By Raymond Ibrahim – Exclusive for Coptic Solidarity –
For another consecutive year in a row, Egypt proves to be an inhospitable place for Christians, namely its most indigenous inhabitants, the Copts. According to Open Doors, a human rights organization that closely follows the treatment of Christians around the world, “Although Christianity has deep roots in Egypt going back centuries before the advent of Islam in North Africa, Christians are often marginalized and treated as second class citizens in modern Egypt.” Accordingly, Egypt is ranked as the 17th worst nation (out of nearly 200) wherein to be Christian; there, Christians experience “very high” level of “persecution.”
“Islamic oppression” is the premiere driving force of this persecution. As the report explains:
Islamic oppression (Very strong): In Egypt, Islamic oppression operates in different ways. Islamic culture sustains a view in Egyptian society whereby Christians are regarded as second-class citizens. This view causes the discrimination of Christians in the political realm and their dealing with the state. It also creates an environment in which the state is reluctant to respect and enforce the fundamental rights of Christians. In the family sphere, converts to Christianity face great pressure to renounce their faith. Christians also face pressure from Islamic oppression in their daily lives in their local neighborhood or at work. There have also been several violent attacks perpetrated by militant Islamic groups targeting Christians. Although the activity of such militant groups used to be largely concentrated in Sinai, during the WWL 2018 reporting period the number of attacks perpetrated by such groups in various parts of the country has increased.
Who, primarily, is behind this “Islamic oppression” of Copts? According to the report, which surveyed a variety of societal classes, rating each from “Not at All” responsible, to responsible on a “Very Strong” level, two groups are “Strong[ly]” responsible: (1) “officials at any level from local to national” and (2) one’s “own (extended) family” (the latter being primarily a reference to the persecution of apostates, on which more anon).
Three segments of society are “Very Strong[ly]” responsible for the persecution of Copts: (1) “non-Christian religious leaders”—meaning Muslim clerics, sheikhs, imams, and ulema— “at any level from local to national”; (2) “violent religious groups,” meaning violent Islamic groups, the Islamic State being only the most notorious;” and (3) “Normal citizens (people from the general public), including mobs.”
In other words, Muslims from every rung of society—from highly educated Muslim clerics, to members of Islamic organizations, to the passionate and volatile masses, “whose views are shaped by intolerant and radical imams”—are “Very Strong[ly]” responsible for and “significant drivers of persecution.”
“Government officials also act as drivers of persecution through their failure to vindicate the rights of Christians and also through their discriminatory acts which violate the fundamental rights of Christians.” Although authorities can themselves be the persecutors—as when Muslim soldiers beat a Christian soldier to death on account of his faith in July 2017—they more often function as enablers, allowing a culture of impunity to emerge.
Muslim mob riots often flare out on the mere rumor that a Coptic man is involved with a Muslim woman, or that Copts are trying to build or renovate a church—or merely pray in their own homes; Christian homes and churches are often set aflame, and Christians are often left injured, sometimes killed. Local authorities almost always respond with no arrests; and when the occasion of the uprising revolves around a church, authorities cite the incident as a “legitimate” reason not to open or renovate a church. The report offers the following anecdote—one of many such examples over the years follows:
More than 1,600 Coptic Christians live in the village of Kom El-Loufy in Minya. For 5 years they have been unable to reopen their church or build a new one due to fierce hostility from local Muslims and due to the refusal by the authorities to grant the necessary license for the construction of a church in the village. Several houses belonging to Christians had also been burned down due to suspicions that they could serve as places of worship for Christians.
While Christians of any gender, age, or status are susceptible to persecution in Egypt, as in virtually every other Muslim-majority nations, two groups are especially vulnerable: First, as weaker, easier, and more appealing targets, Coptic women “are often subjected to harassment, forced marriage or marriage by abduction and sexual assault…. Such persecution causes great physiological trauma and pain to Christian families and communities.”
Second, because apostasy is a capital offense in Islam, Muslim converts to Christianity arguably “bear the brunt of persecution, most often from family members. The latter punish converts for abandoning the Islamic faith, often by means of beatings or house expulsion.”
Concerning where the persecution takes places in Egypt, the answer is anywhere—even more cosmopolitan cities such as Alexandria and Cairo, the capital. Even so, “Societal hostility and prejudice against Christians are more pronounced in the poorer and rural parts of the country,” which also happens to be where most Copts are concentrated, such as al-Minya, which regularly sees day-to-day oppression.
What of President Sisi? How does he figure in all this? On the one hand, unlike his predecessors—Hosni Mubarak and Muhammad Morsi—Sisi often speaks positively about and makes some gestures to the Copts, including by visiting church before the Christmas eve services; and, also unlike his predecessors, he has offered some very frank and critical words concerning the radicalization of Egypt’s Muslim youth, and called on Al Azhar, “the oldest and the most prestigious center of advanced Islamic studies among Sunni Muslims” located in Cairo, “to fight radicalism and introduce reforms in Islamic teaching.”
On the other hand, under his watch, “Attacks by militants that target Christians” and which “were deliberately staged to terrorize the Christian community and disturb the activities of churches,” have “increased both in terms of their frequency and deadliness.” Some of the more spectacular include a suicide bomb attack on St. Peter’s church in Cairo that left some 30 dead and many dozens wounded (December 12, 2016); the simultaneous suicide bombing of two Coptic churches that left 45 worshippers dead and 100 injured (April 9, Palm Sunday, 2017; and the slaughter of as many as 35 Copts who refused to convert to Islam when their buses traveling to a monastery were stopped by Islamic gunmen (May 25, 2017).
Nor do things seem to be getting better. According to the report:
Despite the state of emergency declared by the government to tackle the violent attacks that have targeted Christians, the sense of vulnerability and insecurity that has become pervasive among Christians in Egypt is likely to persist in the foreseeable future. If such attacks by radical Islamic militants continue, the pressure on Christians in Egypt will increase and the ability of the Egyptian Church to cope with this burden will be tested to its limit…. The non-violent forms of persecution that are prevalent in various spheres of life are likely to continue without much change.
It should be noted, however, that the very fact that terrorist attacks on Copts has increased under Sisi’s rule is being cited by some as proof that the Egyptian president is doing an effective job. After all, as no national leader wants spectacular terrorist attacks to occur under his watch, his Islamist opponents are doing their utmost to embarrass and make him look weak before the world. In this view, there are many more terrorist attacks under Sisi than under the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi precisely because Islamists want to make the former—an opponent not an ally—look bad.
While there is some truth in this, the fact remains: by choosing to become president, Sisi has willingly taken on the responsibility of ensuring equal treatment for all citizens—including Christians—and thus the burden of reform must by necessity fall on him. This means acknowledging and rectifying the fact that those who persecute Copts are not “outside” the societal fabric of Egypt—as Sisi often claims—but, as seen, are homegrown and permeate virtually every aspect of Islamic society in Egypt.
Photo Credit: Relatives carried coffins and crucifixes during a mass funeral at a monastery in Alexandria. Reuters: Amr Abdallah Dalsh
 See World Watch List 2018 Compilation Volume 3