The Faith Amid the Flames

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They stormed the church like madmen. Armed with fire bombs, sticks, and stones, they destroyed everything they encountered while yelling “Allah’u Akbar!” Within a few minutes, the church bus and two cars were on fire, and the church itself was in flames. At the entrance, a man climbed atop the church gate where a cross was firmly fixed. He beat it violently, shoving and kicking it over and over as the mob waved their sticks in support. The cross finally gave in and toppled; the mob below roared with approval. They crowded around the fallen cross and beat it even more with their sticks as if it were alive.

Avenged and victorious, they exited the church, carrying whatever valuables they could lay their hands on. A cloud of dark smoke rose as fire consumed yet another Christian house of worship.

***

In August of 2013, Egypt’s Christian minority experienced a wave of violence and terrorism — within a period of two weeks, more than eighty churches were burned down or attacked by Islamic extremists. Many Christian orphanages, schools, businesses, and monasteries were destroyed. Sometimes, like in the case of the Sohag Church described above, the violence was well-chronicled, but more often it went undocumented. The danger was such that for the first time in centuries, the Coptic Patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, canceled all Church activities to ensure the safety of his congregations.

In Dalga, a village 270 miles south of Cairo, Christians were forced to convert or start paying the jizya, a tax historically levied by Muslims on non-Muslims. For the Christians living in Dalga, failure to pay meant the physical abuse or even death of family members, according to the Washington Post. Many families have fled the village, and others have left Egypt altogether. In the last three months, countries like the United States, Australia, and Canada have seen an unparalleled surge of Christian Egyptian immigrants and asylees.

Father Abraham Azmy, a priest for a local Coptic congregation in Hamden, Connecticut, noticed a rise in families joining his congregation. “Since 2011, Copts have been coming in larger numbers, but recently it’s reached a peak. There is a new family almost every Sunday,” he said. It is now estimated that there are over one million Copts in the United States.

***

By far the largest remaining Christian minority in the Middle East, Coptic Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Their history stretches back to the first century CE, as Christianity was beginning to spread in the Roman Empire. Copts thrived in Egypt for some 600 years — producing notable religious figures like Antony and Athanasius and establishing countless monasteries and theological centers.

But the tide turned in the seventh century when the Islamic military conquests began. Within 300 years, Egypt’s majority Christian population shrank to a fraction of its former size. Coptic, the spoken language, was replaced with Arabic through a process known, perhaps with a generous eloquence, as Arabization. In response, the Church began conducting liturgies in Arabic and Coptic to make sure the language did not completely die out.

Today, Copts make up about 15 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people. They have endured generations of persecution and prejudice. While Copts in Cairo deal with routine discrimination in employment and education, those in more rural areas fear kidnappings, mob attacks — and even church bombings.

On January 1, 2011, as worshippers were exiting the Two Saints Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, a bomb exploded. Within minutes of the New Year’s Eve liturgy, the bomb had killed more than twenty worshippers and maimed about 100. The event was splashed across newspapers around the globe, and protests ensued worldwide. The massacre underscored a lack of adequate protection by the Egyptian government. In response to an Al-Qaeda threat listing specific church names as targets, Coptic churches in the United States, Canada, and Europe were on high alert — with policemen securing each church.

copts2This violence against Copts, however, should be understood in the larger context in which it occurs. Islamists often attack Copts as a means of rejecting the established army and its secular supporters. “Christians themselves are often not the target of the attacks, despite the fact that they are the ones who are harmed,” said Frank Griffel, chair of the Yale Council for Middle East Studies. “It is like hitting the client when in reality the target is the master.”

While this explanation underscores the interwoven nature of religion and politics in Egypt, it brings no consolation to Coptic Christians. They are tired of persecution. They are tired of their position in between a government that will not protect them and Islamists who will not tolerate them. What’s more, they are tired of appeals to America falling on deaf ears.

***

As a Coptic Christian who moved to the U.S. a couple of years ago, I do not directly face the inequality or fear others in Egypt confront every day. My parents, older brother, and I immigrated to Sugar Land, Texas when I was twelve years old. As the name might suggest, our struggle in Sugar Land was quite different. It was one of overcoming language and cultural barriers. It was one of learning about the “personal space,” the “you can’t ask that,” the “fake it till you make it,” and all of the tacit rules that come with being an American.

Every year since we left Egypt, family members came to visit us. I’ve been back for three summers and I foresee myself returning one day to stay. In the last several years, however, stories of horror and suffering have come back from Egypt. To know that Egyptian Christians are suffering and that tight-knit families are separating in hopes of a safer, better future abroad would be disquieting to anyone, let alone a Copt like myself.

