By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service
CAIRO, EGYPT (ANS – October 13, 2017) – “The images were horrific. Father Samaan Shehata, a 45-year-old Coptic Orthodox priest, lay dead on the ground, stabbed and beaten by a young man wielding a meat cleaver,” wrote Jayson Casper* in a story for World Watch Monitor https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/) .
“Blood dripped down his face into his long, black beard. Dirt discolored his flowing black robe. His cross pendant rested peacefully on his chest, eerily imitated in the cross-like stabbing etched into his forehead,” he continued.
“Many details remain unknown, but early indications point to extremism. Fr. Shehata was from Beni Suef, visiting a family in Cairo 150 kilometers [93 miles] north in a lower-class, urban suburb of Cairo.”
Jayson said that it may well be he was targeted only for the clothes he was wearing – in Egypt, a clear indication of his religious profession.
“He was left a public spectacle. So far, no claim of responsibility, no message of intention. There are possible hints circulating of mental instability on the part of the attacker,” said Jayson.
“Perhaps. Murder is rare in Egypt. Despite the increased terrorism suffered by Copts in recent years, this killing is unusual. There is a chance it was random.
“But few think so. Coptic social media immediately proclaimed Fr. Shehata a martyr, adding him to the growing scroll.
“The image, however, may have lasting effect, reinforcing a decades-old message: the streets are not the place for priests.”
Casper went on to say that Bishop Angaelos of the United Kingdom held the requisite forgiveness to the end of his statement, pouring out instead his frustration and anger.
“Why should a priest not be able to walk safely down a street?” he demanded. “Coptic Christians who have endured injustice, persecution, and loss of life for centuries without retaliation, repeatedly forgiving unconditionally, deserve to live with respect and dignity in their indigenous homeland.”
He then stated that Samuel Tadros, a Coptic-American analyst, took to Twitter to highlight the social reality.
“This may be a horrific crime but it does not happen in a vacuum,” he wrote. “Coptic priests are insulted and harassed daily as they walk in Egy[ptian] streets.”
Casper wrote: “Respect. Dignity. Insult. Harassment. What is the way forward? The answer may lie partially in the clothes that sparked the assault.
“Better law enforcement is necessary. Education must be reformed. These are the standard answers offered, and there is logic to them. But if they are not going to change anytime soon, what are Copts to do in the meantime?
“Years ago I met my first Coptic priest in America, and I asked him about his beard and robe. They are tradition, he explained, but they are so much more.
“To a degree, they are public spectacle.”
He said: “Protestant pastors often blend into society. Catholic priests sometimes take off their vestments. But the Coptic Orthodox clergyman must look distinctive at all times. He is a sign of the church, a message to the people that God’s kingdom is near.
“But in recent decades in Egypt, that kingdom has become less and less visible.
“Let no one think that the nation is aflame. Muslims and Christians are neighbors and friends. Sectarianism is an ever-latent virus poisoning many, but for the most part life goes on amid patterns of discrimination and identity groupings.
“But facing a growing Muslim – often Islamist – domination of the public square, especially before the revolution, Copts have increasingly withdrawn into their churches.
“Who can blame them? Spitting is real. Priests travel for visitation in cars with tinted windows. Why not, if the money is there? Egypt drives everywhere these days, just look at the traffic.
“But money is also a demarcating line. A priest can shop comfortably in the hypermarkets of upper-class Cairo. Will he buy vegetables off a donkey cart in poor Upper Egypt?
“Perhaps this murder is a reminder that he must. Otherwise he cedes the public square completely.”
Casper then stated” “Courage is necessary. Conviction. A certainty his service is not only for Christians, but ‘salt and light’ in the stability of his nation. Kingdom of God or not, Egypt, as every society, is only as strong as its minority members.
“So let Coptic priests go and find friends. Invite the local imam for a stroll. Have a tea in the corner coffee shop. Circulate together. Purposefully.
“Much in Egypt is centralized, and institutions can be nervous. But who can oppose it? National unity is state discourse. The Azhar would esteem. But why wait for official endorsement? Just go and ask the imam already visited on holidays. Can he refuse?
“Let this not be naïve. National unity is often perceived as a grudging obligation for public perception. Many hearts – on both sides – are not pure.
“And there is another risk. This must not be about ‘protection’. An interpretation of Islam holds that Muslims must guard over the Christians in their society. It can be a noble intention; it can also be at odds with citizenship. The priest must seek no favors, only partnership in society.”
Addressing the Egyptian people, Casper said, “But let them be a public spectacle. This is your neighborhood. Your country. Your fellow Egyptian. Your friend. Teach together.
“It is also your gospel. Christians believe Jesus disarmed the evil spiritual powers of sin and disunity, making a public spectacle of them on the cross.
“To preach this message, St. Paul and the apostles became public spectacles on display, as ‘fools’ for Christ condemned to die.
“Much like Fr. Shehata.”
Casper went on: “But this is not a fool’s errand. There is even an institution dedicated to the effort. The Egyptian Family House has walked priests and imams in the streets before. Children crowded around and celebrated. Adults took selfies.
“Let the cynicism come; all too often it is justified. But let the heart be pure and fight through it with love and solidarity. And courage. Let no-one pretend there will not be another extremist.
“Fr. Shehata died dishonorably in one of the most populated areas of Cairo. Soon his idealized image will circulate with the crown of martyrdom. But which picture will hold in the mind of Copts?
“The cross on his chest, or the cross on his forehead?
“A priest belongs on the streets, like any Egyptian. May he choose wisely.”
* Jayson Casper is a writer and researcher with Arab West Report based in Cairo. He serves as local correspondent for Christianity Today and blogs regularly on Egyptian politics, religion, and culture at A Sense of Belonging. Jayson has worked previously in Mauritania, Jordan, and Tunisia, and holds an M.A. in Islamic studies from Columbia International University.
Photo captions: 1) Samaan Shehata (Egypt Independent). 2) A young Coptic Christian girl holds a cross. 3) An imam and a Coptic priest walk side by side (Photo: Jayson Casper). 4) Dan Wooding with the late Norm Nelson at the pyramids in Egypt.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 76, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist, who was born in Nigeria, West Africa, of British missionary parents, Alfred and Anne Wooding, who then worked with the Sudan Interior Mission, now known as SIM. Dan now lives in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for some 54 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder/president of the ASSIST News Service (ANS), and is also the author of numerous books. He has a radio show and two television programs, all based in Southern California. He has reported from Egypt on several occasions.
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