CAIRO — Tonight, an Egyptian Christian mother will lie awake, worrying if her kidnapped daughter was merely forced to marry a radical Islamist and convert or if her fate was much worse.
This Sunday, an Egyptian father will hitchhike more than 10 miles to the nearest church with his sons, not knowing whether the boys will be kidnapped by gunmen who don’t conceal their identities. Also uncertain is whether he and his fellow congregants will make it through Mass alive or whether extremists will set off explosives and shoot those inside.
Any day of any week, a priest in this ancient land will wonder how he can help his tiny flock survive against a system that basically says, “If you are not Muslim, you are not Egyptian. Therefore, you have no worth.”
Furthermore, Christian families all over the nation will wonder, “Do I stay or do I leave? For no one should have to live like this.”
Such questions have been a fact of Christian existence for a long time, but the situation appears to be worsening under the fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood regime that took over leadership of Egypt two years ago.
The most recent spate of violence broke out in a northern Cairo suburb on April 5, leaving eight Copts and one Muslim dead, the Christian advocacy group Voice of the Copts reported.
Early reports cited rumors that Christians had painted two swastikas on a mosque’s wall, according to a report by Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), but, in fact, the actual vandals were two Muslim children, and the mosque’s imam had already dealt with them. Nonetheless, the rumor continued to spread, alleging that Christians had painted not swastikas, but crosses on the outside of the mosque.
The AINA article suggested that the real cause for the deadly melee might have been the earlier death of a neighborhood Muslim, who reportedly died in a struggle with a Christian youth after he allegedly sexually harassed and threatened the life of a Christian girl.
While the cause of the altercation is under dispute, Muslims subsequently marched on the majority-Christian Al Khosous neighborhood. After burning a Baptist church and destroying and looting local homes and businesses, the rioters moved on to St. George Coptic Church.
In an effort to protect the building, area Christians locked arms. At that point, a person or persons on the Muslim side opened fire, killing the eight Copts. Police did not arrive until two hours later, and security forces did not appear for five hours.
The next day, as mourners left Sunday funeral services for four of the dead at Cairo’s St. Mark Orthodox Coptic Cathedral, they were met by a mob that attacked them with stones and Molotov cocktails, BBC reported. One of the assailants shot a Christian with a shotgun. The man died on the scene. Police succeeded in breaking up the riots by firing tear gas into the cathedral compound.
Later in the day, according to the BBC, Pope Tawadros II, head of the Orthodox Copts, spoke by phone with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
Morsi reportedly told the Orthodox leader, “Any attack against the cathedral is like an attack against me personally.”
However, Egyptian Member of Parliament Mohamad Abu Hamed, a Muslim, was among those who believe the regime helped orchestrate the violence in an effort to distract voters from high unemployment and increasingly chronic bread shortages as elections near.
According to Assyrian International News Agency, Abu Hamed said, “It is not possible that every time the regime wants to cover-up its failure, the Copts are attacked and their churches burned.”
This is the condition in today’s Egypt, an old country, but one which some had hoped would be born anew with the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011. And while woes have hit many disillusioned citizens since then, some believe things are as bad for Christians as they have been at any time since the year 639, when Muslim armies captured Egypt from the Byzantine Empire.
Back then, almost everyone in the country belonged to the Coptic Church, which was founded by St. Mark the Evangelist. It took until the 12th century for the population to become majority Muslim, and this occurred only after the Mohammedans taxed Christians at confiscatory rates that weren’t charged to Muslims.
The anti-Christian persecution has continued to the present, resulting in a Christian presence that has dwindled further as a percentage of Egypt’s total population. But their numbers remain substantial; about 12.3 million people, or 15% of the country’s total population of 82.5 million, are Christians.
Almost all of the Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Approximately 200,000 belong to the Coptic Catholic Church, which is in communion with Rome.
With the Feb. 11, 2011, overthrow of the government President Hosni Mubarak had led for 29 years, many Christians hoped better days had come.
