Everyone would have no doubt seen the horrific images of the bombing of Saint George’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Tanta, Egypt and also just outside St. Mark’s in Alexandria. The parts of the churches which were not covered in rubble seemed to be covered in the blood of the newest Christian martyrs – 44 of them all up.
In addition to these images, others started to emerge from Egypt as well.
The first one I saw was a video dated 9 April 2017, showing a crowd of hundreds of Egyptian Christians, maybe more, publicly chanting the Nicene Creed. Although spoken in a language different to my own, they were professing the same faith, on the same day on which so many others had been killed for doing the same.
The next video I saw was a recording of a homily given by Father Boules George in the parish of St Mark’s, Cairo. On the evening of that same Palm Sunday – the Eve of Monday service – Father George preached a homily about what he would say to the killers. In summary, Father George had three things to say: thank you, we love you and we are praying for you.
At the end of his homily, Father George commanded the congregation to pray daily for those who sought to kill them, confident that if they knew Christ, they would not hate; they would not kill.
While all of these are important, what really struck me was his expression of gratitude to the killers. He thanked them for doing what he could not manage to do: fill the church. He said:
“There are people we visited at home to encourage them to come to church – three, four, five times. Still they won’t come. What you’re doing here – you’re bringing to church the people who never come … All these visitations we do, you’re so much more effective. You’re filling up our churches! … When you do this, you irritate the soul of the person who was lazy before. You wake his conscience and the love of God within him prods him to come to church.”
The public witness of these Egyptian Christians, and the words of Father George were a reminder of something important: that although it is tempting to flee in the face of persecution (particularly the murderous kind), the only way to defeat the enemy is rededicate ourselves to the practice and proclamation of our faith.
If terrorism instills in us a fear which prevents us from living out our faith in public, then the terrorists win.
The reverse is also true. If terrorism inspires courage in the face of fear, then it will never win.
And in the face of terrorism, one is forced to make a choice. When people are literally blown up for practising their faith, then ambivalence is not an option. You have to take sides: either you stand with the forces of evil or you stand with and for the good.
Obviously, we do not face the same issue in Australia.
We attended the Easter liturgies without the fear that, in doing so, we were risking our lives. But despite having the blessing of being able to practise our faith freely, something tells me that the churches in Egypt were fuller than our own last weekend.
There is something about safety which makes us complacent; which whispers to us that we do not really have to choose. Nothing could be further from the truth!
We might not need to worry about being physically harmed for our faith, but the forces of evil which battle against Catholics in Australia are no less real, and no less dangerous.
If anything, they are even more insidious, because they either go undetected, or they are so subtle that we consider them to not really be threats which require us to make a choice.
We are lured into a false sense of security, thinking that there is no need to be vocal about matters which – if conceded – aren’t really going to get anyone killed.
In recent weeks, we have spoken about the push for exclusion zones around abortion clinics in NSW, the proposed introduction of legislation in Queensland which would seek to override the seal of confession, and the relentless push to co-opt companies and employees into pledging support for redefining marriage.
We can add to this the attempt to use anti-discrimination laws to silence the Church from teaching its faithful, the introduction of programs like Safe Schools which teach children that biology plays no role in determining their identity and that sexual experimentation with both sexes is normal and even encouraged, and the renewed threat of euthanasia once again becoming legal (although that one really is a matter of life and death!) to the list of other threats which are upon us.
In the face of all this, it is clear that Catholics in Australia must also make a choice.
We cannot be ambivalent or complacent; we must show the courage of our Coptic brothers and sisters, and recommit ourselves to the bold proclamation and practice of our faith. Holy martyrs of Egypt, pray for us!