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.
Mistreatment of Christians in Egypt frequently meets with indifference – or worse yet, complicity – from Egyptian authorities. In November 2010, Egyptian security forces opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Christians who were protesting against the discrimination and harassment they faced in Egyptian society; four people were killed. In June 2007, rioters in Alexandria vandalized Christian shops, attacked and injured seven Christians, and damaged two Coptic churches. Police allowed the mob to roam free in Alexandria’s Christian quarter for an hour and a half before intervening. The Compass Direct News service, which tracks incidents of Christian persecution, noted: “In April 2006, Alexandria was the scene of three knife attacks on churches that killed one Christian and left a dozen more injured. The government appeared unable or unwilling to halt subsequent vandalism of Coptic-owned shops and churches…”
The ordeal of Suhir Shihata Gouda exempliﬁes the experience of many Egyptian Christians, and principally of Christian women, who are frequently victimized by Muslim
men. According to the Jubilee Campaign, which records incidences of Christian persecution, a group of Muslims kidnapped Suhir and forced her to marry a Muslim. When her father complained to police, they beat and cursed him instead of registering his complaint. Finally, her new Muslim husband joined a mob that went to her father’s house and threatened to kill all the Christians in the area if the family complained to authorities again.
This persecution combined with denial in Egypt itself is bad enough, but even worse, Muslims are also targeting Copts worldwide. The Canadian Press reported in December 2010 that “the Shumukh-al-Islam website, often considered to be al-Qaeda’s mouthpiece, listed pictures, addresses and cellphone numbers of Coptic Christians, predominantly Egyptian-Canadians, who have been vocal about their opposition to Islam.” Accompanying this information were calls to murder those listed.
And all this has happened while Egypt has been ostensibly a secular state. If the Muslim Brotherhood ultimately succeeds in imposing Sharia in Egypt, Copts may come to look back at the age of Mubarak as the good old days.