Posted by: Titus Presler | April 11, 2017

Attacks on Coptic Christians call us to pray and advocate for the persecuted

Palm Sunday’s attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt should prompt Christians in all places to pray for those who are persecuted for their faith in Christ and to advocate on their behalf.

The attacks on St. George’s Church in the northern city of Tanta and on St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, the ancient seat of Egyptian Christianity, left 44 dead and 126 wounded.  In December an attack on the Coptic cathedral in Cairo claimed 30 lives.  All the attacks were claimed by ISIS and its affiliates.

The website of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt, which also oversees Anglican work in North Africa and the Horn of Africa, does not yet include news of the Palm Sunday attacks.  But a blogpost by the Grant Lemarquand, area bishop for the Horn of Africa, includes this reflection on Christians’ response to the December attack:

The Coptic Church, joined by other Christians in Egypt, responded, yes with grief, but (as usual) without calls for retaliation. Outside of the Coptic Cathedral protesters and mourners shouted. For those who don’t know the language, the sight and sound of thousands of young men chanting loudly and strongly in Arabic might strike fear into the heart of many westerners. But listen more closely … they are chanting the Nicene Creed.

Yes, it was defiance. “We are Christians. We are here. We, too, are willing to give our lives; willing to be martyrs if need be.” But it was non-violent defiance. Here were Christians in the streets of an Islamic country openly and loudly proclaiming their belief and trust in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For me the response of most Christians in Egypt was remarkable, but not really a surprise. Yes, there is anger. Yes, there is terror. But there is also an amazing trust. And, even more amazing, almost a sense of thanksgiving. I heard Christians saying that they were thankful that God had, once again, counted the Egyptian church worthy of gaining more martyrs, more ‘witnesses’ to the suffering love of God expressed in the suffering of his faithful people. I heard some say how wonderful it was that those who died went to church to have Communion with God, and found themselves continuing that Communion in God’s immediate presence.

The Palm Sunday attacks recall the Easter Sunday attack on Christians in Pakistan on 27 March 2016.  The suicide bomb attack in a park in the large city of Lahore in Pakistan killed more than 70 people, both Christians and Muslims.  In claiming responsibility for the attack, a breakaway group of Taliban said that they were targeting Christians, and, indeed, many Christian families were picnicking and celebrating in the park after their Easter services.  Among the killed were a number of children gathered for amusement rides.  I sent condolences to several bishops of the Church of Pakistan, the ecumenical body that in 1970 brought Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodist and Presbyterians into organic union.  The church’s moderator, Samuel Azariah, who functions as a presiding bishop, wrote back to me the next week as follows

Yes, it was an extreme experience of the pain of Calvary, but through prayers of believers all over the world, we have been energized to move forward in our journey of life (a sacred pilgrimage) for purposes of reconciliation.  Please continue to keep us in your prayers that we continue faithfully on this purposeful journey.  On the 3rd of April [that was the Sunday after the Easter bombing] we had a common prayer service at the site of the blast, for all the victims.  Christians, Hindus and Muslims participated and prayed.  We will continue with such acts of peace, tolerance and reconciliation.

That was a striking statement.  After dozens of Christians were killed in an act of malicious and indiscriminate violence against civilians, the church’s presiding bishop stressed not the rooting out of terrorists, not the apprehension of the instigators, not even protection for the besieged Christian community.  Instead, he stressed reconciliation.  He moved immediately to the broadest and deepest chasm in the society, the gulf between religious minorities and the Muslim majority, and highlighted the broadest and most deeply transforming need, which is reconciliation.

Yes, there were other currents as well.  Bishop Azariah and other Christian leaders called for protection and for justice in the wake of the atrocity, as they had in the wake of other atrocities such as the September 2013 bombing at All Saints’ Church in Peshawar, in which about 130 Christians were killed.  But the dominant note in the response was the call for reconciliation.

Likewise now, especially in Holy Week, which this year western Christians share with eastern Christians, reconciliation must be the omega point, the ultimate destination, of our prayers, even as we pray for comfort, justice, resilience, protection and peace.

Oddly, it is difficult to find in any Anglican formulary a focused prayer for those experiencing persecution for the sake of their faith.  The revised prayerbooks of the Episcopal Church USA (1979) and the Anglican Church of Canada (1985) include a prayer ‘For those who suffer for the sake of conscience,’ but it appears more directed to political civil disobedience than to religious persecution.  Likewise Liturgy 1975 of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, An Australian Prayerbook (1978), the Alternative Service Book (1980) of the Church of England, and the Church of North India’s Book of Worship (1995) contain no prayers for those suffering religious persecution in particular.

More Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than in any other century, but that fact is still unknown to many Christians, and it obviously was not prominent in the thinking of those revising Anglican worship books in late century.  A sense of guilt for the colonial enterprise made western Anglicans reluctant to call attention to the persecution of Christians, and a secular mindset inclined them to analyze persecution in socio-political rather than religious terms.  The especially blatant violence perpetrated against Christians by Muslim extremists in the 21st century is bringing the issue of persecution much more to the forefront, and it is difficult to ignore as a matter of both prayer and advocacy.

So here’s a prayer specific to religious persecution:

Gracious God, whose son Jesus was subjected to vicious accusation, biased trial, gratuitous humiliation, and tortured death: Be with all who suffer discrimination, deprivation, exclusion, violence and death for the sake of their faith in Christ.  May they know your presence and the power of your Holy Spirit as they face threats to their communities and their lives.  Inspire us to assist them in their struggle to survive and flourish, and guide civil authorities to protect them and offer them justice.  Be with all religious communities who suffer for their faith on different paths.  Strengthen our participation in the reconciliation of all humanity that is your vision for the consummation of all things through Jesus Christ, our friend and savior.  Amen.  

Postscripts:

• Declan Walsh of the New York Times, formerly the newspaper’s reporter in Pakistan until he was banned by the government there, has an important analysis of ISIS’s strategy in targeting Christians in Egypt.  See here.

• Here is the April 11 Anglican Communion News Service story on Anglican and ecumenical responses to the Palm Sunday attacks.   

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