Even in Death, Coptic Christians Forgive

With mid-morning temperatures approaching 86° on Palm Sunday in April 2017, the security guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Egypt, approached and redirected a young man rushing for the church’s main entrance. Seconds later, the bomb strapped to the man’s body detonated, killing both him and the guard while dozens inside the church were spared harm by the guard’s quick actions.

Just days later, after the bomber had been identified as an ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) terrorist, the widow of that security guard was interviewed by an Egyptian television station. As she pulled her young children close to her side she announced:

“I’m not angry at the one who did this. I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’

“You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.”

While millions of Egyptians across the country marveled at what the grieving woman said, it was far from the first time in recent history that Coptic Christians have expressed forgiveness rather than revenge.

This 2015 photo is from a video released by the Islamic State showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. A  scrolling caption in the video mocked the hostages as “People of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.

A 2011 New Year’s Eve attack in Alexandria’s Church of Two Saints killed 23 Coptics, for example. In February 2015, the Islamic State in Libya kidnapped and beheaded 21 mostly Coptic Christians on the shores of Tripoli.

A December 2016 attack at a chapel of the flagship St. Mark’s cathedral in Cairo killed 29 mostly women and children–the deadliest terrorism attack against Egyptian Christians until attacks at two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt’s Nile Delta killed more than 45 people and injured more than 100 others during Palm Sunday services in 2017. 

Men mourn over the Egyptian Coptic Christians who were captured in Libya and killed by militants affiliated with the Islamic State group, at the Virgin Mary church in the village of el-Aour, near Minya, south of Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Hassan Ammar

But even in death, the Copts forgive. While Egypt’s president pledged retaliation following those tragedies, Coptic Christians continued to spread their message of forgiveness and love.
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On the night of the Palm Sunday bombings, for example, Coptic priest Fr. Boules George said he thanks and loves those who did this crime. Speaking to a congregation in Cairo’s Cleopatra neighborhood, he first addressed the terrorists and said:

“I long to talk to you about our Christ, and tell you how wonderful he is.” But then he asked those in the church, “How about we make a commitment today to pray for them? If they know that God is love and they experience his love, they could not do these things—never, never, never.”

(Watch Fr. George’s entire sermon including his explanation of why he thanks the terrorists, at this video link with subtitles.)

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the most ancient churches in the world, founded in the first century in Egypt by Saint Mark the Apostle during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. A conservative Church that shares many beliefs and practices with both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, it has carefully preserved the Orthodox Christian faith in its earliest form. Today the Church has 18-22 million members worldwide with more than 75% of them in Egypt–the country’s largest Christian denomination.

Learn more at:
    •  Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable
    •  Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: “With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt”
    •  ISIS Church Bombings Kill Dozens at Palm Sunday Services in Egypt 


This article was inspired by a blog post titled “The Scandal of Forgiveness in a Time of Terror” by R. H. (Rusty) Foerger on his website More Enigma Than Dogma. In his post, Foerger asks if forgiveness is ever wasted. He answers his own question with this: “On the surface I suppose forgiveness is a losing game; so is terrorism and retaliation. But go deeper and you will find forgiveness comes from a endless well – available for an ocean of need.”


 

I have heard the term “false forgiveness,” but I am not sure what it is and how can I make a clear distinction between the false variety and the real thing?

False forgiveness in essence is not about a moral response to someone who has hurt you. It is more about power than leveling the moral playing field (seeing the other and the self as precious, unique, special, and irreplaceable). There are two kinds of power-plays that someone practicing false forgiveness might show: 1) dominating the other person by constantly reminding him or her that, indeed, you have forgiven….and plan to do so tomorrow…and the next day…and the day after that. You keep the other under your thumb by reminding them of how noble you are and how ignoble they are; 2) being dominated by the other person by giving in to unreasonable demands, hastily reconciling, letting the other have power over you. True forgiveness is gentle and kind, honoring the humanity of the other person and the self. It does not dominate or allow others to dominate in a relationship.

For additional information, see What is Forgiveness?

The forgiveness path is just one more obstacle to overcome along life’s tough road. A family member of mine was murdered. I cannot see forgiving this person. Even if I did, that process seems just as outrageously hard as sitting here with no recourse toward the murderer. Am I stuck either way, as a forgiver or as someone who cries out for justice but finds none (the murderer has not been caught)?

First of all, my sincere sympathy for the pain you are being asked to endure. No one should have to go through this. The fact that you are even asking about forgiveness is showing a heroism that I want you, yourself, to see.

An important insight that you have is this: No matter what you choose, you will have pain. I would like to gently challenge one of your words: “stuck.” I can understand how you might feel stuck as someone who cries out for justice which is not forthcoming. You are not stuck, however, if you decide to forgive. I think you might be “stuck” right now because of indecision—Should you forgive or not? If you decide to go ahead, then you are no longer “stuck.” Yes, you will have pain because growth in forgiveness is painful. Yet, the pain of working through forgiveness is temporary. The pain of crying out for justice and not finding it may go on indefinitely. When you are ready to get un-stuck, please consider reading the book, The Forgiving Life. It helps you to grow in forgiving and to grow as a person of virtue—strong and even thriving in the face of great pain. I wish you the very best in your journey toward healing.

Learn more at What is Forgiveness?

I feel that my friend deserves love and forgiveness, but I do not feel ready to forgive. Have I actually started the forgiveness process if I at least feel in my heart that she deserves my love?

Yes, I do think that you are on the path of forgiveness when you realize that your friend deserves your love. I say that because one of the first steps of forgiveness is to commit to doing no harm to the one who hurt you. When you say that your friend deserves your love, it seems to me that you will not then deliberately do her harm, even if you are not feeling or expressing love just yet toward her. Love is a more advanced form of forgiveness than committing to doing no harm. This is the case because doing no harm is refraining from the negative; love is deliberately instituting the positive toward your friend.

Learn more at 8 Reasons to Forgive.

Which is better: forgiving for my own well-being or forgiving for the sake of the other person who was offensive?

When you forgive in a genuine way, it always is for the other. Why? This is because forgiveness, as a moral virtue, is other-focused. A motivation to forgive may be one’s own emotional, physical, and relational well-being. This is not dishonorable because, if you are hurting, it is reasonable to try to alleviate the pain. If one is not focused at all on the other person during the process, then this is not a true forgiveness process.

Learn more at What is Forgiveness?

I think that getting rid of one’s anger is not a good thing if the goal is to achieve justice. Don’t we need some anger as a motivator to get up and do something about continual put-downs by others?

Anger in the short run is seen as reasonable because the person is basically saying, “What you did was wrong. I am a person worthy of respect and that is what I am asking of you.” At the same time, if this anger stays with a person, deepens, and lasts for many months, it can be counter-productive. One then might demand too much from the other. One might turn the quest for justice into a motivation to seek revenge and hurt the other. So, we have to be careful when discussing the benefits of anger. There are such benefits in the short-run, but anger has a way of taking up residence in the human heart if we are not careful and thus the one harboring the anger can be damaged.

Learn more at Why Forgive?

If I practice forgiveness a lot, will I become faster at reaching an endpoint of forgiving, or will this depend on the severity of the injustice against me?

In my own experience with others, I see that as people practice forgiveness, they actually do become what I call “expert forgivers” in that they forgive more quickly and more deeply than was the case in the past. At the same time, if the current injustice is severe, this will take longer to forgive the one who perpetrated this severe injustice. Even if it takes you longer now to forgive people for recent severe injustices against you, the length of your forgiving still likely will be shorter than it might have been years ago, when you were just starting to learn about forgiveness.

For additional information, see The Forgiving Life.