Coptic Christians Starve American Exchange Student

Coptic Christians Starve American Exchange Student

HALLOWELL, Maine – Jonathan McCullum was in excellent health at 155 pounds when he left last summer to spend the school year as an exchange student in Egypt.

But when he returned home to Maine just four months later, the 5-foot-9 teenager weighed a mere 97 pounds and was so weak that he struggled to carry his baggage or climb a flight of stairs. Doctors said he was at risk of a heart attack.

McCullum says he was denied sufficient food while staying with a family of Coptic Christians, who fast for more than 200 days a year, a regimen unmatched by other Christians.

Talk about a nightmare. The kid got to see the world alright–see what it was like to live with a religious minority even more extremist than the Egyptian Islamic majority. What is it with this fasting obsession?? I know of friends of friends who are right now fasting for Lent. What possible purpose (other than severe malnutrition and weight loss) could this serve?

Comments (8 comments)

Burk / February 28th, 2008, 12:10 pm / #1

It serves the purpose of being a mind-altering experience. Some cultures take peyote, some fast. People appear to think that ratcheting up the intensity of spiritual emotions and visions makes the spiritual world real-er than before. We are a funny species, are we not?

BlackSun / February 28th, 2008, 12:22 pm / #2


I can relate to mind-altering experiences. I’ve had a few myself. And I would never try to tell someone they should be prohibited from starving themselves if they so desire. I’m a champion of individual freedom. But I’m also going to tell that person what I think about what they are doing–that it flies in the face of any definition of rational self-care.

In the situation described, a kid in a strange country chose not to remove himself, fearing an even worse fate. The host family reneged on their obligations to feed him and used their religion to justify it. That’s what galls me. Then their obvious misrepresentations in the article demonstrate their severe lack of morality. What is religion supposed to provide to followers, if not a moral compass? All that fasting doesn’t seem to have gained them any compassion or insight, so what’s the goal?

There may be health reasons for purgative fasting, which might last from 1-3 days. A week if you’re really going all out. But 40-day Lenten fasts or Coptic-style slow deprivation are just plain extreme. My position is: Harm yourself if you wish, but don’t pretend there’s something noble about it.

Aaron Kinney / March 26th, 2008, 9:24 am / #3

The funny part is that too much fasting is more dangerous to your health than too much eating LOL

Patricia Backora / May 15th, 2008, 7:31 am / #4

Fasting is an old Jewish custom. God ordered only ONE regular fast day per year, for Jews only, the Day of Atonement. Several other fasts were added to the Jewish calendar BY MEN, not by God.Fasting is not mentioned before Moses, giver of the Law. It was the Pharisees who started the custom of regular weekly fasts. When Jesus commented on fasting, he was addressing Jews who habitually did it anyway and cautioned against hypocrisy in this practice. NOT ONE verse in the epistles (doctrinal letters to the churches) commands fasting or even recommends it for growth in holiness. I Thessalonians chapter 5 contains a long list of things Christians are required to do. Fasting is conspicuous by its absence. Because we live under a Covenant based on grace, not works, I don’t think fasting is important unless it “just happens” as a byproduct of an extended prayer session. Suffering to gain God’s approval is pagan, like when the priests of Baal cut themselves to appease their own god (I Kings 18:26-28)

Meredith / May 24th, 2008, 5:21 pm / #5

The Copts’ fasting regulations rule out all animal products except for seafood. Basically they go vegan for certain parts of the year. It’s not like they don’t eat.

Patricia, I think you are forgetting that Jesus himself fasted for forty days in the desert before he began his ministry. And I’m sure you remember Jesus saying that certain kinds of demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. This is why Christians fast – to imitate Christ. It’s true that fasting is not an end in itself. If you fast without also praying and helping the poor (the other two legs of the three-legged stool of Lent), you will do nothing but make yourself miserable, and probably everyone around you, too.

