The sledgehammers and petrol left more than 1,000 synagogues burnt and over 7,000 Jewish shops and businesses in ruins. The streets were covered in shards of smashed glass from broken windows.
Compare the charred husk of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin, in 1938, with pictures of the blackened walls of Degla’s ruined Church of the Virgin Mary, taken recently in Egypt, and you will readily understand why August 2013 represented Egypt’s Kristallnacht.
Compare the terror of 1938 with the fear of Copts as members of their community have been left dead, others assaulted, and their 118th Pope, Tawadros II, who is now under protection having had death threats made against him.
In 1938 The Times commented that: “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.”
In August 2013, in an almost identical vein, The Times reported how “Dozens of churches, homes and businesses have been set alight and looted in Egypt, forcing millions of Christians into hiding amid the worst bout of sectarian violence in the country’s modern history. Some Coptic Christian communities are being made to pay bribes as local Islamists exploit the turmoil by seeking to revive a seventh-century tax, called jizya, levied on non-Muslims.”
The Sunday Times described how in one village “First they daubed the Christians’ shops and homes with a red cross. Then the mob stormed the police station before turning its wrath on the church.”
More than 90 churches, monasteries and church buildings have been attacked across the country. The Times said there had been incitement, that Imams in the town of Fayoum reportedly urged supporters to go out and attack churches and Christians.
In Cairo, Franciscan nuns saw the cross over their school gate torn down and replaced by an al-Qaeda flag while the school was burnt down and three nuns were frog marched through the streets while mobs showered them with abuse. One nun said “They paraded us like prisoners of war.”
Joe Stork, acting Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch reported that “Dozens of churches are smouldering ruins, and Christians throughout the country are hiding in their homes, afraid for their very lives”
One of those who died was a young Christian deacon, Wahid Jacob, whose funeral was held last week. He had served the St.John the Baptist Church in Asyut until August 21st, when he was kidnapped. His captors demanded 1.2 million Egyptian pounds ($171,000) – an impossible ransom for his impoverished family. Their inability to pay up led to his execution. The priest who conducted Wahid’s funeral said that the young man’s body, found dumped in a field, was badly tortured. These unconscionable sectarian crimes follow years of indifference to the regular reports of the abduction and forced conversion and marriage of Christian girls; of accompanying violence and rape; discrimination, beatings and abuse.
Attacks on the Copts, who number around 10% of the 85 million Egyptian population have occurred throughout the country, and are well documented in Upper Egypt’s Minya, Assiut and Sohag; in Beni Suef in the Nile Delta; and in the governorates of Giza and Cairo. Although the Tamarod coalition which, on July 3rd, brought the removal of Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood Government had the support of millions of Egyptians – including secularists, intellectuals, students, women, moderate Muslims, and the army – it is the Coptic community who have borne the brunt of these revenge attacks.
The puritan-tendency in the Muslim Brotherhood have blamed Christians for the military coup and their media outlets have whipped up hate. The hatred is then recycled by key Muslim Brotherhood leaders in their speeches to their supporters. Happy for the Christian minority to be used as a scapegoat, the security forces have been largely indifferent to this suffering.
When it comes to the Copts the perpetrators enjoy impunity and can terrorise at leisure. The Economist reported that “nowhere had the police thought to reinforce security, and nowhere did they intervene promptly or with sufficient force.”
This combination of impunity, terror and blackmail prompts the question, where is the solidarity from Christians and non-Christians alike which such events demand? African slaves, abandoned to a life of exploitation, poignantly ask the same question in the words of the African-American Spiritual – “were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
In the aftermath of last week’s events – and well aware of the indifference which has been shown to the fate of Christians throughout the region – it’s the same question which Coptic Christians have been asking of those who have voices but who do not raise them; of those who have resources but who do not use them; and those who have freedom and power but fail to exercise it.
All of us ask should ask ourselves what we said and what we did when they burnt the churches, terrorised the people and killed the Copts. It took the outgoing British Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks – always mindful of the events to which Kristallnacht led, to point to our indifference to the assault on the Copts which he described as “a tragedy going almost unremarked” and is the “religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing”.
Yet, not all consciences have been still and not all voices have been silent. At a protest outside the White House, in chants which echoed those used against Lyndon B. Johnson, in the context of Vietnam, critics of the Obama administration’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood demanded “Obama Obama don’t you care? Copts are dying over there”.
Recall that when Mubarak was removed from office President Obama said that “Egypt will never be the same.” Was the Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood what he really had in mind? What is his red line for the Copts or, is it true that he has run out of red ink?
Too many in the U.S. who call themselves Progressive, or who can be counted amongst their cheer leaders in Britain, have characterised the Morsi Government and the Muslim Brotherhood as lawful and worthy of support and would have them return to power. The New Statesman says “Either Britain supports democracy abroad or it doesn’t”. The Egyptian military are painted as usurpers and illicit. Where here is any intelligent or truthful assessment – let alone moral indignation – of the tyranny and violence which has been part and parcel of the ideology promoted by the Muslim Brotherhhod and their fellow travellers?
This isn’t just about what passes for democracy. The holding of an election – like the one which ushered in the Third Reich after Kristallnacht – is not the only test of what makes for a democratic society. The rule of law is the first test and the protection of a country’s minorities and women, is the second.
The reality is that the Brotherhood was disastrously incompetent in Government and attempted to bring in a wholly undemocratic Constitution which would have denied vast swathes of the Egyptian population – especially its women and its minorities – their lawful rights. Does that make a country democratic? As Egypt descended into total anarchy was the army supposed to simply stand by and watch it happen?
Despite welcome signals from the new Government of redrawn Constitutional protections it is also reported that it will continue to provide Sharia as the “principal source of law” – and so a raft of civil rights, freedoms, including protection for minorities and equal opportunities for women, will have no guaranteed basis in law.
Egypt’s future can only be based on a secular Constitution where human rights, including the rights of minorities and the right to freedom of religion or belief (including the right not to believe), are respected.
Above all, Egypt’s future will depend on the rule of law. As Human Rights Watch has pointed out, there can be no peace or stability in Egypt if the authorities fail to intervene to prevent the attacks or to bring the perpetrators to justice, or if they ignore the violent rhetoric which whips up hatred. Over the past few years we have regularly pointed to the significant numbers of Copts who have been fleeing Egypt.
In a climate of fear and intimidation, coupled with historic and long-standing discrimination, this exodus is entirely understandable. But if this represents the only future for Copts it will be a tragedy for Egypt and for the Copts’ Muslim neighbours alike. An Egypt which is unable to accept difference and unwilling to promote tolerance will be an increasingly unbearable place for all of its other citizens.
That’s why Egypt’s Kristallnacht matters so much.
Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool is a member of the British House of Lords and honorary President of UK Copts Association.
Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, Berlin, after Kristallnacht in 1938
Degla’s ruined Church of the Virgin Mary, Egypt, August 2013