Forgotten in all the excitement over the revolution in Egypt has been the precarious situation of Coptic Christians there. Yet just weeks ago, Copts in Egypt experienced an unprecedented reign of terror. An Islamic jihad-martyrdom suicide bomber murdered twenty-two people and wounded eighty more at the Coptic Christian Church of the Saints in Alexandria, Egypt on New Year’s Eve. Just days later, as Christmas (which Copts celebrate on January 7) 2011 approached, an Islamic website carried this ominous exhortation: “Blow up the churches while they are celebrating Christmas or any other time when the churches are packed.” And if the Muslim Brotherhood takes power in Egypt, the treatment of the Copts is likely only to get worse.
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton recently injected a note of realism into the mainstream media euphoria over the heroic “pro-democracy” demonstrators in Egypt. “The overthrow of the Mubarak regime,” Bolton warned, “will not by any sense of the imagination lead to the advent of Jeffersonian democracy. The greater likelihood is a radical, tightly knit organization like the Muslim Brotherhood will take advantage of the chaos and seize power.” And that will be bad news for Egyptian Christians: “It is really legitimate for the Copts to be worried that instability follow Mubarak’s fall and his replacement with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Apparently aware of this, the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, has forbidden Copts from participating in the demonstrations. It has been widely reported in the West that many Copts are defying this ban; on the other hand, however, a source on the ground in Egypt tells me that the news reports are wrong, and that Copts are not participating. Whatever may be the truth of the matter, it is certain that a Muslim Brotherhood state in Egypt would make their situation even worse than it is already.
Coptic Christians have suffered discrimination and harassment for centuries. A law dating from 1856 and strongly influenced by classic Islamic restrictions on subjugated non-Muslim dhimmi communities remains on the books to this day, and severely restricts the construction of new churches. That law is part of a pervasive tendency toward discrimination: Human Right Watch reported in January 2011 that “despite the fact that the Egyptian Constitution guarantees the equality of rights, there have been reported cases of widespread discrimination against Egyptian Christians.”
Discrimination and harassment have been daily features of Coptic life for years. In February 2007, rumors that a Coptic Christian man was having an affair with a Muslim woman – a violation of Islamic law – led to a rampage that resulted in the destruction of several Christian-owned shops in southern Egypt. A similar rumor induced Muslims to torch Christian homes in southern Egypt in November 2010. And besides physical attacks, Christians have been restricted from speaking freely. In August 2007, two Coptic rights activists were arrested for “publishing articles and declarations that are damaging to Islam and insulting to Prophet Mohammed on the United Copts web site.”
Authorities have even asserted that restriction on speech outside Egypt itself, in connection with people discussing the plight of the Copts. When Pope Benedict XVI spoke out in January 2011 against the persecution of Christians in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s most prestigious Sunni Muslim institution, reacted angrily, breaking off dialogue with the Vatican and accusing the Pope of interference in internal Egyptian affairs. In a statement, Al-Azhar denounced the pontiff’s “repeated negative references to Islam and his claims that Muslims persecute those living among them in the Middle East.” This was not the first time Al-Azhar had moved against those who decried the persecution of Christians in Egypt rather than against the persecutors: just weeks before taking issue with the Pope’s statements, Al-Azhar demanded that Copts repudiate a U.S. report on Coptic persecution. The Mubarak government of Egypt, meanwhile, recalled its ambassador to the Vatican.