The Sunday Times of Malta on 1 May 2011 published the following comments on Abba Seraphim’s visit to Malta in an interview with the Rev. Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott in his weekly page on the paper.
The organisers of the visit by Metropolitan Seraphim of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria mentioned that the original stimulus to organising the visit came from this column. How valuable do you think the visit proved to be?
The Ecumenical Service at Cospicua last Thursday certainly served to raise our awareness of the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt, which has continued in spite of the end of the Mubarak regime, as well as of the present outright persecution of Christians in more than forty states. Christian martyrs have been more numerous in our lifetime than in the years of the worst persecutions by the Roman emperors.
An unforgettable moment in my own life was when I was invited to attend, for some unexplained reason, what had been described as a Muslim Summit Conference in Cairo. Casually, I met at the Maltese Embassy a young Coptic lady whose community had just suffered serious physical violence.
Somewhat naively, I asked her whether this pressure was weakening the Christian faithful. She rolled up her sleeve, showed me a cross tattooed on her arm and kissed it.
She reminded me that by 725, almost a hundred years after the Muslim conquest, 95 per cent of Egyptians were still Christian. Even at that moment in the mid- 1990s more than one out of 10 Egyptians still belonged to the Coptic Church. However, Copts by the thousands were emigrating or trying to.
The American Coptic Association asserted that at least a million Copts had fled their country, 400,000 of whom were said to live in the US.
The reason for it was somewhat paradoxical. Mubarak was troubled especially by the fact that many hundreds of the Egyptian volunteers who had gone to fight the Soviet occupants of Afghanistan returned to Egypt eager to establish an Islamist state, possibly using the Urban Guerrilla tactics they had learnt.
So, on one hand, Mubarak set about suppressing extreme Islamism in Pharaonic style but on the other he promoted his own quiescent brand of Islam in response to growing popular pressures for a more Islamic society. This pressure included castigation of foreigners, Jews and, of course, the Coptic Christians.
Perhaps the country where persecution of Christians is now at its worst is Eritrea.
Of course, we should not practise any kind of religious discrimination when it is a matter of humanitarian aid, but surely we should take some account of the fact that immigrants may be seeking refuge here because of the lack of religious freedom in their own country.
I personally am particularly sensitive to the current sufferings of Christians in northern Nigeria following the election, apparently democratic, of a Christian to the presidency, because of my personal knowledge over many years of some of the protagonists involved.
I am always perplexed why the religious dimension is sometimes exaggerated and at other times left out in reporting of current events, for instance that in the Ivory Coast the Catholic Bishops went on clearly supporting the Christian Laurent Gbagbo against the Muslim Alassane Ouattara and that the Christians are at present suffering harshly for it. I feel very deeply that a truly planetary consciousness and solidarity is still not as developed as it should be in a Church which calls itself Catholic in the age of the internet.
Does the message of the Metropolitan Seraphim relate to today’s Feast of the Divine Mercy established by Pope John Paul II whose beatification is also very aptly taking place today?
The most interesting aspect of this relationship is perhaps this. On one hand, devotion among Christians to the Divine Mercy as such (as distinct from say the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which has flourished since the 17th century) only became widespread through the impetus given to it by Pope John Paul II in his first Encyclical.
It was devoted to this theme and clearly inspired by his knowledge of Sister Faustina whom he canonised.
On the other hand, it had been highlighted in the Muslim tradition since its very beginning. Prophet Mohammed said: “To God belongs 99 names…” the first two being “Ar-rahman” and “Ar-rahim”, which mean “the most compassionate” and “Merciful”.
When I was in Cairo, Muslims greeted me with the words: Salamo Alik Wa Rahmat Allah wa Barakato which means peace, mercy and blessing of Allah be on you. Curiously enough, just a few months ago Christians in Malaysia faced problems because some potent Muslims wanted to forbid them from using the name Allah for the Christian God, because they refused to accept that He was the same as the prophet’s.
The increasing centrality of the reference to the Divine Mercy in the Catholic Church – the bestselling religious book in France at the moment is called May Thy Mercy Come – should contribute to show the Malaysians that they are misidentifying the Christian Allah.
Actually the Metropolitan Seraphim began the Ecumenical Service at Cospicua with the Coptic Prayer of Thanksgiving , the first words of which are: “Let us give thanks unto the Beneficent and Merciful God, the Father of our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.”
I can well understand why we Western Christians should be discovering the significance of mercy as the defining attribute of God in these years.
But for it, if we just contemplate it, the disastrous situation of the world and especially of our own responsibilities for it, we could easily despair.
What was the remark you had made which actually prompted the invitation to the Metropolitan Seraphim?
I wished that there would be a confluence between those of us who were concerned to see the development of the Euro-Mediterranean political and economic network centred around a holistic marine policy and those invited to respond to Pope John Paul’s call to the Maltese Church to concentrate on Judeo-Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Fr Peter Serracino Inglott was talking to Miriam Vincenti.