On my bookcase sits a small leatherette plaque bearing three words from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Love Never Fails.” His words fall easily from the lips of average Christians. But what makes this memento so special is the giver: Pope Theodoros II, spiritual leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church. On Palm Sunday, he narrowly escaped assassination by ISIS, when terrorists bombed two Coptic churches and killed 47 worshippers. ISIS claimed credit, boasting that Christians are their favorite prey.
Although TV coverage quickly faded, for me this conflict has been intensely personal since September 2013. Not long after 30 million Egyptians took to the streets to topple the Moslem Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, I was given the extraordinary privilege of visiting Cairo with a select group of media and military analysts. We visited none of the usual tourist attractions, instead spending hours engaging a cross-section of Egyptian society. Our interlocutors included: General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (subsequently elected as Egypt’s president), his top staff, prominent leaders of the Egyptian business community, street-wise students who had taken to the streets to help bring down Morsi – and finally Pope Theodoros.
Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is also the center of gravity for the entire region and for a generation a key strategic ally of the United States. General el-Sisi and his principal officers were educated in our military schools, including the National War College, where I once served as Dean. Because we knew each other so well, it was difficult to answer their pointed, sometimes angry questions.
“Colonel, what has happened when your president acts like a member of the Moslem Brotherhood?” “Why does your government call our revolution a coup, when millions signed petitions calling for Morsi’s ouster and millions more demonstrated in the streets against him?” Not only did Egyptians feel that President Obama had betrayed them, they were scathing in their contempt for his policies, arguing that America was enabling Islamist extremism. More than once I heard: “We deeply admire your country: But is this any way to treat your friends?”
But our most memorable meeting was with Pope Theodoros. His Coptic followers had been beaten and murdered by the Moslem Brotherhood, their homes and churches destroyed as acts of state policy. Showing true Christian restraint, the Copts reacted only with non-violence, appealing to Egypt’s collective conscience. Facing tougher opposition than either Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Coptic stoicism is what brought a Moslem-majority country into the streets, overthrowing an Islamist government bent on tyranny. It was Stalin who famously asked how many divisions the Pope had. But in the gentle grip of Pope Theodoros, the three words on that leatherette plaque proved to be more powerful than any earthly weapon.
Over the last three years, Egypt has fought a bitter civil war against Moslem Brotherhood die-hards and ISIS. Two years ago, 21 Copts were beheaded on a Libyan beach by ISIS executioners – martyred as hundreds of other Christians were throughout the Middle East. Even as his army waged war against the extremists, President el-Sisi has urged leading Muslim clerics to begin a “religious revolution” aimed at making Islam once again a “religion of peace.” “It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire (community of Muslim believers) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!” President el-Sisi has even embraced the heresy of attending Coptic religious services presided over by his friend Pope Theodoros.
Those seemingly small steps are precisely why ISIS mounted the latest Palm Sunday attacks. There is also good reason to be concerned for the safety of Pope Francis during his upcoming visit to Egypt. ISIS understands very well that the purpose of terror is to terrorize, intimidating all but the most determined opposition.
But what ISIS sees thus far will hardly make them quake in their sandals:
- Western media elites don’t provide in-depth coverage of ISIS outrages unless they occur on the familiar turf of western capitals. Cairo and Alexandria: Business as usual unless there is compelling video.
- Possibly even worse is a western religious establishment that seems too well-mannered to call attention to the ongoing reality of the 21st century Christian Holocaust. It is never regarded as a worthy subject for prayer and fasting, much less as a cause worthy of ecclesiastical capital – spiritual or otherwise.
All the more reason to pray devoutly for the safety of two popes – and for the man who carries the inspiring legacy of Anwar Sadat, the Middle East’s last great peacemaker.
[Col. Ken Allard, a retired Army officer, is a military analyst and author on national security issues. He is a believer who proudly calls San Antonio his home.]