According to the most recent press reports a suicide bomber exploded his device outside al-Qidiseen (St. Mark & St. Peter the Seal of Martyrs) Coptic Orthodox Church in Sidi Beshr, in Alexandria as worshippers were leaving Mass, left at least 21 worshippers dead and 43 people wounded.
Commenting on these events, Abba Seraphim said, “Once again we have woken up to a new civil year with news of a horrifying and brutal attack on Coptic Orthodox Christians. Through the timing of this attack we are reminded that as the world celebrated a new millennium on the night of 31 December 1999, the Christians of El-Kosheh suffered the nightmare of a sectarian mob on the rampage, security forces which failed to intervene and inhuman and degrading treatment leaving many dead and wounded.
It is a matter of deep sadness that the intervening years have not seen any significant improvement in the lot of Coptic Christians but have instead been marked by sporadic and increasingly frequent outbursts of violence in which Christians have been clearly targetted. Those who perpetuate such crimes are heartless and cruel and act against the tenets of their religion which enjoins all who believe in the one God to develop peace in their relations with others. On the contrary, those who commit such wickedness follow in the footsteps of Satan.
Because of the universal celebration of the new millennium, the atrocities in El-Kosheh just over a decade ago, took some time to attract the attention of the international media, whereas, last night’s events hit the headlines throughout the world. Perhaps the world has finally become aware of the seriousness of the situation in Egypt.
Despite professed assurances of security for all its citizens, the Egyptian government is failing to provide the protection which is its fundamental responsibility. Last year, worshippeers at Nag Hamadi were attacked and killed as they left church after the Christmas Eve Mass (6/7 January) and extremist groups have vociferously threatened further violence against Copts both in Egypt and abroad. Are we to wait powerlessly for them to consummate their threats or may we expect a serious mobilisation of the state’s security services to prevent history repeating itself ?
What is encouraging, however, is to see that the Egyptian government has on this occasion responded swiftly and decisively to the incident in Alexandria by voicing strong condemnation and practical support. President Hosni Mubarak vowed to track down those behind the fatal bomb attack: “This terrorist act has shaken the conscience of the nation …. All of Egypt was targeted, and blind terrorism does not distinguish between Copt and Muslim.” The Ministry of Health and the Governorate of Alexandria provided rapid assistance for those wounded in the bombing by flying them to specialist hospitals in Cairo and reports spoke of Muslims donating blood. The Minister of Social Solidarity announced an exceptional decision to offer urgent financial assistance to the victims and their families: £5,000 to the family of each of those killed and £1,000 for each person injured.
The terrorist group, Jama’at al-Jihad al-Islami also known as the Community of Holy Warriors, a terrorist organisation affiliated with al-Qaeda, is believed to be responsible for the incident. It is clearly in their interest to foment sectarian strife in Egypt as the government of President Mubarak has no sympathy with such groups. The Dean of Al-Azhar University spoke of his pain and grief at “this criminal incident” which tried to undermine national unity. His Holiness Pope Shenouda echoed this theme, saying it was “aimed at destabilising the country’s stability and security” and that such criminals are “the enemies of Christians and Muslims alike and they do not want good for this country, and seek to foment sedition inside.”
The Coptic Church has always supported appeals to national unity and H.H. Pope Shenouda said it was too early to indict any of the powers, preferring to leave this matter to the investigating authorities. If the Egyptian government can utilise these common feelings of outrage whilst at the same time more publicly redressing some of the imbalance which has led to just grievances from the Coptic community, the cause of national unity will be strengthened. Whilst no-one accuses the government of complicity in such attacks, injustices unresolved may be exploited by extremists, whose failure to achieve success in the recent elections does not mean they have gone away. Until it demonstrates a willingness to address the deeper concerns of the Coptic community in both a committed and effective way, Egypt’s government will be seen to be neglecting its primary duty of ensuring the security and welfare of all its citizens. We must pray that out of these terrible events some lasting good may yet come.”
At the invitation of the North American Archdiocese of the Eritrean Orthodox Church Abba Seraphim attended its twelfth annual conference, held this year in Stamford, Connecticut. Accompanied by Mr. Trevor Maskery, he was received at the Hampton Inn on Friday, 23 July by His Grace Bishop Makarios and introduced to the clergy and senior lay representatives of parishes as far afield as Oakland (California), Atlanta (Georgia), Seattle (Washington) and Toronto as well as east coast communities.
From here the clergy processed the short distance to the hall of the Sacred Heart Parish in Schuyler Avenue, which was made available for conference sessions by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport. Upon arrival the clergy were greeted by a large body of laity and vested deacons who conducted them to the hall with traditional songs and the beating of drums. They were then formally welcomed by Bishop Makarios, following which Abba Seraphim spoke of his close association with the Eritrean Church since its independence and his delight at visiting the North American diocese, which had remained such a staunch supporter of His Holiness Abune Antonios. Later that evening Abba Seraphim and Bishop Makarios dined together and were able to discuss matters of common concern and interest.
