public life, the end times could be near.

"What does this mean? It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world," he said, in remarks that drew little commentary from world media.

When this happens, explained Pope Francis, "religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no? Publicly it is not spoken about. The religious signs are taken down. The laws that come from the worldly powers must be obeyed. You can do so many beautiful things except adore God."

The rest of the RNA Top 10 list included these events and trends:

(3) In another 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriage in California and voided the ban on federal benefits to same-sex couples. Supporters of gay marriage celebrated victories in other states as well, with Illinois and Hawaii becoming the 15th and 16th states to legalize same-sex marriage.

(4) Legal battles continued in courts nationwide over the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most non-profit ministries to offer health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills." The U.S. Supreme Court accepted a case brought by Hobby Lobby, a for-profit corporation led by conservative Christians who claim that the mandate violates their freedom of religious expression.

(5) Battles continued in the Middle East over the political role of Islam, with violence escalating in Syria and continuing in Egypt -- where the military ousted the freely elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government and violently cracked down on its Islamist supporters.

(6) Nelson Mandela died at age 95 and was remembered as a prophet of non-violence and reconciliation in South Africa.

(7) Attacks on religious minorities continued around the world, including bloody attacks on Christians in Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Kenya.

(8) A Pew Research Center survey found that more than 1 in 5 American Jews now claim no ties to Judaism as a faith. The number of professing Jewish adults is now less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, although Jewish identity remains strong.

(9) Leaders of the Boy Scouts of America voted to accept openly gay Scouts but not Scoutmasters. While most evangelicals opposed this change, Catholic and Mormon leaders were divided.

(10) Muslims joined others in condemning the Boston Marathon bombing committed by two young Muslim men who attended colleges in the area.

Hellish flashbacks on the Christian persecution front

Churches were burning in Pakistan, while African Christians died and radical forms of Islam threatened monasteries, sanctuaries and villages in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. That was 1997. Human-rights scholar Paul Marshall kept hearing one question over and over when he addressed this rising tide of persecution: Why didn't more American Christians protest as their sisters and brothers in the faith were jailed, raped, tortured and killed?

Some Christians, he said, were distracted by apocalyptic talk in which persecution was a good thing, a sign that the end of the world was near. Others weren't that interested in violence on the other side of the world that threatened believers in ancient churches that looked nothing like their own suburban megachurches.

"The result is a stunning passivity that calmly accepts such suffering," said Marshall, in an interview for an earlier column for the Scripps Howard News Service. "Perhaps this ... could be justified if we were dealing with our own suffering. But to do this with the suffering of another amounts to theological sadism."

That was 1997. Marshall had just co-written the groundbreaking book "Their Blood Cries Out," with journalist Lela Gilbert. Since then, I have worked with both of these writers in global projects about religion-news coverage.

Now it's 2013 and the news about the persecution of Christians has only gotten worse. Marshall, Gilbert and Catholic lawyer Nina Shea recently completed a new volume entitled "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians."

The bottom line: This topic is more relevant than ever.

A year ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world." While some mocked her words, a Pew Research Center study in 2011 found that Christians were harassed, to one degree of violence or another, in 130 countries -- more than any other world religion. British historian Tom Holland told a recent London gathering that the world is witnessing the "effective extinction of Christianity from its birthplace" in the Middle East.

Recent losses endured in Egypt have been staggering, with more than 100 Christian sites attacked by well-organized mobs in mid-August, including the destruction of 42 churches -- the worst assault on the Coptic Orthodox Church in 700 years. In Syria, rebels linked to al-Qaeda overran Maaloula -- famous for being one of three remaining villages in which locals speak ancient Aramaic, the language of Jesus -- damaging the priceless St. Thekla monastery and trashing two churches.

Then the headlines got worse, with Islamist gunmen killing 67 or more people in the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya. While Muslims were freed, hostages who would not recite the Shahada -- an Islamic confession of faith -- were tortured and killed, before their bodies were mutilated. Days later, the Taliban claimed credit for an attack by two suicide bombers on the historic All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, in which at least 85 worshipers died.

Pope Francis addressed these issues during remarks on Sept. 25, noted John L. Allen, Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter, when reached by email. He is the author of a new book entitled "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution."

In Allen's translation of the event, the pope asked the crowd: "When I think or hear it said that many Christians are persecuted and give their lives for their faith, does this touch my heart or does it not reach me? Am I open to that brother or that sister in my family who's giving his or her life for Jesus Christ? ... How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted? How many? ...

"It's important to look beyond one's own fence, to feel oneself part of the Church, of one family of God!"