To return to the story, I find the whole thing bizarre. Both the kid’s story and the host family’s story sound suspicious, and they certainly don’t match up. If the family was being stingy, why did he sit around and basically wait for death?! Couldn’t he have gone to a market or a McDonald’s (yes they have them in Egypt) and bought some food? When I was in Italy, I cooked more than half of my own meals. If he was running out of money he should have used Skype and called his dad for more. Or gone busking. Or something. Stealing food from a supermarket? Not the best solution to say the least. Either the family was evil and the kid was stupid, or the family was feeding him and the kid was being a devious anorexic or something.

Mary / August 23rd, 2008, 5:49 pm / #6

I agree with Meredith, there is something suspicious about the story because I am Egyptian and there is a mini market or milk bar every few meters, where the kid could have got some canned food or something. So food is available only a small walk away in every neighborhood. Both stories should be open for scrutiny.

Joanne / August 30th, 2008, 7:10 pm / #7

I agree with both Meridith and Mary.
People don’t choose to fast simply because they need a strict diet slash excess weight and decide to drag an exchange student into it too! The story is sus and I would know.

I’m Australian and I stayed with two families in Egypt for 3 months yes 3 months and I was fine, I may have been in Africa but we’re talking about Egypt not Ethiopia, people don’t die of starvation while staying with a family! I stayed during Christmas (which coptics fast 40 days for). Mate all their food is of it’s most natural source they don’t believe in canned food because of all the crap and additives they contain. However my sister also came with me and she put on weight! They always offered something to eat ALWAYS and my sister being who she is always accepted. The lady of the house would wake up to go to the bathroom or get a cup of water at night and if she found my sister or I awake she would go and prepare us something to eat I’m talking 3am sometimes!! They always made sure that we were comfortable as if one of them, they we happy to see us open the fridge.

Which is why I think this kid’s story is too suspicious to have any truth about it. I’m not dismissing his pain or his stated condition, however the cause to his malnutrition is simply unbievable, and I can say that with all confidence because I was there too, living with coptic families during a fasting period. This poor kid in my opinion was homesick because being in arab countries is like walking into another world, it’s very different. The change can be overwhelming especially if you can’t communicate freely with them, and that also may have been an issue.

Where there’s a will there’s a way. If he really wanted to he could’ve walked downstairs and less than 200m awayhe wouldve found a little shop, grabed whatever he liked and cooked it himself if he didn’t like the food, highly unlikley though.

I actually commend these people, they actually have the self disipline to say no to their bodily desires, whilst feeding their souls, these people don’t fast without prayer something I understood from them is that there is no point, it goes hand in hand.

If there were more self disiplined people in the world, the world wouldn’t be in the disgusting moraless state it is in now. They actually say no to chocolate and junk food for two thirds of the year! To me thats something. Most of us NEED our phones, makeup, alcoholic drink, sex, lap top, to go shopping etc to get us through the day and retain our sanity, but they don’t. And thats what it’s all about, depending solely on you and the Supreme Being – God. Not “starving to a malnutritous state” – shallow, one demension minded people can’t think outside the square they encamp themselves in.

Patricia / August 27th, 2009, 7:25 am / #8

Jesus DID go without food forty days and nights but He had power to live off the Word of God and only AFTER His abstinence ended did He feel hunger (Matt.4:2) An example is not a command. Many Christians have gotten ill or even died because they felt obligated to imitate Christ’s long fast. There is no other example given of Jesus going a long time without eating. He didn’t make His own disciples fast and drew criticism for it from John the Baptist’s disciples (Mark 2:13-22). Jesus, far from “living a fasted life”, was criticized for being a wine drinker and glutton (Matt.11:19). He contrasted Himself with John the Baptist’s ascetic lifestyle (Luke 7:33-34). Jesus was no drunk or glutton, but if He had been a frequent faster the charge would have been ridiculous. In the church council of Acts 15, no mention is made of new Gentile Christians needing to fast. Most of them would have been unfamiliar with the practice and needed teaching on it if it were a requirement. The epistles are silent on religious fasting.

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