On Saturday morning, 24 July, Abba Seraphim and Bishop Makarios, assisted by the priests and deacons, celebrated the Divine Liturgy (Anaphora of the Apostles) at Archangels Greek Orthodox Church in Bedford Street, Stamford, during which Professor Deacon Habtu Ghebre-Ab was ordained a priest (with the name Father Athanasios) to serve the Eritrean community in Cincinatti. The new priest had only visited Abba Seraphim at the Church Secretariat in Charlton two months previously when he had spoken of his planned ordination although at that time Abba Seraphim had not planned to be in New York this summer.
During the Liturgy Abba Seraphim preached on the Gospel (John X: 11-21) and illustrated the importance to the apostolic faith and traditions, which recognised Abune Antonios as the canonical Eritrean Patriarch or the one who “entereth in by the door” as “the shepherd of the sheep” in contrast to the government appointee who “enterest not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.” Abba Seraphim declared that the clergy and faithful who upheld the canonical church order were faithful to the apostolic tradition and were right not to follow a stranger but rather to “flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.” During the service special prayers were said for Abune Antonios and those imprisoned in Eritrea for their faith and the Patriarch’s picture was prominantly displayed in the church.
After lunch Mr. Trevor Maskery, who has designed the websites for Patriarch Antonios and the British Orthodox Church, spoke about the importance of harnessing the power of the internet and directed attention to some of the opportunities which still needed to be grasped.
Abba Seraphim also gave a keynote address, “How shall we sing the Lord’s Song in a strange Land?” addressing some of the issues which face an expatriate community which has largely fled from persecution at home. The text of this talk is now available in booklet form from www.lulu.org In the evening Abba Seraphim and Mr. Maskery dined with a group of lay leaders and explored further some of the issues raised during the day’s meeting.
On Sunday. 25 July Abba Seraphim and Bishop Makarios, assisted by the priests and deacons, celebrated the Divine Liturgy (Anaphora of St. Jacob of Serough) with St. Gabriel Eritrean Orthodox Parish of New York which worships in the basement chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church at 469 W. 142nd Street, New York, which was also the commemoration of the Archangel Gabriel. After the liturgy the clergy and people went in solemn procession around the entire block as an important witness in the community where they worship. Many people came out to watch with deep respect and to share in the joy which the procession presented to all around. After a festive agape Abba Seraphim again preached on St. Gabriel and the angelic ministries and Bishop Makarios made commemorative presentations to Fr. Athanasios and those also ordained hegoumenos and reader over this blessed weekend. Abba Seraphim returned to London on 26 July.
Commenting on his visit Abba Seraphim spoke of the deep joy experienced in the opportunity to have close contact and eucharistic communion with this particular diocese of the Eritrean Orthodox Church which is notable for its integrity and fidelity to Abune Antonios and the Orthodox tradition. He was impressed by the dedication and commitment of the clergyand by their energy, which not only involved teaching the faith but also in studying for theological degrees (often in addition to degrees already earned in other disciplines) to advance their own knowledge. The continuing love and pastoral concern which His Holiness Pope Shenouda has always shown for the Eritrean Church was manifested recently by providing them with a bishop highly respected for his fidelity and integrity, which will provide the oversight long needed by the dio0cese. “Under the wise leadership of Bishop Makarios, these faithful priests and people will prove to be a powerful witness to this authentic expression of Orthodox ecclesiology, and with its eirenic and spiritually based ethos, this diocese will one day be the means of blessing the Orthodox in Eritrea who remain and quietly witness to their long and preciously held faith in Christ.”
On 17 July 2010, Abba Seraphim, accompanied by Deacon Theodore de Quincey, attended an Ecumenical Service at Westminster Cathedral in celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of St. John Roberts.
John Roberts (1577-1610) was a Welsh gentleman, descended from the ancient British kings, who was educated at St. John’s College, Oxford, and studied law in London. Although raised a Protestabnt he converted to Catholicism and studied at the English College at Vallodolid in Spain. He was professed as a Benedictine monk as Brother John of Merioneth. Ordained a Catholic priest he became a frequent visitor to England where he celebrated the mass and ministered to persecuted Catholics in London, especially during outbreaks of the Plague. He was arrested and imprisoned on several occasions and deported but each time returned. For exercising his priesthood he was found guilty of high treason and executed at the age of 33 years. Commenting on the celebration Abba Seraphim noted that as a Londoner he wanted to honour the humanitarian and pastoral ministry of the saint to Londoners; and that all those who are conscious of the problems of exercising Christian ministry in times of persecution would immediately value the saint’s determination as well as realising the extraordinary sacrifice he made to fulfil his priestly vocation.
Leading this eirenic celebration were the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster (Mgr. Vincent Nichols), the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Rowan Williams), the Anglican Archbishop of Wales (The Most Rev’d Barry Morgan) and the Catholic Bishop of Wrexham (Mgr. Edwin Regan) with many other Catholic and Anglican bishops from Wales. Other Orthodox Churches were represented by His Grace Bishop Athanasios of Tropaeou (Oecumenical Patriarchate), Archbishop Elisey of Sourozh (Moscow Patriarchate), The Very Rev’d Archimadrite of the Oecumenical Throne Ephrem (Lash) and Archimandrite Deiniol, Administrator of the Wales Orthodox Mission (Ukrainian Orthodox Church within the Oecumenical Patriarchate). Large contingents from Wales were in enthusiastic attendance and the service was bi-lingual.
