Global Report: Egyptian persecuted Christians persevere

"…and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Mark 13:13

On Palm Sunday, the Islamic State carried out two suicide bombing attacks in Egypt, targeting Coptic Christian churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria. The jihadists killed at least 47 people and wounded another 120, prompting President al-Sisi to invoke a three-month state of emergency across Egypt.

Life is hard for the followers of Jesus Christ in Egypt. Not only do the faithful live with the constant threat of terrorist attacks, they also face mob violence, societal discrimination and persecution by the state. And yet they persevere.

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Christians make up 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s population, “with the vast majority belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church and less than two percent belonging to various other Christian denominations, including Catholic, Protestant, Maronite, Armenian Apostolic, Orthodox (Greek and Syrian), and Anglican.”

Approximately 85 percent of Egypt’s population is Sunni Muslim. According to the CIA’s World Fact Book, Egypt has a population of approximately 94.6 million people.

Do Coptic Christians enjoy the same rights as Muslims in Egypt? “In most of daily life, yes,” replied Hani Tawfilis, spokesperson for the Church of Virgin Mary & St. Athanasius, an Orthodox Coptic Christian church in Mississauga, Ontario. “But if you go into a conflict, then the same rights do not apply.”

For example, Tawfilis said that Copts face discrimination in the workplace, preventing them from attaining senior positions.
In addition, he alleged that young Christian girls have been kidnapped and forced to marry Muslim boys in order to “to shame their families and force them to change their religion.” And often, the police fail to investigate the abductions, rescue the girls, or prosecute the perpetrators.

According to Kiri Kankhwende of the United Kingdom-based human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), “there have been improved constitutional commitments to FoRB (Freedom of Religion and Belief) for ‘the heavenly religions’, namely, Sunni Islam, Christianity and Judaism” in Egypt.

However, the CSW representative said that “these improvements contrast with a lack of legal clarity regarding the status of other minority religious groups, an increase in blasphemy cases targeting members of non-majority faith communities.”

In addition, Kankhwende noted that Egypt continues to be plagued by “outbreaks of sectarian violence, particularly in Upper Egypt,” and there is “inadequate intervention on the part of the security services to prevent or bring it to an end.”

Echoing Tawfiliis, Kankhwende said “there is also a failure on the part of the judicial services to convict those responsible for sectarian attacks, along with the continuing use of reconciliation meetings following sectarian violence, which often deprive victims of justice and adequate compensation.”

Building permits

Coptic Christians face outright discrimination by the state. “Repressive laws and discriminatory policies against Copts remain in place, including blasphemy charges and convictions, limits on building and maintaining churches, and limits on conversion from Islam,” according to a report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

For decades, Christians in Egypt were denied building permits, thereby preventing them from building new churches or renovating ancient churches in need of repair. Last year, the Sisi regime, which came to power in 2014 after the ouster of the Islamist Morsi regime, eased those building restrictions—but only nominally.

“On 30 August 2016 Egypt’s Parliament approved a controversial new law governing the building and renovation of churches which fulfilled a constitutional commitment to pass legislation regulating the sensitive issue of church construction and renovation,” Kankhwende explained. However, Christian politicians complained that that the “restrictive” legislation was “imposed on Christians.”

In the past, said the CSW representative, “permission for building a new church could only be granted through presidential decree, which occurred once every year or every other year.” However, under the 2016 law, “applications will be submitted to and decided by the relevant provincial governor.”

“Discrimination against Coptic Christians in Egypt differs according to which level of governmental authority you deal with,” Hani Tawfilis said. When it comes to issuing permits, the governor of the governorate is the one who has the final when it comes to issuing permits, he explained. “And in all cases, the governor never issues a new permit for any new church.”

Christians in rural areas often don’t have church buildings in which to worship. “This is actually one of the problems that we see in most of rural areas, where a group of Christians gather together to pray in a house or an open small piece of a barn,” Tawfilis said.
It is common for Christians in the Middle East and Muslim-majority countries to worship in private homes, which are commonly referred to as house churches.

According to Tawilis, “once the Muslims living in that village or town” learn of the existence of a house church, “they gather after the next Friday prayer and burn the building and beat whoever inside.” And he alleged that the police tend to “arrive two or three hours after the end of the attack, they never arrest anyone.”

