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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Crosstalk: Christians in the News

Current events in Syria and Egypt have raised our awareness of ancient Christians in the Near East. Reports are filtering out about the systematic burning of Christian Churches, the theft of Christian property, beatings and other horrors, and even executions. I wish to dedicate this column to these people.

“Coptic Christians,” or simply, “Copts,” are so unfamiliar to most of us that they might be from another planet. It is difficult for us to feel the bonds of Christian kinship with people we never knew existed. So let me tell you about the Coptic Christians. These people are neither Roman Catholic nor protestant. In fact, they are a branch of Christianity more ancient than every single denomination represented in Evanston.

Coptic is an ancient Egyptian delect. Though it is not Greek, it is written with Greek letters. The language as been around since hundreds of years before Christ. But in the first century of the Christian era, this entire people group became Christian.

During the time of the Apostles, Christian missionaries brought the Gospel to Ethiopia (Acts 8:27) and Egypt. The most prominent of these missionaries was St. Mark. After doing some early work with St. Paul (Acts 13:5), Barnabas (15:39) and Peter (1 Peter 5:13), St. Mark traveled to Alexandria, Egypt and planted Christ's Church among the Copts and was martyred there.

As the Church grew, the Copts became nearly 100% Christian. Pastors from Egypt were some of Christianity's strongest leaders. Men like Clement, Origen and Cyril, Augustine and Cyprian. The Coptic Christians believe in the Holy Trinity and the two natures of Jesus Christ. They confess the Nicene Creed and accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God. These are the people under attack in modern Egypt. Please pray for them and speak up for them. They are your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria have a different, although similar, story. There are three distinct regions of Syria which all became Christian at the earliest of times under the teaching of different apostles.

Edessa, Syria became Christian at such an early stage, many consider it to be the home of one of the wise men who visited the baby Jesus. Later, the Apostle Thomas seems to have staged his missionary journey to India from this Christian community. Today, these are known as the "Thomas Christians."

Damascus had a Christian community in it already before St. Paul became an apostle. It was in Damascus that Paul was baptized by Pastor Ananias (Acts 9).

Antioch was the first Church in Christendom that was made up predominantly of non-Jewish Christians. St. Paul counted this Church as home base for his missionary journeys (Acts 11:26). St. Ignatius, one of our earliest martyrs (110 A.D.) was the pastor of Antioch.

These are the real people on the ground, living as a tiny minority among their Muslim countrymen. They have been confessing the Nicene Creed and living the Christian life for nearly two thousand years. They have gone from minority status (1st century) to majority status (6th century) and back to minority status (8th century to the present). Still God has preserved the true worship of His name in these locations.

As you pray for them, do not only weep for them but rejoice in them. For through their quiet faithfulness, and through their patient steadfastness in the face of overwhelming opposition, we can be inspired to imitate their faith in our own place and time. 

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." Hebrews 12:1-2