NEW YORK — For more than 85 years, the Church has channeled aid to its faithful in the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe through the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. In Egypt, where only a small percentage of the population is Catholic, CNEWA helps churches build community centers and clinics; educates priests and sisters; cares for orphaned or impoverished children, providing shelter, schooling, food and clothing; and supports outreach efforts for Sudanese refugees. Msgr. Robert Stern, secretary general of CNEWA for the past 25 years, spoke to the Register about the Egyptian uprising and its effect on Christians there.
How old is the Catholic community in Egypt, and what is its current status?
A little under 2,000 years (chuckling). First of all, I should say that the Catholics are a miniscule minority of the Christians in Egypt: 10% of the Egyptian population is Christian, but it is overwhelmingly Coptic Orthodox. Our work is to look to the welfare of the Catholics, who number between 150,000 and 250,000, but the Holy Father has also given us the task of working for the union of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in the Near and Middle East. So we care deeply about the welfare of Catholics and Orthodox and evangelical Christians in Egypt.
How are Christians treated in Egypt?
Christians are definitely being discriminated against. Whether it is useful to say this publicly, whether it will hurt them more than help them, is a matter for prudential judgment. But in Islam there is no such thing as separation of church and state. And when you have a Muslim majority, you almost always have a state that is run in a way that favors Muslims. In Egypt there are very rarely Christian cabinet ministers, Christian senior officials, Christian generals, Christian village leaders.
Some would argue that the situation is better under President Hosni Mubarak than under his predecessors.
I wouldn’t say “better.” It is perhaps true that Mubarak has been painted with an awfully dark brush. But if you are a pastor of a church with a leaky roof, you could wait several years for a permit to fix it. And if you wanted to build a new church, you could wait for a decade for a building permit from the central government, and a local governor could still veto it.
What about the safety of Christians? Does the government protect them?
There has been a distressing increase in violence in the past several months. There has been unprecedented violence recently.
Do Christian leaders see the current uprising as dangerous?
I think they do. The Orthodox Coptic Pope Shenouda III has expressed hopes for reform coming from the current situation, but all Christian leaders there are afraid that there will be a repetition of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. At least Christians were protected under Saddam, but once he fell and Sunnis and Shiites began fighting, Christians were caught in the c ross fire.
Some radical Muslims in Egypt may already be taking advantage of the uprising to attack Christians.
Is there an Islamist element to the uprising?
When the new vice president, Omar Suleiman, met with the leaders of the uprising, these included a couple of leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Normally, the government doesn’t even speak to them. They are a group that started in the 1930s and is the great-granddaddy of al-Qaeda. It was a form of aggressive Islam, calling for a return to authentic beliefs. But the organization has diversified, changed; the early leaders have given way to new ones. What they may have said in the past may not be their policies today. Politics is the art of the possible. If everyone can be brought together to talk peacefully maybe something better can come out of it.
But maybe the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the strong sentiment in Egypt in favor of sharia (Islamic law), as indicated by a recent Pew Forum poll, indicates harder times ahead for Egypt’s Christians.
For sure, Church leaders are apprehensive — they really are — about an extremist takeover. The best possible outcome for Egypt’s Christians would be a secular regime that was more liberal. Right now, that appears to be the main goal, the main sentiment. The main thing for the people involved is being Egyptian. They are concerned with the nation, the common good, being part of the modern world.
Is what happens in Egypt important for Christians throughout the Middle East?
Absolutely. Paradoxically, because many Egyptians are not Arabs at all, Egypt is the leading country in the Arab world; it is where most Arab movies and TV programs come from. It is one of the biggest Arab countries, and it has, by far, the most Christians, more Christians than in the rest of the Arab world combined.
Is there a role for the Holy See in protecting Christians in Egypt and the region?
The Holy See always has concern for Catholics and all Christians in the Middle East. It doesn’t have any role in the Egyptian government’s talks with the leaders of the uprising. But it provides a great umbrella of protection for all Christians, because the Catholic Church is a very big, worldwide network.
Is it helpful to speak out in defense of Egyptian Christians, or harmful?
There is the question of what to say. Catholics in Egypt are themselves inclined to speak of discrimination. And they say to us, “Please don’t describe the situation as persecution. That will only make our situation worse.” You can see photographs of Coptic Christians in America protesting and marching against persecution because they are free and safe to do that. But in Egypt you never see them talking about persecution. They believe that would harden the lines over there. Still, sometimes you do have to speak up.
What can Catholics in America do?
Firstly, just to be aware there is a Church in Egypt would be a big step. The Christians in Egypt do feel themselves in solidarity with Christians around the world. We should feel the same with them.
Secondly, they really do need our support, lobbying, speaking, expressing indignation when someone tosses a bomb into a church. Ask our members of Congress what the United States is getting back for its billion dollars in aid each year.
Should Catholics be preparing to receive a flood of refugees from Egypt?
I don’t think there is going to be a major exodus. There is still a critical mass of Christians in Egypt that makes the community there self-sustaining. Whereas, the kindest thing Americans can do for the Iraqi Christians is to lobby for their easy admission to the U.S., as was once done for Jews leaving the Soviet Union.
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.