Coptic bishop seeks support from evangelicals

WASHINGTON (RNS) Bishop Angaelos, a U.K.-based leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, stood before the media holding up a thick report on “genocide” in the Middle East that featured a 2015 photo of Islamic state extremists preparing to behead 21 members of his faith in Libya.

“They were not killed for any other reason but they were Christians,” he said Thursday (March 10), joining with others calling attention to religious persecution.

Hours later, he addressed board members of the National Association of Evangelicals, explaining the basics of his 15 million-member faith — “Coptic Orthodox just means Egyptian Orthodox” — and telling them that what they have in common “far, far exceeds” their differences.

A year after losing 21 fellow Copts, Angaelos continues his bridge-building work, seeking support for persecuted people of many faiths, visiting Muslim refugees and helping evangelicals realize that the Orthodox are part of the Christian flock.

“Being Christians and being able to forgive, it’s important for us to also know that we need to be reconcilers and that conflict is something that is detestable to God,” he said in an interview.

The Coptic Orthodox Church established by St. Mark, the writer of the Bible’s second Gospel, remains the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East, with some 13 million adherents in Egypt. He told the NAE board his faith’s roots include the creation of the Nicene Creed, still recited across Christendom, and a monastic tradition now shared in the West.

“When I’m walking through airport terminals or down the streets and I see nuns or brothers, I feel an instant connection because we have that common heritage,” said Angaelos, who wears the cowl of a monk beneath his round black bishop’s headdress.

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre of his church members on a beachfront in Libya, Angaelos made headlines when he confirmed their death with a tweet that closed with two reconciling words: “#FatherForgive.”

“I wasn’t angry but I was very sad, not just because they had died but the way they had died,” he said in an interview.

He told the NAE board members that he believes his fellow Copts, proclaiming their faith to their last breath, were the ones who demonstrated power rather than the terrorists who held knives to their throats.

“The world saw that Christian witness was more powerful,” he said.

Copts have faced harsh persecution in their long history in Egypt, Angaelos said. “There was an attempt to obliterate the culture,” he said, with some who spoke the Coptic language in public having “their tongues cut out.”

And more recently, as the Christian population in the Middle East has dwindled from 25 percent in the last two decades to 5 percent now, he said, “4 of those 5 percent actually are in Egypt."

After attending a 2010 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, in which he heard an evangelical leader refer to the “unreached” in majority-Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe, Angaelos took action. He co-founded the Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative and is planning its fourth international meeting in Ethiopia to foster understanding and reconciliation between evangelicals and Orthodox.

“I want to challenge you as sisters and brothers today to look at the body of Christ as the body of Christ,” he told dozens of NAE board members. “The body does not have an East and a West. It’s one body, one body of Christ.”

NAE President Leith Anderson was among the leaders who welcomed Angaelos to the evangelical board meeting.

“Bishop Angaelos powerfully presents the cause of our fellow Christians,” he told RNS after the first-time speech of an Orthodox official at an NAE meeting. “We thank God for the amazing faith of Christians in the Middle East who face martyrdom and other persecutions and remain faithful. They bless and challenge us.”

After his speech to the NAE, Angealos said he works to break down stereotypes on the sometimes divided sides of Christianity.

“There is a view … by some evangelicals that Orthodoxy is old and antiquated and needless and by some Orthodox that evangelicalism is too new and hollow and without foundation,” he said. “So it’s a matter of bringing people together and saying, ‘Well, we do things differently but we need to respect that difference.’”

Although Angealos represents a faith with most members living in Egypt, the vast majority of Coptic Orthodox outside that country — about 1 million — live in the United States, which he visits regularly, especially to foster youth ministry activities.

When he’s not defending the persecuted or reaching out to evangelicals, Angaelos is focused on helping members of his church participate in Sunday school and activities for youth and young adults — seeking to maintain growth of his faith just like members of other Christian denominations.

In the U.K., he helps oversee activities that include film awards -- “our own take on the Oscars” — and soccer and basketball tournaments that include weekends with liturgy and Bible study.

“We start with the children,” he said. “If you try to tap into them as adolescents, it’s sometimes too late to get people interested.”

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