Assiut, Egypt                                                                                                                            19.03.2015

Egypt, following the murder of the Coptic Christians. A mixture of sadness and optimism among the Christians on the Nile

By Oliver Maksan

In mid-February, when news emerged of the murder of the 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians from Egypt by the terrorists of the Islamic State in Libya, the whole of Egypt was shocked. The image of the Christians, in orange suits, kneeling before their black-hooded executioners, the blood from the bestial beheadings, which later mingled with the waves of the Mediterranean – all this has left a deep imprint on the collective memory of this country on the Nile. The Coptic Orthodox Church has already recognised these 21 murdered Christians as martyrs and included them in the calendar of the Saints. Do Catholics also regard them as martyrs? “Yes, undoubtedly”, says Bishop Kyrillos William Samaan. He is the Coptic Catholic Bishop of Assiut in Upper Egypt. “Pope Francis himself said that, after their murder. He recognised them as martyrs. They were killed because they were Christians. Their killers were hunting for Christians in order to abduct them. The victims were full of faith right up to the end. They remained faithful to Jesus. Their last words were words like: Lord Jesus, have mercy! And so they are true martyrs – for us Catholics as well.”

Immediately after the atrocity there was a mixture of sadness and anger, Bishop Kirillos recalls. “But the decisive reaction by our president and the air attacks on IS positions in Libya brought a measure of reassurance for the people. We Christians were particularly moved by the president‘s visit to the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros to express his condolences.”

In fact there were many beautiful gestures of solidarity, the bishop goes on to explain. “The governor of the province from which most of the martyrs originated authorised the construction of a large church in their memory, at the state‘s expense. Additionally, their home village was renamed in their honour and is now called the Village of the Martyrs. The Prime Minister himself visited the town, and the grieving families were promised a sum of money. This has comforted people. Egypt is on the path of renewal.” According to the bishop, many Christians have reported how Muslims have expressed sympathy towards them over the murders. Yet there have also been some hateful reactions. One Salafi Sheikh actually expressed his approval of the murders, while in some Egyptian newspapers there are comments to the effect that the Islamic State had acted rightly in slaughtering the “Christian sheep”.

But such comments are not representative, Bishop Kirillos believes. “I would say that the murders have brought Muslims and Christians closer together. The prevailing sentiment is that Egyptians have been attacked. That is important. It shows that we are all Egyptians, regardless of our religion.” This was also the note struck by Egyptian President Sisi when he made his surprise visit to the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo to mark the Orthodox feast of Christmas. “Many people had hoped for this, but no one had seriously expected that the Egyptian head of state would actually visit the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo at Christmas time. President Sisi did this. He spoke from the heart, and his message was: We are all of us Egyptians, both Christians and Muslims. Period. He strongly emphasised the idea of our common nationality. The people were delighted. His visit was a powerful symbol. You have to understand the background against which it took place. For in fact there are many radical Muslims who say that Muslims should not congratulate Christians on their feasts; that this is un-Islamic. The Christmas visit by the president was the answer to these ideas. I would say that this is a turning point in the history of the Christians in Egypt.“ And yet, just a short time ago it did not look that way, the bishop reflects. “During the presidency of Mursi, the radicals thought they had a green light to go after us Christians. Many Christians felt like strangers in their own country. The radicals were saying that we should leave. We all had Western visas, they claimed, and should therefore emigrate to Australia or Canada.“ The climax of these anti-Christian outrages came in August 2013. In bishop Kirillos’ own diocese too Muslim extremists set fire to Christian churches and Christian businesses. The Muslim Brotherhood were trying to revenge themselves on the Christians, on whom they tried to put the blame for the dismissal of President Mohammed Mursi, one of their own who came from ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Today there is a feeling that this threat has lifted. We are now looking forward positively to the future, with President Sisi.” Nor is Bishop Kirillos too concerned about the possibility of the Islamists gaining new strength with the coming parliamentary elections. “I believe that Egyptians saw very well during the dominance of the Muslim Brothers what way and in what direction they were taking the country. The Muslim Brothers put their own interests above those of our country. Many Muslims also see it that way, people who previously voted for the Muslim Brothers. The Egyptians don‘t want that to happen again. People know who they want to elect and who they don’t.”

This is also the view of Yusef, a young Catholic student from Sohag, one of the cities of Upper Egypt. “With President Sisi things are going in the right direction. We have confidence in him. He has called on Islam to reform itself. That is a good sign. But of course one man alone cannot change the mentality of an entire country overnight. So I‘m not jumping to any conclusions. We must be patient.”

Oliver Maksan,