According to a recent Associated Press report, for many years Egypt’s Christian minority refused to become involved in politics for fear of reprisals. They relied, instead, on their church to make their case to those in power. When Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, however, Christians became more assertive in determining the country's direction. “But they took it to a new level during Morsi’s year in office and the empowerment of his Islamist allies,” says The Associated Press.
“The Christians have emerged from under the robes of the clergy and will never go back,” said Ezzat Ibrahim, an activist from Minya, a southern province with a large Christian community.
Christians account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s population. But a leading American Muslim maintains they were highly influential in the popular uprising that led to the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and author of A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith, says of the Christians, “They played a significant role in raising the masses.”
Millions of Egyptians, the great majority Muslims, moved to the streets in what the BBC called the “the largest political event in the history of the world.” I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the Egyptian political revolt, but when 22 million people representing 25 percent of the country’s total population sign a petition calling for the removal of the president, it’s time to pay attention. Apparently, the Egyptian military agreed. On July 3, after serving only a year, Mosi was declared “unseated” by a council consisting of defense minister Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb, and the Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II.
Mosi’s undoing wasn’t the severe economic crisis facing the nation, although all financial reserves are now said to be gone and severe austerity measures are expected. Millions of Egyptians, Muslim and Christian alike, objected to his anti-democracy, pro-Sharia policies and actions. For example, in late November 2012 Morsi granted himself unlimited powers to “protect” the nation, and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts. Hundreds of thousands began to demonstrate and he eventually annulled his action. Sort of.
But it was Morsi’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist movement seeking to establish Islamic Sharia law according to their interpretation of the Quran, that most Egyptians feared. Moderate Muslims and Christians have joined forces in resisting the imposition of Sharia law. For Christians, their very existence is at stake.
It is a mistake, however, to believe all Egyptian Muslims oppose Sharia rule as counter demonstrations in support of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood indicate. As these Muslim fundamentalists take to the streets, Christians have often been their targets. Brotherhood media depicted Christians as responsible for the uprising, although the demonstrations numbered nearly three times the entire Christian population of the country.
For their part, in actively seeking their human rights, Egyptian Christians have suffered.
An AP report says, “The worst anti-Christian backlash since Morsi’s July 3 ouster was the attack in Nagaa Hassan, a dusty village on the west bank of the Nile River, not far from the most majestic ancient Egyptian archaeological sites in the city of Luxor.” When a Muslim man was found murdered, Christians were blamed. Fundamental Islamists “smashed the windows and doors of Christian homes, ransacked Christian-owned stores and set them ablaze — damaging about 30 homes and stores in all. Muslim residents who tried to stop them were brushed aside, sometimes threatened with violence as well.” At least a dozen Christian families took refuge in the local Church of St. John the Baptist. On July 6, a Coptic priest was murdered in the Sinai by masked men believed to be members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On July 6, a Coptic priest was murdered in the Sinai by masked men believed to be members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt’s only independent English language daily newspaper, the Daily News, reported on July 9, that masked gunmen opened fire on Mar Mina Church in Port Said on the Suez Canal two days earlier.
But the greatest tragedy occurred on July 5 when Emile Naseem, 41, and his nephew were attacked. The AP report is graphic. “With a mob of Muslim extremists on their tail, the Christian businessman and his nephew climbed up on the roof and ran for their lives, jumping from building to building in their southern Egyptian village. Finally they ran out of rooftops. Forced back onto the street, they were overwhelmed by several dozen men. The attackers hacked them with axes and beat them with clubs and tree limbs, killing Naseem. The nephew survived with wounds to his shoulders and head and recounted the chase to The Associated Press.”
The mob continued to rampage, stabbing to death three other Christians in the village. It was no coincidence the attackers focused on Naseem and his family: He was one of the village’s most respected citizens and had called for Morsi’s removal.
Although the Christian population in the Middle East was once about 20 percent, that figure has dwindled to 5 percent. American military involvement in that region has produced an unanticipated and, for Christians there, a tragic consequence. The Pew Research Center has authenticated that they are being persecuted as never before.
And if Christians are persecuted generally, the plight of Christian women is even worse. Lela Gilbert, a researcher with the Hudson Institute reports that the conclusion is clear and unequivocal: gender-based violence plays a key strategic role in the plans of those who wish to eradicate Christians and Christian belief from Muslim lands. By attacking women, who seldom report the offenses, they seek to drive out or neutralize the influence of Christians.
But with the courage of their convictions, Christians are standing up for the rights of minorities — including their own. Reminiscent of Baptist struggles in Virginia, North Carolina and other colonies, these Egyptian Christians are saying, “We are here and we have rights!”
“My parents always mention immigration as a solution. I don’t,” said Marina Zakaria, a 21-year-old in Cairo, who began participating in street politics after Mubarak’s ouster. “Christians are mostly isolated in their churches because they are afraid from people who are not like them. With that attitude, we deepened the discrimination we face and ended up without a place in political life,” she said.
Christian activist Nirvana Mamdouh, 22, said that for far too long Christians remained silent in the face of injustices and it was time for them to speak up for their rights.
“We cannot have our freedom without blood. It is the price, what can we do?”
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.