A few weeks into 2014 has yet the Year 2013 very much alive in our minds. Egyptians are unanimous in seeing it as an eventful year, a year that brought in so many changes, some of them bordering on the miraculous. Precisely for that, Egyptians tend to see 2013 as a year of answered prayers and wondrous events.
A gift from God
The year 2013 began with a change which was in itself an answer to the fervent prayers of the Coptic congregation. The Coptic Orthodox Church began the year with a new Pope in office; Anba Tawadros II was enthroned on 18 November 2012 as Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark.
In March 2012, with Egypt in the throes of a revolution which promised to bring in an Islamist rule, the Coptic Church lost its patriarch for 40 years Pope Shenouda III. Pope Shenouda was a charismatic, wise man, deeply loved and revered by all Egyptians, Copts and Muslims alike. Copts looked up to the 85-year-old patriarch as the one-in-a-million person able to lead them through these chaotic times and whatever peril-laden days were to come. Losing him at that time was a hard blow that left the congregation feeling orphaned and terribly insecure. Who could ever fill his shoes and guide the Lord’s flock? That appeared to need nothing short of a divine miracle.
Enter Anba Pachomeus, Bishop of Beheira. As acting patriarch he knew full well, in the time honoured wisdom of the fathers of the Church, that miracles occur through prayer alone. The election of a new pope began and, during the three crucial steps it involved, Anba Pachomeus called for three-day intervals of fasts and prayers for the Lord to choose a good shepherd for His flock. The first two steps: the short-listing of the candidates and the election of the three finalists went down as exemplary peaceful, well-organised operations.
It was in the last step, however, that the power of prayer was displayed in its fullest glory. Holy Mass was held at St Mark’s cathedral and right after it the altar draw in which the name of the new pope would be picked up from a sealed chalice by a blindfolded little boy. As the wondrous moment drew nigh, Anba Pachomeus stood up and, in his powerful moving voice asked every person to utter a final prayer from the heart for the Lord to choose. Copts everywhere earnestly prayed. At home, my husband and I fell to our knees in tearful, earnest prayer. The little boy Bishoi stretched out his hand and drew the name; it was that of Anba Tawadros. The voice of Anba Pachomeus rang out in joy: “Blessed, blessed, blessed.”
The prayers were answered, and the new Pope has more than lived up to his name: Tawadros, literally Theodore, Gift of God. Through deep love and understanding, the capable leader has led the Egyptian Church during the turbulent times in 2013…and beyond.
If Pope Tawadros was the answer to the prayers of the Coptic congregation, the 30 June Revolution and the subsequent overthrow of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime was the answer to the prayers of Egypt in her entirety.
The revolution on 25 January 2011 had brought with it a freedom that allowed the MB to operate legally, in the light. The group had until then been legally banned on grounds that the political system did not allow for religious-based parties. But once they got out in 2011 they founded their political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, and campaigned deviously and strongly to attain the highest power in the State. They succeeded in persuading the strongly pious Egyptians that the MB, as men of Allah, would offer them a prosperous living in a manner that fulfilled all Allah’s teachings and thus secured an afterlife in Paradise. The formula was too attractive to forego; Egyptians voted them into Parliament in January 2012 with a sweeping Islamist majority of some 76 per cent.
Directly, it became obvious the Islamists were not as good as their word—in fact they managed to go back on every single promise they made. Economic woes compounded the political quagmire and when it was time for the presidential elections in May/June 2012 the MB candidate Muhammad Mursi barely squeezed through in a marginal win shrouded in MB threats and as yet still contested in court.
With Mursi in office, the Islamists’ intentions and policies became crystal clear. The priority was not Egypt or the Egyptian people; Egypt was suppressed and exploited as a jumping stone that would catapult the pan-world Islamist project of reviving the caliphate. Egyptians saw that and didn’t like it and started to oppose the Islamist policies. On the frontline of the opposition was the judiciary to which the people took their cases and who upheld the Egyptians’ legitimate, legal rights which the MB regime was attempting to usurp. November 2012 saw Mursi issue his notorious ‘constitutional declaration’ through which he granted himself sweeping powers and immunised his decisions against being contested in court.
That date on, it was a downslide in Egypt from bad to worse. The ugly face of the Islamists was exposed and Egyptian blood was freely shed on the streets. The pain of Egypt became almost impossible to bear. Yet the MB had entrenched power so strongly that Egyptians realised they needed nothing short of a miracle to throw it off. Even the seasoned, veteran political analyst Muhammad Hassanein Heikal more than once said that much; that the only outlet to the deadlock on the Egyptian scene was a “miracle”.
As Mursi and his regime charged full speed ahead with their Islamist agenda and turned deaf ears to all opposition and demands to leave, Egyptians fell back on their pious roots and prayed. Muslims and Christians prayed. As hard as they could. A [Muslim] taxi driver I met told me he and his wife and children prayed every day for deliverance from the MB.
In March 2013, the grassroots Tamarud (Rebel) movement was born. The movement went about gathering signatures from Egyptians who wished Mursi to leave. The target was to gather some 13 million signatures—the number of votes which allegedly brought Mursi to office—and remove him from office on 30 June 2013, the same date he was sworn in a year earlier.
Come 30 June, Tamarud had gathered some 22 million signatures and more than 30 million Egyptians took to the streets. Every single person I know went down. My husband and I, whose sole political activity had so far been at the ballot box, went down. I was struck by the peacefulness and earnestness of the protestors. There was not one incident of harassment, an atrocious crime too common in previous protests. Everyone joined in singing Ya Habibti ya Masr (Egypt, my beloved) and Baarik Biladi (Bless my country). And there appeared to be no end to the multitudes. It came as no surprise at all for me to know their numbers exceeded 30 million.
On 3 July, the MB President Mursi who had refused to listen to the voice of the people and had instead wielded vicious threats was ousted. A new liberal regime took the reins. The ‘miracle’ Heikal had talked about and all Egypt prayed for came to pass.
In Syria: Military intervention averted
The third instance of answered prayers in 2013 may have not concerned Egypt in the first place, but many Egyptians took part in it. In September, following allegations that an attack by nerve gas against Syrian civilians near Damascus was carried out by the Assad regime, the US and other NATO allies rallied for a military strike against Syria. As the truth about who had carried out the nerve gas attack eluded many in the world, the US escalated threats and measures to strike Syria, a move that would have hurt Syrians at large and caused irreparable damage.
Pope Francis declared Saturday 7 September a global day of fasting and prayer for peace and no armed intervention in Syria. In St Peter’s Square, the Pope lamented: “How many conflicts, how many wars have mocked our history? Even today we raise our hands against our brother…We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. We continue to sow destruction, pain, death.”
Millions around the world fasted and prayed for Syria that day.
On Monday 9 September, Russia’s Vladimir Putin made his proposal that Syria should surrender its chemical weapons completely to the international community. The proposal was accepted by Syria and the US, and a military attack against the country was effectively averted. Many in the world might attribute it to deft timing and diplomacy by the seasoned Putin, but no faithful who prayed so hard with Pope Francis and individuals all over the world believe it had nothing to do with their prayers.
26 January 2014