Cairo, just a little over 400 km. from Jerusalem, seems a world away. Despite its beauty, proximity and low cost, Egypt is still not high on the Israeli traveler’s bucket list, for obvious reasons. But while the reasons might seem obvious, the implications are less so. Less obvious, and more tragic.
On Sunday, Christian worshipers were murdered at prayer in Cairo.
Many others were seriously wounded.
The bomb exploded in the women’s section, ensuring that most of the dead and wounded were women and children.
Like the Jews, the Copts maintain their own ancient calendar.
The month of Khoik had just begun the day before. This month is an extremely important one, leading as it does to the celebration of the birth of Christ (Christmas) that comes out on the Gregorian date of January 7. Or in other words, the bombing happened on what we might call the first Sunday Mass of preparation for Christmas. Khoik is a month whose nights resound with the worship and traditions of the oldest Christian community in the world. The Christian presence in Egypt is very close to 2,000 years old.
The Copts split from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions in the 5th century over issues that most Jews would find singularly unimportant – the specific outlines of the divinity and humanity of Christ.
Yet the image of a stubborn minority clinging fast to its views against the rest of the world does indeed sound familiar in its lonely commitment.
There are about 18 million Coptic Orthodox Christians around the world today, a little more than half of whom live in Egypt, the rest being dispersed around the world. Egypt was a largely Christian nation until the Muslim conquests and immigration changed the landscape. Copts are now a minority in Egypt, estimated to comprise about 10% of the population.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is an ethnic Egyptian church. While accepting converts, it is understood that conversion is a complex road that includes dealing with challenges of ethnicity and language.
Despite their significant presence in Egypt, life is made difficult for the Coptic minority. Terrorist attacks on churches, homes and property are not uncommon. There is great concern about the abduction, forced conversion and forced marriage of Christian girls, enough so that the issue has reached the floor of the US Congress. Mob violence, workplace discrimination and encouragement to convert to Islam are regular features of Coptic Christian life in Egypt.
Ancient traditions. Ethnic and religious minority. Distinctive culture. Ongoing persecution. Any of that sound familiar? Our Zionist dream saved the Jewish people from a situation not entirely dissimilar from that of the Copts.
Now we thrive as a free people in our own land, finally able to reach out and assist other persecuted minorities.
The question that remains is whether we have the will, the expansive vision and the heart to imagine our Jewish and Zionist responsibilities beyond our own borders and beyond our own people.
So as we sit, securely, in the Jewish state, preparing to celebrate our great holiday of religious freedom just up the road from St. Mark’s Cathedral, let us spare more than just a thought.
Let us commit to understanding more about the religious minorities in our region. Let us refuse to become complacent and selfish in our own freedom. And let us remember that the choice together with Beit Hillel to celebrate a growing Hanukka light signals increasing good and holiness for the world. And that ultimately it is we who light each candle.
The writer is an Associate Fellow at the Philos Project and the Director for the Galilee Center for Studies in Jewish- Christian Relations. She can be contacted at email@example.com