By Aby Thomas
Coptic Christians in Brooklyn have come together at the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. George, nicknamed “the Ellis Island of the Coptic community,” in Dyker Heights to pray for peace in Egypt.
They may be a long way away from Egypt, but Brooklyn’s Coptic community centered at the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. George in Dyker Heights is praying and pressuring authorities in both Cairo and Washington to protect their families and co-religionists from violence back home.
Besides raising petitions and planning protests to voice their concerns, the Coptic community here has joined hands with other churches in North America to make sure international pressure piles up on Egypt.
The local Copts are also appealing to a higher authority. Parishioners gathered at St. George’s in mid-October to mark the end of a three-day fast called by the church’s top council, the Holy Synod, to mourn for the victims of the Oct. 9 violence between Coptic Christians and the Egyptian army.
“Don’t leave me alone in the midst of this darkness,” sang the congregation. “Let your bright face guide me, O Lord, unto peace.”
At least 26 people were killed and several hundred injured in downtown Cairo after the army attacked Coptic demonstrators protesting the September 30 burning of a church in Aswan, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal body that monitors religious freedom abroad.
Egyptian military forces reportedly used live ammunition and armored vehicles, which deliberately crushed and killed at least six of the Coptic protestors.
Mariz Tadros, a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex in Great Britain, in an article for the Middle East Research and Information Project, called the violence ‘a repeat of the worst state brutality during the January 25 uprisings that unseated the ex-president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak.’
John Fanouse, a fourth-year medical student and an active member of the Dyker Heights church, said that Brooklyn’s Coptic Christian community’s reaction to the events has been ‘a combination of sadness, joy and disappointment.’
“Firstly, it is sadness on the fact that there have been lives lost—we consider them our brothers and sisters. The only difference between a 25-year-old who got killed and me is that 30 years ago, my parents moved to America,” Fanouse said.
“Second, we are joyful; because in the Christian faith, we believe that these people died in the name of Christ, they were martyrs. We believe that they were out there despite knowing that when you go out on a protest, being a Christian, you have more potential of being killed.”
“On the third fold, it is disappointment,” Fanouse continued. “After the revolution, we were looking for a more stable government, a government that would be just. It is a disappointment that after the revolution, the Egyptian government, the army itself, has turned on Egyptian Christians.”
The Rev. Mina Yanni, one of the church’s priests, said that the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, along with the Mother Church in Egypt, had called upon Egypt’s current leaders, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation of the attack, and to take affirmative steps to protect the country’s Coptic community, which comprise 10-12 percent of Egypt’s population.
Fanouse said that the American Coptic community has been encouraged to sign an online petition to the United States Congress, asking the U.S. government to stop the yearly funding of 1.3 billion dollars in military aid to the Egyptian army.
Some members from the church have said that there was also a plan for Coptic Christians from the entire northeast area including New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Connecticut and Boston to go to the White House to demonstrate and voice their concerns there.
“People are disappointed when the White House says that both sides [in the Egyptian conflict] need to show restraint,” said Fanouse. “It makes you wonder: who really needs to show restraint? If you are getting run over by tanks, what restraint are you supposed to show?”
For its part, the Dyker Heights church has decided to focus on prayer and faith, holding several meetings in mid-October with the church’s congregation of about 700 members. It is the only Coptic Orthodox church in Brooklyn, and some church members have called it ‘the Ellis Island of the Coptic community’, as several Coptic Christians fleeing the violence in Egypt over the past few months have found their way into this church.
The service was a quiet, solemn affair; with three priests leading the congregation in an intercessory prayer for the safety of the Church, and for all Egyptians. A few of the church members prostrated themselves to the ground, fervently praying ‘for wisdom to rulers to govern in honesty, justice and righteousness.
The Rev. Luke Awad, another of the church’s priests, said that the three-day fast is a very important symbol in the Coptic faith, and has a special resonance in Coptic history.
Coptic Christians believe that in the tenth century A.D., Egypt’s ruler, Caliph Al-Muizz, had asked the then Pope Abraam to prove his faith by performing a miracle, or else, face the extermination of the Christian race. Abraam had then called for a three-day fast and prayer, following which the Mokattam Mountain in Egypt is believed to have miraculously moved from its original location, thereby placating the Caliph and preventing a massacre.
The second time a three-day fast was called was in the early eighties, when Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat placed the current patriarch, Pope Shenoudah III, under house arrest after he had complained about a string of anti-Coptic attacks by Egyptian Islamists.
“Shortly after the fast, God answered our prayers, and he was released,” Awad said. “Sadat was assassinated [by army officers]. It’s not that we are happy about it, but we do believe that was God’s answer.”
Fanouse said that October’s service marked the third time in the history of the church that the pope has called for a three-day fast.
“A lot of us think of tangible steps—we’re going to demonstrate, we’re going to talk, we’re going to write. But the Church always reminds us that prayer and fasting have led to some great, great things in the past. And so, I do remain hopeful.”