13 March 2011
On 27 February Coptic Christians from all over Southern California came to attend a conference entitled “21st Century Coptic Martyrs and Building New Egypt Together.” This conference was prompted by the horrific events of the Alexandria New Year’s bombings and thus led the Coptic Diocese of Los Angeles to organize a commemoration of our 21st century martyrs. However, the great revolution of January 25 came about and changed Egypt and subsequently modified the tone and title of the event. Several speakers were invited to participate: the Los Angeles County Supervisor, Los Angeles County Sheriff, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, Executive Director of Christian Churches Together, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of LA, and plenary speaker, His Grace Bishop Serapion, Bishop of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii. The auditorium at the Los Angeles Convention Center was filled with more than two thousand Copts and supporters from the Los Angeles community.
A sentiment shared throughout the evening was the fact that the Coptic Church is one of martyrs. Bishop Serapion opened his plenary talk by reminding us of the martyrdom of the founder of Coptic Orthodoxy, St. Mark, which was followed by subsequent persecution eras. He also reminded us that persecution and violence is not foreign to early mankind. As when God told Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” Similarly, the blood of our Coptic brothers and sisters calls up to Heaven and is thus “not cheap,” but has eternal value.
In addition to the martyrs of violence against Christians, Bishop Serapion included the Tahrir square martyrs in the remembrance to highlight the importance of their sacrifice. It is important to note that while they lost their lives in their struggle for freedom and truth and not in the name of Christ, they were remembered and honoured.
+Celebration of a new era for Egypt+
The conference could not be complete without celebrating this new era for Egypt. In the days between 25 January and 11 February the world witnessed the unity of Christians and Muslims in Tahrir Square as they protested in unity the aggression of the regime, its corruption, and its complicity in many of the violence acts against Christians that has ripped through the country. It is now no secret that the injustice and corruption of the Mubarak regime led to its stoking of sectarianism to keep the public attention away from its corruption and lack of public service to its citizens.
During the event, invited speakers agreed that it was refreshing that the voice of the young people of Egypt, who are normally dismissed, were finally being heard, and heard loudly. Discussion ensued on the unique feature of this Egyptian revolution that it started and managed to continue peacefully. Pictures of Copts acting as human shields during Muslim prayers, and likewise with Muslims protecting Copts stood in stark contrast to the sectarianism that has plagued Egypt since the 1970’s. It is this spirit on which the revolution was founded that the Copts are hoping will continue through a secular democracy.
With this hope and dream for a new and better democratic Egypt, there comes a thread of concern. The disproportionate attack by the army on a monastery’s wall because of claims that it was not approved by the authorities, and the brutal killing of an elder priest in his home, creates a sense of anxiety among Copts. We worry whether this change will bring about true freedom and a secular government that does not prejudice between its citizens based on religious affiliation.
This concern was also echoed with the take home message of the Catholic Archdiocese, “this is a time of both struggle and opportunity.” And by Susanna Khalil, a representative of the young professional Copts of LA, “issues of religious conversion, job discrimination, church construction – so long as they remain swept under the rug, will continue to fuel deep tensions among Egyptians. Exposing such injustices also allows moderate Muslims in Egypt, those who stood shoulder to shoulder with Christians championing unity, to validate their solidarity with the Christians by giving them the opportunity to come to the defence of Christians.”
While many Copts in the land of immigration have been used to taking a passive approach to sectarian issues, Bishop Serapion stated that we, Copts, have a responsibility and a role to play during this time of change. He did not shy away from calling us to be more involved politically. Our demands as Copts are the formation of a new civil and democratic society that is founded on “the rock of freedom, justice, and equality, and not on the sand of prejudice, corruption, and discrimination.” To achieve this new society, we all have a duty and a role as Copts. His Grace’s recommendation for taking action is summarised in the following five points:
1. Our theological convictions do not allow for the use of violence to achieve change, but rather through peaceful resistance. We honour and respect the revolution of January 25 because of nonviolence that was successfully upheld by both Christians and Muslims alike.
2. We ought to stand up for our rights and oppose injustice, which is part of our Christian teaching.
3. We ought not to walk this alone; we need to ally with Muslims who share the same vision for the future of Egypt.
4. We need to stay the course and be steadfast in our struggle till we achieve our goal of a society based on freedom, justice, and equality.
5. The cost may be high, but it is well worth it.
I came to the event expecting a sorrowful remembrance of our 21st century martyrs, yet we left feeling a surge of hope for a better Egypt. This event was a refreshing change that paralleled the spirit of the 25 January revolution with a stern call to action by our beloved bishop to not stand still nor be indifferent. This is a time of change for Egypt. However, the question remains: will this revolution lead Egypt to a new era of freedom, equality, justice for all citizens, or will it lead to an Islamic Theocracy, where the status of Copts will be that of dhimmitude?
An archive of the event can be accessed on LogosTV website: www.logoschannel.com/en/ then by clicking on Video On Demand, and then the titles under Bishop Serapion.
Dr. Sam Wanis is an aerospace engineer and serves on the Council for Coptic Studies at the Claremont Graduate University School of Religion. He is also enrolled in Coptic Studies at Macquarie University in Australia and serves at St. Mercurius and St. Abraam Coptic Orthodox Church in Torrance, California.