Watershed Moment: Copts Killed in Violence

Nina Shea predicts a 'major exodus' of Christians after deadly violence in Cairo

An Egyptian priest chants pro-Christian slogans during the funeral for victims of sectarian clashes with soldiers and riot police at a protest against an attack on a church in southern Egypt at Abassaiya Cathedral in Cairo Oct. 10. Thousands of mourners attended a funeral ceremony for those killed in overnight clashes when troops crushed a protest over an attack on a church in the worst violence since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
An Egyptian priest chants pro-Christian slogans during the funeral for victims of sectarian clashes with soldiers and riot police at a protest against an attack on a church in southern Egypt at Abassaiya Cathedral in Cairo Oct. 10. Thousands of mourners attended a funeral ceremony for those killed in overnight clashes when troops crushed a protest over an attack on a church in the worst violence since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. (photo: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Yesterday, Oct. 9, in Cairo, Egypt’s capital, violent clashes between Christians, Muslims and the military, resulted in a mounting toll of mostly Christian deaths and an estimated 500 injured. Coptic Pope Shenouda III announced there would be three days of mourning, praying and fasting for the victims starting tomorrow. The Coptic church issued a statement that reflected the widespread belief among Copts that anti-Christian forces had infiltrated a peaceful march and fueled violence, which was then used as a pretext for intervention by security forces. The Coptic church stated that “strangers got in the middle of our sons and committed mistakes to be blamed on our sons.” The church’s statement expressed frustration about “problems that occur repeatedly and go unpunished.” 

Nina Shea, is an international human-rights lawyer, and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, where she directs the Center for Religious Freedom. She is the co-author of Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford University Press, 2011) and regularly provides congressional testimony on religious-freedom issues. Today, she spoke with Joan Frawley Desmond, senior editor of the Register, about the worsening plight of Christians in Egypt and called on the U.s. government to condition further military aid to Egypt on strengthened religious freedom for the nation’s Coptic Christians.

What happened yesterday in Cairo?

Coptic Christians organized a protest against religious persecution. It was announced in advance, and it was a march to the state broadcasting station to protest the recent burning of churches by Salafi Muslims.

There have been sporadic church burnings over the past year, and the most recent was Sept. 30. The Copts felt they were not being protected — the government was not guarding the churches.

The armed forces — police and military — ruthlessly crushed this protest. There is videotape of an armed personnel carrier going into the mob and crushing six people — running them over. Others were killed as well.  A Reuters story reported that at least 19 died. The Washington Post reported that at least 26 died, mostly Christians, and hundreds have been injured. Coptic sources say that at least 35 died.

I have a Coptic Christian working for me, and we were getting reports last night that after the military police showed up at the march Muslims had come into the streets to support the Christian marchers. There may have been a clash between the marchers and the armed forces at that point.

As an expert on religious freedom throughout the world, what is your assessment of the situation?

The real significance of this is that it signals the future treatment of the Christian Coptic community by the state. The military was their last hope in protecting them from lawless forces in society that were religiously motivated to [eradicate] them, namely the Salafis. Now they know they have no protection.

I think we can expect to see a major exodus of Coptic Christians from Egypt. This is a watershed moment. The whole reason they were in the streets was to protest lawless forces. It extinguishes all hope for them. They are utterly vulnerable.

How did the collapse of the Mubarak government change the status of Christians in Egypt?

Under the Mubarak government, the Salafi Muslims were kept in check. They followed their Salafi practices in their villages, but did not exert real political influence.

In the transition to democracy, the Salafis have started to get organized. They are trying to shape society more assertively. They have held joint rallies with the Muslim Brotherhood. What they want is a more Saudi Arabian model, where the country is cleansed of religious minorities, and there would be coerced Islamic practice — in dress, in no co-mingling of the sexes, and in enforced prayer and fasting.

Egypt has a large population of Muslims who do not practice their faith so rigorously. Now there is a push for forced orthodoxy according to the most rigid Salafi teaching.

Is that why some Muslims had joined the Christian marchers when the military police showed up?

Other Egyptians are frustrated and angry with the military for a variety of reasons. There is frustration that state security laws still apply and there is brutality.

While the Muslim Brotherhood wants quick elections, the military is trying to delay elections.

Has the Obama administration addressed anti-Christian sectarian violence in Egypt?

