Despite Support From Their President, Egypt’s Christians Face Renewed Attacks

Although Copts — Egypt’s ethnic Christian group — have been bullied under previous regimes, the persecution there has recently become more personal, said a Middle-East specialist on religious freedom.

St. Teresa parish in Assiut, Egypt, attacked by Muslim Brotherhood members in August 2013
St. Teresa parish in Assiut, Egypt, attacked by Muslim Brotherhood members in August 2013 (photo: CNA/Aid to the Church in Need)

CAIRO — Egypt’s Christians continue to face worrisome persecution, despite the words and actions of its president to show goodwill to the community, a specialist in religious freedom testified to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday.

Egypt has historically been more tolerant and relaxed towards Christians than its Middle-Eastern neighbors, said Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian native and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington.

Although Copts — Egypt’s ethnic Christian group — have been bullied under previous regimes, the persecution there has recently become more personal, Tadros warned.

“What worries me is not just that a government does not allow a church to be built. What really worries me is the fact that normal people — not Islamists, not terrorists — just normal Muslim guys, would form a mob and attack their neighbors. Not people they don’t know: their very neighbors.”

Mob violence against neighbors is especially alarming in a country with a history of Christians and Muslims living together.

Egypt’s current constitution, adopted in January 2014, extended the rights of Christians and Jews to build places of worship, which had been strictly regulated before.

Tadros testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa May 20 on the threats to religious freedom in Egypt.

The country has had a tumultuous past few years, with multiple regime changes. In 2011, Egyptians successfully forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who had held power for 30 years. Elections brought in the Muslim Brotherhood party headed by President Mohammed Morsi, but his rule proved to be an especially tense time for the country’s Christians.

The military, headed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, ousted Morsi in July 2013. The remainder of that summer saw a wave of violence against Christians and against church buildings.

El-Sisi was elected president in May 2014 and assumed office last June. His tenure has been marked by public speeches promoting religious tolerance and gestures of goodwill toward the Christian community, Tadros noted. His election was also welcomed by Copts.

After 21 Copts were slaughtered by the Islamic State, the Egyptian military struck back with a vengeance against Islamic State-affiliated bases in Libya, an action seen as a “shield” for the country’s Christians, as Peter Jesserer Smith of the Register reported. El-Sisi called for a week of mourning for the slain Copts.

Despite these national expressions of solidarity and goodwill, Christians still face persecution on a daily basis throughout the country, especially in rural villages in Upper Egypt far from the capital city of Cairo.

Mobs have targeted the building of Christian churches and have become more emboldened because of the failure of local authorities to protect Christian citizens. One example Tadros gave in his testimony before Congress illustrated the greatest threats to Copts — mob violence, lack of legal protection and the impotence of local law enforcement.

Christians in the village of El Galaa have been trying, unsuccessfully, to build a new church since 2004, when they received a permit to do so. Recently, they settled for renovating their old church.

But mobs attacked them in January and demanded the church have no external sacred symbols, such as crosses or bells, and that its entrance be moved to a side street.

Rather than defending the Christians’ rights to religious freedom, local authorities forced them to have a “reconciliation session” with the Muslim mob, who saw the opportunity to make another demand — the Christians had to issue a public apology in the newspapers for going public with their grievances and also had to promise not to build another church if their existing church was damaged or destroyed.

The Christians refused, and the mob attacked Christian homes and shops in the village on April 4.

Such stories are typical in today’s Egypt, despite gestures of goodwill from el-Sisi’s administrastion. The president has a “very good working relationship” with Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and has made a public visit to his cathedral. He has spoken out about the need for tolerance among religions.

Yet many local authorities predate the el-Sisi administrastion, Tadros explained, some of them having held power since the days of Mubarak. In a country where such crime is prevalent at the local level, those holding the positions of power in the villages usually have the last word and fail to protect Christian citizens.

“These local conditions, the bureaucracy, doesn’t change,” Tadros said, “and these then create those conditions the Copts are suffering from.”

Yet mob violence is not the only problem for Copts. They face employment discrimination, as no Christian holds a position of dean at any university. An unofficial employment cap exists in the police force and the army at around 1% for Christians, Tadros said — though Christians account for 10% of Egypt’s population.

Another new threat is blasphemy accusations, he added, which have risen since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. Citizens have been accused of making Facebook posts deemed insulting to Islam or of even being "tagged" in such a post. These accusations invite mob violence and blasphemy trials that are all but a mockery of due process.

Copts have already been leaving Egypt, and current threats to their livelihood risk upsetting the religious mosaic that has existed for centuries. Coptic Christians have lived in Egypt since the time of Christ, tracing their heritage back to St. Mark the Evangelist.

“Historically, minorities have played a very important role as a bridge between the West and the Middle East,” Tadros said, but the number of Christians in the Middle East has declined steeply since the beginning of the 20th century.

“That’s a more important demographic change than the youth bulge that millions of articles have been written about,” he said.

Hundreds of thousands of Copts have made successful careers in the U.S., he noted.

“Egypt has lost because of its policies. Egypt’s future could have been much better if all those good, educated people had been investing in their country’s future.”

Egypt must take anti-Christian persecution much more seriously, Tadros warned: The attacks on churches are so predictable that even someone in the U.S. can know the villages where such an incident will likely occur.

The government must prevent these attacks from even occurring, rather than hold a “reconciliation session” between Christians and Muslims after the fact, Tadros urged.

Laws must fuel a crackdown against anti-Christian violence, while enabling the building of churches. Currently, local governors have to approve even simple church renovations, like a new bathroom or a new wall.

However, those changes will ultimately prove futile if the culture’s acceptance of public Christianity does not quickly improve.

“You can change laws. You can change the educational system,” Tadros said. “But once the hatreds have taken over the hearts and minds of a local population, that’s much harder to change.”