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The Forgotten Christians

February 10, 2012 10:18 am 0 comments

A relief wall on the inside of Coptic Orthodox Christian Church located in St. Bishops monastery in Lower Egypt. Photo: wiki commons.

This Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, and the Harvard University Institute of Politics marked the occasion last week with the event “Egypt: From Tahrir Square to Today.” The panel, which included Harvard Kennedy School Professor Tarek Masoud and journalist Mona Eltahawy, praised the new self-determination of the Egyptian people and expressed a cautious optimism despite the inherent “messiness” of Egypt’s transition to democratic rule.

But there is another story to be told here, one that was disgracefully ignored by the panel and often downplayed in the Western media. And that is the story of how the Egyptian revolution has resulted in unmitigated disaster for Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

Deriving their name from the Arabic “qubt,” meaning “Egyptian,” Copts have maintained a continuous presence in Egypt since approximately 43 CE, almost six centuries before the founding of Islam. Over the past few decades, Egypt’s Copts have experienced severe persecution from extremist Muslim groups—a horrific church bombing in Alexandria on New Year’s Day 2011 was the most devastating attack before the revolution. For better or worse, however, under Mubarak, the Egyptian government suppressed many of these extremist groups, including members of the ultraconservative Salafists. As a result, Copts maintained an uneasy relationship with the military and currently account for approximately ten percent of Egypt’s population.

But that number is dwindling. Since Mubarak’s ouster last year, escalating persecution against Copts has led to what one refugee calls a mass Christian “exodus” from Egypt. Forty Copts died in 22 separate incidents in the first half of 2011, compared to just 15 in all of 2010. For the first time ever, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended that Egypt be designated a “Country of Particular Concern,” placing it on par with the likes of North Korea, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia with respect to religious freedom. Human rights groups estimate that approximately 100,000 Christians have fled Egypt since the revolution, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service reports that the number of Copts seeking asylum in America more than doubled in 2011.

What, exactly, has happened since last February? Although Christians demonstrated alongside Muslims to overthrow Mubarak last year, the military regime in his absence has refused to make any arrests in response to attacks on Copts. So although Salafists continued to persecute Christians throughout 2011, the post-Mubarak government has given them a far freer reign to do so.

Thus, one month after Mubarak’s ouster, Al Arabiya ran an article headlined “Ultraconservative Muslims more assertive in Egypt,” detailing how Salafists clashed with villagers south of Cairo after demanding that a liquor store be closed down. In May, approximately 11 people were killed and two churches burned after a Salafist-led mob terrorized Christians in Imbaba. In October, the Egyptian army fired at Copts in Maspero who were peacefully protesting a church attack, killing 26 mostly Christian protestors.

Furthermore, the recent democratic elections allowed parties that were previously banned under Mubarak to run freely. This reform was hailed in the West, but the unfortunate result left the Salafists, the very people who had been helping facilitate oppression of Egypt’s Copts for decades, in control of approximately a quarter of Egypt’s parliament.

American reaction to these events has unfortunately been far too muted. A New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof in December, for example, featured a video in its online version titled “Who’s Afraid of Egypt’s Islamists?” “Democratic transitions are always messy,” Kristof asserts, but “the fundamental historical truth unfolding this year is not the rise of one party,” but “the emergence of people-power…to overthrow a dictator.” “It’s reasonable to worry,” Kristof insists, “but let’s not overdo it.”

Three weeks after Kristof published that column, the spokesman for the Salafist Al Nour party declared that it was forbidden for Muslims to send Christmas greetings to Christians. Three days later, a Coptic student was detained for publishing an “offensive” image of Muhammad on his Facebook—Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that angry Muslim residents from four nearby villages proceeded to firebomb the student’s house. And five days before the IOP event, a mob of over 3000 Muslims attacked Copts in Alexandria, looting Coptic homes and shops before setting them ablaze.

Needless to say, none of these incidents was mentioned at the Harvard panel.

Given the tremendous optimism expressed by the United States at the start of the Arab Spring, it is hard to acknowledge the reality that Egyptian self-determination has come at the expense of its Christians. But the answer to this problem is not to ignore it. Everything that is said now, while Egypt’s government is still in flux, can help shape the country in a way that will protect the rights of its minorities. And for the sake of religious freedom for Egypt’s Coptic Christians, America cannot afford to be silent.

Avishai D. Don ’12, a Harvard Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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