In a lengthy and disturbing piece on Egypt’s Coptic Christians this week, Rod Nordland of the New York Times described them as a community at the “breaking point,” to borrow the words of Bishop Makarios of Minya.
This is not what a casual consumer of Egyptian news would expect, and it is not what the Copts expected, either. Nordland writes of high hopes for protection after the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi was topped by the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is often given solid marks by foreign observers for his stance against Islamist oppression.
Egypt’s Christians are disappointed with the return for their support of Sisi, who was the first Egyptian leader to attend a Coptic Christmas service in 2015. Nordland writes of “violence and humiliation” in the city of Minya:
Houses have been burned, Copts attacked on the streets and hate graffiti written on the walls of some churches. In all, Coptic officials have counted 37 attacks in the past three years, not including some 300 others right after Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were ousted from power in 2013.
The turning point for local Copts came in May when an older Christian woman was stripped naked by a mob, which had been incited by reports that the woman’s son was having an affair with a Muslim.
“After that woman was stripped, we couldn’t be quiet, not after that,” Bishop Makarios said. What especially angered Copts, he added, “is that officials came out denying the incident.”
“Had they apologized or said they would follow it up, it would be different, but this was an insult to Egypt and the women of Egypt,” he said.
Not only was the Muslim woman not having an affair with the son, the bishop said, but she is suing her husband for libel for having started a false rumor.
Bishop Makarios complained that attacks on Christians result in no prosecutions — even lethal ones, like the stabbing of a Christian by a mob in July, reportedly following an argument over whether Muslim or Christian children had higher priority to pass through a crowded street.
“In such attacks, every one of them is released, not a single one has been punished, and that’s what really upsets the Copts. So long as no one is punished, this is just going to get worse,” said Makarios.
One of the problems highlighted by Makarios is that the system constructed to resolve disputes through arbitration, rather than prosecution, ends up pressuring intimidated Christians into accepting settlements that are far more advantageous to their more numerous Muslim neighbors.
The government’s appointed arbitrator, Muslim cleric Mahmoud Gomaa, refuses to budge from his “everything is good” position. The Coptic Pope talked his followers in the United States out of staging a White House demonstration to call attention to the plight of Egypt’s Christians. There is clearly a great deal of pressure on the Copts to avoid making waves.
Another major disappointment came in early September, when long-anticipated laws for the building of churches were unveiled but, instead of respecting religious rights, as Sisi promised, the new law merely codified the obstacles against church construction. Its only major “liberalization” is that Christians no longer need permission directly from the president of Egypt to build a new church. Instead, they can request permission from their local governor, and expect a relatively swift response, which will probably be “no.”
As the Associated Press noted, the church law instructs local governors to consider “the preservation of security and public order” when granting permits for new construction — which is, in practice, something like a permanent injunction against issuing such permits, because church construction almost inevitably attracts Islamist violence.
The New York Times piece mentions one example of church construction blocked on security grounds, despite the clear need for a new place of worship in the village. As a consolation prize, Christians were given permission to pray in a tent outside an existing church, until someone burned down the tent.
Another melancholy detail reported by the Associated Press is that many of Egypt’s 36 Christian lawmakers spoke out against the new church law, but most of them ended up voting in favor of it, either because they thought it was the best they could hope for, or they felt intimidated into respecting “the opinion of the majority,” as one Christian put it.
The Jerusalem Post says of Egypt’s Christians that “with every passing day, their faith in Sisi faded,” and they now realize “he is not the man they had longed for.”
“The Copts are being subjected to hellish schemes that aim to humiliate and subjugate them under the supervision of state agencies and institutions,” charged Emad Gad of the Al-Ahram Center, a Coptic member of the Egyptian parliament.
Gad said he was tired of “betting on state institutions which continue to plot the abuse of Copts.”
“Ultimately, despite the fact that the Copts did not choose Sisi but had him imposed on them by circumstances, just as he was imposed on all of Egypt, the huge support they gave Sisi resulted from their fear that Egypt was falling into a state of instability that would seriously threaten the Copts’ existence in Egypt,” Egyptian correspondent Ramy Aziz wrote for the Jerusalem Post. “However, it is clear that Sisi did not understand this. Instead, he failed to dispel the fears of the Copts and is now on the verge of losing an original pillar of support.”
If the Copts remain disappointed with Sisi, they might look for other friends in Egypt’s Muslim majority, and they’ll find some.
Christian Today reported on Monday that the first request to build a church under the new construction law was filed by Muslim member of parliament El-Badri Ahmed Deif. He wants to build a church in the village of Salam, whose name means “peace,” to honor the late Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III.
“I wanted it recorded in history that a Muslim was the first to submit a request for building a church in Egypt after the passing of the new landmark law,” said Deif. “I want to build a church in Salam to help these Copts perform their religious duties as well as to immortalise the name of Pope Shenouda, the son of this village.”