17 August 2013

This far, no farther

The attacks on the Coptic community in Egypt in these past couple of days have been truly heinous and hideous. Dozens of their ancient churches have been burnt – at least forty and perhaps as many as sixty-four in a single day. Copts have been beaten and shot, their homes ransacked and their businesses vandalised by armed pro-Morsy protesters, largely due to the fact that the members of the ancient Christian faith have been targeted as supporters of the recent military coup by radicalised media. A military coup which, at least until very recently, has stood idly by while all this has happened.

The Copts, it must be remembered, are the true cultural heirs of the great and ancient Egyptian civilisation. The very language that is found spoken and written in their churches is descended not from the languages of their Ptolemaic Greek or Arabic conquerors, but directly from the ancient Egyptian language and hieroglyphic script. They were converted to the faith by Saint Mark the Evangelist himself. They introduced the first examples of organised monastic life to Christendom, and thus gave us one of the truly well-defined traditional expressions of the socialistic pooling of property mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. They produced Saint Athanasius, the most outspoken proponent of orthodox Trinitarianism. They also produced the great scholar Origen, who promoted the doctrine of apokatastasis.

The Coptic community was heavily involved in the promotion of humane alternatives and resistance to colonialism. They helped to organise the ill-fated Wafd Party, which opposed British colonial rule, pledged loyalty to the Egyptian King, advocated for nationalisation of Egypt’s industries, and attempted (sadly without success) to secure improved labour rights and more effective, pro-worker mediation for labour disputes in Egypt. The Farous family – in particular Akhnoukh and his daughter Ester – were prominent public figures, anti-colonial activists and labour organisers. Though the Copts did suffer significantly under Nasser, the community was nevertheless connected intimately with the Arab nationalist and Arab socialist movements through the involvement of Coptic clergy and civic figures in supporting the foundation of the Université Saint-Joseph (a Jesuit institution) and of the American University in Beirut (a Protestant missionary school), both of which were nucleating centres of thought and student activism that would give rise to the Arab nationalist movement.

And of course, more recently, the UN General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali was a member of the Coptic community who famously opposed NATO’s one-sided ‘humanitarian’ adventurism in Yugoslavia, leading the Clinton Administration to agitate for his removal in ‘Operation Orient Express’. The late great Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Coptic Church, along with being a stout and vocal opponent of radical Islam and its tactics, was also an adamant advocate of Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian rights.

At the same time, though, the Copts have faced persecution (real persecution, as opposed to the mere inconvenience wrongly identified as such by Christians in the West) both from ostensibly secularist regimes and from Salafi extremists operating within organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. These attacks on churches, schools and businesses, meant to inspire terror amongst the ancient Christian community, now currently making the rounds in world news are but the latest such instance of persecution. Yet this flame passed down from the ancient Egyptians and from the apostolic community founded by St Mark must not go out. Too many of the early Levantine churches have fallen prey already to American naivety and interventionist military blundering, coupled with the inevitable Muslim fundamentalist backlash: Armenia, the Nestorian Church of the East, Assyria, Antioch. We apostolic Christians have made far, far too many retreats already. They invade our native lands, and we fall back. They wipe out entire cultures, and we fall back.

Not again. The line must be drawn here: this far, no farther!


  1. Just a question: what is your stance on the Arab uprisings?

  2. This may be a bit disappointing after that bit of scenery-chewing I did here, but my attitude on the Arab uprisings of 2011 is a big fat whopping 'it depends'.

    The case is very valid why Ben Ali and Mubarak needed to go; neither of them did much at all to serve the common good of the countries they ruled with iron fists. Many other leaders and strongmen in the region, much less so. Unfortunately, it is very seldom the case that what these strongmen are being replaced with is any substantive improvement on them. To be honest, I prefer the independent secularism of a Nasser or a Qadhafi or an Assad to the rule of Salafists.

  3. It could be that what might be needed in the Middle East-North Africa is a "democratised" version of Nasser's and the Baath's ideology. And thank you for your reply.