WASHINGTON — Thousands of Coptic Christians converged at the White House yesterday, protesting the Egyptian army’s failure to defend religious minorities.
In the wake of anti-Christian violence in post-revolutionary Egypt, Coptic priests and Egyptian immigrants from as far away as Chicago held up simple wooden crosses and pictures of bloodied bodies crushed during the deadly Oct. 9 clash in Cairo between the military, Muslims and Christian protesters.
The U.S. government has funneled $35 billion in military aid to Egypt since the 1978 Camp David accords that provided a framework for peace between Egypt and Israel. Yet the Obama White House has issued a restrained public response to the deaths of 26 Copts.
Chanting “Shame on the army,” the demonstrators demanded that Washington hold the Egyptian army accountable for failing to maintain the rule of law and protect religious minorities after the February revolution toppled the Mubarak regime.
Leaders of the protest asserted that the “presence of numerous senior Coptic priests shouting slogans outside the White House — several gray-bearded and one in a wheelchair — meant their actions had the blessing of their Orthodox Pope in Cairo,” according to The Washington Post.
Following the Oct. 9 violence, the Coptic Church in Egypt has expressed frustration with “problems that occur repeatedly and go unpunished”; Pope Shenouda III, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, called for three days of prayer, mourning and fasting for the dead.
The unusual presence of the Coptic priests at yesterday’s demonstration reflected the community’s fears that Christians will encounter more intense persecution after expected election victories by the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi-influenced Salafist candidates. In Egypt’s parliamentary system, a coalition government appears likely.
The protesters’ sense of urgency resonated at a nearby Washington, D.C., conference that drew experts on Egyptian politics and religious freedom issues.
“We are beginning to realize that Egypt might become a democracy, but that does not mean that religious freedom will improve,” said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.
Last February, when pro-democracy protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Christians joined Muslims to chant in unison, “Muslim, Christian, doesn’t matter; We’re all in this boat together!” But the common jubilation has dissipated.
“High expectations began to collapse following the revolution,” said Tadros. “The patterns we saw before the revolution are being repeated, and at a much faster pace — one attack occurred during the revolution.”
Christians comprise about 10% of Egypt’s population of 80 million, but they experience routine harassment and occasional violence by Muslims influenced by Salafist teachings, which oppose the building or rehabilitation of churches and any public symbols of the Christian faith, including crosses.
Christian girls are pressured to wear the veil, and some are forced to convert to Islam. The law prohibits Muslims from converting to Christianity.
Samuel Tadros asserted that the attacks on Christians and their churches reflect “a mentality that doesn’t want the Copts to be visible. The Christians are welcomed only as second-class citizens.”
The scholars noted that the official response to the recent clash between the Egyptian military, Muslims and Copts, who were protesting government inaction following a series of sectarian attacks, was entirely predictable.
In the wake of previous anti-Christian violence, the military has arrested Christians, accusing them of instigating the unrest. Church leaders must then “negotiate” for the release of those who have been imprisoned and withdraw any further demands for justice. Muslim perpetrators are rarely penalized.
Eric Trager, the Ira Weiner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern policy, said it was “plausible that the army had lost control” on Oct. 9 and was unable to restrain its troops, who are typically inexperienced. But that could not explain why the state media then fomented further attacks by blaming the violence on Copts and “outside forces.”
“Security has deteriorated,” said Trager, who noted that Washington must confront its ally’s struggles head-on and prepare for “upcoming parliament elections that will bring Islamists to power.”
A key concern is the political influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, said Trager, who described the mass movement as a multitiered organization that stretched from the highest levels of Egyptian society down to villages and was engaged in a spectrum of activities, from religious formation to community outreach.
“Politics in Egypt has rarely been about ideas; it’s about the provision of services, such as jobs, hospitals and roads,” he said, noting that the Muslim Brotherhood had earned respect for its efforts to provide basic services.
He questioned whether the U.S. government fully grasped the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist orientation, noting that the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, had described the mass movement as “largely secular.”
In February 2011, during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Clapper characterized the Muslim Brotherhood as “an umbrella term for a variety of movements; in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam. … They have pursued social ends, a betterment of the political order in Egypt.” A spokesman for Clapper has since modified his position.
Trager asserted that the Muslim Brotherhood has “never” been secular. “It’s important to have no illusions about the state of politics in Egypt,” he said, noting that the central political debate was about “how to interpret sharia [Islamic law],” not whether Islamic sources would influence the drafting of contemporary laws.
“That debate clearly excludes Christians,” he added. “They will be second-class citizens.” And if Copts try to block this development, their resistance could provoke more intense anti-Christian persecution.
The recent sectarian violence has also prompted concerns about whether the present or future Egyptian government can maintain the rule of law. And there are ongoing concerns that the military will seek to retain control of the government despite its previous commitment to advancing the democratic process, with presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall.
At the conference, the message was that Washington must maintain a strong relationship with Cairo, continuing to exert pressure to maintain public security and defend the safety of the large Christian minority.
The Coptic community in Egypt, said Samuel Tadros, was too large to displace or disperse without precipitating a major crisis. The Copts “can’t be absorbed in Syria or the West,” he said, noting the sharp rise in immigration by Iraqi Christians in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. And he stressed that the Coptic community is not concentrated in one geographic area of Egypt and thus cannot push for some form of political autonomy.
At the Washington protests, fear of an impending crisis fueled the passionate intensity of the demonstrators — some of whom lost relatives during the recent sectarian violence. There are about a half million Egyptians now living in this country, many of them middle-class professionals.
But those who ask Washington to condition further aid to Egypt on improvements in the security of religious minorities know they face an uphill struggle.
The administration clearly seeks to protect relations with an ally of vital strategic importance to U.S. interests: After the Oct. 9 attacks, when local Egyptian media erroneously announced that the U.S. could come to the defense of the Copts, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton promptly issued a statement disputing that report.
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.