Christians continue to try to fight their own battles from their own corners, to little effect, says Archbishop Anba Angaelos, the first Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, who is in Australia this week. It’s time, he says, to “put ourselves in the other corner … to put ourselves in ‘the other’s’ shoes.”
Archbishop Angaelos is emerging as a major Christian leader in Britain. He was also invited to pray at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
We need to learn to work with others from other religions, he says, but also from those within our own faith. “We are one body, though we are a fractured body,” he said. “But there is no time like the present that gives us immense opportunities for solidarity and collaboration.”
Speaking on how to live in a pluralistic society, Archbishop Angaelos told a small audience on Tuesday that Coptic Orthodox Christians – the main Christian denomination in Egypt – are one of the most experienced Christian groups in the world when it comes to living with others who disagree with them.
“The Coptic Orthodox Church has been in Egypt for 2000 years,” he told Eternity later. “We have lived with Islam since the 7th century. Christianity was the majority religious faith for the first 700 years, and since it’s been Islam. And being the largest Christian community in the Middle East, in an Islamic country and an Islamic region means we know a thing or two about living in pluralism and living well in pluralism. No retaliations, no vengeance, no attacks. We’ve never taken up arms. And we’re still there.”
“Whenever we have a bombing or shooting or some similar situation in the church, rest assured the following Sunday the church is even fuller.” – Archbishop Anba Angaelos
But, says Angaelos, it hasn’t been easy. “The Coptic Orthodox Church has experienced persecution for the better half of two millennia.” According to Open Doors, which tracks Christian persecution, Egyptian Christians are under increasing pressure. In 2017 and 2018, more than 200 Christians were killed by extremist groups, including bomb attacks on churches.
Such persecution has only served to make the church in Egypt stronger. The reality of the Christian life under pressure, says Angaelos, is that “we hold on to the things that are most valuable.”
“And yet [despite these difficulties] our churches are full. Our monasteries are full. Whenever we have a bombing or shooting or some similar situation in the church, rest assured the following Sunday the church is even fuller. There is a resilience there that ‘I’m going to live my faith and I won’t let anyone take that away from me.'”
He says those trying to live their Christian faith in the West also face real threats because Christianity is dealt with very differently to other faiths.
“I don’t there would be as many (if any!) jokes or inappropriate things said about any other faith than Christianity. That’s the environment we’re in. There are manifestations of Christianity that are being held back and people not being allowed to worship as freely as they once were. This is certain. But it’s a disservice to those Christians in parts of the world who are experiencing real persecution to put [what the West is facing] at an equal level.”
Christians in Egypt, says Angaelos, represent 80 per cent of all Christians in the Middle East. In places such as Iraq, the number of Christians has fallen from about 1.4 million before the American invasion to just 250,000 – an 80 per cent drop in less than two decades, according to The Atlantic.
“The rest have gone,” he says sadly.
Angaelos says, amid persecution and the exodus of so many of their own faith, Coptic Christians have had to look for ways to live together with people they disagree with, often vehemently and militantly.
“We [Coptic Christians] did inter-religious dialogue long before September 11 happened. It is part of who we are and how we live.”
“You don’t have to agree with someone to come to their aid. You don’t have to be of the same mindset to have compassion.” – Archbishop Anba Angaelos
It’s a lesson that should be learned by other Christians, whose circumstances may fall short of life and death because of their faith, are still feeling under pressure in their Christian life.
“We should try to find common ground with anyone with whom we share a space,” he says, “There is never a time when there is going to be no Christians or no Muslims. We need to do what we can together, and be ready to support one another when we have struggles – like religious freedom.
“It’s important for us to recognise that we have responsibilities towards others as well.
“You don’t have to agree with someone to come to their aid. You don’t have to be of the same mindset to have compassion.”