What is it like to be a Christian in Egypt?

What is it like to be a Christian in Egypt?

In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 photo, journalist and author Shady Lewis Botros poses with a copy of his book, “Ways of the Lord,” in London. The new Arabic-language novel, the author’s first, explores the lives of Egyptian Christians, dealing with discrimination but also a Church aligned with a state seeking to control them. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Shady Lewis Botros says his recently published novel — “Ways of the Lord” — can be broadly viewed as an attempt to answer one question: What it’s like to be a Christian in Egypt?

The answer, given in stories narrated by the book’s chief character, is complex and often disheartening. It’s giving your children neutral names that don’t identify them as Christians in hopes they’ll have a sporting chance of progress in the mainly Muslim nation. It means facing baseless but dangerous charges of spying for Israel at time of war. It means turning off the lights at home and gathering the family in one room to escape the attention of a Muslim mob on the street.

Beyond entrenched discrimination, the Arabic-language novel explores what the author says is the victimization of Egypt’s Christians by a “politically engineered harmony” between the state and their own church, seeking to control their lives.

“Ways of the Lord” is a rare example of an Egyptian work of fiction whose primary characters are Christian. The result breaks stereotypes that many of the country’s Muslims hold about their minority compatriots. But it also turns the look inward, dispelling the secrecy surrounding the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church — the predominant denomination in Egypt — and addressing its controlling practices and its rivalries with smaller churches.

“Most Coptic literature is about the discrimination or oppression Christians endure with a dose of rights advocacy. That’s understandable but that is also about as far as it goes,” Botros told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from London, his home of 13 years. “This work introduces Egyptians to the reality of Copts as a people who are not always praying, singing hymns and waiting on every word from the church. The novel opens the world of Copts to both Copts and Muslims.”

The novel, the author’s first, takes on added relevance because the Coptic Church leadership has adhered closer than ever to the government. It’s an alliance that gives the community a measure of protection but has raised questions over its independence and has drawn the wrath of Islamic militants, who have over the past two years killed more than a 100 Christians in attacks.

The church’s unity is also being tested, partially over calls for it to modernize some of its rigid rules, like those governing marriage and divorce. The killing in July of the abbot of a monastery, for which two monks are on trial, has led to soul searching about the practices of monasticism, traditionally a cornerstone of the church’s identity.

The novel tells the story of a young Christian man in Cairo, Sherif, who has abandoned the church. He’s in a relationship with a German woman, but to marry her he must first get a church document. So he goes to his neighborhood priest each week for interviews that turn into confessionals.

Sherif relates a series of tales to explain to the priest why he never comes to church. He tells of his family’s past rebellions, like a grandfather who left the Coptic Church because the priest would not baptize his newborn child before her death.

As a young man, he says, he hopped from one Christian denomination to another to explore his identity. His father is cynical about his spiritual search, telling his son, “Generally, they are all con artists.”

The confession sessions with the priest are one of two plot tracks running through the novel. The other follows Sherif’s political activism, which lands him in trouble with the police. His one hope to escape jail time is to marry his girlfriend and go to Germany, but in the end, the girlfriend returns home. He spends a year in jail for a white-collar crime he did not commit.

“Sherif was painted as a character in crisis and that’s not just on account of being a member of a minority, but rather as someone facing an existential crisis over his problems with the church and the state,” said literary critic Ahmed Shawqy Ali.

The novel ends with Sherif surrendering to the powers that crush his rebellion. Jobless after losing his government engineering job, he survives on a small income from doing little jobs for the church, while telling his stories to whoever will listen. “The ways of the Lord are strange and tough to understand,” Sheriff says of his return to the church’s embrace.

Botros said the book’s “fatalistic” ending “shows that, in a place like Egypt, religious minorities like Christians don’t have many choices.”

The church presents itself as the protector of Egypt’s Copts, and many in the community adhere to it fervently.

“The church is a peacemaker that is in harmony with everyone, from the ruling government and civil society groups to al-Azhar,” said a church spokesman, Boulis Halim, referring to the top Muslim institution in Egypt. “We cannot deny that there are shortcomings in some respects, especially the social field, but that will evolve going forward.”

But critics say the interests of individual Christians get lost under the church’s communal leadership.

Kamal Zakher, a Christian who is one of Egypt’s top experts on the Coptic Church, said the church has become a “hostage” to the government for safety, particularly since the rise of Islamic hard-liners starting in the 1970s.

