‘We thought you hated us’

Across Egypt, Christians met violence with mercy

Cairo – By September 2013, sympathizers to Mohammed Morsi’s ousted Muslim Brotherhood government had decided if they couldn’t control Egypt, they’d burn it. Churches were high on their list of targets.

A prayer service at Kasr el Dobara church in Cairo. Jim Killam photo.

A prayer service at Kasr el Dobara church in Cairo. Jim Killam photo.

Kasr el Dobara, the largest evangelical church in the Middle East, had figured prominently in the “second” revolution in June and July 2013 as a field hospital for people injured in Tahrir Square demonstrations. Christians and Muslims had worked side-by-side to treat the wounded.

But one night in September, an angry mob of more than 500 people came from the square to burn the church. Around midnight, they ransacked the church’s bookstore. Then they stormed across the courtyard toward the sanctuary, shouting accusations against Christians.

Fawzi Khalil, one of Kasr el Dobara’s pastors, was in an office with seven other people from the church. They heard what was happening.

“I said to my friends there: We’re not going to struggle. We’re not going to fight,” he says. “We are seven or eight people. And they are 500 people. We agreed from day one, if the church is burned, then by God’s grace, we will be able to build it again.

“We don’t want people to be killed for a building.”

Just before the mob entered the sanctuary to burn it, one of the young men recognized his surroundings.

“Hey guys, we can’t do that here,” Khalil remembers him shouting. “This is the place when I was shot in my leg. They helped me. They are on our side, not against us.”

“And everybody listened to him,” Khalil says. “Instead of going to the church to do whatever they were going to do, they turned back and went from the bookshop and destroyed other shops around.”

Khalil had seen mobs like this before, usually drug-fueled.

“Nobody listens to anybody. All of them are leaders of themselves,” he says. “To have this guy speak, and 500 listen to him? 500 obey? Just like a military listen to leaders? Changing direction and nobody discussing or anything? It’s all orchestrated by God.”

Prayers, not revenge

Not that he felt any better about the carnage inflicted elsewhere in Cairo and around the country. But Khalil and others use the story of that night to talk about the impact of prayer during those violent months in late 2012 and 2013. During the weeks after Morsi was deposed on July 3, 2013, his sympathizers burned more than 85 churches, plus Christian schools, hospitals, orphanages and monasteries.

“They did that to stimulate the Christians to fight back,” Kasr el Dobara Senior Pastor Sameh Maurice says. “To have a civil war. To destroy the revolution. This was the scenario that they wanted.”

It didn’t happen. In the spirit of nonviolence that has changed hearts in other revolutionary times and places – think Eastern Europe, South Africa and even the U.S. civil rights movement – Egyptian Christians responded in an unrehearsed unison of forgiveness.

“There was no time do discuss this. It just happened,” Maurice says. “The churches made big banners on the burned churches: ‘We forgive you. We pray for you.’”

In response, he adds, moderate young Muslims in cities like Minya and Assiut moved to protect other churches by becoming human shields.

“The (Coptic Orthodox) pope said to them: ‘Go home. We value your lives more than we value our buildings. The church can rebuild. But any one of you that may die, we will not get him back.’

So it was very shocking to the Muslims,” Maurice says. “‘You value our lives more than your churches? Wow. We thought you hated us, as we used to hate you.’”

One mother’s grace

Another hero of mercy who captured Egypt’s collective attention last year is Hwaida Refaat, who forgave the Muslim Brotherhood members who gunned down her daughter, Mariam, outside a church before a wedding. During her interview with talk-show host Wael El Ebrashi – and as her daughter’s photo flashed on the screen – Refaat told a national audience that instead of wishing for the gunmen’s deaths, she prayed for them.

Watch the video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gffpOUs3ia4&feature=youtu.be

“I ask Egyptian people to pray day and night for the criminals,” she said. “These people are in dire need of our prayer together, day and night asking God to first forgive them, to enlighten their eyes with the truth. They are deceived and misled. To enlighten their heart.”

The host was astounded.

“You are the most amazing example we could present to the Egyptian society,” he told her, “because usually those who lose their children to appease their grievance seek mostly revenge from the killers, to even kill them with their bare hands.”

Maurice says that interview stunned the nation.

“In nine minutes, she testified to the gospel of Christ, the spirit of love and forgiveness, to the enemy,” he says. “In a very spontaneous, genuine respect. Unbelievable.”

A culture of suffering

As Khalil talks about Christians’ responses after attacks, he motions with his arms, revealing a cross tattooed on his inner wrist along with a date: 1965. He’s had it since he was 3; that’s a common rite for Coptic Christian boys.

Fawzi Khalil

Fawzi Khalil. Jim Killam photo.

“And it’s very painful,” he remembers. “You can still remember the pain until now. And this is identification with the suffering church.”

That’s a different view of persecution than typically found in the West. But for a man who last year was struck in the eye by a tear-gas canister and had to be dragged unconscious from the field hospital where he was serving the wounded, it makes sense.

“Here the land is full of the blood of the martyrs,” he says. “The Orthodox Church, our mother church, has grown us, feeding us by the stories of those who have given their lives for Jesus, for the sake of faith.

“So the whole idea of persecution here is very, very rooted in our selves and our hearts. And because we grow up feeling like second class in society, being persecuted for just being Christian … we give up a lot of rights without arguing about it. We take it as part of the package of being Christian.”

 

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