Today’s feast revives collective memories of the Church of Egypt. Founded by St Mark, the Evangelist, and known as the Coptic Church, the connection between Christianity and Egypt goes right back to the visit of Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus.
The religious history of Egypt goes back to the early days of the Chosen People who sought refuge there and eventually became enslaved. The history of the Jews is intimately connected with the history of Egypt.
As Coptic (local word for Egyptian) Christianity grew, Egypt provided its fair share of martyrs of the faith during the persecution of Diocletian. It was also home to the first Christian hermits and saw the beginnings of monastic life with St Antony of the desert. The Coptic Church today numbers about 8 million, 10% of the total population of Egypt. It has communities here in South Africa.
As we celebrate the feast of the Flight into Egypt we are very much away of the flight from Egypt: Christians are leaving Egypt in droves because of the pressures on them from the Muslim Brotherhood. The slide towards an Islamic state has already meant disaster for many Coptic Christians. The Maspero massacre of Coptic Christians last November is only one of several acts of aggression against Egyptian Christians.
The fact that at the moment Muhammed Morsi is himself the subject of nationwide protests does not means that the goals of the “Arab Spring” have changed; nor is it any guarantee that things would be better for Christians under a different leader. The new Constitution, rushed though parliament, enshrines Sharia values and fails to guarantee religious freedom to all Egyptians.
Today, surely, we must pray for the ancient Coptic Church – which together with the Ethiopian Church – represents the oldest Christian communities on the African continent. In 1973 Pope Paul VI and Pope Shendouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church signed an official agreement on the doctrine of Christ. United in him we can go forward into the future with hope.
Fr Sean Wales, C.Ss.R.