A Crisis of Faith in Egypt
The Plight of Egyptian Christians can no longer be Ignored
By: Jake (Diary) | August 23rd, 2013
Though it does not get much notice in the West, Egypt is home to some of
the oldest Christian communities in the world. The city of Alexandria is
known as one of the five ancient sees of the early church (along with
Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem), and it calls itself the
See of St. Mark (he of the Gospel). Today, reflecting how Christendom
has fragmented over the centuries, there are three churches that claim
to be the heirs of the church started, according to tradition, by the
Apostle: the Coptic Church (also known as an Oriental Orthodox Church),
the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Coptic Catholic Church. While the
Coptic Church is the largest of these three, comprising about 10% of the
country's roughly 90 million, all of them find themselves suffering from
persecution as the turmoil in Egypt continues.
The vast majority of this persecution has come at the hands of the
Muslim Brotherhood and their allies. The situation has degenerated to
such an extent that many Copts, along with a sizable portion of the rest
of Egypt, even have some level of nostalgia for the days of Hosni
Mubarak. As far back as February of 2011, right in the heyday of the
Arab Spring, a /Los Angeles Times/ article
noted that Copts were wondering what might happen to them under an
"He's the best of the worst," said Sameh Joseph, a church worker at
the Patriarch of the Orthodox Christians Church in Alexandria.
"Whoever comes after him might want to destroy us."
So when more than 100,000 anti-government protesters took to the
streets here Tuesday, most Copts steered clear.
"Everyone is scared about what is happening," said Samya Hammoui,
who lost two sisters and two nieces in the Jan. 1 bombing.
Government officials blamed the attack on a Palestinian terrorist
cell from the Gaza Strip.
"If one of the Islamic extremists took over, things for us would be
much worse," she said.
Whatever Mubarak's flaws, and they were many and frequently grave, it
was certainly in his self-interest to keep at bay the same forces that
are persecuting Christians across the country now. With him gone, the
only restraints remaining on the Islamist forces in the country are
largely limited to their own whims, and since Egyptian Christians are
one of the easiest scapegoats to blame for Morsi's ouster, they have
been the target of particularly vicious attacks and persecutions since
the military took over on July 3rd.
While Egypt's Christians have suffered all kinds of attacks since the
start of the Arab Spring, events just since last Wednesday, August 14,
when Egypt's military moved to clear up two camps of pro-Morsi
>, should be
sufficient to show the grim state of affairs for Egyptian Christians.
On this past Sunday, August 18, a /Times of Israel/ article for the
first time in 1,600 years
the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram Monastery did not hold its Sunday
service. The linked article also notes that the monastery's Priest
Selwanes Lofty "said supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi
destroyed the monastery, which includes three churches, one of which is
an archaeological site. 'One of the extremists wrote on the monastery's
wall, 'donate [this] to the martyrs' mosque.'"
On the same day, the Associated Press carried a report
recounting numerous instances of Islamist-on-Christian violence and
After torching a Franciscan school, Islamists paraded three nuns on
the streets like "prisoners of war" before a Muslim woman offered
them refuge. Two other women working at the school were sexually
harassed and abused as they fought their way through a mob.
In the four days since security forces cleared two sit-in camps by
supporters of Egypt's ousted president, Islamists have attacked
dozens of Coptic churches along with homes and businesses owned by
the Christian minority. The campaign of intimidation appears to be a
warning to Christians outside Cairo to stand down from political
The brutality does not end there, either. The report continues by noting
that, since the 14th, close to 40 churches have been looted and torched,
and 23 have been heavily damaged. There are also two Christian
fatalities: one was a taxi driver who made the mistake of straying into
a pro-Morsi protest and the other was a man in the southern province of
Sohag. To make matters worse, the police are too often nowhere to be found:
Waheeb, other activists and victims of the latest wave of attacks
blame the police as much as hard-line Islamists for what happened.
The attacks, they said, coincided with assaults on police stations
in provinces like Bani Suef and Minya, leaving most police pinned
down to defend their stations or reinforcing others rather than
rushing to the rescue of Christians under attack.
Such was the case with the Catholic school they attacked:
By the time the Islamists ordered them out, fire was raging at every
corner of the 115-year-old main building and two recent additions.
Money saved for a new school was gone, said Manal, and every
computer, projector, desk and chair was hauled away. Frantic SOS
calls to the police, including senior officers with children at the
school, produced promises of quick response but no one came.
Sister Manal, one of the victims, told the Associated Press in an interview:
"We are nuns. We rely on God and the angels to protect us," she
said. "At the end, they paraded us like prisoners of war and hurled
abuse at us as they led us from one alley to another without telling
us where they were taking us," she said. A Muslim woman who once
taught at the school spotted Manal and the two other nuns as they
walked past her home, attracting a crowd of curious onlookers.
An article from the UK's /Daily Mail/ provides some more perspective
'I am terrified and unable to focus,' said Boulos Fahmy, the pastor
of a Catholic church a short distance away from Manal's school. 'I
am expecting an attack on my church any time now.'
And Bishop Ibram, head of the local Coptic Orthodox church, said he
had instructed Christians and clerics not to resist the mobs of
Islamists to try and avoid any loss of life.
'The looters were so diligent that they came back to one of the five
churches they had already ransacked to see if they could get more,'
'They were loading our chairs and our benches on trucks and when
they had no space for more, they just destroyed them.'
