Freedom of religion seems a lost hope for many in Egypt: A mother and her children have been sentenced to jail for converting to Christianity; Muslims continue to destroy Coptic property; and Coptic Christians flee their homeland.
KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - As Islamists secure power in Egypt, freedom of religion seems a lost hope for many. Christians are being jailed, their property destroyed, and Coptic Christians are fleeing their homeland.
According to a report published on Egypt For Christ, last week a widowed mother, Nadia Mohamed Ali, and her seven children were sentenced to 15 years in prison by an Egyptian court in the city of Beni Suef, located about 75 miles south of Cairo. The reason for the sentence was because Nadia and her children converted to Christianity.
Nadia was born into a Christian family, but when she married her Muslim husband 23 years ago, the law required that she convert to Islam. After he died, she converted back to Christianity with her children. This was not unusual when former President Mubarak was in power.
It is believed that this harsh sentence reflects a new mood in Egypt as a result of the constitution Morsi finalized in late December. Under the new constitution, sharia law has been given much greater weight. Consequently, the Coptic community is fearful that this is a sign of a new wave of persecution. They may be right.
Based on a report published by the Assyrian International News Agency, in the Fayoum province about 80 miles south west of Cairo, Islamists destroyed the social services building belonging to the Coptic Church. The Church had all the required permits, as well as agreements with the village mayor and elders.
But Muslims accused the Copts of building a church, and mosques throughout the area called for their members to destroy it. Hundreds of Muslims carrying hammers and pipes answered the call. They destroyed the social services building to shouts of "god is great." The authorities did not arrive until after the building was destroyed, and no one has been arrested. Now, local Copts are fearful to go out of their homes.
President Mohammed Morsi promised to respect Christians' rights, and referred to Egypt as "one homeland for all." But that has not been the reality for the Coptic Christian community living in Egypt.
Father Mena Adel says that the mood has changed in Egypt since the Muslim Brotherhood won so many seats in the parliamentary and presidential elections, and many Copts are afraid. Father Mena serves at Saints Church in Alexandria, which was bombed in 2010 as people were filing out of church after the New Year's Eve Mass. Twenty-three people died that night and about 80 people were wounded.
Tens of thousands of Copts have fled Egypt as Islamists began to flex their muscles after former president Mubarak was forced to step down in February of 2011. Many have gone to countries like Canada and Australia. Based on some estimates, approximately 40,000 have come to the United States. It would be a tragic affair if this turned into a full fledged exodus.
Sami, a Coptic Christian who drives a cab in Cairo, said, "We've been here forever. We're true Egyptians. We belong here." Sami is right, and history bears him out. By the time Muslims invaded Egypt in the seventh century, most Egyptians were Christians. Tradition has it that the apostle Saint Mark formed a church in Alexandria, Egypt shortly after the ascension of Jesus. It is said that Christianity spread from Alexandria throughout Egypt within half a century. After the Muslim invasion, all native Egyptians were called Copts.
Based on their Egyptian heritage, the modern-day Christian Copts are a living link to a past that stretches back to approximately 3100 B.C. and the pharaohs. They are also one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, a community which has always existed at the geographic center of our faith. Today, they make up about 10 percent of the population in modern Egypt, and they are the largest religious minority in the Middle East. Thus, the presence of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt is important for all of us.
For this reason and humanitarian reasons, many people have called upon the secular nations of the West to help the Copts, but this help has not materialized. Even the United States, with its close involvement and billion dollar payments to Egypt, has not provided help. But this is not surprising.
You may recall that European leaders refused to recognize their Christian heritage in the failed constitution intended to establish the European Union and in the Treaty of Lisbon which was ratified in 2009 in lieu of a constitution. In the United States, open persecution against Christians has begun. Under President Obama's leadership, his party has attempted to remove mention of God from its official platform; efforts have been made to narrowly define the meaning of religious freedom as mere worship; and the secular state has been firmly pitted against the Catholic Church.
In addition, President Obama and his administration have not only shown support for the Muslim Brotherhood, it appears they also undermined relations between Egypt's Islamists and the Copts when they falsely blamed the attacks on our embassies in Egypt and Libya on a video about the prophet Muhammad made by a Copt living in the United States.
As Christians are distanced in Western countries, persecuted and murdered in Muslim countries, we Christians are being forced to move beyond our narrow identities of East or West, Catholic or Protestant, American or Egyptian. We need to start seeing ourselves as a family, a broken family to be sure, but a family nonetheless. And not just any family: We are members of the Body of Christ, and we are truly universal.
We can see evidence of our universality if we look at a list of Catholic saints. They are from all over the world. We can even see this when we look at the most elite list of saints, the Doctor's of the Church. There are only 33 at present. Some of them are from the Middle East and North Africa, and lived there long before Muslims conquered these lands.
Hearing about a Christian widow and her seven children being put in jail, Church property being destroyed by Muslim mobs, and our Coptic brethren fleeing their homeland out of fear of greater persecution, should inspire the desire for unity in all Christians. If we do not take care of each other, who will?
Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. However, he knows that God's grace operating throughout his life is the main reason he is a Catholic. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.
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