It and the government leadership deal with each other directly, but “they have all forgotten that ordinary Christians deal on daily basis with bureaucrats who, like everyone else, have been influenced by that Islamic revival,” Zakher said.

Karoline Kamel, a researcher on church affairs from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the novel’s main character is not typical of Coptic youth, who in large part associate closely with the church. But she said the novel gets the theme of control right.

“The church’s protection is focused on itself as an institution, as walls and buildings regardless of what happens to Christians,” she said.

George H.W. Bush’s legacy on racial issues is complicated

George H.W. Bush’s legacy on racial issues is complicated

Video Courtesy of The New York Times

George H.W. Bush got elected president after a campaign marked by the infamous Willie Horton ad, about a black murderer who raped a white woman while on a weekend furlough from prison.

On the other side of the racial ledger, Bush appointed Gen. Colin Powell as the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

And while Bush replaced civil rights hero Thurgood Marshall with another black man to maintain the racial status quo on the Supreme Court, he picked Clarence Thomas, a conservative whose views are at odds with those of much of black America.

Lionized upon his death as a man of decency and civility, Bush has a mixed and complicated legacy when it comes to race.

“Intellectually and emotionally, he was somebody who was civil rights-minded,” said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley. “Bush wanted to see himself as being a man devoid of racism. But the reality is that Bush often had to do dog whistles and appeal to less enlightened Americans on race.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson summed up the 41st president’s record this way: “He was a fundamentally fair man. He didn’t block any door. He was never a demagogue on the question of race.”

Bush, who died Friday at 94, had a political career that spanned decades and straddled the Jim Crow era, the civil rights movement and its aftermath.

To many black Americans, the Willie Horton ad is an indelible stain on his reputation.

The TV spot about the Massachusetts inmate was produced by Bush supporters during his 1988 presidential campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. It was widely condemned as racist and is regarded three decades later as one of the most extreme attack ads in modern political history.

The Bush campaign disavowed the ad at the time, but Bush’s chief strategist, Lee Atwater, exploited its message to paint Dukakis as soft on crime.

In an interview Monday, Jackson said that he and Bush discussed the ad and that it was the president’s biggest regret.

“It was out of character for him,” the civil rights leader said of Bush and the Willie Horton strategy. “He did it in the heat of battle.”

Bush got his start in politics in Texas, where he joined a Republican Party still regarded as “the party of Lincoln.” During his first, losing bid for Congress in 1964, he criticized his opponent’s support for the Civil Rights Act, legislation many in his home state opposed.

He won election to Congress two years later and went on to support the Fair Housing Act of 1968, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson a week after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Bush considered the housing law “the right thing to do,” according to Jackson, who called him “a man of immense dignity who has a very special place in American history.”

Bush caused a minor flap during the 1988 Republican National Convention, when he referred to three of his grandchildren as the “little brown ones.” The three were children of Bush’s son Jeb and his Mexico-born wife, Columba.

Defending himself at a news conference, Bush called his grandchildren his “pride and joy” and added: “For anyone to suggest that that comment of pride is anything other than what it was — I find it personally offensive.”

Columba and the grandchildren later ended up in a Spanish-language campaign commercial where Bush promised to help Hispanics because he would have to answer to his family and “answer to history.”

Once in office, Bush elevated African-Americans to the heights of public office. He nominated Powell to the top post in the U.S. military. Powell went on to become the first black secretary of state, under Bush’s son George W. Bush.

The elder Bush also appointed Dr. Louis Sullivan, founding president of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, as secretary of health and human services.

“He is someone who I would characterize as fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” Sullivan said in an interview Monday. “He believed that people should earn their way, but he felt that everyone should have the equal opportunity for development and appointment to positions. He was very much committed to that, as was his wife, Barbara.”

In 1991, Bush nominated Thomas to replace the retiring Marshall, the first African-American on the Supreme Court. Thomas was the ideological opposite of Marshall, a civil rights legend who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case that struck down school segregation.

Thomas’ controversial nomination was made even more so when former employee Anita Hill accused him in lurid detail of sexual harassment. Thomas denied the allegations and won confirmation.

Currently the longest-serving member of the high court, Thomas has ruled against affirmative action and voted to end key protections in the Voting Rights Act.