However, as Robert Spencer, director of JihadWatch.org, told the Register, “The Mubarak government was hardly friendly to the Christians, but it was nothing like it is now. The Muslim Brotherhood [-led] government even seems to be instigating some of the violence.”
Ashraf Ramelah, director of Voice of the Copts, concurs. Mubarak, he contends, was “anti-Christian, but he wasn’t open about that.”
The Muslim Brotherhood isn’t so circumspect. Thus, despite the promises the fundamentalist Islamic movement made upon assuming power that it would have Christians in prominent positions and would set aside seats for minorities and women, none of that has happened.
Instead, the persecution has become more and more pronounced.
On Jan. 1, 2011, before Mubarak’s downfall, Islamists assaulted an Orthodox Coptic church in Alexandria, leaving 21 dead.
Later that month, in southern Egypt, where both Christians and the most radical Muslims are concentrated, extremists smashed into two Christian homes, wounding four and murdering 11.
Then, in October 2011, state security forces repressed Christian demonstrations after Muslims attacked a Christian church in Upper Egypt while police stood by and watched.
Since the switch in governments in 2011, the provincial capital of Minya alone has seen a spate of more than 150 kidnappings directed solely at Christians. Several of those kidnapped are girls who were forced into marriage and thereafter considered Muslim. No matter what they believe in their hearts, they can never again be Christians, at least officially.
Sometimes people are kidnapped at their church’s door. The kidnappers commonly demand money, but they also want to scare Christians away from church.
Others Forms of Oppression
Persecution isn’t limited to such violence, but is embedded in the pavement of each Christian’s daily walk.
For instance, if a church wants to affect repairs or build, it must go through a costly, complicated federal permit process. Even if successful in this, local administrators can veto the federal permission.
Back in February, the government set the first date for elections for April 27 and the second for May 5. The former date is the Saturday before the Copts celebrate Palm Sunday this year. The latter is the date they will observe Easter.
“Our political leaders chose the dates because they never take the calendar of Christian festivities into consideration,” a Coptic-Catholic bishop told the Vatican-affiliated Fides news service, “because no one around them is in a position to advise when a date is inopportune.”
The common thread through all these forms of discrimination, however, is that the majority wants to maintain Muslim dominance as a part of what it means to identify as an Egyptian.
Much of this is fueled by private Islamic religious TV stations that feed their viewers a 24/7 diet of anti-Christian and anti-Jewish vitriol. Considering that 70% of Egyptians say they get much of their news from such stations, the prejudice is not hard to understand.
It leads men such as Abdullah Badr — a popular, respected Egyptian Muslim scholar — to say he despises Christians so much that he refuses to eat food prepared by them and would not drink from a cup a Christian had merely touched.
Given all of this, Egyptian Christians can’t comprehend the friendly U.S. policy toward their nation. One Catholic-Copt bishop says, “The U.S. does not fully understand what is happening in Egypt.”
Indeed, the United States provides billions in foreign aid each year to Egypt, but how those funds are used isn’t always clear. Furthermore, the U.S. — the same nation that liberated those living behind the Iron Curtain — has shrugged its shoulders at the plight of those suffering in ways no less pathetic than the Israelites under Pharaoh, according to Egyptian Christian critics.
Ways to Help
What might be done to help? Spencer says Americans need to make Egypt’s continued reception of “financial aid contingent upon the way they are treating their minorities.”
For his part, Ramelah hopes Catholic churches will “open their doors to those who can explain this situation to their congregations. People need to know the truth.”
Back in 2011, Msgr. Robert Stern, secretary general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), told the Register that Egyptian Copts “really do need our support. … Ask our members of Congress what the United States is getting back for its billions of dollars in aid each year.”
Besides prayer, one tangible way to help is by donating to CNEWA, which helps Egypt’s Christians buy livestock, land and equipment, so that they can eke out a living.
As one farmer told CNEWA, “At least here our children are safe. The environment is good, though life is still hard. We sell chickens, eggs, corn, tomatoes and cucumbers, according to the season. And we even have electricity.”
Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.