There has not been strong support for the Copts by this administration. After Mubarak’s departure, the focus has been on the Muslim Brotherhood. The administration sees them as the future in Egypt and is trying to develop ties with them. 

But the status of the Copts will be the bellwether for how other religious minorities will be treated in Egypt. If the Copts leave, this will be a profound development.

And if the Egyptian military drives the Copts out of their country, it will be our problem.  Millions of Copts will be seeking asylum. Religious demographics are treated as a state secret in Egypt, but there are an estimated 8-10 million Copts.

What should the administration do now?

The U.S. generously supports the military in Egypt. We have a lot of leverage with them. They should be told that if they fail to protect the Christian minority, military aid will be cut back.

It is against our national interest to support a military that allows the eradication of Christians by other groups.

The White House has issued a statement about the Iranian Christian pastor who was recently killed, but the plight of Coptic Christians has much more far-reaching impact. [The White House released this statement about the Coptic situation: “Now is a time for restraint on all sides so that Egyptians can move forward together to forge a strong and united Egypt. As the Egyptian people shape their future, the United States continues to believe that the rights of minorities — including Copts — must be respected and that all people have the universal rights of peaceful protest and religious freedom.”]

How has the Arab Spring influenced the status of Christians in the Middle East?

Right now, it is extremely precarious for Christians. Last February, the Coptic Christians joined other protesters in Tahrir Square, where the demonstrations took place. The Christians were hopeful; they wanted a democratic opening.

But in the security vacuum after Mubarak’s fall, they were quickly targeted. The military has let that happen. It looks like this Arab Spring will be a cold winter for Christians in Egypt, and now we will have to worry about what will happen next in Syria.

What will happen to Christians in Syria if that government falls?

Many Christians who left Iraq have found refuge in Syria, where about a million Christians now live. About 50% of Iraq’s Christian population has left since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

While we were told by the Bush administration that the surge would be the solution, the surge helped everyone but the Christians. The surge drove al Qaeda to the north, where the Christians were living. Since then, Christians have been selectively targeted and driven out. Now that they are scattered, many fear they will lose their ancient culture, which goes back 2,000 years.

The Syrian government has been more liberal regarding religious freedom because it is secular. But if the Syrian government falls, we have to start preparing to help the Christians in the aftermath. They were protected by the Assad regime, but the majority of Syria’s population is Sunni. If they come to power, there could be a bloodletting against the Christian minority, who, in their eyes, is associated with the Assad regime.

We have to use all our diplomatic influence and provide asylum. We have to do more than we did for Iraqi Christians.

{Update:Syrian Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan, in an interview with Catholic News Service, expressed alarm about the possibility of civil war in Syria. If the security situation worsens, he said, Christians in Syria fear they would be targeted.  “It will be confessional (religious), and war in the name of God is far worse than a political struggle. And this is what we fear.”]

What had been the political role of Christians in this region?

Christians were among the leaders of the Arab nationalist movement that was the ideology of Iraq and Syria. That ideology of Arab nationalism has been replaced by Islamism, where there is no role for Christians.

In the past, Christians were able to establish some of the premier universities in the region. Christians have been skilled professionals. They were a moderating influence and thus a bridge between East and West — because of their treatment of women and their knowledge of foreign languages.

There are now about 500,000-700,000 Christians in Iraq and about a million each in Syria and Lebanon. But there are 8 million to 10 million Copts in Egypt. You can see what the stakes are here: This is the largest non-Muslim population in the region. 

What is the Vatican’s policy?

The Vatican wants to defuse the situation and maintain a presence there. They do not see asylum as an easy solution.

But when the Pope spoke out in January, Egypt broke off both secular and religious dialogue with the Vatican. The Vatican got a slap in the face.
[Pope Benedict XVI called for peace in Egypt during his weekly audience on October 12. The pontiff asked “the faithful to pray that that society might enjoy true peace, based on justice and respect for the freedom and dignity of all citizens.”

The pope said he was “profoundly saddened” by the violence in which 26 Christians were killed in Cairo on Sunday, and backed policies by the Egyptian government to preserve security and human rights, “in particularly those of minorities.” ]

The signal is that Christians need to take whatever is meted out to them and not complain. Now, according to news reports, Copts have concluded, “We are not first-class citizens.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.


The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy