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 *

More...

  • Food Jewish Identity Home of Freud and…Pita? Israelis Make Culinary Mark in Vienna

    Home of Freud and…Pita? Israelis Make Culinary Mark in Vienna

    JNS.org – Several Viennese Jews have made a lasting impact on the world. Sigmund Freud’s investigations changed the face of modern psychology. Composer Arnold Schoenberg’s innovations in atonal music changed the face of music. These days, even more Jews — in particular, Israeli Jews — are changing the face of Vienna’s culinary scene with innovations in…the art of the pita. Freudians may find a psychoanalytic motive for the local appeal of the Israeli eateries popping up in the Austrian capital. Walk […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion In Iraqi Kurdistan, a Genocide Before Our Very Eyes

    In Iraqi Kurdistan, a Genocide Before Our Very Eyes

    The two bullet casings are already beginning to rust. Sheikh Nasser Pasha plucks them from the ground. “Look, one is from an AK-47, one from an American M-4.” The casings are strewn on the ground atop a long mound of dirt with a few bits of white sticks on it. It would appear unremarkable if one were walking by it. A closer look, however, reveals the white objects are pieces of human bone: arms, legs, and a single human skull. […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    JNS.org – About two-dozen people file into Dodd 175 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus on a Thursday night, scouting out seats and picking at the kosher pizza in the back of the lecture hall. Miyelani Pinini knows the drill. A former student president of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, she’s attended and even organized her share of free-pizza events. But now she and a fellow South African student leader were the stars of this […]

    Read more →
  • Food Spirituality/Tradition The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    JNS.org – It’s widely known that Israel has penetrated the wine market, with some of its sophisticated Israeli blends surpassing historically excellent wines from areas such as the Napa Valley or Bordeaux. But what about beer? For decades, Israel has offered solely the Maccabi and Nesher brands. Not anymore. “There is a huge push of people making beer at home. The country is approaching over 30 craft breweries in the last year or two, making nearly 200 beers,” says Avi Moskowitz, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Actress Natalie Portman acted like a typical “Jewish mother” on the set of her latest movie, Jane Got a Gun, the Israeli-born star told the New York Post‘s Page Six on Sunday. The 34-year-old, who also co-produced the western, said she made it her job to look out for everyone involved in the project, because the film has had to overcome “so many obstacles,” such as losing its director early on. She explained: “Actors changed. We suffered financial and legal challenges. We endured so many replacements. There were delays. […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    “We’re looking very much forward to coming back to Israel this summer,” said the lead singer of the German rock band Scorpions in a video on Monday. “Make sure you don’t miss it because we rock you like a hurricane!” said a jovial Klaus Meine, quoting the band’s seminal 1984 anthem, “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” The hard rock band lands in Israel for a show at the Menorah Mivtachim Arena on July 14 as part of its 50th anniversary tour. It will be the band’s third time […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were the two most immediate and authentic literary voices who gave witness to the Holocaust. Wiesel was an extrovert and a very public figure who wrote initially in French. Levi was a modest retiring chemist who wrote in Italian. Whereas Wiesel was rooted in the Eastern European Jewish Hassidic world, Levi was the product of an assimilated, secular Italian society that saw itself as Italian first and Jewish as an accident of birth. As Levi himself said, “At Auschwitz I […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Lifestyle Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    JNS.org – Wine has long been considered a social lubricant, and it’s Nir Lavie’s hope that wine from his Har Bracha Winery in the Samarian hills will serve as a social lubricant between the city-goers of Tel Aviv and the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, two locales split geographically, and often politically, on the left and right of the country. The new flagship store of Har Bracha has recently popped its corks on 190 Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, […]

    Read more →