Also in 1991, Bush denounced former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke as a racist and a “charlatan” days before Duke lost his bid for governor of Louisiana. Afterward, Bush said: “I did what I did because of principle. This man, his record, is one of racism and bigotry, and I’m sorry, I just felt I had to speak out.”

The 1992 Rodney King verdict and Los Angeles riots also tested Bush on race in his final year as president. In a primetime address in the wake of the burning and looting that resulted in dozens of deaths, injuries and arrests, Bush called for law and order while seeming to empathize with those who were angered by the acquittal of the officers charged in the videotaped beating of the black motorist.

“As your president, I guarantee you this violence will end,” Bush said. “This is not about civil rights or the great cause of quality that all Americans must hold. It is not a message of protest. It’s been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple. But beyond urgent need to restore order is the question of justice.”

Bush described the King beating as “revolting” and said he spoke to civil rights leaders who felt betrayed by the jury’s decision.

“I felt anger. I felt pain. I thought, ‘How can I explain this to my grandchildren?'” he told viewers.

Harvard University historian Leah Wright Rigueur said that ultimately, Bush is hard to pin down on race.

“Bush helped pave the way for the modern Republican Party, we see now,” she said. “He gives us Clarence Thomas, but he also gives us Colin Powell. That’s his signature, that he plays both sides of the game.”

Reaching Generation Z: A how-not-to guide for churches

Reaching Generation Z: A how-not-to guide for churches

Video Courtesy of Congressional Black Caucus Foundation

The headlines are screaming that Generation Z, born from the mid- to late 1990s to somewhere around 2010, is the least religious generation in recorded history.

More than a third of these teenagers and early 20-somethings are “nones,” meaning they identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” on a survey.

And within that umbrella group, the percentage who are atheists is twice that of the general population, according to research by the Barna Group (from 6% of all Americans to 13% of Gen Zers).

James Emery White, a megachurch pastor in North Carolina, gives voice to his considerable anxiety about all this in Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World.

Spoiler alert: I strongly disliked this book.

In the guise of helping pastors, parents, and teachers “understand” and “reach out” to Generation Z, this book showcases the very problems it tells readers to avoid. White chides church leaders for clinging to the models of previous generations (door-to-door evangelism, large events) even while demonstrating a remarkable tone deafness to the deeper concerns of this generation (racism, homophobia, violence in schools, and the list goes on).

White begins the book by drawing on standard research from Pew, Gallup, and Barna to demonstrate the scope of the problem—young adults going AWOL from religion if they ever had religion in the first place. So far, so good as books go; White can be a clear and effective writer when he’s not lazily quoting his own previous books ad nauseam.

And then things get vague. The church needs to be “countercultural,” he asserts, but he has an easier time telling us what this isn’t than what it is. It’s not the Benedict Option, in which Christians withdraw from society and politics; it’s not fundamentalism, which is a thoroughgoing rejection of the modern world; it’s not the tactic of the religious right, which is to politicize the bejesus out of faith.

Instead, countercultural means for “the church to be the church” and “truly Christlike.” Which is nice, but tells us nothing.

I’d be more likely to give White the benefit of the doubt about counterculturalism if he weren’t showing on every page that his Christianity is not, in fact, countercultural. It’s bowing to a very specific 1950s American Christianity. So it’s “countercultural” by the measures of today, but not in a good way.

Consider what he has to say about women. To reach Generation Z, he tells readers, it’s important to “target men” first and foremost. His church (which he reminds us many times has been successfully growing despite the godless landscape of . . . um, North Carolina, the nation’s tenth-most-religious state) “unashamedly” puts men first in its marketing materials, sermons, music choices, and décor.

What does it mean to target men? It means you think about male sensibilities in terms of music and message, vocabulary and style. . . . When I give a message, I talk like a man talks, specifically, the way a man talks with other men. Direct and maybe a little rough around the edges. But men talk football, not fashion. So I cater to a man’s humor, his interests, his world, his way of thinking, his questions. (148)

If you can reach men, he says, women and children will follow (“if you get the man, you get everyone else within his orbit”).

There are some real problems with this argument. First, this is supposed to be a book about reaching people in their teens and early twenties. One of the major shifts in American culture is that many adults are delaying marriage until their 30s or not getting married at all. So this whole evangelistic focus on older men with wives and children totally ignores the demographic we purchased this book to learn more about.

