On Aug. 14, a wave of anti-Christian violence swept through Egypt, resulting in at least five deaths and the destruction of more than 30 churches. The Associated Press recorded an eyewitness account of nuns paraded through the streets "like prisoners of war." Among the collateral damage: the historic Virgin Mary and Anba Abraam Monastery, where Christians have gathered since the fifth century.
The reports confirmed the worst fears of Egypt’s embattled Christian community, which faced mounting violence after the 2011 election of Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, who was removed from power by the military on July 3.
Religious-freedom activists had lobbied the Obama administration to prod Egypt, a key ally in the region and a major recipient of U.S. aid, to defend the civil rights of religious minorities. But now, Washington may be losing whatever leverage it had with Cairo: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have announced that they would provide a reported $8 billion in aid to bolster the military government.
Samuel Tadros is a Coptic Christian and the author of the new book Motherland Lost: the Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. A research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, he is an authority on Islamist movements in the Middle East and their impact on religious freedom and regional politics.
During an Aug. 19 interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Tadros traced the roots of anti-Christian violence in Egypt to the present moment, and he predicted that, if Christians were not protected, Egypt would soon follow other countries in the Middle East that have witnessed the exodus of a once robust religious minority.
Anti-Christian violence in Egypt escalated in the wake of the election of Mohammed Morsi. More recently, attacks on Christians and their churches followed the military coup and the new government’s effort to clear two sit-ins of supporters of the ousted president.
Between Aug. 14-17, we had a huge wave of attacks on churches. Tallying the damage is still under way, so we don’t have exact figures yet. But we know that this is a large, unprecedented wave, and more than 30 churches have been destroyed.
Copts have fared poorly before, under Hosni Mubarak, and then Morsi. But we must go back to 1321, 700 years ago, to find an anti-Christian attack on this scale in Egypt.
In 1321, the burning of Coptic churches marked an era that saw the sharp decline of a religious community to its current size of about 10% of the population.
This month, historically important churches, monasteries and other Christian institutions spanning the country, but mostly in the south, were destroyed.
So far, we know of five deaths, but with so much destruction, the number of deaths reported will increase. After the situation calms down, we will learn more.
The Associated Press reported that three nuns were paraded in the street "like prisoners of war," as a Franciscan school in Bani Suef was attacked. Reportedly, the school administrators had been accused of pressuring Muslim students to convert to Christianity.
The accusation of forced conversion is not new. In the early 1930s, there was a flare-up of anti-missionary activity. The Egyptian public was enraged by what they saw as Catholic or Protestant missionaries attempting to convert students.
This issue played a role in the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, when they were recruiting members, they had a huge propaganda campaign, telling people, "We have to stand up against the Christian missionaries." But violence against churches was not allowed at that time.
Today, the attacks on Christians involve Protestants, Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Copts — the four denominations of Christians in Egypt.
While there have been attacks on churches in Cairo, much of the violence has taken place in the south and in villages. What is going on?
There is reason to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for statements and demonstrations that often lead to attacks on churches.
On the national level, Muslim Brotherhood websites have accused Copts of being behind the military coup, and Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations have used derogatory language against Copts, writing on the walls of churches slogans and curses, even calling the Coptic Pope "a dog."
But I would also add that the participation of the local population in attacks on their Christians neighbors is a much worse phenomenon.
Once the local population is infused with sectarian hatred against Christians, it will take generations to change.
Such attacks on Christians are not completely organized, and they often begin spontaneously.
The fanaticism in neighborhoods is increasing, and it affects the way people view Christians. Amnesty International reported that, after one attack, a Christian said, "I recognized the voices of those who attacked us: It was the voice of my neighbors."
How would you describe the political role of Christians since Morsi took office in 2011?
Christians were not supportive of Morsi’s election. There is no doubt that most voted for his opponent.
As soon as he took power, it was clear that he was not a leader for all Egyptians — that was clear in the exclusion of Christians in the constitution. And it was clear when the attack on the Coptic cathedral in Cairo took place in April. This is Egypt’s St. Peter’s Basilica, the place where St. Mark is buried. Yet, when it was attacked, the government of Morsi did absolutely nothing.
Copts were very supportive of the military coup that took Morsi from power.
Coptic Pope Tawadros II appeared with other national leaders besides Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when he told the world that Morsi would be removed. The Coptic pope was only one of the leaders, but anti-Christian messaging focused on his participation, suggesting that Christians had been behind the coup.
Since the outbreak of violence, the Coptic Christian Church released a statement backing the army and the police’s effort to stop "the armed violent groups and block terrorism."
The Coptic Church reaffirmed its support for the Egyptian military. The Church has supported the military, hoping that with such support the military will also provide the security it needs.
Advocates for religious freedom in Egypt have been frustrated with the Obama administration’s policy. They wanted Washington to use the $1.4 billion it pledged to Egypt as leverage for improving religious freedom. After the military coup, Obama blocked U.S. military aid. But Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will provide billions in assistance, so now it is less likely that Washington could make a difference. What can we do now?
The U.S. has a number of different interests in Egypt, including the safety of the Suez Canal and Israel. Unfortunately, the Copts are at the very end of the list of concerns. Recently, when President Obama responded to the events in Egypt, he devoted just half a sentence to the Copts, without mentioning them by name. He said, "We condemn all the attacks … including attacks on churches."
If there is a change in policy, it will happen because of other considerations.
As a Christian, I can tell you that Copts need our prayers. Also, many people are not aware of the scope of the problems Copts are facing. They need people to bear witness, to affect policy by bringing the issue to the attention of the general public.
What we are seeing in the Middle East in general is not just a question of religious freedom. We are in the midst of a huge demographic change. Non-Muslims once comprised a quarter of the region’s population. Today, outside of Israel, just 3% are Christian, and the majority of them are Copts.
If the Copts leave Egypt, the loss to the world will be significant. We are speaking of the eradication of Christianity from its birthplace, including the very place where the apostles walked and Jesus Christ and his Mother sought refuge.