When arrests are made, said Tawfilis, Christians are the ones usually targeted by the police. “They will arrest two or three Christians for praying in an area without a permit. The problem is always solved by holding a meeting between the elders in the village, where Christians have to apologize and donate that piece of land to turn it into a mosque.”

Universal declaration of human rights

Freedom of religion, belief or conscience is guaranteed under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to convert to another religion. However, Egypt does not respect these rights.

“While it is easy for a Christian to convert to Islam, if a Muslim wishes to convert to Christianity they have no right to have their conversion recognized on official documentation, and face charges of apostasy,” said Kankhwende.

In many Muslim-majority countries, there are increasing numbers of secret believers in Jesus Christ, also known as Muslim-background believers. As is their right under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they have freely chosen to convert from Islam to Christianity. However, in Egypt, as in the rest of the so-called Muslim world, converts to Christianity are viewed as apostates, often facing deadly violence.

Despite the law and order agenda of the Sisi regime, Open Doors reports that Egypt’s Christian population continues to suffer from “violent persecution.” According to the human rights organization’s World Watch List 2017 report, “the small but growing community of Christian converts from Islam bears the brunt of persecution, most often from family members.”

Open Door alleges that Christians are “often kicked out of their homes or beaten when their Muslim families find out about their new faith.” Traditionally, the Coptic Christian community has been “tolerated” by the Muslim majority, but Open Doors warns that “historical Christian communities” are now being targeted.

For instance, the Open Doors report states that “some villages experience attacks by radical Muslims in which Christians are killed and churches damaged, and some believers are forced from their homes.”

New Christians

Is the church growing in Egypt? “Yes, I can affirm that the numbers of ‘Bible-believing’ Christians is growing in Egypt, both with people converting from other religions as well as nominal Christians coming to a deeper understanding of Christ, and of the Christian faith,” human rights defender Karen Ellis replied. “The numbers and the rapid rate of growth would surprise most people,” said Ellis, who, as an ambassador for International Christian Response, works tirelessly on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world.

International Christian Response, established 45 years ago, works in 38 countries that are hostile to Christians, partnering with locals to assist people in need. The Christian human rights organization does humanitarian and relief work, and assists in establishing locally-driven churches.

The Great Commission, put forth by Jesus Christ, commands Christians to make disciples of all nations. This puts disciplines of Christ in direct conflict with Islamic doctrine, which prohibits conversion.

How can Christians in Egypt, or any Muslim-majority country, obey the Great Commission without risking retaliation—even death? “For believers in restricted countries, obedience to the Great Commission goes hand in hand with risking retaliation or death; this dynamic is what makes their lives of faith so compelling,” said Ellis, an African-American scholar who studies the history of the persecuted black church and the lessons that Christians can draw from the black experience.

“Suicide bombers take the lives of others, hoping to access ‘paradise’ for themselves alone,” continued Ellis. “Christians, assured of eternal life, risk their lives so that the hope of eternal life may be known by others. This paradox – coupled with their desire not to compromise Christ or his message in any way – is one of causes of the rapid spread of Christianity; it confounds the mind that doesn’t have eyes of faith.”

How to help

How can ordinary people in Canada and the United States help persecuted Christians in Egypt? “First, pray,” said Ellis.
“Second, one doesn’t have to be a Christian to help – as a matter of fact, the global Ahmadiyya Muslim community, another restricted religious minority in the Middle East, is always quick to offer humanitarian help across religious lines,” Ellis pointed out.

However, she believes that Christians in the West have “a deeper family obligation” to help. “International Christian Response has been actively on the ground for twenty-plus years working through indigenous Egyptians, equipping underground believers to persevere and respond to crises in Tanta, Alexandria and beyond,” Ellis said of the NGO’s work.

“Pew research indicates that there are 250 million Christians living under religious hostility around the globe,” stated Ellis. “We must use our privilege and outrage as wisely as possible, not just in response to this one terror incident.”

When the media’s attention shifts to the next big thing, the persecuted will continue to persevere around the world, asserted Ellis. “In all our talk of privilege these days, we are squandering opportunities to use the privilege of religious freedom we all enjoy,” she said.

“This holds true whether we’re a minority of some sort in the West, or not. After the lights fade on this incident, stay active. Give regularly if you can. Find trusted news sources, and share liberally. I implore you, keep their stories alive!”

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.