A Prayer Vigil was held outside the Eritrean Embassy in Islington, London, on 3 June 2010 to protest at the treatment of Christians in Eritrea. It was called to mark the eighth anniversary of the closure of minority churches in Eritrea, after which even main-stream churches, like the majority Eritrean Orthodox Church have suffered systematic persecution.
The vigil was organised through the collaboration of a number of groups, including Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Release Eritrea, Church in Chains, Release (voice of persecuted Christians), Open Doors (serving persecuted Christians Worldwide) and the British Orthodox Church. For an hour on a sunny afternoon in London, a committed group of concerned Christians stood on the pavement opposite the Eritrean Embassy – as cars and buses with intrigued spectators passed by – and prayed, read from the scriptures, sang spiritual songs and heard meditative addresses from those working with and for the suffering Christians in Eritrea, regardless of their religious affiliation. Unlike political demonstrations the tone was calm, reflective and prayerful and there was no hint of invective against the oppressors. Both the Eritrean President and the Ambassador in London were spoken of courteously and prayed for fervently. His Eminence Abba Seraphim spoke of his concerns about His Holiness Abune Antonios, the elderly Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch, who had refused to bow to pressure from the government when the persecuition began and because of his stand for truth and justice found himself deposed from office and placed under house arrest. His position of national importance and his unswerving integity made him a symbol of all who were suffering for their Christian faith. At the conclusion of the vigil Abba Seraphim, supported by The Right Rev’d Christopher Chessun, (Anglican) Bishop of Woolwich and Dr. Berhane Asmelash of Release Eritrea, called at the Embassy to deliver a letter addressed to the Ambassador expressing their concerns and asking for the release of prisoners of conscience.
Daniel Malyon (BOC Portsmouth), who was present at the vigil, writes:
Yesterday, in protest of the continuing persecution of our Christian brethren in Eritrea, a number of Human Rights groups and Church representatives attended a vigil outside the Eritrean embassy in London. It was great to see an event attended by such a variety of people from different cultures and Christian groups. We had people from the Eritrean Orthodox, the British Orthodox, the Anglican Church and independent Churches, all united in prayer and concern for the Christian community in Eritrea.
To have all these groups together representing a single cause is a rarity these days, but was certainly significant. Everyone was involved in the prayer and the speeches, rejoicing in the gifts we recieve through faith, and in the knowledge of our protection, and to show concern for those that are not given the opportunity to rejoice in their faith, for fear that it will cost them their lives.
The readings from Romans certainly set the tone for the vigil, reminding us that whatever we suffer for Christ in life will be repaid in joy after we die. We are reminded that though the Eritrean Christians suffer needlessly and for no real legal reason, they are the martyrs of the modern day, just as Justin Martyr, St Paul and other early Christians suffered for their faith. As Romans 8:18 says “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
There was much media coverage on the day from the respresented charity groups, and a lot of focus on Church representation, such as the support of an Anglican Bishop and HE Metropolitan Seraphim, as to know that the church establishments are supporting them is vital for the people of Eritrea of whom 90% belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Church, a sister Church of the British Orthodox. The Evangelical representatives also spoke of the need for more to be done by the world to prevent single party governments such as Eritrea from arresting political opponents or those that speak for the rights of the persecuted, as freedom of worship and conscience are vital in society.
The vigil continued with “praise songs” from the Evangelical Church representatives, as well as prayers for both those suffering in Eritrea, and for her government. Some may not understand why we would pray for the opressors of our Eritrean brothers and sisters, but if we do not pray for those who cause suffering, we are no better than they are, as we would be as uncaring as their actions. At 4pm, after the Charities had finished speaking of the Eritrean situation Abba Seraphim led a deputation to deliver a letter to the Embassy across the road. This was given to one of the staff of the Ambassador, informing him of the reaction of the British public, church organisations and Human Rights groups to the continued opression and imprisonment of Christians in Eritrea.
This event happens yearly in London, and though it has not ended the persecutions in Eritrea, I feel that it is a moral duty to continue to stand beside the people of Eritrea, and let them know that they are still in our prayers and thoughts, for if we lose hope, so wil they.
On 25 May, 2010, Abba Seraphim received at the Church Secretariat in Charlton, Deacon Habtu Ghebre-Ab, Professor of History at the University of Cincinatti and one of the board of the St. Athanasios Charitable Society (SACS) and “In Chains for Christ,” the Voice of the Persecuted Church in Eritrea. The Professor was in the UK attending a peace conference in Brighton but travelled to London to meet with Abba Seraphim. They discussed issues relating to the current state of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the imprisonment of Abune Antonios, the canonical Patriarch, as well as areas of future support and co-operation.