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Priests fear Egyptian youth will turn away from Church

By on Monday, 14 February 2011

Egyptians celebrate the resignation of Mubarak in Tahrir Square (Photo: PA)

Egyptians celebrate the resignation of Mubarak in Tahrir Square (Photo: PA)

Two priests with strong ties to Egypt have said they fear young Egyptian Catholics will turn away from the Church because it did not back the protests that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

Fr Makarios Isaac, an Egyptian-born priest currently based in Kenya, said: “If we lose the youth in the Church, then we are done.”

Fr Isaac, originally ordained for the Coptic Catholic Diocese of Minya, Egypt, and the former diocesan development director there, said the main Muslim and Orthodox leaders forbade participation in the protests. He said the Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, Cardinal Antonios Naguib, told protesters to go home.

The priest said he feared young people will “turn their backs on the Church”, and say: “You never stood with us … you never taught us to stand up for our rights.”

Maryknoll Fr Douglas May, who worked in Egypt for 18 years of Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule, said he thought “the Christian leaders in Egypt played it safe”.

Fr May, now stationed in Nairobi, said: “I’m afraid that the Church leadership has lost its credibility with the Christian youth over this.”

Both priests, who have indults to minister to Coptic- and Latin-rite Catholics, spoke of discrimination that Christians faced under Mubarak’s rule and that of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

In interviews with the American Catholic News Service in the days following Mubarak’s February 11 resignation, they said that any permit to do with a Church building – even repainting it – had to be signed by the former president.

“We had to wait 21 years to get a permit,” said Fr Isaac. Even after the permit was granted, he said, state or local officials could stop construction for “security issues”.

Fr May, who left Egypt in 2007 but still visits at least twice a year, said that in the town of Dalga, Coptic Orthodox literally worship underground because they have not had a permit for a church for 20 years. In the same town, a mosque was built next to a Catholic church, and local authorities closed down the church because Muslims complained that the long Sunday liturgies were interfering with their noon call to prayer.

He said that, as a foreign priest, he was often called in by the Egyptian secret police, which he said had spies at the Coptic Catholic seminary where he taught. He said police would mention that the bishop was not going to attend a meeting – when no one else knew that – and even repeated back to him things he had said in confidence to four seminarians.

Both priests also spoke of discrimination against Christians.

In the Egyptian army, said Fr May, discrimination against Christians was constant. “There’s a fair amount of conversion” to Islam in the military because of the pressure, he said. Christians are called “mushrik”, which means someone who believes in many gods or is an idol worshipper. He compared it to calling an American “the n-word”.

He said he knew of one army officer who was refused a pen by a colleague when the colleague saw the cross on the Christian’s wrist.

Fr Isaac said that, in the 1970s, two of his brothers were kidnapped by members of the Muslim Brotherhood in an effort to get Muslim prisoners released. His brothers were later freed in a prisoner exchange.

He said when he attended two different universities in the 1970s and early 1980s, he was asked if he were Christian or Muslim, because professors could not tell by his name.

“If you were Christian, you would feel it right away,” he said, adding that Christians never got the top grades, even if they were most intelligent.

He said that everyone in Egypt was expecting some sort of explosion, not a fairly peaceful revolution, because there are “not enough jobs, everything’s so expensive”.

He added there is “great hope” about the country’s future – including that whoever leads Egypt will be concerned not to make the same mistakes as Mubarak, “because they can see the power of the people”.

Fr May said he thought it was too early to tell how things would turn out for Egypt’s Christians.

“If Muslims and Christians can see that their destinies are linked as Egyptians … there’s a chance that this could get better,” he said.

  • Lee

    Here is hoping that many Egyptians will see just what Islam is capable of when fused with Arab Nationalism creates the sort of violence that was seen by both sides and that for the already Christians, that they stick steadfast to the Holy Faith of their ancestors and sharpen their faith against the transient wanes of nationalism and ethno pseudo religious nationalism (Islam).

  • Karmenu of Malta

    If the Christian leaders in Egypt “played it safe”, they must have behaved according to the best of their judgement. It is not the mission of the Church to teach youth to “stand up for (their) rights”, even though such an activity would help to attract youth (for the wrong reason). Let us all do our duties and leave the rest to God, who is the One who is leading and sustaining the church. Many situations have turned up to be big successes immediately after looking like complete failures.

  • Esnofla

    When have Egyptian Christians ever played it safe? They have been dying by the hundreds every single year when they are attacked? Why doesn’t this silly newspaper and its reporter mention the fact that there was a Christian Mass celebrated in the square? That muslims and Christians joined in? Why doesn’t this silly reporter mention that just recently the Holy Father demanded better protection for Christians and the Ambassador to Egypt and a leading Imam in Egypt told the Holy Father to stay out of their affairs? And that they recalled the Ambassador to the Holy See? It is truly a pathetic statement to make that the Church did not stand by the protestors, and it is truly pathetic that it is a headline!

    They will not lose the youth. They will not lose their place. The Church will not disappear and crumble. The Church will not disappear because of this. It will lose its place and lose its youth if Muslim radicals continue to grow at the outstanding rate they are growing. After all, Orthodoxy in any direction is more respected than warm water or watered down theology.

  • James H

    It’s not over yet, people – the church may well be glad they didn’t commit to one side or the other, in the end.

  • Martin

    It is highly likely that these so called freedoms that we hear of in the middle east are going to soon backfire. It is likely that the Muslim Brotherhood or very similiar parties (party?) will take over the government in a lot of places. All of them being essencially Muslim.

    I would argue it best that Christians were not involved in over throwing the government, we are called to pray for them rather than ouste them. And i believe that this is what they have been doing in a very real sense. Paul had the same view point in the scriptures and he was refering to the Roman Government! The very one that torched Christians and fed them to wild beasts. The Holy Spirit through Paul wanted us to transform the government from the inside and concentrate on building only one Kingdom. The Kingdom of God.

    The most important thing is that we in countries who are not yet being persecuted stand with our brothers and support them as we are able, especially through prayer.

    Esnofla i think sums up the frustration of a defeatist attitude in others. It is suffering that refines a Christian (although it is something we may not like), it is being victimised that forces us to look at what we truely believe in, it is in digging in that we become a light to the darkness around us and it is in dieing as she also refered to that the Gospel is sown in all of its power.

    We are privilaged to have the Coptic Church as a modern day witness to the strength of faith. Thank God for them. Numbers have never been an issue, it has always been in quality. One good seed can produce a hundred fold, Average seed can be lucky if it sprouts at all!

    I believes she is right in what she has said although

    I believe that the same is going to happen as you see in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Muslim will come to power because they are the only viable other option with political capability. Everyone else is marginalised or terrorised.

    Hopefully i am wrong but if they had supported the protests (even with the best will in the world) they would have ultimately been supporting the people who once in power are going to afflict them worse than the last one.

    Saddam was the same. For all his evils he wasnt as bad as the Talaban in persecuting Christians. He was tame in comparision.