Faceless and Protesting
This op-ed is a collaboration between 2 Efmevi writers.
The new Coptic year has just started and we're prompted to remember the saints. It's that time again. We're prompted to commemorate in particular those who witnessed to Christ and were willing to sacrifice the one most precious aspect about human life, life itself, for his sake. The lay people know only about the 'celebrity' household names of the martyrs: Saint Mena, Saint George, Saint Mercourius. Yet we rarely hear of someone interceding or asking for the prayers of any of the obscure saints whose stories are mere sketches in the Synexarion. These were everyday people: parents, children, simple, persecuted … just like us. These saints remain faceless; there are almost no icons of them in the church. Maybe, that is a good thing because that will always remind us that they were just 'one of us'.
There's one little-known saint whom puts us all to shame: the simple Mother Doulagy from Qesna in Upper Egypt. Many of us may have heard of her and more would not have if it wasn't for her story being taken out of the English text of the Synexarion. This pales in comparison to the shocking single line in the Arabic text. Her story is still being spread around among few of the faithful. (Along with her four children, she is commemorated on the 6th of the Coptic month of Bashans: usually 14th of May in the Gregorian calendar.)
In brief, her story tells us that she was most probably a widow in Qesna who had four children in the era of Diocletian whom severely persecuted Christians. His hands, hungry to persecute, had reached to the areas of Upper Egypt. Doulagy and her children were among the first to be persecuted in that area. They were ordered to deny Christ and they all refused. They were imprisoned for a day, where the warrior of a mother led the choir of her children in prayers and praise. The very next day, they were to be beheaded if they were not to deny Christ. They refused again. The governor of their area ordered the decapitation of her children, to the sound of Doulagy strengthening them in faith. She followed her children to the edge of the sword and carried home to heaven her cross and crown.
The expected criticisms against the authenticity of this story can be voiced. We rather focus on today the insight it gives us into the Coptic mind and its classic understanding of witness and faith.
I think I want to attempt to draw an icon for this woman or attempt to visualize how it would look. Much like the face of the Theotokos, I would draw a face overwhelmed with happiness. The four children are bound by their hands, but their faces are liberated by solemn, yet brilliant smiles. To Doulagy's left, a tiny figure of an angry man holds a sword up. Finally, the Coptic inscription of the letter ‘chima’ underneath her figure appears, resembling the Coptic word ‘Chro’ which means ‘Conqueror’1 .
It has been a prolonged prelude, but my intention was to juxtapose the current situation of the Coptic church against Mother Doulagy. Our Coptic church is indeed a suffering church. Native Egyptians, especially in lower socio-economic areas, suffer from direct persecution from extreme Islamic groups. Our churches in the lands of immigration and in the motherland can still feel the effects of modern literature, such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, on their youth. (In the former book, he mentioned that the Coptic Gnostic scrolls found at Nag’ Hammadi, which made many people think that the Coptic church is a Gnostic one.) We hear of shops being burned, stores being robbed, children being kidnapped. There's two-way bashing on Internet chat rooms and TV shows; some of the most elegant mockery comes from Christian lips. There are attacks from the minarets of the mosques every Friday by virulent anti-Christian clerics. And when you think you can escape it, a site like Memri.org documents for immigrants the daily output of anti-Christian and Semitic rhetoric being spouted by the Middle Eastern media. Although different in form, these events have been springing from Egypt since the establishment of Christianity. There's a proud history of about 2000 years. On our canvas, there's a deep set color of blood red, provided generously by the martyrs.
So, how is our time now different from then? There is no real discernible difference in the essence of strife and tribulation. The real difference is that now, there is a lack of true faith. Readers will retort and say that there would be no persecution if it was not for our rooted faith. This is sadly not the truth. And not all times of persecution are directly linked to times of revival or a time for God to be glorified through the faith and works of his people. Persecution can also be an expression of the depth of the fallenness of humanity and the state of the world. It can be a natural consequence of the trajectory society is taking.
And in Egypt, all people are suffering from the falling economy, societal pressures of how to get married and how to keep kids rooted in families. All people are susceptible to this in Egypt. All people are struggling to find jobs. It cannot be denied that the Orthodox Christian faithful have faced and continue to face more unique trials. No one can deny incidents where girls are kidnapped, churches damaged or destroyed, Christians denied work because of their faith. But it's important to note that Muslims in Egypt also face religious persecution from within their own community. It's an unpopular notion for Orthodox Christians to accept because it removes the spotlight of persecution away from them.
In the past, the Copts accepted persecution with great joy, remembering the words of the apostle James: “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” (Jas. 1:2). In fact, some of the saints ran into the fields of persecution out of their own accords and did not wait for the persecutor to come to them. In contrast today, we see Copts hiding their crosses under their shirts or dresses and running away from areas of hounding. Of course, this may have happened back in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Many Egyptian immigrants left their homes to escape a corrupt system, perceived or actual persecution, and a future with little economic hope. Outside Egypt, they would still defend any verbal attack on their country of origin. But this has to do with protecting the clan, an instinctive reaction to protect the homeland's honor. This is not necessarily the conviction of the Christian faith. There are those who are faithful and accept the tribulations with joy, but their numbers are drastically decreasing. But to protect the honor of Egypt and to uphold the honor of Christ in accepting persecution in joy are not synonymous.
