Coptic Christians in Rhode Island told their Christian neighbors about the suffering their friends and relatives have endured in Egypt in the aftermath of the Jan. 25, 2011 uprising that resulted in the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.
They told their story at a service of prayer for Christian unity at the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Mary and St. Mena, in Hope, Rhode Island, that took place on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2012.
The Rhode Island State Council of Churches, an umbrella organization of Christian churches in the Ocean State, sponsored the event. Pastors and clergy from a number of different denominations and faith traditions participated in the service at which the story of Coptic suffering and Christian martyrdom took center stage.
At this event, about 300 people heard testimony about the suffering endured by Coptic Christians in Egypt at the hands of Salafists and Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Rev. Fr. Marcos Girgis, who welcomed the audience to his church, provided a brief history of the Church in Egypt, reporting that many of Christianity’s doctrines were first enunciated by church fathers living in Egypt, which was also the birthplace of Christian monasticism.
The church in Egypt has suffered terribly in the centuries since the Arab invasion of Egypt in the 7th century, Rev. Fr. Girgis reported. The pastor himself suffered discrimination in Egypt before immigrating to the United States.
“I was prevented from becoming a college teacher because I was a Christian,” he said.
Judging from Fr. Girgis’ testimony, the problem is no longer merely state-sponsored discrimination justified by sharia law, but open violence encouraged by Islamist ideology.
“Every day we hear about the killing of Christians,” he said.
The audience also saw graphic footage of people killed at the riots in Maspero on Oct. 9, 2011. It was ugly footage that showed bodies crushed and dismembered by the armored personnel carriers driven by the Egyptian military. The audience looked at the screen unflinchingly.
The video, displayed on two large screens, demonstrated the power of technology to tell the Coptic story and Islamist violence. The Internet is filled with footage of the aftermath of the Maspero riots which began when Egyptian military personnel attacked Christians protesting the failure of the Egyptian government to protect their churches from attacks. During the non-violent protest, reporters on state-sponsored television called on Egyptians to defend the military from attacks by the Christians.
Some of the most powerful testimony came from Dr. Douaa Girgis, who described the events in Egypt before, during and after the Jan. 25 uprising. After describing the attack on the church in Alexandria that took place on Dec. 31, 2010, Girgis told the audience, that attacks against Christians are a common thing in Egypt.
“It happens pretty much on a weekly basis,” he said.
Girgis told the audience about young girls who are kidnapped, isolated from their families and forced to convert to Islam. The government, she said, is purposefully not prosecuting the perpetrators of kidnappings.
She told the audience about the discrimination that Christians endure in Egypt. Christian physicians are not allowed to practice certain specialties such as obstetrics and gynecology because Muslim law prohibits Christians from touching Muslim women.
Discrimination and regular attacks against Christians have prompted 100,000 Copts to leave Egypt in the past year, she said. Things are likely to get worse in light of recent parliamentary elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists won approximately 75 percent of the seats. With this victory, Christians could be forced to pay discriminatory taxes, otherwise known as the jizya.
“The Christians of Egypt are now without a voice,” she said. “We call upon every Christian to help us portray the truth on all levels.”
Rev. Donald Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, said the council decided to have the service of Christian unity at St. Mary and St. Mena to show solidarity with Christians in Egypt.
“I hope all of us will recommit ourselves to help Christians who are suffering, whether they be in Egypt or any part of the world,” he said.
The event was remarkable because of the presence of the participation of mainline Protestant ministers whose national churches have been relatively silent about the mistreatment of Christians in Muslim-majority countries throughout the world.
For example, the president of the Rhode Island Council of Churches, Rev. Betsy Garland, who also serves as interim pastor at a United Church of Christ congregation in Rhode Island, spoke about the mistreatment of Christian women who wear Western-style dress in Muslim-majority Egypt. She made this observation while soliciting donations to the Rhode Island State Council of Churches and the Egypt Relief Fund of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of North America. (Fr. Girgis said his church will match the funds collected at the service, which will be sent to Egypt to help pay the medical expenses of those injured at Maspero on Oct. 9 and to the families of those martyred.)
What makes Garland’s statement remarkable is that she is a pastor in a denomination that remained silent about the suffering of Copts in Egypt at its most recent General Synod in 2011. The denomination passed a resolution warning about the dangers of Islamophobia in the U.S. but refrained from passing a resolution about the dangers of Islamism and its impact on Copts in Egypt.
During his sermon, Very Reverend, Peter-Michael Preble, pastor of St. Michael’s Romanian Orthodox Church in Southbridge, Massachusetts told the audience, “Sitting here watching the video reminds me of how easy we have it in the United States.”
”We cannot sit here as human beings and not rise up to our feet and say … ‘The violence must stop,’” he proclaimed. He also warned the audience not to think that this activism will be done by someone else.
“The someone else is us,” he said.
After the event, Fr. Girgis shrugged off concerns about Islamists in the U.S. responding angrily to his decision to host the event at his church. The local police have been very committed to the safety of his church and parishioners.
Ultimately, Fr. Girgis and his parishioners rely on another source for their safety.
“We are under the protection of God,” he said.
Dexter Van Zile is the Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.