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Holy Family Pilgrimage to Egypt

Archbishop Angaelos led an ecumenical group on pilgrimage to Egypt from 27th January to 1st February 2019. The group consisted of representatives from the Church of England, the Catholic Church (among them Fr Dominic Robinson from Farm Street), the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Church of Scotland, Churches together in Britain and Ireland and a number of Christian organisations.

We visited many sites of historical and religious significance, including the Church of the Virgin Mary (el-Muallaqa, the Hanging Church), which is possibly the oldest Coptic church and built on the gate towers of the old Roman walls of Cairo; the Convent of St George and the shrines of St George and St Philomena; and St Mary’s Church at Maadi, where the Holy Family is believed to have rested for up to a month before embarking by papyrus boat to upper Egypt.

In Alexandria, we visited St Mark’s Cathedral where we venerated the relics of St Mark. We then joined in prayer at the shrine of the Martyrs murdered by a suicide bomber on Palm Sunday 2017.

During the trip we had a useful discussion on the persecution of Christian Churches and the seeming willingness of many governments to tolerate anti-Christian prejudice, which would not be tolerated were it directed towards other religions. We noted the reluctance of governments and media to respond to persecution of indigenous Christian groups and we considered how a term equivalent to anti-Semitism or Islamaphobia could be proposed to reflect anti-Christian bias. More work would be done on this.

At the Health and Hope Oasis centre for children with cancer, we saw both Christians and Muslims working together to support children with cancer and their families through respite breaks.

In Cairo we had an audience with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II at which he spoke of the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the challenges facing it. Following the audience, we visited the Grand Cathedral of St Mark and the Church of St Peter and St Paul where we prayed at the place where 28 women and girls and one man were killed by a suicide bomber in December 2016.

It was a very moving week and we were all struck by the resilience and determination of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. Coptic Christians make up about 15% of the population. Some of us may have expected to find a church in decline, but the resilient faith of the Church coping with the challenges and tragedies of martyrdom and persecution was a real inspiration to us all.

Rather than going underground or seeking retribution or revenge it was clear that they are responding in faith and with love to those who seek to persecute them, taking quite literally the words of Jesus to love those who persecute the Church. The graciousness of the Coptic Christians and the daily living out of their faith was an inspiration to all of us; this needs to be better known by Christians outside Egypt. Christians in other countries need to support and encourage our Coptic Christian brothers and sisters through prayer and other means.

Archbishop Angaelos noted the importance of the twin pillars of monasticism and martyrdom, which were in evidence everywhere we went. While monastic life seems in many places in the West to be in sharp decline, we were all deeply impressed that at St Bishoy there are 200 monks with an average age of mid-40s. That the Church is having difficulty coping with the number of people seeking the monastic life and having to plan further provision is a wonderful example.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is alive and going through renewal as it rises out of persecution. Visiting the churches and cathedrals where ordinary Christian worshippers lost their lives at the hands of a small minority of extremists gave evidence of the sheer God-given courage of Christians who are determined to worship in an open multi-faith society.

Christianity goes right back to St Mark, who came to Alexandria in AD58 and who was himself dragged through the streets to witness to his faith through martyrdom. Coptic Orthodox Christians show a deep faith and hope in the face of adversity. They are truly a light shining out in the darkness.