Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Egypt, Summer 2010: Thoughts on Christian Courage, Persecution, and Perseverance

So I told most of the story of my time in Egypt in the last post, but I wanted to share just a couple thoughts about my time there. The Copts are a strong-hearted people, having now lived for what has realistically been probably more than a millennium of living as a minority in their own homeland, ever since the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century. The Coptic people are the real descendants of the ancient Egyptians, possessing the bloodline and the (admittedly evolved) language of the pharaohs. The Coptic people converted to Christianity within the first century after Christ, becoming a stronghold of Christianity in the near east. We see the great monastic traditions of the Church as well as the theology of Alexandria rise up out of ancient Egypt, not to mention the fact that our own St. Augustine spent his episcopate not too far removed from ancient Egypt.

The deep Christian tradition present in their culture and in their way of life is particularly evident. One of the first things I noticed that I found unusual in the way that they lived out their faith was the fact that almost every Coptic I met had a cross tattooed on his or her wrist. I finally asked someone about this and they told me a story. In the past, the Islamic rulers would force the Christians to wear very heavy wooden or metal crosses around their necks, to identify, humiliate, and punish the Christian population, for these crosses were heavy enough that they caused deep bruising on the neck and collar. Later, the oppression became much less severe and overt, but the Copts still felt the need to be able to identify one another and to mark themselves as followers of Christ set apart from the majority of the population. It is a symbol of pride in their belief in Christ and, like the spitfires that they are, a thumbing of the nose at their oppressors. It marks them as Christians for life, which I discovered can mean a great deal in a country where the religious majority has very devious and not always so subtle ways of trying to get you to commit apostasy.

A Franciscan friar in Egypt was telling me how college faculty will sometimes try to prevent Christians from progressing in their studies. He has even seen cases where a Muslim man or woman will 'fall in love' with a Christian in college and get them to convert to Islam, only to leave them immediately afterward, because one cannot convert away from Islam in an Islamic country without great repercussions. The friar was telling me that certain religious orders which will go unnamed even have houses in places which will go unnamed where people can come to go through catechesis and be received back into the Church and receive the sacraments again, because doing so in public can cause a person, his family, and his loved ones to disappear. It's like the Catholic version of the witness protection program, and since witness in Greek is 'martyros', I guess that makes for a much closer analogy than I initially thought. The Christians just want to get along and live in peace with the Islamic population, and, to be fair, the large majority of the Islamic population wants no more than this, as well. That being said, there is still a not insignificant minority which desires the persecution or conversion of the Christians, and while the Christians want peace, they are not willing to compromise their faith to achieve that end. That would not be true peace but domination, and I discovered quickly that the Coptic people are not ones to be dominated easily. They are a strong people, and much of this strength has come from 1300+ years of living together in a tight, Christian community, as people in the world but not of the world, oppressed but not overcome.

In the midst of this kind of religious climate, which is not as overtly oppressive as it is in other Arab nations but is, nonetheless, still a toxic environment, it is a moving sight to see the Coptic Christians witnessing so boldly to their faith. All you have to do to tell a Christian apart from a Muslim in Egypt in most cases is look at the wrists. How many of us would have the courage to do that even in America, where we pride ourselves on our religious freedom? I know I would find it at least a little difficult, and I am planning on wearing clerics for the rest of my life, which is a rather bold and clear sign of the cross born in public also. Both the Coptic cross and priestly clerics do many of the same things- they both witness to Christ, offer support to fellow believers, and embolden us in our daily living out of the faith. It is harder to act in a manner unfitting for a Christian when you realize that at all times you are representative of Christ and that His cross is stitched into your very being, whether it's your wrist or your soul.

How much our Coptic brothers and sisters can teach us! Why are we afraid of living our faith publicly? What can people do to us here in America (or in Rome) that the Coptics don't feel five times as strongly in Egypt? Persecution shows us what our faith really means to us. Is it something worth dying for? Is He someone worth dying for? I would say so, and I pray that I would have the grace and strength to do so if the time ever came. If we would just support one another in our mutual faith as they do, I think we could find great strength in our Church. This is one of the things that is beautiful about the Steubenville youth conferences, that they really bring together a large number of kids who discover that they are not alone in their worship of God- far from it! My time in Egypt has given me much to ponder in my own spiritual life and in my own lived experience.

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