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After the brutal beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts a short time ago, the ISIS has announced today the killing of 28 other Christians, all Copts and in Libya as well. But this time, the victims did not come from Egypt, but from Ethiopia. Yet, similarities between Ethiopia and Egypt do not stop there. Both countries possess a religious diversity and, hence, share much more than it seems: these are two countries where religious communities coexist peacefully, where collaborations between communities shall be further intensified. And it is perhaps there that a strategy, if any, may find its elements to emerge.

 

In the beginning, we shouldn’t get it wrong: the term martyrdom, which means testimony, must be used with modesty. Christians are certainly now the target of heinous abuses that makes them victims. Yet, they are remarkably publicized and, thus, become the first object of our attention, of our support.

That being said, those Christian communities belong to national communities. The first victims were Egyptian, the latest are Ethiopian. They were also, in earlier occasions, Syrian but Iraqi as well. In each case, Christians are a minority. Yet, they are a constituent part of national communities. And what is more, they are often the support of them. The national identity is an integral part of their identity and this must be emphasized.

In each of these cases, the Coptic communities have a particular position in Egypt as well as in Ethiopia. In both countries, they are not foreign Christians. Certainly, both Ethiopian and Egyptian Christians belong to and hold links with their diaspora beyond the borders of their countries. And diaspora networks have been strengthened since. But at the same time, their rituals, their narratives, the way they position themselves in each country, incorporate something profound, which refers to what Egypt and Ethiopia are as nations. The monuments and churches testify the fact, and engrave their identity in those lands. Our Western museums often confirm it; Coptic art is not anodyne either in Ethiopian or in Egyptian history.

In both countries, the Coptic churches also had to stand in front of or in covenant and brotherhood with other Christian churches resulting from missionary activities. The external influence was mainly Anglican and Roman Catholic in Egypt, Lutheran (German, Swedish, Norwegian), Methodist and Catholic in Ethiopia. This Christian unity is never obvious, the mother churches maintain their links.

Another important issue for Egypt and Ethiopia is the fact that national identity is not a cosmetic additive on tribal elements, or the result of external influence, often imposed by colonizers. Rather, national identity has been forged from religious diversity and integrates the debates that have structured it. The Christian-Muslim relation helped define the balance with the external world: the Ottoman, British, French powers and, of course, more recently, though less accepted, the American one. In Ethiopia, national identity has been re-strengthened in recent times, especially during the resistance to Italian colonization. During this period, for example, Catholics could only come back for education and with the condition that the missionaries were not Italian.

The Cooperation between religious groups, or failing that, the relation between religious groups, their stabilities, is a part of the national stability.

This is precisely the case in Egypt and Ethiopia. ISIS understood it well. Attacking Christians is attacking the whole established building. Especially because in both countries, there can be no geographical fragmentation on a religious basis. If all connivances and the means of coexistence were weakened, the whole society would be destabilized.

Western countries, largely secular, may struggle to understand and recognize that. And this for two reasons: on the one hand, their political approach about interfaith relations tends to become a heritage approach. For many Westerners, Religious identity is an individual capital, at best a resource, inherited from the past. It is not something that energizes and motivates. The concept of community relations is hard to grasp for many European political elites. Therefore, its importance is undervalued and, hence, limited to the private sphere. On the other hand, religious communities have begun addressing the issues of modernity, with all the difficulties in the perception of modernity. A West that refuses to see it, to accept the long process of change and the resulting interpretation of modernity runs the risk of clogging little by little what is already hobbling along.

These questions on modernity are numerous. The easiest to mention are those of poverty, health, and family after demographic transition, but we must now add those questions about the use of war and its means, or those about labour, industrial issues and what results from the industrialization process. In Egypt as well as in Ethiopia, the questions began to be raised in a religious and inter religious scope. The issues about health and AIDS, and the subsequent non-discrimination value, were addressed long ago. Ethiopian religious leaders had, for instance, met together to oppose the war in Eritrea.

In both countries, the World Council of Churches, the Catholic Church and all Christian traditions, and the ILO started working together, involving Copts and Muslims on labour issues. The initial consensus is pretty obvious. There are values ​​such as dignity and solidarity, which are essential and must be implemented in the workplace. The next step must be developing forms of collaboration and projects that enable access to decent work to young people and women in particular, since they are the most vulnerable groups. What is proposed here is a form of interfaith collaboration that can become interfaith cooperation, in countries where such an interfaith cooperation builds or strengthens national identity.

This way and the positive experiences that have been conducted invite us to think more deeply and strategically of challenging and facing ISIS. If a destabilization strategy is in place, the interfaith cooperation must lead us to seek complex answers with religious communities of all kinds, answers that not only integrate and face the challenges of the moment, but also fit into the long tradition evidenced by the Coptic tradition, which has been a close, if not the closest, neighbour of Islam for many years and has welcome many other brothers in the Christian faith.

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