What does the new Egypt hold for its Christian population?

For three weeks this winter, Canadians, like so many people around the world, were captivated by the televised spectacle of Egypt's people power revolution. When Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt with an iron fist for 30 years, resigned as president, Egypt and much of the world cheered the dawning of a new era.

But what do the political changes in Egypt mean for the country's persecuted Orthodox Coptic Christian population?

“It's impossible to know," Leonard Leo, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), wrote in an e-mail to ChristianWeek.

Father Angelos Saad of the Canadian Coptic Centre at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Mississauga, Ontario agrees that it's simply “too early" to make predictions about the long-term impact of the revolution on Egypt's Christians. “We are hoping that things improve there," Saad says.

There is fear among Coptic Christians, a Canadian Copt told ChristianWeek. But there is also faith, said the Christian activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for the safety of loved ones still living in Egypt.

In these trouble times, says the activist, many Christians in Egypt are “turning to the Word of God for comfort."

Perilous state

Religious freedom is in a “perilous state" in Egypt, today, according to Leo.

“The Government of Egypt has a number of policies that discriminate against Christians and other religious minorities and, in combination with the [Islamic] blasphemy law, this emboldens people to perpetrate acts of violence without fear of being brought to justice," explains the chair of the USCIRF, an independent organization established by Congress to advise the United States government on matters of religious freedom around the globe.

In the single worst attack on Egypt's Christian community in a decade, a suicide bomber targeted a Coptic Orthodox Church at Alexandria on New Year's Eve 2010, killing 23 Christians and wounding scores.

The attack demonstrated the continuing threat of “unchecked violence against Christians in Egypt," Leo stated in a strongly worded press release following the bombing.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper also issued a strong statement, warning that the “tragic bombing" should alert the international community to the possible threat of violence against Copts.

In the wake of the Alexandria attack, Harper, along with Jason Kenney, the minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, met with Saad and other Coptic Christian leaders in Mississauga. During their closed-door meeting, recalls Saad, the prime minister expressed how “very upset" the Canadian government was about the terrorist attack.

Harper also raised the issue of security for the estimated 255,000 Coptic Christians residing in Canada. In December 2010, a radical Muslim website published the names, addresses and photos of 100 Copts living in this country, prompting some Coptic churches to take extra security precautions.

“He was direct to tell us in the closed meeting that the Canadian government would do their best to protect the Copts here," Saad says of Harper's pledge to guard against terrorist attacks in Canada.

Persecution continues

The persecution of Christians continues in post-Mubarak Egypt. According to Saad, three Coptic monasteries were attacked, a church destroyed and a priest murdered in the weeks following the revolution.

“But we still hope and pray that God changes all these things," he says. He also prays that the political changes will bring democracy, freedom and the end of religious persecution for Egypt's Coptic Christians, who make up between 10 and 12 per cent of the country's 80 million people.

During the Mubarak era, religiously-motivated acts of violence against Coptic Christians were committed with impunity.

“A new Egyptian government must in the regular criminal courts, prosecute perpetrators for sectarian killings in the country," Leo said in a public statement issued on February 22, in reaction to the acquittal of two Egyptians charged in the January 2010 murders of six Copts and a Muslim security guard killed in a drive-by church shooting.

In addition, Leo demanded that the Egyptian government provide adequate security for churches and bring the perpetrators of the Alexandria bombing to justice.

Saad asks Canadians to pray for Egypt's Coptic Christians and to donate to nongovernmental organizations that provide assistance to the sick and needy of Egypt, an impoverished country.

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

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