Monday, 4 April 2011

North African changes raise hopes and fears of region’s Christians

Christians faced outward and joined hands in a circle to protect a Muslim group of protesters as they prayed in Tahrir Square in Cairo (Photograph: Nevin Zaki)

Patrick Comerford

The Middle East and North Africa are in turmoil, and the upheavals in the Arab world have drawn inevitable comparisons with the changes brought about through popular protest in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Egypt’s religious tensions were set aside in some places as Egyptian Muslims and Christians joined in the anti-government protests that toppled the Mubarak government in recent weeks. During the protests, a striking piece of graffiti on a flyover near Tahrir Square included the Muslim crescent symbolically embracing the Christian cross with the words: “We are all against the regime.”

On one of the biggest days of protest, the “Day of Departure,” Coptic Christian protesters in Tahrir Square formed a human chain around Muslim protesters who were vulnerable as they knelt at the Friday noon prayers. Two days later, “Martyrs’ Sunday” was celebrated by both Muslims and Christians, with many Muslims joining a Christian service in the square in a show of interfaith unity.

“We are all in this together. Muslims and Christians,” protesters declared.

“One hand, one hand,” the crowd roared, referring to the unity of Muslims and Christians. “One hand, one hand.”

Christians and Muslims protested and prayed together in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (Photograph: Nevin Zaki)

The sign of the crescent embracing the cross appeared at protests throughout Cairo, from calligraphy on handmade placards, to slogans picked out in stones on the ground. Those slogans and symbols of Muslim-Christian unity were particularly poignant as they followed a tense period in which Copts had been the victims of a series of attacks, including a car-bomb attack on people leaving a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, when 23 Christians were murdered.

Nevin Zaki, who photographed these scenes in Tahrir Square and shared them on Twitter, remarked: “Bear in mind that this picture was taken a month after the Alexandria bombing where many Christians died in vain. Yet we all stood by each other.”

The suffering of Egypt’s Copts

Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria ... Copts have excluded from top state and military positions

“Systematic discrimination against the Copts has been common in some areas such as exclusion from top state and military positions," according to Dr Maha Abdelrahman, who lectures in Egyptian politics at Cambridge University. “But the state’s major crime has been in the way it has indirectly incited and fuelled sectarian tension between Muslims and Christians. It has done this using its complete control over the state-run media, education and religious institutions,” she told the BBC.

Despite the solidarity shown in Tahrir Square, the leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, called for an end to the protests, reflecting the fears of many Christians that the fall of Mubarak could lead to the rise of Islamic radicals, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Pope Shenouda with Archbishop John Neill in the offices of the Patriarchate in Cairo

Egypt’s Coptic Christians make up 10 per cent of the population of 80 million – indeed the word Coptic means Egyptians, so that Egyptian Copts have no doubts about their Egyptian identity. They have openly challenged the state, clashing with the police in protests over the building of a new church in Cairo last November, for example. Yet within weeks, Christian and Muslim protesters stood together in unity.

Egypt is part of Holy Land: it was here the Israelites lived in exile and slavery until the Exodus, and it was here Mary and Joseph found refuge with the Child Jesus. Egypt was home to Saint Mark the Evangelist and to many of the great patristic writers. The great creedal debates of the early church began in Alexandria, which was home to Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyril, Arius and Athanasius, and Christian monasticism has its roots in the Egyptian Desert.

The Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, Patriarch Stephanos II … leader of a church with 200,000 members in Egypt and in communion with Rome

Mount Sinai is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and Alexandria and Cairo are important centres of Egyptian Christianity, particularly for the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria, said to be the fastest growing church in Africa. Over 80 per cent of Egypt’s Christians belong to these two churches, but other churches include the Coptic Catholics (200,000), Protestants (200,000), Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Catholics, Melikites, Maronites and Syrian Catholics.

Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis in Christ Church Cathedral during a visit to Dublin

Egypt also has 10,000-15,000 Anglicans. The Anglican Presiding Bishop, Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, says: “Egypt is now writing a new chapter in its history … There is a lot of uncertainty even within this turning point in the history of Egypt.” He says “Egyptians have paid a heavy price during this crisis … Some of our institutions which had to close down during the riots are also struggling financially due to a loss of income.”

In an appeal for outside support, he said: “We would appreciate if you could help us to help others.”

Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis in talks with the Coptic leader, Pope Shenouda III (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tunisia – a Biblical land

Saint Louis’s Cathedral, Carthage, built in 1884 ... Carthage was also a centre of early Christianity

The protests that have swept North Africa and the Middle East began in Tunisia, which has long classical and Christian traditions. Modern Tunisia includes ancient Carthage, founded by Queen Dido and associated with legendary and historical figures such as King Pygmalion and Hannibal.

Carthage was also a centre of early Christianity. There the early Church leaders included Tertullian, the father of Latin Christianity, and Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who died a martyr in the year 258. In 397, the Council at Carthage confirmed the canon of the Bible that came to be accepted throughout the western Church.

Bishop Bill Musk, Rector of Saint George’s in Tunis, is an area bishop for North Africa

The 25,000 Christians in Tunisia today are mainly foreign-born, but there is a small group of Tunisian-born Christians of European or Arab descent. There are 22,000 Roman Catholics, and the Archdiocese of Tunis runs 12 churches, nine schools, several libraries and two clinics.