The true conviction of the Christian faith, the very heart of martyrdom and self-emptying witness, is the readiness to surrender all for all. The conviction is to give up something for God, not expecting any reward or compensation. It is valuing the invisible, yet real gift, in the heart of the spiritual martyr, above the immediately visible. Pain. Suffering. Rejection. Ostracism. Marginalization. Loss of property. Loss of wealth. Loss of social and intellectual wealth. We can set the terms of martyrdom in a modern setting all we want; the original question still begs us.
Can you give all for all? Can you stand up and surrender your life with the vigor and ease of Doulagy?
And give up my Mercedes, private practice, and comfortable position on the church council of 10 years?
There's a far more frightening and lamentable trend. Prompted and propagated by the ubiquity of the activist mentality, we observed protesters in December 2004 outside Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, pleading with the Patriarch to take action (in the case of Wafa Constantine's forced conversion) and to stop the injustice towards Christians. Later, we saw bishops and metropolitans denouncing the persecution against the Orthodox faithful. Others, like Fr. Zakariya Boutros, have dedicated their life work to attack the fundamentalist Islamic injustice through dedicated Paltalk chat rooms, TV shows on Middle Eastern satellite, and websites. This seems to be but a counterattack on the persecution. And it's still arguable whether people that follow this conduct are vengeful or courageous. From the nu-grassroots of Egypt, heated discussions during visits and family gatherings, the rage of the Orthodox faithful is channeled through Fr. Zakariya Boutros's impressive erudition, yet acidic sarcasm and humor. I'll walk to the end of the plank and say it borders on insult of Islam and Muslims. Perhaps in doing this, the Orthodox faithful that watch his show share in his established success.
Coptic Demands is the title of this webpage for the U.S. Copts Association. The first paragraph in the page mentions that we ask for ‘equality’. This is social, political, and economic equality. All citizens of any nation have the right to be treated as equals and have the same standing as others: “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” (Article 6, Universal Declaration of Human Rights). If this demand by the U.S. Copts Association is based on civic terms, on the basis of concerned citizens asking for full civic representation, I wouldn't be so suspicious of it. However, there is a clear obfuscation here of concerns. Civic demands are being justified on the lines of religious and historical reasons. They fall short of the reparations demanded by African Americans in the United States to account for years of slavery. There is no doubt of the historical and systematic mistreatment of Orthodox faithful over the centuries of Egyptian history. But the message here is confused, misleading, and borders on ideology. Are we saying because of el-Kosh' and the targeting of the church by the state in the 80s under Sadat, we deserve these demands to be delivered to us?
This is very dangerous language, especially one coming from the mouths of Christians.
What are we actually demanding here? Are we demanding that our country not fall down to the power of modern idols? Are we demanding that Christ has been compromised in the church by the direct intervention of the church? Or, are we demanding for earthly compensation and rewards, well-deserved ones for that matter?
This is not fighting for the faith. This is fighting for ourselves. This is us wanting more and hiding behind so-called religious and spiritual rhetoric to achieve political and civic goals. Will our strife in Egypt end once the government decides to accept there is actually a problem?
What do we actually want? Do we want equal representation in government or do we want our churches untouched? Do we want our Upper Egyptian communities to worship in peace without threat of violence or do we just want jobs for our young graduates?
I'm convinced that both the native and immigrant Orthodox faithful do not know what they are demanding and on what grounds. There is no clear thinking and the charged rhetoric does not enable people to actually ascertain what they are fighting for.
Let us assume all the demands are met. Will we stop? No. We will become like any other modern citizen of a country: we will demand more. And then it's no longer about persecution, but rather about a long laundry-list of demands by a certain demographic of Egypt.
If we're talking about our membership in society and country, we should rewrite these “demands” into a language of politics and a call to policymakers and technocrats to implement change. And if we're talking about our stance in Egyptian society as Christians, then it is a matter of mistreatment. But a whole new world-view awaits us should we accept that this matter is a matter of religious mistreatment and persecution. The words of Paul the Anchorite thumps back against that webpage: “He who flees tribulations, flees from God.” Who are these people who have decided to speak on the behalf of all Copts and make demands? These are wealthy, politically active immigrants living outside Egypt. It is very easy for people who have escaped the day-to-day tribulations of Egypt to make demands. Life is relatively lush and simple, even given the current downturn of Western economies. There is no visible discrimination against Egyptians in terms of faith or language, unless they live in close contact with Muslims in the lands of immigration. There are politically active Orthodox Egyptians who are working towards the civic plight of Christians in Egypt. Their language though is tempered by the complex political and social conditions of the country. The most notable figures are Naguib Sawiris and George Ishak.
