Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Israel Sports In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    The manager of the Chelsea Football Club said on Monday that he is looking forward to playing in Israel this week against Maccabi Tel Aviv, in spite of the security situation, Israeli news site nrg reported. Jose Murinho, who is already in Israel with his team to compete against Maccabi in the Champions League soccer match, was  asked whether he was worried about the current wave of Palestinian violence sweeping the country. “I have no worries at all regarding the security situation, and neither do […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    Blaming the West has become the most pervasive method of teaching for many Middle East studies departments, which are becoming the heart of pop-culture academia. Efraim Karsh, a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University and professor emeritus at King’s College London, in his latest book The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, dispels this myth. “Britain’s ‘original sin,’ if such was indeed committed, lay not in the breaking up of Middle Eastern unity but […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About

    With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About – The Mensch on a Bench is so much happier now than he was a year ago. Look carefully and you will notice that, whereas the previous Mensch had a decidedly worried look, this latest version of the popular Hanukkah toy is flashing an exuberant grin. Is the erstwhile Mensch smiling because he expects to be in some 100,000 homes by year’s end? In truth, the change in visage was suggested last year by the “sharks” on ABC’s Shark Tank […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Actor Adam Sandler unveiled a new version of his famous “Chanukah Song” on Saturday, adding a slew of Jewish celebrities to the ditty’s updated lyrics. The comedian — who released the original song about being Jewish during Christmas in 1996 — performed the latest version of the comedic track during the New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and “the two guys who founded Google” are among the famous Jewish celebrities now in the line up. Sandler also included lyrics about Star Wars‘ Princess […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

    Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom – Famed Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman will be among the 17 recipients of America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom next week. He is the fourth Israeli to receive the highest civilian honor in the US. “A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18,” a White House […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots

    Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots – While Israel is a common destination for cultural and religious pilgrimages, travelers seeking the best hotels, fine dining, and upscale relaxation less often find themselves in the Holy Land. Yet in recent years, the country’s burgeoning tech scene has attracted a business crowd accustomed to ritzy accommodation. Besides, the permanent summer of Tel Aviv and Eilat makes them prime destinations for European vacationers. Israel’s populace managed to tame the swamps and irrigate the desert — so going luxury should […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features Has Shia LaBeouf Reached the End of the Line?

    Has Shia LaBeouf Reached the End of the Line?

    Was Shia LaBeouf’s performance art piece at Manhattan’s Angelica Film Center (where he spent three days watching his own films) a sign of madness or genius? Judging from the lines and the fans, it was the latter. Shortly before 6 a.m. on Thursday, approximately 140 people were on line for the last day of the live-streamed event at Angelica Film Center. Fans who waited were happy to give their opinions. “I don’t think he’s crazy,” said Elliot Quartz, an 18-year-old student at the New School, who waited […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Jewish Artists From New York Release New Rap Album in English, Hebrew, Aramaic

    Jewish Artists From New York Release New Rap Album in English, Hebrew, Aramaic

    Eden Pearlstein freely admits that he has an addiction. But his brings people up instead of bringing them down. “I am a chronic collaborator,” says Pearlstein, a 35-year-old rapper who goes by the moniker of Eprhyme, and has released several solo albums. “Deeper and Higher” — his new album — is a collaboration with Shir Yakov Feit, who co-writes the songs and music. The friends and fellow artists both explore the relationship between man and God, and the benefit and emotional weight of introspection. With lyrics in English, Hebrew, and Aramaic, the artists stress […]

    Read more →