Saint George’s Anglican Church in Tunis, where Bishop Bill Musk is the rector and area bishop for North Africa, has several hundred members, although they are mainly foreign-born. Other churches include the Reformed Church of France, with a church in Tunis, the Russian Orthodox Church, with churches in Tunis and Bizerte, and three Greek Orthodox churches.

Saint George’s Anglican Church in Tunis

Libyan Christianity’s Easter roots

The success of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt helped trigger the popular uprising against Colonel Gadafy in Libya, which lies between both countries. Although Christianity is a minority presence in Libya, there have been Christians in Tripolitania (western Libya) and Cyrenaica (the eastern coastal region of Libya) since Roman times.

Simon who helped carry the cross of Christ (Matthew 27: 32, Mark 15: 21-24, Luke 23: 26) was from Cyrene, now known as Shahhat, in north-east Libya. At the end of the second century, Victor of Leptis Magna in Libya was the first African to become Bishop of Rome or Pope. He replaced Greek with Latin as the liturgical language in Rome, and decreed that Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday.

The Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in the Old City or Medina of Tripoli, dates from 1645

Recently, relations between Christians and Muslims in Libya have been relatively peaceful, although the restrictions on Christian activity include a prohibition of proselytism. The Coptic Orthodox Church has over 60,000 members. The 50,000 Roman Catholics are mostly of Italian and Maltese descent. The Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Our Lady of the Angels), in the Old City or Medina of Tripoli, was founded in 1645. The Sultan of Constantinople gave permission in 1858 to build the Church the Immaculate Conception in Benghazi. But a cathedral built in Tripoli in the 1930s is now used as a mosque.

There are small communities of Russian, Serbian and Greek Orthodox, and there is an Anglican congregation at the Church of Christ the King in Tripoli, which is part of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt. Until recent weeks, the congregation was made up mostly of African immigrant workers.

Saints and martyrs

Seven Trappist monks were beheaded in Algeria in 1996

Other parts of the Middle East facing change and uncertainty include Algeria, where the major figures of Christian history include Saint Augustine, who was Bishop of Hippo, present-day Annaba. It is said Christianity is the fastest growing religion in Algeria, although the percentage of Christians in Algeria is less than 2% – about 45,000 Roman Catholics and 50,000 to 100,000 Protestants.

Algeria’s Christians have suffered violent religiously-motivated attacks in recent years. In 1996, Bishop Pierre Claverie of Oran was murdered shortly after the murder of seven Trappist monks and six nuns.

In Bahrain, Christians are about 9% of the population. Expatriate Christians, who account for most of these, include Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants. About 1,000 Bahraini citizens are Christians. The majority of these are recent immigrants or members of families that came from other parts of the Middle East or from India two or three generations ago. The majority of these Bahraini Christians are Greek Orthodox or members of other Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Members of the Friday Club at Saint Christopher’s Anglican Cathedral, Bahrain, performing ‘A Story of the Passion’ during Holy Week last year

There has been an Anglican presence in Bahrain since 1896, and the principal Anglican church is Saint Christopher’s Cathedral in the heart of central Manama.

In Yemen, there are 4,000 Roman Catholics, as well as members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. In Aden there are three Roman Catholic churches and an Anglican church.

An uncertain future

A church in a provincial town in the Nile Valley in Egypt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Across North Africa and the Middle East, the state of the region’s Christians varies from country to country, and from plight to comfort. In Iraq, Christians are threatened severely by a rise in militant Islamism. Late last year, suicide bombers linked to al-Qaeda attacked a Chaldean church in Baghdad, claiming they wanted “to light the fuse of a campaign against Iraqi Christians.”

The massacre was the most spectacular incident in the spiralling violence against the native Christian communities of Iraq. Leading Christians have been attacked and murdered in Iraq in recent years, including Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho. It is an irony that Iraq’s Christians – who are in the middle of a massive exodus that is unprecedented – were better off under Saddam Hussein than since his downfall.

There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, although a million Roman Catholics and countless other Christians live there. The Saudis allow Christians to enter for work but severely restricts their religious practises.

A mosque in a provincial town in the Nile Valley in Egypt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Arab world is only small part of the Islamic world, and the Middle East is not exclusively Arab or Islamic. There is a large Christian presence in Lebanon, while Turkey and Iran are Islamic societies but are not Arab; both are geographically on the margins of the Middle East, yet are key players in shaping the future of that region.

Central Cairo … it is too early to assess the long-term implications of the protests and changes, or to know whether the unity between Christians and Muslims can find lasting roots in Egyptian society (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is too early to assess the long-term implications of the protests and changes, and it remains to be seen whether the unity between Christians and Muslims forged in the recent struggle will strike deep and lasting roots in Egyptian society. “I am aware that this is the honeymoon period and that Egypt has some tough and important decisions ahead,” Charlotte Kirton, a USPG volunteer in Cairo, told The Church Times. “We do need to be praying.”

But Dr Maha Abdelrahman of Cambridge is confident that the potential for change is real: “The united front which the pro-democracy protesters have used shows that Egyptians, once united, can see through and subvert the regime’s manipulation.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the April editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory)