CAIRO/ROME – At the very origins of Christianity lies the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, escaping persecution under an Israelite king. In the crypt of a small Cairo church, one can still find the well from which tradition holds that Joseph, Mary, and the child Jesus drew fresh water during their exile.
Sadly, Egypt today has become a place a small number of Christians are running away from, not toward, while most express a grim determination to hold on no matter how bad it gets.
Along with my Crux colleague Inés San Martín, I spent last week in Egypt collecting the stories of these persecuted Christians.
Our hope was to reverse-engineer Stalin’s famous dictum that one death is a tragedy, while a million is a statistic. Rather than accumulating facts and figures, we wanted to unearth the individual dramas beneath such data.
For instance, we met Wadie Ramses, a 64-year-old Christian doctor who was kidnapped in Egypt’s Sinai region last year and held for 92 days, blindfolded and handcuffed, until his family paid a ransom. Periodically he would be put in a car and driven around listening to verses from the Qu’ran, while his captors beat him with a rubber hose for refusing to accept Islam.
We met Andraous Oweida, a 44-year-old construction worker and father of two who was wounded and almost crushed to death when the Egyptian army plowed their armored personnel carriers into a crowd of Christian protestors four years ago, leaving 22 people dead, including several of Oweida’s friends.
We met Nadi Mohani Makar, 59, once a prosperous merchant in a mid-sized town called Dalga when a mob burst into his home, shot his wife in the leg, set the house ablaze, and dragged him off for a beating. He was held by local police for 15 days, allegedly as a precautionary measure, and then informed that he was no longer welcome in town.
We met Nabil Soliman, a former security guard from Upper Egypt who lost his home, his job and all his property to a mob of Muslim radicals in 2013. He survives today with his wife, children, and grandchildren in a run-down Cairo apartment that’s barely worthy of housing livestock, let alone human beings.
Soliman is one of millions of Egyptians infected with hepatitis C, and because he can’t really afford the complicated bundle of medicines needed to treat it anymore, he may literally be facing a death sentence for the simple fact of being a Christian.
We met Ayman Samwel, a 33-year-old pharmacist who’s part of the Zabbaleen, Cairo’s legendary underclass of “garbage people” who are almost entirely Christian.
Last week Samwel was rousted from his bed by police at 3:00 am and dragged off to a station house, where he says he was beaten for four hours and subjected to verbal abuse about his faith. As Samwel describes it, it’s part of routine harassment of his community.
We met Saqer Iskander Toos, 35, whose father was killed in August 2014 in another spasm of anti-Christian violence. Muslim friends helped Toos and his brother escape their village, then buried the father since his sons weren’t allowed to return.
In a final humiliation, a mob later dug up the father’s corpse and paraded it through the streets.
I could go on, but the point is that such stories are depressingly easy to find.
Two big-picture points suggest themselves about the situation facing Christians in Egypt, which to greater or lesser degrees is shared across most of the Middle East.
First, Christians are not the only one suffering.
Right now Egypt’s most embattled minority group is arguably the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative Islamic movement whose members are subject to arrest, torture, and extra-judicial execution by security services. Other minorities, such as Egypt’s small Shi’a Muslim population, also experience hardships, as do many women, gays, free-speech activists, and other constituencies.
The day before we left, the country’s top prosecutor, a Muslim, was killed in a car bomb attack, presumably by Islamists upset at the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Second, Christians in Egypt insist their aim is not special privilege but equality as citizens. They see themselves as fully Egyptian, not the “other”, and their suffering as part and parcel of the broader difficulties facing the entire nation under a regime which, to put it charitably, has a checkered history vis-à-vis human rights.
(By “regime,” they don’t mean just the current government of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. They mean the military, political, and economic complex that’s governed Egypt since the 1952 revolution that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power.)
That said, there’s no doubt that Christians are especially at risk in places such as Egypt, where they’re a convenient target anytime someone is mad at the state, the West, or any other perceived enemy.
Christians will take a natural interest in such suffering by fellow religionists. Concerned citizens of any stripe, however, should be able to recognize these abuses not as a confessional matter, but an urgent human rights challenge.
There’s also a clear strategic value at stake: If Christians go down in Egypt, they’ll go down all across the entire region, and with them any realistic hope for pluralism, democracy and stability in the Middle East.
Here’s hoping that realization takes hold in time to do Soliman, Ramses, and the other victims we met this week some good.