On August 18, the Assyrian International News Agency noted the following
> from Coptic Pope
The Pope said the Church is on "the side of Egyptian law, the armed
forces and all the Egyptian civil institutions when it comes to
confronting violent armed organizations and terrorizing forces,
either within the country or from abroad." The Pope pointed out that
one should look beyond the squares where the Muslim Brotherhood have
been holding their protests, in order to gain a general overview of
what has been happening for weeks in Egypt. "The attacks on
government buildings and peaceful churches terrorize everyone,
whether they be Copts or Muslims. These actions go against any
religion, any moral code and any sense of humanity."
The Coptic Church also criticized the way in which the crisis is
reported outside of Egypt. It expressly speaks of "false broadcast
by Western media," and urges for an "objective" revision to be made
of the descriptions given to the actions of those "blood-thirsty
radical organizations." The Coptic Orthodox Church says that
"instead of legitimizing them with global support and political
coverage while they are trying to wreak havoc and destruction upon
our beloved land, report all events truthfully and accurately."
The views of the Coptic church are also held by Copts in general,
who are angry with the US and EU powers, "who almost daily issue
statements threatening to take further actions against our interim
government and army, portraying the Muslim Brotherhood as victims
while not even mentioning the destruction of over 80 churches, as
well monasteries, orphanages, businesses and Coptic schools by the
Muslim Brotherhood," says Coptic activist Wagih Yacoub who believes
that this western attitude emboldens them to carry out further
violence. "To add insult to injury the Muslim Brotherhood this week
hoisted the black Al-Qaida flag on top of St. George's church in
Sohag. Three churches were turned into mosques in Minya and Friday
prayers were held inside them."
What we are seeing now is nothing new. Since Mubarak's fall, attacks on
Christians have occurred with varying levels of frequency, but the
threat has nevertheless remained a constant in their lives. The recent
wave, however, has been particularly horrific in its intensity, drawing
comparisons from some to Kristallnacht and the many pogroms against Jews
> that were common in the 19th and
20th centuries. To make these comparisons even more obvious, it should
be noted that in the weeks prior to these recent attacks, Christian
homes and businesses had been marked with red graffiti
symbolizing the resolve of some Morsi supporters to protect his
legitimacy with blood. In a piece titled "Egypt's Anti-Christian Pogrom
the /National Review//'s Rich Lowry noted/:
According to Sam Tadros of the Hudson Institute, a Coptic Christian
who is author of the new book /Motherland Lost/, there has been
nothing like it since 1321, when a similar wave of church burnings
signaled a centuries-long period of intense persecution that saw the
Coptic Christian community decline from somewhat less than half of
Egypt's population to its current 10 percent.
For the Islamists, the ongoing pogrom serves the immediate purpose
of whipping up popular sentiment and the longer-term one of
cleansing the country of Christians, who may ultimately face the
fate of Egypt's Jews. They went from a population of 80,000 after
World War II to literally a handful today. If Muslim Brotherhood
rule would have been particularly dire for Coptic Christians, none
of the recent regimes in Egypt --- including the latest set of
military rulers --- has shown any interest in protecting them.
So, what can be done? First of all,I should stress that the help we can
give need not be military intervention. Instead, we should look to other
means, and for many of us it's as simple as speaking out about the
persecution . The Obama administration has been largely silent on their
plight thus far. I am not going to speculate on his reasons for this,
but this seems to be one of the issues where using the "bully pulpit",
at home and abroad, is indeed appropriate. Furthermore, as Rich Lowry
rightly notes, we should use what influence we have to push for the
adoption of a non-Islamist constitution that respects religious freedom
and the rights of religious minorities.Finally, it is worth considering
some of Representative Frank Wolf's recommendations for U.S. policy in
the country from his March 2013 report
> on his
trip to the Middle East. While it was released before Morsi's ouster and
therefore is somewhat dated, useful suggestions can still be gleaned
from it. In particular, his last two points merit mentioning (emphasis
* The U.S. embassy should actively seek to cultivate relationships
with the liberal, democratic Egyptian opposition groups and
individuals, human rights groups, Coptic Christians and other
key civil society actors. *By most accounts, U.S. policy has not
evolved to meet the new realities in Egypt.* We have embraced
the Morsi government the same way we embraced the Mubarak
government---to the detriment of other elements of Egyptian
civil society---elements with which we have a natural affinity.
While such groups may not take the reins of leadership in the
near future, they are central to the Egyptian democratic
experiment, and we can bolster their standing and effectiveness
if we take the long-term view. In this same vein, aid to Egypt
should once again benefit Egyptian civil society, not simply the
military and economy.
* Congressional delegations traveling to Egypt should meet with
activists, NGOs and Christian leaders to better understand what
is happening on the ground and to hear firsthand the perception
of the United States' support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The $1.5 billion in foreign aid we send Egypt is perhaps the biggest
bargaining chip we have, and reducing or cutting it out entirely are two
options that should remain on the table if Egypt fails to respect the
rights of its religious minorities, both Christian and otherwise.
Furthermore, as Rep. Wolf notes, we should refocus the aid we do send
Egypt so that it goes to the people who need it most, not just the
economy and the ruling class (whoever that ends up being).
Friends, it is late, but it is not too late. The Egyptian Christians
deserve our attention, and we should do what we can to speak out on
their behalf and support them.Call your Congressman, tell your friends,
talk about it with the people you go to church with, say a prayer,
donate money to a respectable charity or at your church. We can all do
something, whether it's great or small.
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