Is Coptic Evangelism in Africa Really on the Rise?

Bishop Antonious Marcos, missionary bishop for Africa. Behind him is a picture of the Coptic saint know as St. Moses the black.

Bishop Antonious Marcos, missionary bishop for Africa. He served first in Kenya and now in South Africa. Behind him is a picture of the Coptic saint known as St. Moses the black.

From my latest article on Christianity Today, published March 28, 2013:

Many Egyptian Christians wear their faith on their sleeve—literally. The cross tattooed on the wrist of Coptic Orthodox believers is a public display which marks their identity for all to see.

Such a quiet witness usually avoids reproach. But recently in Libya, radical Muslim militias detained dozens of expatriate Christians in Benghazi. Amid allegations that captors seared off such tattoos with acid, one Christian died from medical complications during the ordeal, and a Libyan church was repeatedly attacked.

Accusations of evangelism have been at the heart of a series of recent incidents of violence—including the first Coptic martyrs of the modern era—against Copts in Libya, Sudan, and Egypt. Which raises the question: Are Copts starting to recover their missionary heritage?

This article was co-written with a colleague from Sudan, who mentioned the following incident:

Last December, two Coptic Orthodox priests were arrested after baptizing a female convert from Islam. Since the arrests, stories about arrests of Westerners and other Christians attempting to spread the faith circulated in media linked to the state security apparatus, although the accuracy of the reports is hard to ascertain.

Though some Sudanese Copts have enjoyed business success under the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashir, other denominations have seen their churches destroyed either by mobs or by the state, which cites the breaching of planning laws. With the independence of South Sudan removing the great majority of the nation’s Christians, Bashir has promised a 100-percent Islamic constitution.

Tensions are high also in some Egyptian villages:

There are signs Muslims feel threatened in Egypt as well. Recently churches have been attacked in Beni Suef and Aswan over female converts to Christianity alleged to be hidden inside. Generally this is understood as a Muslim community effort to save face when a woman breaks community traditions or runs away with a lover. Others think true faith might have a role.

“It is an untold story that every now and then a Muslim can be convinced and convert to Christianity,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani. “It is always done secretly, but somehow here it became public. In Upper Egypt especially, this creates a social scandal regardless of the direction of the conversion.”

But far from politically and religiously sensitive conversions in Muslim lands, the Coptic Orthodox Church maintains missionary bishoprics in sub-Saharan Africa:

The reality is the Coptic Orthodox Church remains committed to planting churches—just not in the direction of Muslims. In the 1970s, Pope Shenouda consecrated the first of two bishops for service in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, 65 churches serve more than 400,000 Copts in Kenya, Zambia, Congo, and other nations.

“The early riches of the Orthodox tradition are spreading again in Africa,” said Antonious Marcos, appointed missionary bishop to Kenya in 1976 and now based in South Africa. “Our church is a missionary church, because it was started by a non-Egyptian: John Mark.”

This was a very interesting article to research and write, showing a side of Coptic Christians often not well known in the West. As for the question in the title, are they recovering their evangelistic impulse: Well, they are accused, it seems some are, and reality is just as murky as with Christians around the world.

Please click here to read the full article on Christianity Today.

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