While the truth is painful, said Marshall, it's important to asking questions about all those silent believers and their silent churches. If anything, it appears that many American Christians are even less interested in global persecution trends than they were in the past, while their churches are even more independent and focused on a therapeutic, individualistic approach to faith.

"It's like all of these horrible events are just blips on the screen. They are there, then they are gone and forgotten," said Marshall. "Sometimes, it's easy to think that Christians in America don't even know what is happening to their brothers and sisters around the world."

Old religious realities in a not-so-new Egypt

At the moment, Egypt is operating under a Constitutional Declaration issued soon after the recent military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

This temporary declaration replaced a constitution signed by Morsi in 2012, after Islamist parties pushed it through a referendum process that turned off many voters. That new constitution replaced an ad hoc, provisional document used after the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. His regime had operated for nearly 30 years under a 1971 charter.

Yes, it's all quite complicated. What outsiders must grasp is that the fine print in any Egyptian constitution is not what is inspiring the rising tide of bloodshed in local communities that is frightening leaders of the land's religious and ethnic minorities, said Samuel Tadros, author of "Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity."

Leaders of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians, an ancient community that makes up about 10 percent of the population, are not "focusing so much on what is happening at the national level," nor are they "just worried about attacks by radical Jihadists," said Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. "They are worrying about being attacked by their neighbors, by the people they go to school with, the people they ride the bus with every day. ...

"You can say what you want about religious freedom in this constitution or that constitution. But once this hatred has reached the level of your local neighborhoods it will take generations to bring about some kind of change."

This growing atmosphere of hostility and lack of concern about religious freedom can also been seen in Pew Research Center reports covering surveys done in Egypt in the past three years. The bottom line: Muslims in Egypt have become "considerably less tolerant of religious pluralism" than most Muslim communities in the Middle East and around the world, according to a Pew analysis by Neha Sahgal and Brian Grim.

Restrictions on religion in Egypt in 2011 already included "the use of force against religious groups; failure to prevent religious discrimination; favoritism of Islam over other religions; prohibitions on Muslims converting from Islam to other religions; stigmatization of some religious groups as dangerous sects or cults; and restrictions on religious literature or broadcasting."

In one Pew poll, only 36 percent thought it was very important for Copts and other religious minorities to be able to "freely practice their religions." At the same time, more than 60 percent declined to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believed Egypt's laws should strictly follow the Koran.

"Egypt is the rare case in which people are actually comfortable with the fact that others are not free to practice their faith," said Sahgal, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Many Egyptians even see this low level of religious toleration "as a good thing. ... You don't even see this in a nation like Pakistan, where at least -- in theory -- people believe others should be able to practice their faith to some degree," she said, in a telephone interview.

It is especially significant that a majority of Egyptian Muslims believe sharia law should govern the lives of all Egyptians, not just Muslim believers. Compared with most other Muslim lands, a much higher percentage of Muslims polled in Egypt want sharia law to control both criminal and public laws, as well as "domestic" laws affecting marriage and family life. Among the vast majority of Egyptian Muslims who support sharia, noted Sahgal, 86 percent favor the death penalty for Muslims who convert to another religion.

None of this is new, stressed Tadros. Coptic believers died in massacres and churches burned in the Mubarak era, as well as in the tumultuous months since Muslims, Christians and secular liberals rallied together in Cairo's most famous public space during the Arab spring rallies that sought real change.

The prevailing attitude nationwide is that "Christians are supposed to pray at home and stop trying to build all those humongous churches with big domes and crosses on top," he said. "Egypt is an Islamic state and Christians should not be doing anything that calls that into dispute. ...

"That's what people believe all across the real Egypt. It's crucial to remember that there is more to Egypt than Cairo and there is more to Cairo than Tahrir Square."

Hillary Clinton defends religious liberty -- abroad

The U.S. State Department wasn't surprised last October when Egyptian security forces smashed into flocks of demonstrators outside the state Radio and Television Building, killing 25 and injuring hundreds. After all, the rally was called to protest the government's failure to stop the burning of Coptic Orthodox churches or to arrest and convict leaders of the mobs. Sure enough, waves of thugs attacked the Copts, starting riots that drew deadly police vehicles.

Once again, it didn't shock State Department insiders that no one was held accountable. Coptic Christians and other religious minorities continue to live in fear.

Similar tragedies have been sadly predictable in the past, but that must change if true democracy is going to come to Egypt and other lands struggling to escape centuries of strife, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks marking the recent release of the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report.

"Egyptians are building a brand new democracy," said Clinton, describing her recent visit there. "As I told the Christians with whom I met, the United States does not take the side of one political party over another. What we do is stand firmly on the side of principles. Yes, we do support democracy -- real democracy, where every citizen has the right to live, work and worship how they choose. ...

