By Coptic Solidarity –
October 3, 2018
Coptic Solidarity (CS) hosted its 3rd Annual Modern Coptic Martyrs Remembrance Day (MCMRD) on October 3, 2018, in the US Capitol Visitor Center. CS thanks US Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) for sponsoring this event and enabling CS to host it in the US Capitol Visitor Center. The full event can be viewed here.
Dr. Mark Eid, Executive Committee Member of Coptic Solidarity opened the event by introducing the work of Coptic Solidarity and the purpose of hosting the MCMRD due to the increasing number of Coptic martyrs in Egypt in recent years. Dr. Eid recounted and showed video footage of the Maspero Massacre, which occurred October 9th, 2011, in which the Egyptian military killed 27 Copts and injured 327. These peaceful demonstrators were protesting the closure of a church. However, Egypt’s SCAF (With then General el-Sisi one of its members), ordered the use of live ammunition on the demonstrators, while armored personnel carriers sped in zig-zag patterns through the protestors to kill as many as possible. The Egyptian government has not taken responsibility for the massacre or brought the culprits to justice. Dr. Eid concluded by pointing out that Coptic Solidarity organized the MCMRD around the anniversary of the Maspero Massacre to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith, to bring accountability to the Egyptian government, and to seek justice for Coptic martyrs, a number of whose stories he highlighted.
Gary Bauer, Commissioner for The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, (USCIRF) noted the Egyptian military’s complicity in the Maspero Massacre and that the culprits are not some unknown mobs or terrorists. He also discussed the role of the Egyptian state-owned media in inciting violence broadcasting during the massacre asking Egyptians to go into the streets and protect the Egyptian military from Coptic protestors. “Our concern for the safety and security of the Coptic community in Egypt, and for their desire for treatment as equal citizens under the law, is unwavering.” Bauer said, “What happened on October 9, 2011 is a result, at least in part, of the Egyptian governments long-standing failure to fully include the Coptic Christian community into modern Egypt’s national identity,” noting “Intolerance toward Egyptian Christians is still pervasive.” Bauer addressed the lack of churches and slow implementation of Egypt’s 2016 church construction law, the culture of impunity for those who attack Copts and their properties saying, “Impunity for those who engage in intolerant anti- Coptic mob violence has long stood in the way of justice for the victims of such violence disproportionately harming Christian constituencies and also damaging Egypt’s reputation in the area of the rule of law for all of its citizens.” Bauer mentioned a few of the positive steps taken by the Egyptian government, but put the value of those gestures into perspective saying, “Symbolic moves are important at the national level, but they really don’t do that much at the local level to change the daily reality of the life that Coptic Christians have in Egypt.”
Robert Nicholson, President of The Philos Project focused on the work his organization is doing to bring Christian, young professionals from a variety of denominational and ethnic backgrounds on trips to the Middle East (ME) to help them reconnect with the Middle Eastern roots of their faith and understand current issues. In that way, they can come home and advocate for these issues in their local community. In the past 4 years, Philos Project has taken 6,000 young people to the ME. Nicholson’s goal is to start a cultural movement bridging a relational gap between Christians in the East and West so both sides can stand together in this moment of crisis. He noted “that Copts are facing an existential crisis in Egypt and Christians in the West are as well – an issue of identity, forgetting of our faith, forgetting where it comes from.” By teaching Western Christians about the culture, faith, and heritage of Copts, those in the west can rediscover their Christian identity and “Learning from Copts, the love they are willing to die for.”
Nicholson also announced a new project in Egypt saying, “Our job is to identify and empower those young Egyptians who share our values and want to change their society from within.” He chided those Western Christian leaders who have seemed more interested in forging relationships with Egypt’s political leaders instead of Egypt’s indigenous Christians saying that Westerners cannot solve problems for Egyptians. Only Egyptians can know how best to address these issues, and Philos Project will come alongside to assist indigenous leaders. Read full speech>>
Dr. Jonathan Adly, Founder of History of the Copts podcast, brought a personal perspective to the event by highlighting Lucinda, a two- year old martyr from the Palm Sunday bombing in Alexandria, noting his own daughter, Joy, is also two. Unlike Joy who celebrated Palm Sunday and returned home to play with her toys made of palm fronds, Lucinda was robbed of her life. Dr. Adly stated, “I am here to do my best to make sure no such tragedy ever happens again, to use the gifts the Almighty God has given me to make this world a more just and moral place.”
