Pittsburgh-area Coptic Christians side with Egyptian government, pray for peace


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The past week's attacks on about 60 churches in Egypt shot pain through the hearts of the Pittsburgh area's Coptic Christians, who closely follow events in their ancestral homeland.

They blame the violence on the Muslim Brotherhood, saying the United States should support the Egyptian army's July 3 overthrow of the Brotherhood-backed regime of deposed President Mohammed Morsi.

The government's deadly attack last week on pro-Morsi protesters whose camps had blocked traffic in major cities for weeks was "according to the will of the Egyptian people," said the Rev. Bishoy Mikhail of St. Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church in Ambridge. "They want to be freed from the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood because of their bad actions during the year of the rule of Morsi and the violence you see now toward our churches and our innocent people. ... The Muslim Brotherhood is just a small group, and most of the Muslims hate it. They suffered a lot during the last year."

Father Mikhail said his 400 parishioners "are worried about ... the violence of the Muslim Brotherhood. We are sure that it will be ended by the wisdom and power of the Egyptian Army and the power of the Egyptian government."

About 10 percent of Egypt's population of 83 million is Christian. Most belong to the Coptic Church, founded in the first century. After Islam reached Egypt in the seventh century, the rights of Christians were restricted. But modern violence against them was limited until the end of the Mubarak regime, when 21 people died in a church bombing on New Year's Eve 2010.

A week later, thousands of Muslims attended Coptic Christmas services to protect their Christian neighbors. But a Pew Research survey also shows that Egyptians are more opposed to religious pluralism than most Muslims worldwide. A June survey found that 88 percent of Egyptians believed that conversion from Islam should be punished by death, compared to a median of 28 percent in other majority Muslim nations.

Many in Congress are pressing President Barack Obama to end military support for Egypt because the military overthrew the democratically elected Morsi regime and killed hundreds of demonstrators. No clear policy has emerged, although there have been cutbacks in military support.

To Father Mikhail, it seems that "the United States and the Obama administration took the side of the Muslim Brotherhood. I don't know why. The reality of what happened in Egypt is that it is the will of the Egyptian people to be free from the Muslim Brothers. Most Egyptians support what the Egyptian army is doing."

He believes the attacks on Christians are a cynical appeal to the faith of the average Muslim. "They burned the churches to make a division in the united Egyptian people, Christian and Muslim," he said. "They needed to make a conflict."

Statements by Egyptian church groups express concern that the Western media is portraying the Muslim Brotherhood as innocent victims of a violent military government. They say the Brotherhood rejected all offers of negotiation and ignored repeated warnings to disperse. The Coptic Orthodox Church accused Western media of "[legitimizing] these bloody terrorist organizations." It said there should be no foreign interference in Egyptian affairs and expressed support for "Egyptian law enforcement, the armed forces and all the institutions of the Egyptian people in its confrontation of the violent armed organizations [and] dark terrorists, both internal and external."

The general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt declared that the Muslim Brotherhood's encampments weren't peaceful sit-ins, as portrayed in some reports. They "included armed banditry that terrorized citizens," his statement said.

Pittsburgh's Presbyterians have long-standing ties to Egypt because they sent many missionaries there in the first half of the 20th century. Several local churches support Freddy Elbaiady, a physician who runs a Christian clinic for the poor outside Cairo, and was a member of parliament until he resigned June 29 in protest of Morsi government policies.

His open letter to the churches described the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations as violent. "Their speeches were loaded with hatred and threats to the opposition and the Christians. They refused all the proposed mediation for a political resolution," he wrote.

Ramez Atallah, director of the Bible Society of Egypt, emailed photos of charred Bibles in the ruins of its bookshops. It was the first such attack in the society's 129-year-history, he wrote. "Fortunately, we were closed today, fearing such an attack, so none of our staff were injured," he wrote Aug. 14. He asked for prayers that "these sad incidents would not increase the alienation of the Muslim Brothers, but that they would somehow be re-integrated into Egyptian society."

The documents were sent to the Rev. Donald Dawson, executive director of the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, over the past week.

world - region

Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416. First Published August 22, 2013 4:30 AM


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