"We are prepared to work with the leaders that the Egyptian people choose. But our engagement with those leaders will be based on their commitment to universal human rights and universal democratic principles."

The "sobering" reality, she stressed, is that religious freedom is "sliding backwards" worldwide, with more than a billion people living under regimes that deny them freedom of speech, association and liberty on matters of faith. The State Department once again released its familiar list of notorious "countries of particular concern" -- Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

This latest report is packed with telling details that are hard to ignore, said Thomas Farr, director of Georgetown University's Project on Religious Freedom. He served as the first director of the State Department office on international religious freedom.

The problem is that America's ambassador at large for international religious freedom has "little authority, few resources and a bureaucracy that is -- notwithstanding the secretary's fine words -- largely indifferent" to the global state of religious freedom, noted Farr, in remarks posted at National Review Online. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that this issue is not a priority for this administration, except perhaps for the speechwriters (who are doing an outstanding job)."

In her speech, Clinton did address a few hot topics that have previously been out of bounds, such as blasphemy laws. It's time for Americans to realize, she said, that matters of faith and conscience are often life-and-death concerns -- literally.

"Certain religions are banned completely, and a believer can be sentenced to death," she said. "Strict laws ban blasphemy and defamation of religion. And when your words are interpreted as violations of those laws, you can be sentenced to death. Violence toward religious minorities often goes unpunished by authorities who look the other way.

"So the message is clear: If your beliefs don't have government approval, beware."

When Americans defend religious freedom they are not simply defending values found in this land's laws and creeds. They are also defending a key central tenet of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, Clinton quoted Article 18: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

It's impossible to read those words, she said, without realizing that "religious freedom is not just about religion." It's about unbelievers, heretics, apostates and converts being able to live, think and gather in safety without the "state looking over their shoulder." Without freedom of conscience, said Clinton, democracy is not safe.

"You can't debate someone who believes that anyone who disagrees with him by definition disagrees with God," she said. "So let me simply say this: People can believe that they and only those like them possess the one and only truth. That's their right, though they do not have the right to harm those they think harbor incorrect views."

Define fundamentalist, please

Few hot-button, "fighting words" are tossed around with wilder abandon in journalism today than the historical term "fundamentalist." The powers that be at the Associated Press know this label is loaded and, thus, for several decades the wire service's style manual has offered this guidance for reporters, editors and broadcast producers around the world.

"fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. ... However, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."

The problem is that religious authorities -- the voices journalists quote -- keep pinning this label on others. Thus, one expert's "evangelical" is another's "fundamentalist." For "progressive" Catholics, in other words, Pope Benedict XVI is a "fundamentalist" on sexuality.

Anyone who expects scholars to stand strong and defend a basic, historic definition will be disappointed. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."

"Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. ... In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views," noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. "That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch.' ... Its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' "

This linguistic fight has spread to other faiths and, thus, affects religion news worldwide.

The Orthodox side of Judaism now consists of "ultra-conservatives," "traditionalists," "ultra-Orthodox" or "fundamentalists," depending on who defines the terms. There are "fundamentalist" Hindus, as well. In Islam, journalists keep trying to draw lines between "Islamists," "Muslim radicals," "fringe groups" and a spectrum of other undefined doctrinal camps including, of course, "fundamentalists."

This confusion makes it hard for researchers with good intentions to shed light on news events in complex cultures. Take Egypt, for example, a nation in which conflicts exist between multiple forms of Islam and various religious minorities, including the Coptic Orthodox Christians who are nearly10 percent of the population.

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project tried to find defining lines between political and religious groups in Egypt, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

"Egyptians hold diverse views about religion," stated the report. "About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question."

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: "Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. ... Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions."

So while only 31 percent sympathize with "fundamentalist" Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt's laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances mesh easily with alternative "fundamentalism" definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood's surging role in Egyptian life -- a group long classified as "fundamentalist" in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty's "Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon" in 1988.

While there is no Arabic word for "fundamentalist," Pew researchers believe many Egyptians have begun applying a similar term to some groups of "very conservative Muslims," according to James Bell, director of international survey research for the Pew Research Center.

However, he added, the complexities and even conflicts inside these new survey results make it hard to say specifically who is or who isn't a "fundamentalist" in the context of Egypt today.

"For our Egypt survey, the term 'fundamentalist' was translated into Arabic as 'usuuli,' which means close to the root, rule or fundamental," he explained. "It is our understanding that this Arabic term is commonly used to describe conservative Muslims. ... So that's the word that we used."