NOT BY PRAYER ALONE: COPTS NEED GOD’S POWER AND HUMAN SACRIFICE FOR NATIONAL LIBERATION لن يحصل الأقباط على تحررهم القومي بالصلاة فقط
The Great Martyr, St. George – a Coptic icon in the Convent of St. George, Old Cairo
I ONCE READ THIS STORY in one of the hagiographies of St. George (Mari Guirgis), which, like all Coptic hagiographies, often end with anecdotes of miracles attributed to the saint, and hymns. The Copt, who tells us the story, says that once upon a time, in one of the villages of Upper Egypt, where a sizable Coptic community lived, a group of Muslim men passed by a church called after St. George. One of the men said to his colleagues, “Wait here for me until I go and p*** on ‘the Sheikh of al-Nasara’ (the Chief of the Nazarenes, i.e., the Christians).” As his friends waited, and the Copt watched, the man went to the church’s corner and empted himself there against the walls. Furious with indignation, the Copt, who could not protest for fear of being attacked and killed by the Muslim men, raised his hands in supplication, and a request to St. George, to make his glory visible to all, right there and then.
The Copt tells us that, as the men walked away, a horseman riding on a white horse suddenly appeared, and, descending on the man who desecrated the church, speared him a few times, while the man cried in agony for mercy. The Copt, who watched all that, was pleased that St. George took his revenge on the Arab who did not respect the Christians’ house of worship, nor their revered saint.
Copts love such stories. It gives them much satisfaction and relief. This is not surprising from a devout people, perhaps the most devout in history, which is under constant attacks by its Muslim neighbours.
The story is interesting for many reasons. But what I am concerned about here is this: the story shows us the utter helplessness of the Copt who, paralysed with fear, could not defend his sacred space, and appealed to his spiritual world to intervene and defend the Copt’s pride. This is typical of so many Copts. As they lose confidence in their ability to resist the religious oppression they are exposed to, and have been suffering from for over 1400 years, they resort to prayer as the only arsenal they possess to turn the situation over, and in their passive position they often quote, and read, Exodus 14:14, “The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be silent.”
While Coptic Christianity, here represented by the much-loved martyr, St. George, constitutes a resistance power that must not be underestimated, the resort to prayer as the only tool to fight off injustice should be seen by all Copts as an inadequate instrument for national liberation.
Coptic nationalists, are, and must be, Christian if they are true to their identity, and if they would like to avoid the excesses of aggressive nationalism; however, they understand that nations do not, and cannot, successfully resist, and overturn, oppression without active participation of men, in human flesh, in a collective effort to liberate themselves. In such a struggle sacrifices are unavoidable. Moreover, if St. George’s holy spear must be used, Coptic nationalists must be prepared to use human power to coerce our opponents to let God’s people go.
As Coptic nationalists up their game everywhere now, in response to the repeated disappointments they experience at the hands of the various rulers and regimes of Egypt, the words of Moses to the people of Gad and Reuben should be remembered by all Copts: “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here?” (Numbers 32:6)