Thousands of Egyptian Americans representing oppressed and persecuted Coptic Christians streamed down Washington, DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue Wednesday, October 19, 2011. Their demonstration had begun in front of the White House. It ended with a rally at the U.S. Capitol.
Copts, who traveled by the busloads from such places as Chicago, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, came to Washington to protest the brutal treatment of Egypt’s Christians and demand that the Obama administration pressure Cairo to protect the rights of non-Muslims. They also wished to call attention to congressional legislation that supports Copts and other vulnerable people groups. The demonstration was a response to an Egyptian army-led massacre of Christians on Sunday, October 9, in Cairo.
On October 9, Egyptian Christians had staged a peaceful demonstration and a march through downtown Cairo to protest the burning of a church and several Christian-owned homes and businesses in Upper Egypt on September 30. The Christian protestors were attacked by an Islamist mob near an underpass cutting through downtown Cairo. They were pelted with rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and otherwise molested. Then when the Christians reached their destination, Maspero Square, Egyptian military forces were already aligned against them to quell the demonstration.
Seeming to have forgotten Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi’s recent testimony that the army would “never . . . open fire at citizens,” the army did indeed open fire on the protestors, killing twenty-one. Later, when the army was leaving the bloodbath it had created, one soldier bragged that he had shot a Copt in the chest and killed him. The Muslim crowd cheered, shouting, “This is the real Egyptian army!”
Six other Christians at the demonstration were crushed under armored personnel carriers when those vehicles deliberately plowed into crowds of protestors. A Compass Direct News Service report called the attack “the worst act of violence against Egyptian Christians in modern history.” In addition to the twenty-six people that were killed, hundreds of others were wounded by the army’s attack. The army attack left Egypt’s Christians shocked and devastated.
At Wednesday’s demonstration in Washington, the American Copts pointed out that U.S. tax payer dollars fund the tanks that killed the Egyptian Christians. Many people, including members of Congress, ask why the U.S. continues to give hundreds of millions of dollars annually in financial aid to a country with such an abysmal human rights record. Over $70 billion has been given in aid since the Camp David accords, notes columnist Mike McManus. Some of the Coptic protestors in Washington held signs declaring, “Your Tax Dollars Kill Christians in Egypt.”
Other demonstrators carried a variety of other messages. Some of the protestors held large photographs depicting the horrific events at Maspero Square. Others carried Bible verses speaking of the persecution of the Church, or messages to the world such as “1400 years of Islamic oppression: We still stand defiant!”
Many of the people carried large wooden crosses or American flags. And a few carried black wooden coffins that they placed on the sidewalk in front of the White House. Together they raised their voices in such chants for justice as, “Why, why, must we die?” “Obama, Obama, where are you?” “Coptic blood is not cheap!” and “USA, wake up!”
As the protestors had declared, Copts and other Egyptian Christians, along with Egypt’s tiny Baha’i community and tinier Jewish community, have, to varying degrees, been victims of discrimination and persecution for 14 centuries. The Copts are descendants of ancient Egyptians converted to Christianity by Saint Mark, who founded the Church of Alexandria in 43 AD. But since the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640 AD, Egyptian Christians have lived as dhimmi, second-class citizens, under Islam.
Since the Tahrir Square demonstrations and President Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, threats to Egyptian Christians have come from both the usual Islamic-mob-inspired-by-local-Imam-after-Friday-prayers scenario and increasingly from the military and security forces. For instance, in February of 2011, two Coptic monasteries were attacked by the army because they had built walls to protect themselves from looters and criminals set loose from prisons by anti-Mubarak rebels.
Then in March, a mob of Islamists burned down the Church of the Two Martyrs in Sool, a village south of Cairo, after the local Imam issued a call for them to “kill all the Christians.” The pastor, who was almost killed in the fire, said that the clamor of the church being destroyed “sounded like hatred.” And villagers describing the scene to Compass Direct News Service said that the mob broke into the church chanting, “Allalu Akbar,” looting it, demolishing the walls with sledgehammers, and setting a fire.
“Looters removed anything valuable, including several containers holding the remains of venerated Copts – most of whom were killed in other waves of persecution – then stomped and kicked the containers like soccer balls,” witnesses told Compass Direct. More churches and Christian properties were attacked and burned and Christians killed and injured throughout 2011, leading up to the attack at the Maspero Building.
Egypt’s Christians had hopes that the Arab Spring would be for them, as well as for Muslims. Sadly, Egypt’s transformation has increased the influence and power of Islamic extremists in the country. This is unfortunate for all, but as is evident, it is lethal for the Christians. In the words of one Coptic Christian from New Jersey to The Washington Post, “We Christians have faced Islamic oppression for 1400 years, but now it is getting much more ugly.” And they wonder what new problems Egypt’s coming elections will bring. Some even suggest that the only solution is for all the Copts to leave their homeland, but American Copts hope that the United States will help their co-religionists and other vulnerable minorities in Egypt.
So far the response of the Obama administration to the attack on the Copts has been underwhelming. An October 10 White House statement by the Press Secretary featured the typical moral equivalency also found in statements about Israel, Sudan, and elsewhere, expressing the President’s deep concern about “the tragic loss of life among demonstrators and security forces.”
The President’s statement did stress that the rights of minorities and their religious freedom must be respected. But the takeaway from the remarks was the breathtaking admonition, “Now is a time for restraint on all sides.” White House Dossier reporter, Keith Koffler, says that Obama is “not only equating the deaths of peaceful protestors and their killers, but he is suggesting that Egypt’s increasingly persecuted Christian minority should show as much ‘restraint’ as their tormentors and refrain from vigorously objecting to the growing abuse.”
There is a stronger response to the Copts’ dilemma at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. One recent action in Congress that may help Coptic Christians and other religious minorities is a bill introduced in the House by U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (H.R. 440), the co-chair, along with U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus in the House of Representatives.
The legislation, calling for the establishment of a special envoy to promote religious freedom of religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia, passed overwhelmingly in the House. Now the Senate version (S. 1245), introduced by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), is languishing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But the American Copts hope that hearings on the atrocities taking place, along with other publicity and the full enactment of the bill, will give voice and support to those who have not felt the warmth of spring in their experience of Egypt’s transformation.
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