CAIRO — Pushed to the edge of endurance, Egypt’s persecuted Christians have started to see some relief from Islamist persecution, as Egypt’s security forces and law courts crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood and its violent activities.
Ever since a popular uprising backed by Egypt’s military toppled the government of President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, the Muslim Brotherhood has seethed at their fall from power. And they have directed much of their rage at Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, which accounts for 10% of Egypt’s 84 million people.
However, the tide of persecution endured by the Copts may be turning. While military and police operations regain security over the country, a court in Cairo has ordered that the Muslim Brotherhood be banned and its assets confiscated by the state.
The Cairo Court for Urgent Matters ruled Sept. 23 in favor of the Tagammu party, which accused the Muslim Brotherhood of carrying out terrorist activities and using religion for its own political ends, according to The New York Times. The Middle East News Agency reported the Ministry of Social Solidarity will wait on the outcome of two other court cases involving the Brotherhood before enforcing the ruling.
Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for Egypt’s Catholic Conference, spoke with the Register from Cairo and said the situation for Christians has improved since the Muslim Brotherhood onslaught began Aug. 14. Mobs, enraged by the military’s violent crackdown on Brotherhood demonstrations, retaliated by destroying more than 60 churches, hospitals and schools. They also killed, harassed or assaulted Christians unfortunate enough to be caught in their path.
"We are still under threat," Father Greiche said. "Everything can’t come back steadily overnight."
However, he said the court-ordered seizure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s assets was a "wise decision" that would deal a critical blow to its network of patronage and support.
"Most of the Egyptians, Christians and Muslims, have been awaiting this verdict," he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s extensive network provides social services and welfare payments for many Egyptians from its own coffers. This allows it to command a great deal of loyalty from its supporters. But Father Greiche said this network also helps the Brotherhood pay its supporters to demonstrate, protest and carry out terrorist acts against Christians and Muslims who oppose them.
"This money has to get all dried up," he said, explaining that the loss of money will greatly curtail its influence and violent activities over time. He added that, once the ruling is in place, "it will get drier, bit by bit."
Violent clashes between Egyptian security forces and the Muslim Brotherhood have left hundreds of Brotherhood members dead and thousands injured and arrested.
Ashraf Ramelah, president of the organization Voice of the Copts, told the Register that Egypt’s security forces face an enormous challenge in bringing the country under control. Ramelah said that Morsi freed and pardoned convicted terrorists and allowed Hamas agents to infiltrate the country.
"The army and police are trying to have everything under control after two years of this," he said, pointing to the 2011 break-in that freed Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood members from prison.
The Egyptian military temporarily reopened the border with Gaza Sept. 25 to accommodate refugees after shutting it down earlier in the month, destroying smuggling tunnels and aggressively patrolling its waters in a bid to cut Hamas’ supplies and communications running through Sinai. The army and police also liberated the town of Delga in central Egypt from Islamists in a dawn assault. Muslim Brotherhood members had seized the town, terrorizing Muslims and Christians and demanding they pay the jizya tax or convert to Islam.
Security forces have also shut down news organizations associated with Islamists, including the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice daily. Father Greiche said the government shut down a radical fundamentalist radio station. He added the station was inciting others to commit violence against Christians and Jews, calling them "donkeys and monkeys."
"They were poisoning the life of the people," he said.
Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has also vowed that the Egyptian military will rebuild every Christian church torched by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ramelah said he was cautiously optimistic about al-Sisi.
"So far, from my point of view, he is a person showing real care for the country," Ramelah said.
Christians also are hopeful that Egypt’s new constitution will provide them the equal rights they have sought for decades. A committee of 50 technocrats is devising a constitution to replace the one crafted by the Muslim Brotherhood. The final draft may be ready by the end of October, with a national referendum in November.
Father Greiche said the constitutional committee includes representatives of Coptic Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches, who were appointed from the working committees of their respective churches.
"The three committees meet to coordinate their demands," said Father Greiche. "Mostly, we agree on everything."
Father Rafic said the group is united on expanding religious freedom, freedom of expression and rights for women and children. The Catholic delegation, he said, has been pushing for broader changes to the constitution that would recognize the rights of not only Christians and Jews, but also of all non-Muslim sects.
But even as Egypt moves toward ratifying a new constitution, and the military continues to gain the upper hand over the Brotherhood, there is an uneasy calm in Egypt.
"We don’t know how long this will last," said Michael LaCivita, director of communications for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).
LaCivita said the military’s "show of force" has put a check on the Brotherhood’s mobs terrorizing Christians and moderate Muslims. But with so much violence in the air, he said, rural Copts have hunkered down, fearful to emerge from their homes.
"We have reports from local leaders that [Christians] are running out of food, water and supplies," LaCivita said. "They cannot get out to get those things."
CNEWA has been actively working with local church leaders to bring relief in areas affected by violence, especially southern Egypt, where most Christians have had their lives disrupted, LaCivita said.
But Catholic and Christian relief agencies working with the local churches, he explained, are providing the main lifeline for Christians suffering from violence and persecution in the Middle East. He said this is true in Egypt, and especially true in Syria.
"Christians will not register for aid," LaCivita said. "If they register as refugees, they feel retribution will be swift and merciless."
He said Christians in the United States could do several things in solidarity with Egypt’s Copts: pray and fast, stay informed and "give of their hearts and give of their resources" to help relief efforts.
Determined to Endure
Despite the intensity of the persecution and the uptick of Coptic migration, LaCivita said most Copts are determined to stay.
"They don’t want to leave their assets, homes and farms," he said. "Their families have been there since the apostles brought the faith to them."
Ramelah agreed, saying, "The sad thing is that not only is the Muslim Brotherhood trying to change the face of Egypt, they are trying to destroy Egyptian history and the 2,000 years of Christianity in Egypt."
Although he left Egypt 40 years ago, his extended family has chosen to remain in Egypt, and he said most Copts would do the same.
"The Copts will not leave Egypt," he said. "It is our country."