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Latin America trip an acid test of Pope Francis as change agent
Pope Francis leaves Sunday for a week-long swing to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay, with vast crowds expected to turn out to welcome history’s first Latin American pontiff.
It will be the 146th overseas trip for a pope since Paul VI launched the modern era of papal travel in 1964. Theoretically all such outings are equal, but in terms of cultural and political impact, some obviously have been more equal than others.
Pope Paul’s very first trip began a new era of Christian cooperation when he encountered Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. Likewise, Pope John Paul II’s first homecoming to Poland in June 1979, featuring defiant Poles shouting “We want God!” at their Communist rulers, helped set the dominoes in motion toward the collapse of the Soviet empire.
While Francis’ outing this week may not make that kind of history, it’s more than a photo-op. There are three key challenges awaiting the pontiff, and how well he navigates them will form the trip’s drama.
While it’s too simplistic to say that Francis aims to bring down capitalism the same way John Paul II brought down Communism, there’s no doubt that he wants significant reform in what he’s called an “economy that kills.”
The pope’s recent encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si’, made an impassioned case that ecological maladies such as climate change and deforestation are linked to the broader economic realities of the early 21st century.
“Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment,” he wrote.
It’s a message that will resonate in three of the most impoverished and marginalized nations in the region. Paraguay and Bolivia rank among the bottom seven Latin American nations on the UN’s Human Development Index, and are the absolute bottom of the pack outside Central America.
The question, however, isn’t whether the pope’s anti-poverty campaign will play well. It’s whether it will make any difference, and there the jury is out.
Poland was the acid test of John Paul’s anti-Communism drive, because if history’s first Polish pope couldn’t move his own home country there was little hope of accomplishing it anywhere else.
A similar argument could be made about Francis and his social agenda. If the first Latin American pontiff in history can’t generate momentum in his own backyard, it’s reasonable to wonder where else he might pull it off.
Observers will be watching this week to see if Francis’ hosts do more than applaud his vision, but take real steps to translate the papal platform into action.
It’s well known that the Catholic Church has suffered significant losses in Latin America in recent decades, both to mushrooming Evangelical and Pentecostal movements and also to rising secularism and religious non-affiliation. The numbers are eye-popping.
During the 1990s, the Latin American bishops issued a study concluding they were losing 8,000 people every day, while the polling firm Latinobarometro, based in Chile, projected ten years ago that by 2025, less than half of Latin Americans will identify themselves as Catholic.
Granted, the main concern of the Catholic Church isn’t – or, at least, it shouldn’t be – market share. When the retired Pope Benedict XVI was asked about those losses during a trip to Brazil in 2007, he famously replied that “statistics are not our divinity.”
Still, Catholicism is a missionary religion and its leaders have to be concerned if the momentum appears to be going, in their eyes, in the wrong direction. Moreover, if Francis really does hope to reshape the world, beginning in Latin America, Catholicism will need social and human capital to pull it off.
To date, there’s scant evidence that Francis’ high approval ratings and his standing as a media icon have translated into a significant bump in church attendance or self-identification as Catholic. Observers will be watching to see if that changes in the wake of this trip.
Roughly 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America, and the idea that all of them will ever be in total lockstep on anything is a fantasy. Diversity, even disagreement on many fronts, is built into the system.
Even so, Latin American Catholicism is notorious for its fault lines – between left and right, between rich and poor, between the pious and the political, between clergy and laity, and all sorts of other clefts.
In Paraguay, for instance, Francis will be visiting a country where he recently fired a bishop who’s part of Opus Dei, a Catholic group influential in Latin America that’s conventionally seen as fairly conservative. Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano was long a lightning rod, once going on TV to publicly accuse a fellow Catholic prelate of being gay.
Francis intended the firing to restore unity, but arguably it’s left the Church even more divided. Livieres’ defenders complain he was the victim of “ideological persecution” and have become, if anything, more suspicious of their perceived ecclesiastical foes.
If Catholicism is to be a change agent, it must put its own house in order. That’s something other popes have tried, with mixed results, and Francis will give it a shot again this week.
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Inés San Martín of Crux will be aboard the papal plane this week, travelling with Pope Francis to Latin America and covering his activity. Watch Crux for her reports, beginning Sunday and running through the pontiff’s return to Rome on July 13.
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Australia’s Fisher on the pallium
On Wednesday Pope Francis presided over a ceremony featuring the pallium, a small woolen cloth that’s a symbol of office for a Catholic archbishop. Every year on June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, new archbishops named around the world during the past twelve months gather in Rome for the event.
