Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Blue bone, we're not playing with you!"

Bp. Anba Damian (right)
and Bp. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van-Elst
(ACN) - "Blue bone, we're not playing with you!" – this is an insult that many Coptic children have to get used to at an early age. For "blue bone“ is a term of abuse used in Egypt against Coptic Christians and refers to the bruises so many bore on their bodies in the course of history. "Even the little children among us have to learn to live with the Cross", Bishop Anba Damian, the head of the Orthodox Copts in Germany, told the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

However, the very little children in the Coptic Orthodox church of St Mark in Frankfurt would have had no inkling as to why so many strange people had gathered in their church last Saturday (8th January 2011). They were brought there in their parents’ arms and presented to the bishop for a blessing. One newborn baby slept peacefully as Bishop Damian hugged it to his heart. His mother stood close by, smiling shyly. Children were also among the victims of the recent bloody attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria, one of them likewise a babe in arms. More than once on this afternoon there were references to the innocent children of the Gospels who were murdered by Herod soon after the birth of Jesus Christ.

The deacons sang a hymn about the painful and bloody, yet glorious history of the Coptic Christians, who had remained heroically true to their faith despite oppression, torture and death. Incense filled the air; "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow... Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice... ". The Psalm rang out; then all present prayed the Our Father together.
The church and community centre of this parish of around a thousand members was truly bursting at the seams on this occasion. Representatives of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches, high-ranking politicians, and even the chairman of the Muslim Central Council in Germany were present, together with hundreds of other visitors, in order to show their solidarity with the Coptic community. Together they prayed for the victims and committed themselves to opposing discrimination and persecution against Christians in Egypt, and also in other countries around the world.

"Our country was a place of refuge for Jesus Christ and his family, and for many prophets", Bishop Damian emphasised in his homily. "Once we were masters in our own country; today we merely wish to live as equal citizens, sharing all the same rights and duties." He described how 16 new mosques had been built before one Christian church had finally been constructed. Even simply to obtain permission to build a church, it took "a great deal of waiting". When one community centre was finally designated as a church, four young men had to pay for it with their lives – and yet within a day, a building directly opposite it had been declared a mosque, he continued. "To wish to be a Christian is not a criminal act!", he declared.

"People have had enough of flowery Oriental words; they want to see action", the Coptic Orthodox bishop continued, his homily punctuated again and again by applause. He called on the Egyptian government to punish the perpetrators, since otherwise they would be "giving a green light to the terrorists". He demanded compensation for the victims' families and called for "preventative measures, so that such a thing does not happen again". He likewise appealed to Islamic scholars to take care to ensure that the preaching in the mosques would cause people to go home with peace in their hearts and not with "anger". During his last visit to Egypt, he himself had heard a Muslim sermon that had been "a sort of declaration of war", he added. Given the high rate of illiteracy in Egypt, there were many simple people who would hear such words without discernment and react accordingly. However, the solidarity of people in Germany and in many other countries, and in particular the presence of the chairman of the Central Muslim Council in Germany and his condemnation of this deed, were to him and his faithful like "balm on their open wounds", he concluded.

The Bishop of Limburg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van-Elst, spoke in his address of the good and close relations between the Catholic and Coptic Orthodox churches and of the respect of Catholics "for the ancient traditions of the Church in Egypt and in a special way for the venerable Patriarchate of Alexandria" which, he said had been dignified "by the witness of numerous saints, martyrs and Doctors of the Church". He emphasised the common witness of Christians and described the attack on those attending the Midnight Mass as "an attack on the faith that is commemorated in the Liturgy". He called on the country's leaders to establish "a legal system that consistently tackles injustice against Christians also, and prosecutes and punishes it", and likewise a degree of religious freedom that includes the right to change one's religious affiliation.

Bishop Athanagoras Ziliaskopoulos, the representative of the Orthodox bishops' conference and chairman of the Interfaith Council in Germany, emphasised that this "cowardly attack has revealed the high price that Christians have to pay for their faith, precisely in those places that are closely associated with the origin of Christianity", and also warned against people bringing the problems and conflicts of their home countries with them and transferring them to German society.

Aiman Mayzek, the chairman of the Muslim Central Council in Germany, strongly condemned the attack and recalled that 1400 years ago the Coptic patriarch had given shelter to the Muslim community when it had suffered persecution. "Acts of terror and atrocities will not erase what Copts have given to Muslims in the way of peace and shelter", he said adding that this would "always remain in the collective memory of the Muslims". He emphasised that "the attackers will not succeed in driving a wedge between Christians and Muslims", and said that an attack on a house of God, no matter of which faith, was for Muslims like "an attack on our own mosque".

In the course of the two-hour memorial ceremony, political representatives likewise called for religious freedom. Their addresses were also interrupted with applause.

"King of peace, grant us peace!" sang the deacons. These words were repeated again and again, the voices growing ever louder and ending almost in a shout. At the end of the ceremony all those present once more joined in the Lord's Prayer together... "but deliver us from evil...". For Coptic Christians these words have a profound significance, not only at the present time but throughout the long and painful years of their history.

Abuna Pigol Bassili, the parish priest of the Coptic St Mark's parish, himself comes from Alexandria and personally knows many of the families who lost their children in the attack or whose family members are still in hospital. He too was "moved to the depths of his heart" by the events. But despite these painful experiences, the Coptic community in Frankfurt insisted that they were not afraid.

After the ceremony, Bishop Damian spoke to ACN, which as a charity committed among other things to helping persecuted Christians was likewise represented at the service. "We are a church of martyrs", he said. "No one can make us fear. Our faithful will continue to pray, even if it should be their last act of worship, for the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." He emphasised however that people had "a right to protection". He particularly welcomed the message of Pope Benedict XVI which, he said, had "eased much pain".

Father Joaquín Alliende, the international president of ACN, appealed to Christians around the world "not to leave our sisters and brothers alone and unprotected in these critical moments", but instead to pray for them and "to help build a world that is committed to reconciliation and dialogue and not to violence and hatred". He also recalled the words of Pope Benedict XVI on Boxing Day 2010: "Our world is still marked by violence, above all against the disciples of Christ".

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