13 April 2017

Widow of guard killed in Egypt Palm Sunday attack: "I forgive my husband's killer"

The widow of Naseem Fahmi, the guard who prevented the Palm Sunday bomber in Alexandria from reaching the Coptic Pope Tawardos on Sunday, has said that she forgives her husband's killer.

"I forgive you and I ask God to forgive you. I pray that God may open your eyes to light your minds," she said, in a message to her husband's killers and anyone else considering such acts of violence.

"I am sure Naseem has been happy to give his life for Christ," Samira said, dressed in the black of mourning. Naseem was aware that he was particularly vulnerable because of his work as a guard. "When we talked about this one day he said that he would be willing to defend the church with his own blood. Last Sunday he did.

"He told me that he knew me and the kids needed him, but that he also knew that God would take care of us if something might happen to us."

Naseem was one of the men guarding Saint Mark's church in Alexandria last Sunday. When the suicide bomber tried to enter the church, Naseem stopped him and asked him to pass through the metal detector first. There the bomber blew himself up. Naseem didn't survive but with his swift action saved the lives of many others.

Naseem was a husband and a father of two adult sons. In two months he would have become a grandfather for the first time. He also was a beloved church member. He served the church for over 20 years. He died at the age of 54.

"Naseem's life was at the church, and now his life is in heaven. I know he is in a good place." Samira said. However, this doesn't lessen the grief she feels. "I am proud of what my husband did, but life has become hard for me after his death. He was everything in my life.

Naseems brother, Fawzy Fahmi, said, "After we heard the death of my brother Naseem, we went to the morgue to recognize his body. It was difficult for us to recognize him because the explosion completely ruined his face. In the end we were able to recognize him through a scar in his leg. He underwent a surgical operation on his knee 25 years ago and that helped us to recognise him.

naseem FahmiPhoto of Naseem Fahmi

"We have mixed feelings. It is difficult to express what we feel. We live between the sadness of losing our brother and the joy that he went to Heaven. Our only comfort that he is in a beautiful place with Christ now."

Egypt is 21 on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List. In cooperation with local churches and other partnering ministries, Open Doors supports the church in Egypt through literacy training and education projects, youth and family ministry, advocacy support, medical outreach, women's empowerment training and ministry to widows.

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Background interview with an Open Doors contact person in Egypt

Please tell me a little bit about you and your life and your circumstances.

I live and work in Cairo. I'm a Christian leader, and am a member of an evangelical church. I am married and my wife and I have two children.

When did resentments against Christians turn into violence?

First of all you need to have in mind the way in which the Egyptian society is put together. There is a Muslim majority vs. a Christian minority comprising roughly 12-15%.

In large parts of the society there is a massive misconception concerning the Christian faith. Christians are considered as infidels, following a corrupt faith, reading a corrupt Bible. A second aspect to consider is that much of the population is either illiterate or very poorly educated. They will blindly follow the teaching of those who are considered Muslim leaders or Imams, and who may uphold the conception that Christians are infidels.

This explains why many Muslims are easily lured into fanatic beliefs and actions. An Imam might tell his followers during the Friday prayer, 'we have a group of Christians nearby who want to start a church, let's go and keep our village clean and destroy that church'. After this a group of angry Muslims will just go out and do what they were told. Usually it starts with such igniting of hatred and eventually develops into a violent eruption. This takes on many forms, depending on the situation (attacking pastors' house, a Christian family, a church). Usually it starts with issues related to everyday life.

Looking back I can think of the first major attack on churches as early as 1972. That year witnessed the first significant violent attack on a church. This took place following the return of waves of Muslim Egyptian workers (teachers, doctors and engineers) who came back to their country after they had worked for years in Saudi Arabia. Thousands of men had gone there looking for employment. While there they were taught a more radical form of Islam, and when the economic situation in Egypt opened up, they came back with their money but also with a fanatic spirit. Since then there has been a church attack nearly every other year.

Do you see a surge in anti-Christian sentiments all over the country or mainly in specific areas?

Many incidents are happening in Upper Egypt in small towns and villages although the latest examples happened in large cities like Tanta and Alexandria. However the majority of everyday life harassments and attacks do take place in smaller villages. The recent developments with attack in large cities starting with the attack in Cairo last December represent a turnover by ISIS or other affiliated radical movements.

Has verbal abuse become common?

Verbal abuse has always been there, much in line with the development since 1972. In fact it is part of everyday life, be it at your work place, schools, hospitals, banks - once you are recognised as a Christian (and this is stated on your ID-card), the treatment will change. If you walk down a street in your village in Upper Egypt, it is not uncommon to hear people speaking badly about you in public.

How does the Egyptian media report on Christians?

Before the revolution of 2011 we didn't hear any media reporting on the discrimination of Christians, it was like an unwritten agreement that this was off-limits. But after the 2011 revolution people started to talk freely about this issue. Nowadays you can read a lot about it on social media, you will also find lots of reports highlighting the bad treatments of Christians - up to TV-shows and other large platforms. A popular Muslim woman has just published an article directed towards the Christians where she apologises for what they have had to endure.

How segregated is society? Do Christian children go to their own schools, is or is it normal to have a mix of people with different religious backgrounds?

There is no official segregation in society, housing and villages a shared. In the south there are some villages with a large Christian majority, while others are inhabited by a Muslim majority. This is not deliberately arranged by the state.

The same is true for schools, however when it comes to higher education, there are some universities and institutions which are reserved exclusively for Muslims.

It's worth mentioning though that it is very difficult for Christians to get into certain fields of medicine, for example, if you want to become a gynaecologist. Generally, passing an exam is often a lot harder for you if you are a Christian student. You career will always be seriously hindered by the fact that you are a Christian.

Do you feel you are being made scapegoats in the struggle between government and radical Islamists?

Yes, absolutely. Christians are peaceful and can very easily be blamed as 'infidels'. Supporting President Al-Sisi was also blamed on us by Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, for which we had paid a high price when about 85 churches, Christian schools, book shops and convents were looted, robbed or burned down back in August 2013. Any group that claims to defend Allah and the Islamic faith can easily put the blame on Christians.

This is not happening from the side of the government as the government is making some efforts to protect the Christians or at least trying to show they do. In fact, the current president has been the first Egyptian president ever to visit the Orthodox Cathedral, and he has even done so three years in a row. Never before has a king or president ever visited a church at a special occasion.

Also al-Sisi has announced that he will build a church ('the biggest in the country') in the new administrative capital. This puts him in direct confrontation with the radicals, as they consider churches to be unholy places which should be destroyed. It is a very daring and courageous step, reflecting his willingness to really show respect to the Christian community. Also, in December, following the suicide bombing of St. Peter's church in Cairo, it was the first time in Egyptian history that a military funeral was held for Christian victims, led by the president.

Have anti-Christian rhetoric and actions shy of physical force seeped into private relations with neighbours, civil life?

It's not that all Muslims in all parts of the country show disrespect toward Christians. There are many examples of peaceful and friendly relationships, even during the recent funerals Muslims were expressing heartfelt condolences towards the Christians affected by the bomb blasts. My Muslim neighbours cried with me when my father died, two years ago.

While this is true, it is also a sad fact that radical Islam is deeply rooted in society and has an all penetrating effect on the way people feel about Christians. It always depends on the situation you're in. If you live in a house with many radical Muslim families your life will look much different than if you live in a house with many peaceful Muslims that treat you with respect. One thing is clear though: You will be regarded as an infidel by all of them.

We as Christians feel we have a strong responsibility to show the love of God in a genuine way to our Muslim friends.