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Friday, December 24, 2010

Letter from a Coptic Christian

Mike, a Coptic Christian who has immigrated to the United States, has asked Restrain the Blade to publish this letter to President Barack Obama. Out of concern for his safety, only the author's first name is made public.

President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington D.C.

Dear President Obama,

I am writing to you as Coptic Christian who immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s.

I am an American citizen.

I have grave concerns about what is going in Egypt regarding the Copts.

To put it bluntly, I fear that something very bad is going to happen to this community in the very near future.

Coptic Christians have been the victims of systematic abuse and oppression in Egypt for a long time. On November 17, 2010, the U.S. Department of State recently issued a report on religious freedom in Egypt that details the abuses they suffer on a daily basis. January of this year, six Coptic Christians were murdered outside their church after celebrating Christmas.

Sadly, I fear another attack will happen again sometime in the near future.

The tendency of blaming the State of Israel for every problem in Egypt, and linking it to the Copts, is on the rise, especially in the past a few months. By associating the Copts with the Jewish state, extremists and government officials are inciting hostility toward a beleaguered, defenseless minority.

The anti-Israel polemic is fairly well known. One official accused recent shark and jellyfish for attacks on swimmers at Sharm el-Sheikh on the Mossad. The aalleged goal was to kill the tourism season.

What is less well known is that Muslim Imams throughout the Middle East are demonizing Coptic Christians in Egypt. One oft-repeated claim is that Israel is using Coptic churches to store all kinds of weapons to attack Muslims. Such accusations lead to threats of violence.

For example, Sheik Wagdi Ghoneim recently said in a video message from the State of Qatar “I swear by God, you will not have time stay alive until America and the West arrive, this is for your own good, if you understand. Do you think the Muslims inside Egypt will say thank you and may Allah give you health? “No, by God.”

And on September 16, 2010 Mr., Muhammad Salim Al-Awa, Secretary-General of the International Union of Muslim Scholars announced on Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar): Copts Amass Weapons in Egyptian Churches and Are "Preparing for War against the Muslims".

Copts are even being blamed for the violence perpetrated against them by Muslim extremists in Egypt. For example, after a mob of 5,000 Egyptians recently attacked a Christian service building, President’s Mubarak former assistant, Dr. Mustafa El- Feki from Ain Shams University stated that Israel and the Copts were at fault for the attack and the two deaths that resulted from it. Dr. El Feki stated that Israel was behind the subsequent protests: “"It is almost certain that the Mossad is involved in these events. The State is dealing with dangerous events that could not have succeeded without external intervention with Israel at its head."

Here, it is important to note why the mob attacked the building in the first place. While the Egyptian government does not allow Christians to build churches, it does allow them to build “service buildings” where social services can be provided to the elderly and to young people in the Coptic Christian community. The mob attacked this service building after hearing rumors that the building itself was going to be used as a church and not merely to provide social services to its members.

Mr. President, in light of numerous acts of incitement and previous acts of violence, I fear that Coptic Christians in Egypt are going to have a very tough Christmas season. I implore you to use your good offices to insist that the Egyptian government protect the rights of its Christian citizens.

For reasons of my own safety, I can only sign my first name, but nevertheless, I offer wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I ask that you use your influence to make sure Christians in Egypt can celebrate their holidays in safety.

Dec. 24, 2010

Restrain the Blade

Over the next two days, Christians in the United States will celebrate the incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem approximately 2,000 years ago. His birth took place under some pretty mean circumstances. Not only was He born in a grotto, but in a backwater town in a vast empire whose leaders did not flinch from perpetrating great acts of violence to assert their supremacy. Despite the surroundings, the angels sang and the shepherds were able to recognize royalty when they stood in its presence. They heard the call and answered it with praise.

The incarnation that took place in Bethlehem was proof to the shepherds and to the others that gathered that God had not abandoned humanity and that He truly does work in history. For American Christians who have been on the winning side of history for most of the past 200-plus years, belief in such a God is a pretty easy thing to maintain.

It's a different set of circumstances altogether for Christians in the Middle East, particularly those in Iraq and Egypt. Their belief in a God who works in history is a much tougher to hold onto because history seems to be coming to a close for them in the land of their birth.

Christians in Iraq have been victims of some terrible attacks since the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein by American forces in 2003. These attacks have forced Iraq's Christians to flee from their homeland in great numbers. Consequently, the population of Christians living in Iraq has dwindled from 1.4 million in 2003 to somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 today. And more are getting ready to leave in the aftermath of bombing attack that killed several dozen Christians at a church in Bagdhad on Oct. 31. Things are so dangerous for Christians that church leaders have decided to cancel Christmas. If 2010 ends without more attacks on Christians, it will be a miracle.

Egypt is another place in the Middle East where Christians are in peril. They are more numerous in Egypt than they are in Iraq, but they are targets of a similar strain of hostility. In January of 2010, six Christians were murdered outside the church where they were celebrating Christmas mass. (Christians in Egypt are Coptic Orthodox Christians who celebrate Christmas in January.)

This was only one of several attacks that took place in Egypt during the past year and given the level of hostility, it's likely more acts of violence will take place in the next few weeks. Imams have appeared on television accusing Coptic Christians in Egypt of storing weapons in their churches and of being in league with Zionist Jews from Israel. In Muslim majority Egypt, these are lethal charges. When prominent religious and political leaders make accusations like this, it's a signal to others that personal attacks on Christians will be tolerated and condoned.

Fortunately, Iraqi and Coptic Christians living in the U.S. have started to speak out about the violence endured by their sisters and brothers still living in the Middle East, but for the most part, their message has not hit the mainstream. As a result, peole who would murder Christians in Iraq and Egypt have no reason to believe that American Christians in the U.S. care what happens to Christians in the Middle East. It's made the papers, but for some reason, violence against Christians in Iraq and Egypt hasn't provoked the outrage it deserves. I was at a rally in defense of Iraqi Christian rights in early December in Washington, D.C. and there were about 50 people there.

That's not very many.

That's why I am writing this letter on my own time, on Christmas Eve "Eve." (In my day job, I work as Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, also known as CAMERA.) I'm writing this letter in hopes of drawing attention to the plight of Christians in Iraq and Egypt and to pray for their safety. I'm sending it to a small number of friends in hopes that they will pass it on to others. It is my hope that in the next few weeks, thousands of people will pray a simple prayer: "Dear Lord, Restrain the Blade. Restrain the blade of anti-Christian violence in Iraq, Egypt and every where else in the world. Amen."

It's a simple prayer that can be adapted to our own lives as well. "Restrain the blade of anger in our hearts, Lord, restrain the blade. Teach us the way of forgiveness."

Send it to your pastors. Ask that they say it in the pulpit during the Christmas Eve Celebration with a particular eye toward Christians in Iraq. And once Christmas is over, I ask you to focus your attention on the welfare of Coptic Christians in Egypt who will celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, 2011. If possible, organize prayer vigils to draw attention to the anti- Christian violence in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. The underlying goal should be to remind leaders in both the U.S. and in the Middle East to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East.

Pass it on.

Restrain the blade.


Dexter Van Zile
Boston, Massachusetts
Dec. 23, 2010