In Conference Speech

Opening Remarks of the Coptic Solidarity Sixth Annual Conference, June 11

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Coptic Solidarity’ Sixth Annual Conference. I would like to thank you all for coming and especially thank the distinguished speakers who honor us with their presence, thoughts and support.

In recognition of ongoing events, the overall theme is “100 Years Later: Middle Eastern Christians Face Another Genocide.”

You will recall that in April, the world commemorated two of the darkest events in modern human history.

– April 24th marked one hundred years of the Armenian Genocide. The genocide that began in the last decades of the 19th century and reached its climax during the World War I, started with the systematic massacres of Armenians and other Christian communities in Turkey and the Levant.

– April 12th marked seventy years of the visit by General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, to the Ohdruf concentration camp, liberated days earlier by U.S. forces barely a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945. The world then began to realize the horrors of the Holocaust and how it was methodically planned and executed.

With this in mind, I would like to make some brief observations on the dire situation of the indigenous minorities in the Middle East who are sometimes collateral damage in the ongoing regional violent upheavals, but are often the target of willful war to eradicate them:

1.     Inseparable from genocide is “negation,” whereby some parties distort facts in order to deny the historicity of despicable crimes.  This denial comes in various forms: a) Accusing the victims of making up stories in order to advance their own interests; b) Admitting that something may have happened, but it was not intentional and “many people” suffered; c) Blaming the victims for their “actions” which made them “deserve” what befell them. In all these forms, admitting the facts is avoided at all price, perhaps for fear of consequences.

2.     Negation is not only about denying previous facts, but it also includes the denial of the rights of a certain community, for “who they are,” not what they may have done. Indeed, if a community becomes consistently a target of hate speech and its inalienable rights are denied, moving to dehumanization, then genocide becomes easier to do and to justify. Furthermore, a genocide makes it easier for the next one to take place and be even more ferocious. Hitler was encouraged, if not inspired, by the Ottomans and both set examples for the Nazislamists whose ideology is even more prone to produce genocide. Far from hiding their abominable acts, and visibly fearing no consequences, they operate under massive propaganda campaigns proudly telling the world how they are striking terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah, or eliminating them.

3.     Cultural genocideis part ofGenocide. It goes beyond destroying historical artifacts, and is defined as the destruction with intent of a racial, religious, ethnic or national groupthrough acts which have the aim or effect of, a) depriving them of their distinct integrity, identity, values, or heritage; b) dispossessing them of their lands or resources; c) any form of population transfers; d) subjecting them to forms of propaganda. The jihadis’ form of denial of history means simply, expunging it and bringing humanity and civilization back to their “Stone Age.”

4.     The likes of the Islamic State in their demonic barbarity are not just a “cancer” to be surgically removed; they are followers of an ideology that is a perfectly natural outshoot of the prevailing frame of mind in the region. Militarily defeating such jihadi groups is necessary, but not sufficient: Defeating the ideology is essential. This requires confronting, not accommodating, it fundamentally and bravely. Calls by regional leaders such as president El-Sisi to revise “religious discourse” are quite welcome. However, to date they appear to be only rhetorical and aiming at “improving the image” of Islam (and the regime) abroad.  Insubstantial actions have been taken. More prevalent are the concerted efforts to enforce the dominance of Salafis and Wahabi trends in the public domain and inside religious institutions. These institutions hypocritically claim their “moderation,” but in fact their teachings are little different from the deadly ideology of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

5.     A few words on the situation of the Copts in Egypt: Despite some symbolic and welcome gestures by president El-Sisi (like visiting the Coptic Cathedral on Christmas eve), there is a clear escalation of acts against them, such as forced conversion of minor girls, “insulting Islam” accusations, sanctioning violence by fanaticized mobs, severe restrictions on freedom of belief, institutionalized discrimination, using Arabic language curricula to enforce Islamic indoctrination, collective punishment, forced evictions, subjecting them to ugly hate speech, etc. Worse still is that all this is taking place with the full participation or complicity of various state organs, causing increased frustration and dismay among Copts who thought that president El-Sisi would be better than his predecessors. In fact, there seems to be a decades-long pattern, or rather premeditated course of action, based on denying the Copts their rights, and whose gradual pace does not make its outcome less grim than that of other Christian communities in the region.

In sum:The embattled Middle East Christians and other indigenous minorities, especially in Syria, Iraq and, at a slower pace, in Egypt, are clearly subjected to ethnocide and religious genocide. But what does the future hold for them? The strategies that helped them, more or less, survive adverse forces over the centuries seem to have reached their limits, as they are clearly no match for the dark forces of the Assassins of Civilization.  

In a recent article, professor Walter Russell Mead reiterated three options facing the embattled indigenous minorities in the Middle East, two of which are impractical at best; namely to “fort up,” as the Kurds, Maronites and Druz have done, or to help them to escape and find new homes and start new lives. His third option is “We (in the West) can do what history suggests, alas, as our most probable course: We can wring our hands and weep piously as the ancient Christian communities are murdered, raped and starved into oblivion, one by one.”

He is probably right, but there is another option too.  The Middle East, with its young and frustrated population, has a majority that wants to be a part of the modern world.  Modernity carries risks – Islamist zealots have been quick to take advantage of any hint of political freedoms and have become expert at manipulating technology to their advantage.  But modernity also carries promise – a promise of giving all of the citizens of the Middle East the possibility of being free and autonomous.  Cynical religious and state institutions no longer have the monopoly on shaping the way people think and act.  Copts and other religious minorities have a particularly strong ability to help shape positive change, because they are by definition freer from the stifling presence of a majority rule that offers no promise.  This is the hope, and it is this hope that we must all work to make become a reality.

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