It’s Sunday morning at one of Australia’s largest Coptic Orthodox churches, St Mary & St Mina’s Cathedral in southern Sydney, and the congregation is preparing for Holy Communion.
As the incense rises, circling the central dome high overhead, early-morning rays beam through the stained glass windows, and rainbows of colour dance on the walls.
In Australia, Coptic Christians – a small denomination which traces its origins back to first-century Egypt – are fortunate: they are free to pray without fear. In Egypt, by contrast, there have been more than 500 recorded attacks against Coptic Christians since 2013, according to Eshhad, a database which documents such incidents.
Yet the Copts of Egypt continue to survive and thrive – and now that resilience, along with their non-violent and forgiving response to persecution, has been recognised through their nomination for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, with the winner announced on October 5. (The prize was awarded to Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege for their campaigns against sexual violence.)
Indigenous Egyptians, descendants of the Pharaohs, the Copts are believed to be the first ethno-religious group nominated in the 117-year history of the award.
Father Shenouti Gobran, a parish priest at St Mary & St Mina’s Cathedral, sees the nomination as marking significant progress towards international recognition of the plight of Egyptian Copts.
“It’s an important step forward … for the world to know and recognise the peaceful response of the Coptic community to the persecutions,” says Fr Shenouti, whose black priestly garments carry the scent of incense, and whose beard, with its flecks of grey, attests to the many liturgies he has conducted.
Speaking inside the church, he recalls how he lost his own 18-year-old cousin in a 2015 attack in Egypt.
Paula Mansour Fawzi was burned alive while working at a KFC north of Cairo, after gunmen fired into the store then set it alight.
“We’ve heard about many persecutions before, but you never think it would hit that close to home,” says Fr Shenouti, as he re-adjusts the crucifix hanging around his neck.
Egyptian Copts make up about 10 per cent of the country’s 99 million-strong population; globally, they number about 18 million. US-born, Emmy Award-winning actor Rami Malek (Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot), the late former UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and former NSW Deputy Police Commissioner, Nick Kaldas, are among prominent Copts worldwide.
Individual Copts have been in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize before. In 2012, Maggie “Mama Maggie’’ Gobran, founder of St Stephens Children – a non-profit charity in Cairo – was nominated.
And in 2009, leading Copts in Sweden formed a committee in an unsuccessful attempt to get then Coptic Patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, nominated.
This year’s group nomination was revealed by a Washington-based charity, Coptic Orphans. The group’s legal advisor, Sara Salama, believes the move reflects growing recognition by the international community of all persecuted minorities, including Iraq’s Yazidis, Myanmar’s Rohingyas and Christian Assyrians.
“It’s very important to understand how they manage, despite all the odds, to survive in these conditions,” she says.
“Not only survive, but thrive, in their own country, as well as abroad.”
Those sentiments are echoed back in Sydney by Fr Shenouti, who says, that as a result of persecution, “our church continues to grow stronger … The response from the families of martyrs often shocks people. They are praying for their persecutors, they are asking God to forgive them.”
Like Ms Salama, he hopes other minorities can draw strength from hearing about the Copts’ experiences.
A community advocacy group, the Australian Coptic Movement, has been at the forefront of raising awareness of the situation of Copts in Egypt and advocating for their human rights.
“Western-based Copts have the freedom to express their religious views without fear, though very few speak out,” says the group’s spokesperson, Peter Tadros.
He believes that, while it would be great if the Copts won the Peace Prize, and while the nomination itself has improved awareness, “our persecutors will not stop until they face trial”.
At St Mary and Mina’s, in Bexley, Father Mikhail Mikhail’s eyes light up when he learns of the nomination. “Wow, that’s wonderful to hear, amazing news,” says Fr Mikhail, another parish priest, between hearing confessions in a side room near the altar.
In the church’s resource room, a member of the church board, Youssef Makari, is similarly delighted to hear the news. “No way! Really? Fancy that,” he exclaims, looking up from his desk, where he is preparing the digital noticeboard ahead of Sunday liturgy.
Church leaders say that winning the award would enhance the standing of the “mother church” in Egypt, in the eyes of the Western Coptic diaspora.
That is important, for, as Ms Salama points out: “If a church in Egypt is attacked, that means every other Coptic church outside of Egypt is under attack.”
Faithful resilience as #Menia’s #Coptic Orthodox Bishop @AnbaMacarius stands at the ruins of one of his churches destroyed by Islamist mobs. It is not enough to admire such a moving image from a distance, but we must all work together to address this alarming wave of intolerance pic.twitter.com/iGnO29Gin3
One rare instance of Copts receiving support in their home country came during the anti-government protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2013.
Christians and Muslims encircled each other as they took turns praying, showing solidarity at a turbulent time for the country, in what many hoped would prove a driver for change.
The reverse side of the Nobel Peace Prize medal depicts a group of men forming a fraternal bond. The accompanying Latin inscription reads “Pro Pace Et Fraternitate Gentium”, which means “For the peace and brotherhood of men”.