Listen: Father Mark Basili from St Marks Coptic Church in Arncliffe, Sydney, reflects on centuries of persecution of Coptic Christians.
Above: The Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo: Dan Lundberg, CC BY-SA 2.0
Australia’s Egyptian Christians have rallied to prayer for their brothers and sisters in faith, after the ISIS attacks on two churches in Egypt on Sunday.
As news of the attacks came through, Father Mark Basili from St Marks Coptic Church in Arncliffe, Sydney, spoke to Open House presenter Stephen O’Doherty.
He called for prayers for both Egyptian believers, and for the attackers themselves, after the shocking bomb attacks in Alexandra and Tanta that claimed at least 45 lives.
“We ask all the Christians to share with us in prayer and we also pray for the attackers, that God would have mercy on them and also touch their hearts,” he said. “As Christians we’re called to love everybody, even those who persecute us.”
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Centuries of Persecution Against Egyptian Coptics
Father Mark, who has been in touch with clergy friends in Egypt since the attacks, said the attacks were clearly timed to hurt the largest number of Christians possible as they gathered to celebrate Palm Sunday, an annual tradition for many Christians.
“Palm Sunday is the celebration of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, and for the Coptic Orthodox Church it’s one of the most significant feasts and probably the most crowded day in the whole church calendar,” Father Mark said.
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“It’s devastating to begin this beautiful period of Easter in this kind of way. It definitely would have been one of the most crowded days of the whole year in church.”
The attack follows a suicide bombing in December last year on St Peter and St Paul church at St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, which killed 24 people; as well as the murder of 21 Egyptian Christians by Islamists on a beach in Libya in 2015.
Father Mark explained that Egyptian Christians are sadly familiar with persecution. In fact on the Open Doors ‘World Watch List’, a ranking of the 50 nations where Christians are treated the worst, Egypt ranks at number 21.
“The Coptic Church has always been an attacked minority,” Father Mark said. “Christians are living in fear and persecution, all for their love for Christ and just wanting to worship Jesus.”
The Church That Predates the Bible
The Coptic Church is one of the most ancient of the Christian faith. It was established the first century AD by St Mark the apostle, the author of one of the Biblical gospel texts. He travelled to Alexandria in Egypt and from there Christianity spread all across Egypt.
Both the Coptic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria are believed to be descended from that early church plant in Alexandria.
“It’s a very ancient, special and beautiful church,” said Father Mark, who is himself named after Mark the Apostle. “But it’s definitely stained with the blood of the martyrs throughout the centuries.”
Australia has large Coptic congregations in both Sydney and Melbourne, as well two Bishops, a monastery, dozens of churches and thousands of parishioners.
“It’s a church with a lot of young people, very devout, and probably the reason is the strength that comes from being persecuted in Egypt.”
“It’s a very active church with a lot of young people, very devout, and probably the reason for that is the strength that comes from being persecuted in Egypt,” Father Mark explained. “When you are persecuted for Christ’s sake it does strengthen your faith, make you closer and more dependent on God. You can see that ripple effect in the parishioners and the way their faith is deeply rooted, in the way they worship.”
Catholic Archbishop’s Personal Connection to Egypt
In response to the Palm Sunday bombings, Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher has also joined in the call to prayer, inspired not only by his faith but his personal connection to Egypt.
“My own grandmother was born in the then-peaceful city of Alexandria, after her family fled persecution elsewhere,” he said in a statement. “As we gather in parishes across Australia this week to commemorate the Lord’s Passion, let us be thankful and never take for granted that we are able to do so in safety; and let us remember in our pryaers who are dying for their faith in Christ.”
Australia’s Coptic congregations are looking forward to a visit by the Coptic Pope Tawadros II in September this year.
An article by Open Doors recalls how the church in Egypt has typically responded to persecution with love and forgiveness.