In late April, Pope Francis intends to visit Egypt despite rising tensions in the region that have caused violence and bloodshed between Christians and Muslims. Francis’ visit is an endeavor to show support and solidarity for the beleaguered Egyptian Christian minority community which continues to be targeted by fanatics and increasingly made to feel vulnerable in their own land.
The recent spike in ISIS’s attacks in Egypt is undoubtedly troubling. In April alone, 27 Christians were killed in a blast inside a church in the northern city of Tanta. In Alexandria, also a northern city, 18 civilians and four police officers were also killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a Coptic Christian Church. And just recently, as Christian Daily notes, Egyptian officers were attacked at a checkpoint near St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.
St. Catherine’s is named after the fourth-century martyr from Alexandria and was built in the sixth century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The monastery belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003.
St. Catherine of Alexandria, who the monastery is named after, was actually executed in ISIS style. First she was tortured on a breaking wheel, and when that didn’t kill her, she was beheaded.
St. Catherine’s monastery has been in the spotlight for years. Not only have terrorists sought to attack it, but Egyptian officials have not done nearly enough to protect the vulnerable Christians at the monastery. According to a 2014 Al Arabiya report, Egyptian officials once called for deporting the monks of St. Catherine’s because they jeopardize Egypt’s sovereignty and national security by flying a Greek flag and housing “foreigners.”
The Coptic Christians have also been attacked throughout Egypt over the last several years. The Copts are Egypt’s largest Christian group. They make up roughly 10% of the entire population of Egypt. One of the hardest hit Copt areas, Al Nazla, has seen Christian homes and shops covered in graffiti that display anti-Christian sentiments.
In addition to its significance to Christianity, St. Catherine’s is also known for being the home of Prophet Muhammad’s covenants with Christians of Mount Sinai in which he guarantees the Christians complete protection and absolute freedom under his rule. 60 Minutes, a prominent television show in the US, went to visit it. You can view that here. The covenant, a most precious document, was written in 628 AD. It reads:
“This is a message from Muhammad… as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them… Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.”
In this covenant, Muhammad encouraged harmony between Christians and Muslims. Not only did he provide protection for Christians, but he also exhibited his favor for human rights including freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, and the right to practice one’s religion freely, without even an ounce of persecution.
The full text of Prophet Muhammad’s covenant with the Christian monks of Mount Sinai can be found here.
The covenant makes it clear that Islam prohibits assaults on Christians. Islam commands Muslims to treat Christians with respect and dignity. Certainly, if we take the covenant to mind, attacks against churches are strictly forbidden according to the Prophet. The covenant with the monks of Mount Sinai makes that clear, and so does the Qur’an, which reads:
“Those who believe, and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians – any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (2:62).
To summarize, attacks on Egyptian Christians (and indeed Christians everywhere) goes against the most fundamental teachings and principles of Islam. If ISIS was sincere in establishing an “Islamic state,” they would protect churches and grant religious freedom to Christians. Perhaps ISIS members could renounce violence and persecution and stand for compassion and pluralism. Only then would they be reflecting the Prophet that they claim to follow.