Feast of the Holy Innocents & the Persecution of the Church in Egypt

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Coptic church bombing

On the Feast of the Epiphany, we hear Matthew’s retelling of the magi’s visit to Jesus. They come to Bethlehem by way of Jerusalem, to Jesus by way of Herod. In a dream they are warned not to return as they came. Matthew writes,  “They departed for their country by another way.”

The magi find a new route.  Herod never wavers from his path.

Matthew tells us Joseph, too, is warned in a dream by the angel of the Lord to run away from Herod. He is told Herod is searching for the child to kill him.  The angel said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.”

In darkness, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and escapes to Egypt.

Egypt sheltered Jesus. Now the Christians of Egypt flee their land, seeking safety for their children as Joseph sought safety for his child.

While the Holy Family is on the run, Herod is waiting for an intelligence report from the magi. Matthew writes,

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.

Herod demands death, and he will have it, even as Jesus grows, unharmed, in Egypt.

In Lebanon, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the people of the Middle East who were, he said, “the first to welcome (God’s) Incarnate Son.”

Egypt sheltered Jesus. Now the Christians of Egypt flee their land, seeking safety for their children as Joseph sought safety for his child.

Defaced Mural of Jesus in Egypt

According to the December 2011 Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life findings on the Middle East-North Africa, “Today that region has both the lowest concentration of Christians (about 4% of the region’s population) and the smallest number of Christians (about 13 million) of any major geographical region.”

In the part of the study focusing on Egypt, it reports that this country has the largest Christian community in the region, with “4.3 million Christians in Egypt — more than in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria combined.”

Egypt may have the largest Christian community in the region, but that community is dying. The Pew Forum tracks its decline,

The highest share (of Christian population) reported in the last century was in 1927, when the census found that 8.3% of Egyptians were Christians. In each of the eight subsequent censuses, the Christian share of the population gradually shrank. The most recent census, in 2006, found that about 5% of the population was Christian.

The last census figures are from 2006. In 2011 and 2012, experts estimate that over 100,00 Coptic Christians have left Egypt as Joseph entered it, in haste and in need of refuge.

Egyptian Christians react during the funeral of victims killed in the bombing at Cairo's Coptic cathedral, at the Mokattam Cemetery in Cairo

What happened in those years? In February of 2011, Hosni Mubarak was forced out as Egypt’s president. Mubarak, no friend to any freedom, had kept a tight rein on, among others, the Egyptian Salafists. As Mubarak weakened, the Salafists grew stronger. Coptic churches were burned. Copts were shot in public. In October of 2011, Coptic Christians gathered in the Cairo neighborhood of Maspero to protest the burnings and killings.

Army tanks entered the neighborhood and crushed protesters under its treads. Twenty-seven Coptic Christians died and 329 were injured. On April 29, 2012, according to the Assyrian International News Agency report, the panel of judges appointed by the Egyptian minister of justice to investigate the deaths closed the case “for lack of evidence.” The Egyptian army contends the crushing deaths were accidental. The deaths and injuries by gunfire, the army contends, were the result of Copts shooting at one another.

Jews had been strangers in Egypt in the time of the patriarch Joseph.  At the time of the Babylonian Exile, Jews found a home in Egypt and flourished there. When Joseph took Jesus and Mary into the land, they came not as strangers, but as friends, finding welcome and rest among its people.

Christianity, like Judaism before it, took root in Egypt and grew. According to the tradition, the Egyptian church was founded by Saint Mark the Evangelist and so is among the most ancient of all the Christian churches.

In 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, the Coptic Christians split with the rest of Christianity over the issue of Christ’s nature. We became strangers to one another.

In May 1973, some fifteen hundred years later, Pope-Shenouda III of Alexandria and Pope Paul VI met and issued a Common Declaration on the two natures of Christ, fully human and fully divine. There are living Coptic scholars who argue they were never monophysites, the name given to the heresy that divided us.

I don’t know about Egypt, but I doubt that one Catholic in a thousand here can identify either monophysitism or the date marking the end of the schism.

But we can all hear and heed the cries of our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt. We can offer them refuge here as they once offered refuge to Joseph and Mary and Jesus. We can write our representatives. We can tell their stories. We can pray for them.

We are all Copts now. The most recent Cairo church bombing here.