Second, he never thinks to challenge the patriarchal structure that would dictate that if you can get a man to church, his wife and children will automatically and obediently follow: If it worked in America in the 1950s, by golly, it’s surely good enough for us now!

What’s especially myopic about that lack of self-awareness is that this is supposed to be a book about “understanding” Generation Z. But this is a generation that can sniff out inequality and white male privilege like a basset hound, God bless them. They care about diversity and inclusion, even to the point where they don’t want to work for companies that don’t share those values.

Why, then, would White assume Gen Zers would fall in line with churches that so obviously disregard gender equality? If they won’t be associated with the old boys’ club when they’re getting a paycheck for it, why would they do so on their own time?

Third, the advice to “target men” may be having the opposite long-term effect from what White wants, which is more butts in the pews. There’s solid longitudinal evidence that young women are now leaving religion at even higher rates than young men—which is a reversal from previous generations. This exodus is likely due to many factors, but it’s not hard to imagine that enduring a childhood of sermons that drew proudly upon hypermasculine football metaphors and assumptions that women were considered less important may play a part. Just thinking out loud here.

It’s not just in this particularly egregious “target men” section that White’s lack of concern for women is made clear; it’s pervasive in the book’s citations and assumptions. He quotes or mentions five men for every woman (yes, I counted). And almost everyone he quotes, male or female, is white. He gives the obligatory nod to MLK, and then . . . nothing. As though African Americans have had little of value to say in 50 years.

We have to do better than this. And doing better begins with an activity White doesn’t seem to have engaged in much: listening to Generation Z directly.

Talking less and learning more.

Not just calling them to account for their generational sins, but being sensitive to the way they rightly call bullshit on their elders.


Related posts:

Why Millennials are really leaving religion (it’s not just politics, folks)

The best book about Millennials and the church

Church renovation lifts Christmas spirit in Bethlehem

Church renovation lifts Christmas spirit in Bethlehem

Video Courtesy of Vic Stefanu – World Travels and Adventures

A historic renovation of the Church of the Nativity is lifting spirits in the biblical town of Bethlehem ahead of Christmas, offering visitors a look at ancient mosaics and columns that have been restored to their original glory for the first time in 600 years.

City officials hope the renovation at the traditional birthplace of Jesus will boost tourism and a weak economy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and perhaps slow a decades-long drain of the Christian population from the lands where the faith was born.

“Christians are leaving the Holy Land due to the lack of peace and economic hardships and we are struggling to keep them in their homeland,” said Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman. “This is one of the ways.”

The renovation started in 2013, a year after UNESCO declared the church a world heritage site, and is expected to be completed by the end of next year. The Palestinian Authority formed a committee of local Christian leaders to oversee the renovation and contracted an Italian company to carry out the project.

Ziad al-Bandak, the committee head, said it has collected $14 million out of $17 million needed. Roughly half of the funding has come from the Palestinian Authority and local Muslim and Christian businesses, and the rest from foreign donors.

“It has become such a beautiful church,” he said. “Every Christian in the world would love to see it now.”

One of Christianity’s most sacred shrines, the church was built in the 4th century by St. Helena over a cave where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth. What pilgrims mostly see today is the basilica built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565.

Neglected for decades before the renovation, the roof of the church was leaking, windows were broken, mosaics were covered in grime and walls and columns were damaged.

After five years of work, it has been transformed.

Emad Nassar, a Palestinian engineer overseeing the renovations, said the project started with the ceiling. Roughly 10 percent of the beams were replaced with wood imported from old destroyed churches in Italy, windows were fixed, and outside stones and walls were renovated.

Perhaps the biggest challenge has been repairing the badly damaged 2,000 square meter (21,500 square foot) wall mosaic. So far, 120 square meters (1,292 square feet) have been restored, depicting images of Christ and Christian saints. Workers are also restoring a floor mosaic.

The restoration process is meticulous and painstaking. As Nassar spoke, three Italian workers were cleaning a mosaic with tiny brushes and covering them with protective material.

“In the coming year, we are going to continue renovating the columns, the floor mosaic, the tiles and the front yard floor,” Nassar said.

The delicate relations between the Holy Land’s major Christian denominations have factored into the poor condition of the church. The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches have traditionally viewed each other with deep suspicion.

Under a 19th-century agreement called the Status Quo, each denomination has its own areas and responsibilities. But over the years, turf battles have erupted into arguments and even fistfights among clergymen.

