Persecution of Christians intensifies in Egypt

"Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows." (Matthew 10:28-31 NRSV)

In the early days of the Arab Spring, Christians joined Muslims in Tahrir Square to advance the struggle for democracy and human rights in Egypt. Tragically, the hope and optimism of those heady days have given way to fear and suffering for Egypt's Coptic Christian community.

Since the Tahrir Square revolution of February 11 that drove President Hosni Mubarak from power, the ruling military regime has intensified the persecution of Christians in the Muslim-majority country.

"Probably, their aim is to rid the country of Christians," a Canadian Coptic Christian says of Egypt's ruling Generals.

Coptic Christians account for at least 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people. The vast majority belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The rest are members of either the Coptic Catholic or Coptic Protestant churches.

Having endured decades of official discrimination and societal intolerance, the entire Coptic Christian community faces even greater dangers in the post-Mubarak era.

"The situation in Egypt right now is quite bad," says the Canadian Copt, who is originally from Egypt and cannot be identified, in order to protect the lives of friends and loved ones still living in the old country.

"My family and friends know that the persecution is real," says the Copt, who is constantly in contact with the Coptic community in Egypt. "It is intentional, calculated, and is clearly approved by the ruling military."

Before the Arab Spring

Even before the political upheaval of the Arab Spring forced a regime change in Cairo, Coptic Christians were treated as second-class citizens.

For example, Christian communities were, and continue to be, denied building permits to erect new churches or to renovate old ones in need of repair.

Discrimination, societal intolerance, and other human rights violations against Christians were widespread under Mubarak, according to the 2011 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The commission is a non-partisan human rights body established by the U.S. Congress in 1998. Its mandate is to advise the legislative and executive branches of the American government on issues of religious liberty around the globe.

"The Egyptian government engaged in and tolerated religious freedom violations before and after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011," states the commission's annual report.

Interfaith solidarity evaporates

During the protracted mass protests in Tahrir Square last winter, Muslims and Christians came together in the name of democratic reform.

However, Egypt's interfaith solidarity evaporated when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed control of the country.

The Supreme Council has pledged to hand over power to civilian authorities once a democratically elected parliament and president are in place, sometime next year.

The strong showing of Islamist political parties in the recent preliminary round of parliamentary elections does not bode well for the human rights of Egypt's Christians.

"If they take control from the military, then they will immediately step in and apply Sharia law and change the face of the country," speculates the Canadian Copt.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which won the most seats in the first round of elections, seeks to eventually impose Sharia or Islamic law across Egypt.

The second place al Nour Party, which is an offshoot of the even more radical Salafist movement, essentially seeks to subordinate Christians under Islam, rolling back religious freedoms.

Meanwhile, the USCIRF asserts that the current military regime has failed to protect the Christian minority from violent attacks.

"This high level of violence and the failure to convict those responsible...continues to foster a climate of impunity, making further violence more likely," the USCIRF report concludes.

Churches targeted

Islamic extremists have targeted churches throughout 2011.

For example, the commission reports that an Islamist attack on the St. Mina Church in Cairo in May killed at least 12 Christians and Muslims. Another 200 people were wounded in the attack.

That same month, the Church of the Virgin Mary "was burned to the ground by extremists and several Christian-owned shops were vandalized and looted," states a press release issued by the USCIRF.

"It is interesting to note that every time a church was being attacked or burned, the military just looked the other way," the Canadian Copt says. "They weren't there, or they pretended it wasn't happening."

The Egyptian military and security forces have also allegedly used deadly force to disperse peaceful Christian civil rights demonstrations.

In October, "at least 25 people were killed, mostly Copts, some reportedly because of the Egyptian military's use of excessive force," writes Dwight Bashir, the USCIRF's deputy director for policy research, in an email.

During that protest in Cairo, peaceful Christian marchers, protesting the destruction of a church in Upper Egypt in September, were attacked by Muslim mobs.

The Egyptian military responded by allegedly firing live rounds into the crowd. And news footage clearly shows armoured vehicles running over and crushing several protestors.

According to Bashir, 100 Christians have been killed in 2011, exceeding the combined death toll of the last ten years.

However, the Canadian Coptic Christian acknowledges that some secular, educated Muslims in both Canada and Egypt don't support the persecution of Christians.

"Many of them love their Christian neighbours and do not want that kind of [Islamist] rule."

Revival

Despite the persecution of Christians, or perhaps because of it, many in the Coptic Christian community remain faithful to the Gospel.

"I am sure of one thing," says the Canadian Copt of her co-religionists, "there is a great Revival happening right now in the Christian community in Egypt."

For example, a mass prayer meeting was held on November 11 at the St. Simeon the Tanner Coptic Orthodox Church in Mokattam. An estimated 70,000 Christians of all denominations reportedly attended the all-night prayer vigil.

The Kasr El Doubara Evangelical Church in Cairo is just metres away from Tahrir Square, the focal point for protest in Egypt. Even as mass Muslim protests raged against the government in November, the church continued its ministry.

For instance, on November 21, the church held its "usual Monday evening prayer meeting for Egypt, in spite of the fact that the road in front of the church was closed," the Canadian Copt says. Instead, "People used the back door."

Despite the suffering of Christians in Egypt, some continue to be of service to their fellow Egyptians.

The courtyard of the Kasr El Doubara Evangelical Church was reportedly used as a temporary triage centre to treat demonstrators injured during violent protests in Tahrir Square.

Other Copts, however, have had enough of Egypt's intolerance and violence.

"I would guess that those who can afford to emigrate would love to just get up and go," the Canadian Copt speculates.

However, there have been Christians in Egypt for nearly two thousand years, long before the establishment of Islam. They survived the Arab-Muslim invasion and have remained faithful to Christ.

Today, the Copts make up the largest Christian community in the Middle East.

Although they face dark times, the faithful will be rewarded.

"...and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved." (Matthew 10:22 NRSV)

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About the author


Special to ChristianWeek

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