Editor’s Note: This column appeared in The Telegraph on Monday. We reprint in part here.
The beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya by forces sympathetic to Islamic State over recent days is sadly not an isolated case. On the contrary, it is the latest of countless outrages perpetrated against Christians in or near the Church’s Biblical heartlands over many years.
The latest victims were migrant workers from Upper Egypt. The announcement by the authorities in Cairo of retaliatory bombing raids on terrorist training camps in Libya should not blind us to an inconvenient truth – that more than 600,000 Christians have left Egypt over the past 30 years under both Islamist and supposedly secular regimes. Many got out because their homes or churches or businesses had been firebombed.
Before travelling to Egypt to research my book Christianophobia, I interviewed immigrant Copts in Britain whose stories formed a pattern. One, a senior GP, explained how no Christian medical student at his university in Asyut, Upper Egypt, had been placed in the “Good”, “Very Good” or “Excellent” classes in their final exams. The injustice convinced him that he would never prosper in his own country, especially with the rise during the 1970s of the militant Gama Islamiya, whose members dominated some campuses. “They started attacking Christian students,” he told me, “barging into our rooms and tearing down pictures of the Virgin Mary and other religious materials. A fight ensued. I and other Christians were expelled from university accommodation, but the Muslims who caused trouble were allowed to remain.” My interviewee was fortunate in some respects. Other Christian students in the region were murdered.
This story reflects a broader reality: that acute hostility to Christians in the Middle East long predates the invasion of Iraq. After the assassination attempt on Nasser in 1954, many fundamentalists were rounded up and sent to prison. Egypt’s next leader, Anwar Sadat, faced with heavy challenges from the Left, indulged the Islamists and let many in from Saudi Arabia. He also called Egypt a Muslim country, even though 15 to 20 per cent of the population was then Christian. According to the charity Aid to the Church in Need, that figure has now fallen to around 5 per cent – still 4.2 million people – as a result of Christians leaving Egypt.
Many of those Islamists in Egypt who came from (or returned from) Saudi Arabia were converts to Wahhabism, the very hardline brand of Islam that has evolved on the peninsula over the past two centuries. A grim irony of the Charlie Hebdo murders and recent violence in Copenhagen is that Arab Christians endure far more vehement insults at the hands of Wahhabists than do Muslims from secular satirists in the West.