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Theme plenary presentation by Dr Wedad Abbas Tawfik

A contextual reflection from the perspective of a church in the Middle East, by Dr Wedad Abbas Tawfik , presented at the WCC 10th Assembly during the theme plenary. God of Life, lead us to Justice and Peace

31 October 2013

Introduction

“God of life, Lead us to justice and peace”. These nine words of our Assembly theme have become the prayer of Christians around the world. For Christians in the Middle East region—and we think especially of our sisters and brothers in Syria at this time—it has become a cry from the heart. From the turmoil and pain of my own country, allow me to share with you how the Christians in Egypt continue to bear witness to the justice and peace of the God of life, in our current situation.

Historical background the Coptic Church

The presence of Christians in Egypt is as old as Christianity itself.  We give thanks for the blessing of the visit of the Holy Family to Egypt. With this blessing Christianity in Egypt was established in the first century when St. Mark founded the Church of Alexandria. Yet, this blessing did not prevent this deep rooted church from becoming a suffering church since its start, when her founder St. Mark was martyred and the streets of Alexandria were sanctified by his holy blood.

The early centuries witnessed thousands of Egyptian Christians suffering martyrdom. Suffering continued with the church for centuries, but the Church never stopped witnessing to the Lord. In every age there are witnesses, active servants of the church, faithful believers and honest leaders.  Indeed, the church is built on the blood of her saints, who believed unto death that, the Resurrection of Christ, turned the cross, the instrument of violence and hatred, into a sign of hope, love, justice and peace to those who hold to Him and follow His way and do His will.

Nevertheless we do remember that peace is not merely something that we do and can accomplish by our own power: it is a gift and a grace from God. Yet our role is essential, to have the intent, the vision and the ethics to be peacemakers in time of tribulations.

The present turmoil in Egypt

Unfortunately Egypt again lives a new age of tribulations. Many Egyptians have seen their beloved ones killed, injured, arrested, or tortured. Copts were no exception during those difficult moments. Copts in Egypt witness to their Lord again by their suffering: seeing their churches bombed or set on fire, their properties robbed or destroyed, their houses burnt and their relatives killed.

The “Arab Spring” which began in December 2010 raised high expectations across the region, but it actually did not lead to justice and peace. It rather has generated violence and instability. The turmoil for Egyptian Christians began at dawn of the New Year 2011, when Egypt woke up to the atrocious bombing of Al Qedissin Church in Alexandria.

Through the deaths of many Christians on that day, and through this strife and suffering, Egyptians were united, Muslims and Christians sharing the mourning together and waking up to a stronger relation, where Muslims stood guarding the churches in Christmas of that year and protecting the Christians praying inside against any probable attacks.

The suffering that the Church went through was only part of a whole picture, for the whole country was suffering. Therefore, shortly after, on 25 January 2011, both Muslim and Christian Egyptians rushed into the streets demanding their rights of dignified life, freedom, and social justice. For several days violence has shown its ugly face against the peaceful protesters, leaving behind hundreds of Egyptians dead and thousands injured. Yet the strife turned to victory, and the oppressive regime was ousted, leaving behind an elated, victorious, and hopeful Egypt.

Yet, darkness gained standing again and continued for two years. So, on 30 June 2013 the people said their word … The Egyptians spilled once more into the streets, only this time more unified, more determined, and more hopeful. Thirty three million Egyptians came out to the streets rising against an oppressive regime for the second time.

The successful revolution of the Egyptians for the second time seemed to be a miraculous work of God which united the Egyptians on one noble goal! Yet, Christians were aware that it would not be that easy, and remembered the words from the Epistle of St Peter, that “our adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5: 8). Worry and fear of the future colored the celebrations. And the circle of suffering started yet again.

One of our priests in Areesh City was brutally killed in the streets of North Sinai. Christians were killed in various governorates.  Eighty two churches and monasteries were totally or partially burnt, service buildings, orphanages, schools, houses, shops, pharmacies, buses and cars owned by churches or by Christians were destroyed. Nuns were pulled outside a school in Beni Suef and paraded in the streets until saved by the Muslims of the neighborhood.

Sadly, many of these terrorist attacks were perpetrated in the name of Islam. They clearly violate Islamic values and principles, which promote justice and peace for all, as is the case with all other religions.

The Response of the Church

All through this suffering, the Church did not forget her role, trusting in the Lord's promise that even the gates of Hades will not prevail against His church, and sure that He knows our troubles and sees our patience. His power is made perfect in our weakness through His Holy Spirit who works powerfully within us and through us for fulfilling His good will for all. With this faith the church exerts all efforts towards fulfilling her mission of justice and peace.

Witnessing to the God of Life amidst suffering is a real challenge, but the Church of Egypt has proven herself a true witness to the Lord in all circumstances, praying fervently: "God of life, lead us to justice and peace!" With this prayer the church in Egypt confronts all tribulations and injustices and works for the peace of the whole country. Her weapons in this battle are truth, faith, justice and peace, prayer and love, the armour of God by which she is able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one (Eph 6: 13- 18).

Our Patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, who follows on the steps of late holy Patriarch Pope Shenouda III in his efforts for unity and for maintaining good relationships with our Muslim fellow citizens by encouraging dialogues against sectarianism, called on the Christians to bear the insults and attacks and refrain from acts that could trigger further violence. He says that setting our churches on fire does not destroy us, for it is a sacrifice we offer to our nation. Our concern is the people. The churches can be restored or rebuilt, but people cannot be restored. "We believe that divine assistance will help our nation through these difficult moments so that we may attain a better future filled with justice and peace." H.H. says.

As true witnesses to the Lord, the churches in Egypt stood one hand and one mind strengthening each other, facing injustice, violence, and terrorism, and working for the peace of the church and the society.

For this goal they together established last year the "Egypt Council of Churches" through which the churches work and decide collaboratively, think and take action together in a spirit of love and unity.

In these difficult moments the solidarity of the WCC and the fervent prayers of the fellowship of churches comforted and strengthened us to continue our journey towards justice and peace.

We teach our people that the solution is not to flee from tribulations by immigration for example or by isolating ourselves. Isolationism is not an option for the faithful to adopt. Positive confrontation is the right way, following the Lord's example and teachings.

Conclusion: A cry from the heart

Our prayer to the God of life is for a transformed society in which human dignity is respected, and freedom, equality, social justice, and dignity of the vulnerable are protected. Our hope is producing a strong constitution that ensures all this. Our hope is a better world. Words said are good, but what avails is action and intent to make a change. It is to all of us to make a difference. It is a continuing task.

We trust that prayer can move mountains, and Coptic Christians remember the Miracle of Moving Al Moqattam Mountain by the prayers of St. Simon the Shoemaker in the year 979, in the days of the Coptic Pope Abraham the Syrian. We trust that our prayers too are carried by the holy angels before God's throne and He responds in His own way at the time He deems suitable, which we may not recognize at the moment, but which certainly works out for our benefit. This gives us hope, comfort, patience and courage.

To Christians around the world, we say “pray for us.” With Christians around the world we pray: “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.”