This year, Francis introduced a new touch. He blessed the pallium on Wednesday, but it will be formally bestowed on the archbishops during a ceremony in their home archdiocese led by the papal ambassador – the idea being that doing so will favor greater participation by the local church.
Forty-six new archbishops, representing 34 countries, were in Rome for the papal rite. While there was undoubtedly a cluster of reactions in the group, ranging from the lofty to the prosaic, there may well have been only one newly minted archbishop sitting in St. Peter’s Basilica musing on Tertullian, Augustine of Canterbury, and fashions in men’s neckwear.
That would be Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, who comes from the storied Dominican religious order, and who’s regarded as one of the most cerebral Catholic prelates in the English-speaking world.
Once upon a time Fisher was a promising young lawyer with a top-tier Australian firm before shifting gears and entering the Order of Preachers in 1985. He studied at Oxford and became one of Catholicism’s leading voices on bioethics, exuding a rare combination of deep conviction about pro-life matters but also great calm and patience.
I sat down with Fisher this week in Rome, in part to ask what the pallium means to him.
To be honest, it’s a predictable question reporters always ask archbishops around June 29, and the answers are generally equally routine – it symbolizes one’s connection to the pope, it’s a great chance to bond with fellow prelates from around the world, and so on.
Not so Fisher, who’s rarely content to stay on the surface of things.
“Typically of these strange Catholic practices, there’s many layers of interpretation that have accumulated over the years,” he said, explaining that he spent much of the past week unpacking that history for a group of Australian pilgrims who accompanied him to Rome.
He ticked off four aspects of the pallium that struck him as especially important.
Faith and reason
“Very early on, Tertullian wrote a tract on the pallium,” Fisher said, “explaining why he and Justin Martyr wore the pallium, the clothes of a philosopher, rather than the Roman toga.”
Tertullian and Justin Martyr were early Christian writers and teachers in the second century A.D.
“Tertullian explained it as being a sign that they didn’t want to be secular court officials, and also of their desire to unite faith and reason,” Fisher said. “That’s something I find very attractive about the pallium that I think is little known.”
Of course, Fisher explained, back then the pallium was a much larger garment that wrapped around one’s shoulder, not the small stole archbishops receive today.
“It just shrank and shrank and shrank,” he said. “There are fashions even in ecclesiastical clothing, like ties get wider and wider and then they start getting narrow again.”
“Over time, [the pallium] became a gift from a pope to recognize a particular archbishop or archdiocese or metropolitan area,” Fisher said.
“Pope Gregory the Great sent a pallium to Augustine of Canterbury, for instance, saying it’s a symbol of your authority there over the other bishops and over the Church of England that I’ve sent you to.”
“At different times it was almost a Church political statement of authority, responsibility, and territory,” he said, explaining that by the Middle Ages popes no longer picked and chose which archbishop would get it, but it became an automatic sign of office.
“By then people would resent it if they didn’t get it,” Fisher said. “They would be a little argy-bargy about it” – an Australian idiom which, apparently, means something akin to “contentious.”
Lamb of God
“Because of the fact that it’s wool, Christians immediately start to think of the Good Shepherd, Lamb of God, the sheep and the lambs in the New Testament” Fisher said.
“In that sense it’s a sign of the task of an archbishop to carry the lost sheep on his shoulders, to be there for the suffering and confused lambs,” he said.
“In some sense, the archbishop is also [called] to be a Lamb of God himself, to offer himself as a sacrifice alongside Christ for others,” Fisher said.
Responsibility for other dioceses
In Catholic argot, an archbishop who leads an archdiocese is known as a “metropolitan,” and the idea is that he has some degree of responsibility for the smaller dioceses surrounding his, which are technically called a “suffragan” diocese.
Fisher has 11 such suffragan dioceses around Sydney, but concedes he didn’t think much about this aspect of the job before the pallium experience.
“I tended to think before that an archbishop is just a bishop with a bigger job, a bigger diocese,” he said. “This has brought to me there’s a bit more than that in terms of connection, of communion.”
“You’re a link between Rome and the surrounding dioceses,” he said. “You’re a bridge.”
So, will any of these insights change the way Fisher acts as an archbishop?
“I suppose it’s early to tell,” he said.
“Right now I feel very enthusiastic about the things I’ve pondered on and prayed about, and talked about with the others on pilgrimage,” he said. “Whether that will be lasting, other people will have to judge.”