The thinking, the very mentality behind the demands webpage mentioned earlier, that we should demand a stop to violence against Christians, on the basis of our faith, implies departing from Christ and the spirit of the Bible. We, as Christians, are mistaken if we think we have the right to anything on earth; we're simply sojourners, called to live on this earth and transform it until we are in God in heaven. We, as citizens of countries, do have rights, as decreed by the constitution of that country. Never once in the New Testament were we promised to live a life free from strife, but also never once were we not promised support and joy in time of strife.
The Book of Revelations speaks in awe of those “who have come out of the great tribulation”. (emphasis mine) By demanding elevating the burdens off the Coptic shoulders, we are denying ourselves the beatitudes of Christ who said “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” (Mt. 5:10 -12).
So then, is it for righteousness' sake? Or, is it for the sake of demanding equal rights and benefits as other citizens? If it is, we're already deviating from Scripture. And if it isn't, then why are we hiding behind the veil of God to achieve earthly goals?
After the attack on Abu Fana monastery in June 2008, Coptic protesters went out in European cities with banners like “Save Christians in Egypt” and “Help! Christians of Egypt are under attack.”2 What has happened to the Coptic mind of perseverance? Have we forgotten Scripture? After being saved by the Lord on the Cross, do we run to human powers to ‘save’ us?!
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD” (Jer. 17:5)
Is this relentless drive to gain equality so strong and so necessary that we may jeopardize the type of life gifted to us by God? We have gone as far as bringing a curse upon ourselves just to live in “equality”. We forgot the words of Moses before crossing to the promised land: “The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace” (Ex. 14:14) We have negated 2000 years of steadfast faith, through the shedding of our blood, by now obsessing and using political aims to desire a 'peaceful' life. The greatest times of the Christian faith was when Christians were persecuted; the moment that stopped, we started stabbing each other and holding councils that tore the Church apart and we suffer the consequences to this day. If we do not cry now here on earth, we deny ourselves Christ’s hands that will wipe our tears in the heavenly Jerusalem.
No, we do not want to die - no, we do not want to witness by our blood -
Yet, we celebrate the year of the martyrs and decorate our churches with their icons that seem to mean nothing to us.
Patriarch Shenouda III has said: “wipe the trespass through education”. The source of all knowledge, education, and truth is Christ who presents himself to us in the pages of the scriptures: “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” (Jn. 5:39) The truth has escaped us about persecution and martyrdom because we escaped him who is the truth. Everywhere in the world, when it doesn't work out for Christians, people rise up and strike. It can be through arms, social action, or political expediency. But is this correct? Is this in the spirit of Scripture? Are we doing this for righteousness's sake? That seems to be the measuring stick, set in the Gospel of Matthew.
Is the persecution for righteousness's sake? If so, what should our action be? Scripture and early church history seems clear: rush to the aid of the persecuted and comfort them in the faith of Christ. Relieve them, feed them, give them water, cover them. Strengthen ourselves in praise and prayer, as Paul and Silas did in the New Testament. That seems to be the direct mandate. Although we are now primed to do so, we need not to attack back to win a battle, since our victory is made manifest in our sufferings that we endure for his sake: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Rom. 8:35)
We shouldn't forget Mother Doulagy in the midst of all these words. For it is her that inspires us to pursue this line of thinking. If I was to redraw the Doulagy icon described earlier to fit today’s context, Doulagy’s face would be like a weeping Theotokos. I don't know how to even imagine that. How could the Theotokos weep, now that she has passed over to the conquering church in heaven? Could she weep if she sees the struggling church struggling to understand and apply Scripture?
And then, I see Doulagy's children running away into the hands of the world. And I see the executioner, being much larger than Doulagy and the children, brandishing his lowered sword, sporting a content smile of victory on his face. To seal this off, the chima is gone since we are not depicted as victorious, but as cowards running away from the face of the awaiting glory, overlaid with sufferings. The Coptic icon is ruined. The image of the church is tarnished.
In the fire of persecution, we're crying out for human rights and governmental intervention. We're hosting press conferences and issuing official statements. We're going onto Dream and Hayat (Arabic satellite channels) and lambasting others. We allow our priests, in their material comfort, spout ideological drivel fueled by media sources such as Copts.com from the pulpits of churches outside Egypt. We're not chanting with fervor the lines of David:
“Return, we beseech You, O God of hosts; Look down from heaven and see, and visit this vine. And the vineyard which Your right hand has planted. ... Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; Cause Your face to shine, And we shall be saved!” (cf. Ps. 80)
Mother Doulagy and all your children, intercede for the church that we may carry the faith of our forefathers and whiten our cloths in the blood of the lamb, as holy, sober-minded, Scripture-led soldiers in the army of the Lord. That we may not be swayed by ignorance or ideology from any source.
Our faceless martyr, pray for us, we the protesting martyrs.
- This consonant was found in many ancient Coptic crucifix icons to imply that the crucified Christ is the one who conquered death. [back]
- "U.S. Copts Association » Blog Archive » EGYPT: Coptic Diaspora Spreads the Word", http://copts.com/english1/index.php/2008/06/28/egypt-coptic-diaspora-spreads-the-word/, Accessed on September 19, 2008 [back]