“How on Earth do you forgive like this?”

Archbishop Mouneer Anis reflects on the persecution of Christians in Egypt

Anglican Archbishop Mouneer Anis was an Egyptian citizen like any other until soon after the Muslim Brotherhood took power in his home country of Egypt. A trained physician, Anis oversees a growing province of the Anglican Communion with hospitals, schools and numerous community centers serving Muslims and Christians alike. But for two years, his status as a Christian began to be viewed differently than others in the majority-Muslim nation.

“I never felt like I was a second-class citizen except between 2011 and 2013,” the President Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and The Middle East recalled. Relief from encroaching political oppression came in July of 2013 “when the people removed this Islamization of Egypt,” Anis, who also serves as diocesan bishop for Egypt, described. But it was the beginning of a different kind of difficulty as 60 churches were burned by angered supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood following the removal of President Mohammed Morsi from power. While one Anglican church building in Suez was damaged, many Coptic Egyptian church buildings were completely destroyed in attacks on the country’s sizeable but vulnerable Christian minority.

Anis spoke May 8 at an Anglican Relief and Development Fund (ARDF) dinner at the Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, Virginia, discussing both the plight of Christians in the Middle East and newfound opportunities for ministry in a tumultuous region.

Attacks on churches have continued, with twin suicide bombings at St. George’s Church in the city of Tanta on the Nile delta, and Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, seat of Coptic Pope Tawadros II. At least 45 people were reported killed and 126 injured in the Palm Sunday attacks, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Islamic State also claimed responsibility for a December 2016 bombing at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Cairo, which killed 29 people and injured 47 others.

“They were Coptic Orthodox, but we are one Christian family,” the Anglican Archbishop declared. “One of the amazing things that happened is the forgiveness within the church – forgiveness towards the people who exploded themselves – was a great witness.”

Anis recalled one witness pondering aloud “from what substance are these Christians made? How on Earth do you forgive like this?”

“It was moving to many people,” Anis reported. During the funeral for Christians who died in the Palm Sunday attacks, the Coptic bishop who led the service prayed for the assailants.

“This was in all the newspapers, that the bishop prayed for the terrorists, that is amazing,” Anis noted, contrasting with a presumed response of revenge.

While the government has implemented “very strict security” for churches in the days following the attacks, Anis expressed concern for neighbors also affected by the threat of violence.

Twin challenges of rising food prices and a drop in the value of the Egyptian pound have exacerbated difficulties for the population of 91 million Egyptians, with Anis reporting that 16.7 million Egyptian children live in poverty. Additionally, nearly half a million refugees from the Syrian Civil War are living in Egypt.

Anis, who serves as a Global Trustee for ARDF, explained that the organization’s mission has led his own Diocese of Egypt and North Africa to fund projects at Anglican churches in Tanzania, Rwanda and Sudan.

“ARDF is very inspiring to us in Egypt, because God has blessed us so much in Egypt that we have decided to start a Diocese of Egypt Relief and Development Fund,” Anis announced. “We have to give as well.”

Within Egypt, ARDF has supported refugees from Sudan, as well as a development project in the Province of Sudan itself.

“We’re not putting Band-Aids on situations: we’re focusing on projects that have the possibility of being self-sufficient,” explained Anglican Church in North America Archbishop Foley Beach, who serves as Global President and Chairman of ARDF.

“The cathedral alone in Cairo has cared for 35,000 refugees,” Anis reported. “We started a school for these refugees since they are not accepted into [enrollment in] the Egyptian schools.”

Projects to teach literacy, micro-lending and assistance to those detained in prison for overstaying visas have been done in partnership with Egyptian Muslims. But the cooperation has not led to compromising the Christian faith, according to Anis, who reported that his diocese has recently begun seven different church plants, an unexpectedly large number in such a short span of time and relative difficulty.

The Egyptian Archbishop explained how Christians realized during the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule that “we have to engage more with the Muslims.” This led to encouraging Muslim and Christian clerics to meet and work towards community development together.

Dialogue limited to the religious leaders’ level is insufficient, Anis explained.

“We have to bring it down” to projects among school children, such as at cultural centers in Cairo and Alexandria to work past misconceptions of one another.

“This is so encouraging to me personally,” Anis shared, describing Muslim women and girls who come to the church to ask questions and interact as part of the projects. “It is something we are keen to do, to engage.”

“If Jesus came to Cairo, he probably wouldn’t sit in the bishop’s chair at the Cathedral – he’d likely be talking with Muslims,” Anis proposed. “People are hungry to hear the word of God.”

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Juicy Ecumenism

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