When pain turns to rage

Azza Radwan Sedky
Thursday 29 Jul 2021

On 20 July, the Egyptian Coptic congregation in Vancouver, Canada, lost their beloved church to an arson act. In a grotesque, morbid photo, only the façade of the building remained standing

When victims seek revenge, they become the offenders. At this point the picture becomes fuzzy and it becomes difficult to tell the victim from the assailant.

The desire to retaliate and avenge oneself is a common human reaction, but it leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth because the victims hardly notice that their actions, in some cases, may reap results akin to what they personally went through.

On 20 July, the Egyptian Coptic congregation in Vancouver, Canada, lost their beloved church to an arson act. In a grotesque, morbid photo, only the façade of the building remained standing. The congregation of approximately 500 families were in total shock. Father Paul Guirgis of the Church of Virgin Mary and St Athanasius in Mississauga, Ontario, said: “We will rebuild. I have no doubt of that. But I hope we do not rebuild at the expense of allowing hatred to dwell in our hearts, especially for the person(s) who've committed this heinous act.”

The loss of this particular church hit home with me, too. I know many of the members of the congregation who considered the church their home away from home.

This was not a unique crime though; actually it was an act like many other attacks on churches in Canada. Father Guirgis said, “The pain we are experiencing due to the destruction of our beloved church… in Surrey, BC, is the same felt by dozens of other Christian communities across Canada, communities whose churches have witnessed similar acts of vandalism and arson in recent weeks.”

The cause of the fire is still “under investigation,” but I doubt anyone will be arrested or charged. Arson attempts on churches are acts of redemption that subdue the anger and fury amongst many indigenous Canadians. And here comes the perplexity that exists in retaliatory measures.

For over 110 years, approximately 150,000 indigenous children were obliged to attend residential schools run by mainly the Catholic Church to assimilate them into the Canadian society, depriving them in the process of their origin, be it their language or culture while subjecting them to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Though the exact figure may never be known, it is estimated that about 6,000 indigenous children never returned to their families and died of disease and other perils.

Today, hundreds of unmarked graves are being discovered at former Catholic-run residential schools across Canada, some of children three years old. Since their loved ones never returned, indigenous Canadians always knew of the high rates of death among their children and that their bodies were routinely buried and never returned to their families. Now everyone realises the horrifying facts as grief and sorrow engulfs indigenous and all Canadians.

Once the unmarked graves were discovered, a destructive practice emerged. Churches, in particular those on indigenous lands, were destroyed, one by one, by arsonists. Nearly two dozen churches, and counting, have been burned or vandalised across the country. The fury and revenge are directed against all churches not necessarily Catholic ones, as many are being reduced to rubbles and piles of ash.

Here is the trauma. How does one overcome the will to harm attackers or those affiliated to them when grief and sorrow engulfs one? Those who survived residential schools and their descendants are subduing their pain by acting out.

For many indigenous Canadians, emotions towards the church are juxtaposed. Some have suggested that indigenous communities consider cutting all ties with the religion they say was imposed on them. Others value the churches for they are where they were baptised and married and where their parents were buried, but the same churches caused them too much grief and loss to their identity and culture.

Indigenous band leaders don’t agree with the retaliatory measures, and many have pleaded with the arsonists to spare the churches despite their understandable anger and fury. Band Chief Keith Crow said, “I don’t see any positive coming from this and it’s going to be tough.” Lower Similkameen Band leader said, “It is not our place to say who to worship and what historical relevance it has to our community members, we are all free to choose and it is our place as a community to support that freedom.”

Many indigenous elders are also upset about the burning of the churches. When a Catholic church in Morinville, Alberta, was burned, Carrie Allison, an elder who helped maintain the church, said in a statement, “The church meant so much to all of us, especially our ancestors. When your hurt turns to rage it is not healthy for you or your community.” Carrie Allison, another elder from the Similkameen Indian Band said, “A lot of us suffered, but this is not how we do things, and this is not our way. It makes me so sick, sad, and I can only hope I do not know you. I feel sorry for you.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau found the act of revenge futile, saying “I can’t help but think that burning down churches is actually depriving people who are in need of grieving, healing and mourning from places where they can grieve and reflect and look for support.”

Revenge comes at a price; it creates even further vendettas and leaves the avenger dwelling on hate and immersed in aversion forever. Still, is it easy to bear no malice and let bygones be bygones? I doubt it.  

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