As a first-generation immigrant, Dr. Adly shared his admiration for the US Declaration of Independence saying “the primary function of any government is to protect the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of its citizens. That is my perspective as a Coptic American who is truly inspired by this country, yet still wants to advocate for and protect my family in Egypt. It is both our duty and our right to bring light to the issues and do our best to improve them.”
Dr. Adly highlighted some different perspectives on the situation in Egypt and urged that advocates present facts as they are and make a persuasive argument for the cause. He said, “International norms in respect to human rights are the crowning achievement of the modern era” and noted that the absence of the application of rule of law, equality amongst citizens, and freedom of worship in Egypt represent areas in which Copts suffer discrimination.
Adly ended with factual observations on the situation of Copts, followed by concrete recommendations to achieve equality saying Egypt should apply the same law to all citizens regardless of their religion. He stated, “These are not some unrealistic aspirations to be aimed for over several generations. No, these are the basic foundations that could and should be achieved tomorrow if the political will is there.” Read full speech>>
Neil Hicks, Senior Director for Advocacy of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies has a human rights career extending over 30 years monitoring Egypt. Hicks noted that the current human rights situation is by far the worst he has dealt with in Egypt. He described ways in which the Egyptian government’s actions during the Maspero Massacre were revealing, such as the trend toward brutality toward Egyptian citizens including torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. It also revealed how the government would exploit sectarian tensions when state -controlled TV stations published false news about Christians attacking the military and asking Muslims to go into the streets to confront them. Hicks explained that this incitement to violence didn’t come out of nowhere; “It was only effective because the state had condoned and encouraged decades of anti-Christian defamatory propaganda in the state -controlled media and private broadcasting services.” He described how the government knew it had an audience predisposed to believing wild stories about Christians and who had been softened up by years of propaganda that Christians are suspects and not real Egyptians. The massacre also revealed State collusion with Salafi extremists who had forced the closure of a church in Aswan which precipitated the protest. During the protest, Salafist attacked peaceful protestors while the military stood by, before stepping- in to brutally disperse the group.
Hicks explained that authoritarian regimes like el-Sisi’s government find Islamic extremists useful. They force vulnerable minority groups like Christians to rely on the government for protection. They also provide the government a pretext to deny basic political freedoms and permit wide ranging crackdowns on dissent from peaceful political opposition. They benefit from the climate of fear created by the threat of terrorism and extremist violence.
Hicks described how the stifling of civil dissent, muzzling of independent media, preventing legitimate activity by civil society, and restricting religious freedom actually undermine security and is counterproductive. He concluded with urging the current US administration to do more to reinforce the link between human rights, religious freedom, and security. The recent International Religious Freedom Ministerial was a positive development, but the message needs to be consistently reinforced in US foreign policy.
Clifford Smith, Washington Project Director for the Middle East Forum, discussed the importance of Copts partnering with Muslims in Egypt to secure their rights.
He explained that el-Sisi is obsessed with his personal security and making significant changes on behalf of Copts could result in attempts on his life citing the assassination of Anwar Sadat after making a peace agreement with Israel.
Smith noted that el-Sisi has focused on combatting the Muslim Brotherhood, his primary political opponent, but has done much less to crack-down on Salafists who jeopardize Christian lives. He discussed el-Sisi’s desire for legitimacy and a closer relationship with the US citing the legitimacy conferred on him by a big hug from President Trump and his efforts to maintain US military assistance and cooperation such as through the Brightstar exercises.
Smith recommended the US continue developing a relationship with Egypt, but at a price. Although el-Sisi has made symbolic gestures he said, “Actual security from radicals would be far better than these symbolic gestures, which well meaningful, but are far insufficient to protect the lives and defend the rights of Copts in Egypt.” El-Sisi wants and needs America which gives the US leverage to change his policies and priorities. American Copts should be contacting their Members of Congress (MoCs), and these MoCs should raise issues when they visit Egypt, such as church permits, protection for Copts, and ending the use of reconciliation sessions. He concluded by noting that el-Sisi’s “Commitment to Coptic interests will vary significantly based on how he is incentivized.”