The Rev. Samour, a 70-year-old Greek Orthodox clergyman who has served at the church for nearly half a century, said the Palestinian Authority managed to get the rival churches on board.

The construction did not touch the altar crypt with the 14-point silver star marking the spot where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was born. Although it also needs renovation, the churches have not yet reached an agreement on the crypt.

Bethlehem is heavily dependent on Christmas tourism, with hotels, restaurants and gift stores doing much of their business during the short holiday season. The renovated church has become a popular destination.

“The mosaic on the walls is very beautiful, and the renovation is very impressive,” said Sandris Gradins, a 31-year-old tourist from Latvia.

After dipping in 2015 and 2016, tourism has seen a comeback in the past two years, officials say. The mayor said he expects 1.2 million visitors this year.

Tourism Minister Rula Maayah said she is working with Christian officials to expand visiting hours to accommodate the long lines.

An ambitious program has been set up for Christmas this year, she said. The municipality recently hosted representatives of 14 twin cities from around the world for a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Foreign musicians performed Christmas songs during the event.

Fifteen European countries participated in a Christmas market in the front yard of the church. The municipality also has been building a Christmas village for children.

But whether the city’s efforts can stop the long-term outflow of Bethlehem’s Christians remains to be seen. As elsewhere in the Arab world, the local Christian community has struggled for decades, escaping conflict and economic troubles in search of better opportunities abroad.

In the Holy Land, Israel’s half-century-old occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and more than a decade of rule by the Islamic militant group Hamas in Gaza have significantly worsened the situation.

In this Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 photo, a worker cleans the dust from a chandelier at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem. City officials are optimistic that the renovated church will help add to a recent tourism boom and give a boost to the shrinking local Christian population. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

A 2017 census in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem counted just under 47,000 Palestinian Christians, or about 1 percent of a Palestinian population of close to 4.8 million. Twenty years earlier, Christians still made up more than 1.7 percent of the Palestinian population, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Roughly half of Palestinian Christians live in the Bethlehem area, where their share of the population has also declined significantly.

Wadie Abunassar, a senior adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land, said the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has treated Christians well, but that lack of progress toward a resolution over Israel and Palestinian statehood have driven emigration.

Despite lack of hope, he urged Christians to stay.

“This is our homeland. We are called to be witnesses for Jesus in his homeland,” he said. “This is a great privilege, which most Christians in the world don’t have.”

Aircraft technician with Tuskegee Airmen dies at 100 in NYC

Aircraft technician with Tuskegee Airmen dies at 100 in NYC

FILE – This photo from Sunday, April 15, 2012, shows Tuskeegee Airman Wilfred Defour, left, with Jackie Robinson’s widow Rachel Robinson, right, on Jackie Robinson Day at a New York Yankees’ baseball game in New York. Police say a health aide found DeFour, 100, unconscious and unresponsive inside his Harlem apartment Saturday morning. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

A New York City man who served as an aircraft technician with the famed all-black Tuskegee Airmen died Saturday at age 100.

Police say a home health aide found Wilfred DeFour unconscious and unresponsive inside his Harlem apartment at about 9 a.m.

DeFour was pronounced dead by Emergency Medical Service workers. Police say he appears to have died from natural causes but the medical examiner’s office will perform an autopsy.

DeFour was honored just last month at a ceremony to rename a Manhattan post office after the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Daily News reported that Defour said at the Nov. 19 ceremony that the World War II squadron’s members “didn’t know we were making history at the time. We were just doing our job.”

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces, which were racially segregated until after the war.

According to Return of the Red Tails, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the memory of the Tuskegee Airmen, DeFour joined the Air Corps in 1942 and was assigned to the 366th Air Service Squadron, serving in Italy, after basic training in Tuskegee, Alabama.

He served as an aircraft technician and painted the red tails on the planes that gave the squadron its nickname.

DeFour was a Post Office employee for more than 30 years after his military service.

He remained active into his later years and often spoke to schoolchildren about his experiences.

Newsday reported that DeFour and fellow Tuskegee Airman Dabney Montgomery visited a fifth-grade class in Hempstead, New York, to mark Black History Month in 2016.

Montgomery, who died in September of that year, told the students that when he returned from wartime service to his native Alabama, he was not allowed to vote. “We have lost so much talent, we have lost so much achievement because of discrimination,” Montgomery said.

DeFour added, “We need to spread the word to let them know what went on in our time. It’s history.”