The Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London speaks with Plough’s Alan Koppschall about the Copts’ outsized witness as a persecuted religious minority in Egypt.

Alan Koppschall: Christ calls his followers to love their enemies and those who persecute them. The Coptic Church has had to reckon with that radical enemy love in a way that almost no other church in the present age has. If we go back to the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Egypt and the political turmoil that followed, how did this affect your church and what was the response of the Coptic Christians?

Archbishop Angaelos: At the time of the uprising in Egypt, as was the case across the Middle East, there was a lot of unrest and uncertainty. Some people had high hopes of achieving political reform, others were anxious and hesitant. Others were trying to push a personal agenda. And so for Christians it was important to continue to be Christians throughout, and that is to be constructive members of society: to be prayerful and hopeful but also strong and faithful.

At one stage, when the political situation was very tense, Islamists tried to break society apart by attacking Christians – expecting Christians would attack them in return and thereby instigate a civil war. And so, in August 2013, there were attacks on a hundred churches and places of Christian ministry across Egypt within a forty-eight-hour window. It was obviously orchestrated. And the remarkable thing was that in an incredibly inflamed political environment – it was an absolute tinderbox and anything could have ignited it – there was not one single retaliation, violent or otherwise, against any of these attacks.

Mosaic mural at the entrance to Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, Egypt. All photography by Daniel Samray. Used by permission.

No communication went out from the patriarchate or the diocese saying, “Don’t retaliate.” It was just Christians in Egypt doing what the Christians in Egypt do. And by not retaliating, they took the wind out of that initiative. By the admission of many, including political analysts and non-Christians at every level, that’s what protected the community.

The Coptic Church was brought onto the world stage more recently through the terrible act of violence carried out by ISIS against twenty-one migrant workers on a Libyan beach in February 2015. How did this incident help to demonstrate the importance of loving one’s enemies?

That was a pivotal point, I think, that impacted many people around the world, religious and nonreligious. It was an act of such inhumanity that it crossed a line that many were not ready to cross. The impact the executions made had two sources. The first was the men themselves, the twenty Coptic Christians and their Ghanaian friend. Their resilience, their strength, their utterance of the name of Christ to the very end was a real display of grace.

Just as in the Book of Daniel the three young men in the fiery furnace had a fourth with them, I am sure there was a twenty-second man on that beach. Christ must have been in their midst because their peace was visible on their faces.

Just as in the Book of Daniel the three young men in the fiery furnace had a fourth with them, I am sure there was a twenty-second man on that beach.

The second reason the execution made such an impact was the reaction of the victims’ families. The German novelist Martin Mosebach was so moved by the story that he traveled to Egypt to write his book The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs (Plough, 2019). He went to live with the families, expecting to see people broken by an act that had taken away their men, but he found them celebrating their witness and forgiving the perpetrators. I think that was an eye opener.

When word of the executions first reached Britain, I had over thirty interviews in the twenty-four hours following the announcement. And all the interviewers asked me, “How can you possibly forgive?” Because in my first interview I had spoken about forgiving the perpetrators. It was such a countercultural, counterintuitive sentiment. And I think it was another display of grace. It is the grace of God in us that allows us to love as he loves and to forgive as he forgives.

Forgiveness is tied into loving God – which includes loving ourselves as the image and likeness of God. Because it is in seeing that image and likeness within us and within everybody else, including our enemies, that we are then led to love and to forgive everybody. Not forgiving the action itself but the person committing the action; never justifying or accepting the hostility itself, but recognizing human brokenness and realizing that we’re all broken and we all need God’s forgiveness. In recognizing that, we can begin to love the image and likeness of God in the perpetrators, forgive them, and pray for them that their broken humanity could one day be restored.

A mosaic mural at the entrance to Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, Egypt.

Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies doesn’t just apply in the most extreme cases. It needs to be something that we live in our everyday lives. As a member of a church that has suffered so much persecution, how do you show love to your enemies on a daily basis?

We tend to romanticize the big things – like the twenty-one martyrs, or the sacrifice of missionaries in far corners of the world. But in fact, day-to-day life, in Britain or anywhere else, means having to love those who persecute us or even just make our lives slightly more uncomfortable on a daily basis. We have to continue to live our faith, the “faith that carries us,” because forgiveness doesn’t come out of a vacuum: forgiveness is based on love, and love is based on understanding the nature of God, who is in and of himself love. In scripture we’re told he loves us first. And when we have that realization, we’re able to see how much he loves us – and how much he has forgiven us. And how many times, as with the adulterous woman or the paralytic or others he met, he will say to us, “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.” And yet we do sin again, and he will meet us again with the same grace and the same love. So I think it’s very important for us to continue to live the message of our Lord Jesus Christ and continue to walk in his footsteps.

What about the imprecatory psalms? How should we reconcile love of enemies with the chanting of these psalms that seem to invoke judgment, calamity, and curses upon one’s enemies?

The beautiful thing about our scriptures is that they’re not sanitized. They don’t tell us we’re never going to have a problem. When the psalmist is in the depths of anxiety he says: “How long, O Lord, will you forget me?” When he is in the depths of need, he says: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.” When he is in the depths of the darkness of the journey of life, he speaks of journeying through the valley of death – with the protection of the staff and the rod of the shepherd. All of these things are human emotions God encourages us to express in human terms.

So, no, we don’t use the psalms to curse, and we don’t use the psalms to vent. We are using the psalms to place our pain before God, because the psalms are communication with God to put our petitions before the Lord who will answer us. People sometimes weaponize scripture using verses taken out of context to justify anger and hostility. But the culmination of scripture in both the Old and New Testaments is the victory of God’s love, the victory of good over evil and of life over death.

We tend to romanticize the big things – like the twenty-one martyrs, or the sacrifice of missionaries in far corners of the world. But day-to-day life means having to love those who persecute us or even just make our lives slightly more uncomfortable on a daily basis.

What should the church do in response to the war in Ukraine?

Pray. The church must offer up prayers for those who are adversely affected, for those in power, for people who are on the frontline, for all the people who suffer. Where the church can speak a good word to de-escalate or bring reconciliation, we should do that. Much of what we do will not have an immediate effect, because these wars are based on geopolitics and national interests, which people are less than willing to let go of. But we must certainly never add fuel to the fire, and we must never be a cause of greater enmity. The church has to be a presence of hope and peace.

Jesus himself doesn’t tell us not to have enemies. He himself had many and still has many enemies. How do we stick uncompromisingly to the truth of the gospel while still loving our enemies?

I’ve struggled with this concept of “the enemy” for many years and have come to the understanding that while I myself do not have enemies, there are people in the world who consider themselves my enemy. But even so, I must still love them.

In terms of what we do, we need to be honest with ourselves. One of the requirements for a successful dialogue is to dialogue about the right thing in the right way at the right time. And so there are things we are not going to agree on, even among Christians. There are some things I, as a Coptic Orthodox Christian, cannot compromise on. Ego, status, power – all of those things we can and should compromise on. When it comes to doctrine, there are things we cannot compromise on, but these also do not stop us from living side by side. And they do not stop us from witnessing together and living the love and grace of our Lord together – being the “light of the world.”

Praying for your enemies is also an important part of the gospel, isn’t it?

Absolutely. We need to pray for everything and everyone, which includes praying, as our Lord did, for those who consider themselves our enemies. Even when he was on the cross, he prayed for his executioners, saying: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” When speaking of those who are perpetrators of atrocities, there’s an element of such people “not knowing what they do” because they are hitting out at what they consider to be a dehumanized entity, whereas in reality, they’re attacking a full human being, someone who holds the image and likeness of God.