The Coptic Christian community has been a part of Egyptian life for nearly 2000 years. The Copts are direct descendants of the Ancient Egyptians, and the Coptic language is the closest linguistic descendant to the language of the Pharaohs. Christianity existed in Egypt before the Islamic faith was revealed to Mohammad.
That is one of the reasons why the plight of Egypt’s Christian minority is so disturbing. On New Year’s Day, a Coptic church in the port city of Alexandria was bombed by Islamic terrorists with links to al-Qaeda, killing 21 people and wounding another 97. Repression of Egypt’s Coptic minority is becoming increasingly common, as Islamic radicalism spreads like a cancer through Egypt’s body politic. It is telling that the reaction to the bombing was not a condemnation of Islamic radicalism, but the typical accusations that “Zionists” and the Mossad were behind the blasts.
Not all Egyptians have fallen for the official line, and there have been widespread protests against the attacks, and calls for national unity between Egyptian Christians and Egypt’s Muslim majority. But at the same time, there have been attacks against Christian groups by Egyptian security forces, and the Mubarak government has been less than interested in stopping the attacks. So long as the terrorists aren’t going after the government itself, the Mubarak government will condemn terrorism on one hand, while fanning the flames of extremism with the other.
Some feel their very identity as Egyptians is being deliberately eroded by the state. Baghat expresses a victimisation that leaves Christians feeling “assaulted twice, once by their Muslim neighbours and then again when the powers-that-be side with the attackers”.
Peter Gobrayel, a worshipper at St Paul’s, said; “We are treated as second-class citizens in every way; the only interaction we have with the government leaves us feeling like failures, and of course that makes us feel like we don’t belong.
“I fought for Egypt in the 1967 and 1973 wars, and was a PoW in Israel; you could say that I’ve spent the whole of my life on the frontline for my country. Now, speaking honestly, when I see the nation burning I just want to add petrol. I am an Egyptian first and foremost, and yet my country seems to want to eradicate me.”
For Hossam Baghat, Copt-Muslim tensions will only be resolved when the government ends its security-driven response to sectarian violence and begins implementing the rule of law.
But the Mubarak regime has little interest in the rule of law. The Mubarak regime is playing a cynical game by using anti-Christian and anti-Semitic sentiment as a safety valve. Blaming religious minorities and Israel focuses popular anger away from the regime where the anger truly belongs. If people are rioting against the “Zionists,” they aren’t rioting against the Mubarak regime. Caught in the middle between autocratic regimes and Islamic zealots are people like Egypt’s Copts, increasingly endangered minorities trying to keep their faith alive.
But Egypt isn’t alone in this regard. In Iraq, an ancient Christian community is also under siege. Thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled the country as Islamic extremism have made Christians a target. Nearly half of Iraq’s Christian population have fled the country.
From Egypt to Iraq, the Christian communities of the Middle East are dwindling due to violence and discrimination. The rise of radicalized Islam have pushed out minority communities, especially religious minorities. Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Morocco used to have vibrant Jewish communities during more tolerant times. But since cynical Arab leaders realized that exploiting anti-Semitism could keep them in power, those communities have been forced to flee to the West or Israel.
What is more disturbing is that this phenomena is spreading across the globe. After the attacks in Alexandria, Coptic Christians from Australiato Canada to Germany are fearing further attacks by Islamic terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. If the goal of terrorism is to sow fear, then these attacks are working.
As Mark Seddon writes in The Independent that we may be witnessing a new age of Christian persecution across the region. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that is exactly what is going on.
The West should not stand idly by while entire communities are uprooted and religious persecution spreads across the region and the world. The plight of Egypt’s Copts and Iraq’s Chaldean and Assyrian Christians are part of the larger struggle for the Middle East. One of the goals of groups like al-Qaeda is to push all but Salafist Muslims out of the Middle East. But their violence won’t stop there: their goals are worldwide, and they will attack anyone who stands in their way.
The West cannot make weak condemnations and then ignore the problems. The US gave over $1.5 billion in foreign aid to Egypt in 2010, mostly in the form of military aid. If the Mubarak regime will continue to sit idly by while Egypt’s Copts are slaughtered—or worse yet, be complicit in the persecution itself, the US need not support them with foreign aid. Further US aid should be tied to demonstrable changes in Egyptian policy and demonstrable steps in fighting terrorism rather than tacitly encouraging it.
We would like to think that persecution of Christians is a phenomenon of the past: but throughout the Middle East it is a sad reality. And unless both the West and the people of the Middle East stand together against this new wave of persecution, it will only continue until these ancient communities are destroyed. But unfortunately, small communities like Egypt’s Copts or Iraq’s Assyrian Christians are almost invisible to most in the West. That is why al-Qaeda and other Islamic radical feel free to attack them: they know that it won’t make as big a splash as attacks against Western interests. But if the West stands firm and works hand-in-hand with civil society groups in the Middle East to protect religious minorities, there is still a small chance these ancient communities can be saved.
This January 7th is the Coptic Christmas celebration, a celebration that this year is muted by fear and violence. But Christmas is a time of hope, and if the world is willing to stand united in opposition to terrorism, there may be hope to stop this wave of oppression before it wipes out the Christian communities of the Middle East.