Just last summer, the brother of a member of my Houston church was kidnapped in Egypt. After hopeless attempts to coordinate search efforts with the police, his body was found weeks later, mutilated. A relative of my cousin’s wife was also kidnapped last summer. After receiving a ransom, the kidnappers spared his life. Such attacks on Copts are not at all uncommon.

***

It was not always this way. Copts once fared well, both socially and politically. In 1908, Boutros Ghali was appointed Egypt’s first Coptic Prime Minister — 84 years later, his grandson preceded Kofi Annan as Secretary-General of the United Nations. Likewise, it was not uncommon to find Copts in top courts or Parliament. There were times when most Muslims attended Coptic feasts and weddings and vice versa. But in the last fifty years, Christians have been marginalized and forced out of politics. Whether deliberately or intuitively, Copts began to insulate themselves in churches and communities as a natural means for protection. Of course, Christians and Muslims continued to cross religious boundaries during day-to-day encounters, but a noticeable divide remained.

Cherif Albert, a journalist for Egypt’s renowned Al-Ahram, suggested a variety of reasons for this evolution. He pointed to the rise of Islamism in the late 1970s and imported versions of Islam from the Gulf countries. “For the first time,” he said, “Christians and Muslims began viewing each other not as fellow Egyptians but as ‘the other,’ Muslim or Christian.”

In 2011, however, this animosity was put on hold. The promise of democracy — later dubbed the “Arab Spring” — gripped Egypt and the entire Middle East. Nations spontaneously rose up in unprecedented numbers against their authoritarian governments. And it was contagious; within months, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen had ousted their autocrats, and major protests were underway in Jordan, Algeria, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman — as well as Syria.

In Egypt’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, an extraordinary sense of unity prevailed. Verina Maher, a student at the American University in Cairo, recalled one chant that reverberated throughout Tahrir Square: “Eed Wahda! Eed Wahda!” “One hand! One Hand!” Christians and Muslims, indeed, stood as one in their will to oust longtime President Hosni Mubarak. Dotting Cairo were posters of a cross inside the Islamic emblem, a crescent. Men and women, students and pensioners, and Christians and Muslims all protested side by side in a way that captivated the world’s attention. “There was no one looking at you and wondering whether you were a Christian or a Muslim,” Maher said.

Following Mubarak’s ouster, the Muslim Brotherhood — an Islamist organization — dominated the political arena. The Brotherhood won an overwhelming majority of seats in Parliament, and the first president elected, Mohammad Morsi, hailed from their political party.

Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was formally banned under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s due to political motives and in response to Brotherhood-led assassinations and terrorist attacks. This interdiction continued into Mubarak’s presidency. Eventually, in a tacit pact, Mubarak allowed them to enter the public space and Islamize the society through private media, mosques, and limited legislation on the condition that they stay largely out of the political arena. “In the meantime, Copts were used as a scapegoat to please them,” added Albert, the Al-Ahram journalist.

Mubarak’s ouster, however, was just the opportunity the Muslim Brotherhood had long waited for. They formed the “Freedom and Justice Party” to qualify for the upcoming elections. They promised to continue the country’s peace treaty with Israel. They pledged to keep airspace open for the American military and the Suez Canal open for trade. Their anti-American, anti-Israeli speech was hastily done away with.

According to Albert, this transformation led the Obama administration to tacitly support the Freedom and Justice Party following the 2011 parliamentary elections. The U.S. government, regarding the Brotherhood as a “moderate” Islamist government, envisioned using them as an interlocutor through which it could accomplish its agenda in the Middle East.

And in many ways, it did, but at a high cost. “Morsi did a lot of mistakes… his record of governance was so bad,” said Mohamed Elfayoumy, an Egyptian consul to the Syrian Opposition and a current Yale World Fellow. It was so bad, in fact, that within a year of Morsi’s election, Egypt was in a worse state of turmoil than ever before. By appointing loyal Brotherhood members to every position of power, Morsi effectively alienated all of Egypt’s political parties — even the hardline Salafis, a fundamentalist Islamist group and a former Brotherhood ally.

What’s more, the economy was collapsing. According to The Economist, unemployment had reached a peak of 13 percent, GDP growth had decreased by 3 percent, the country’s foreign reserve currency had plummeted from $36 billion to $13 billion, and the value of the Egyptian pound had dropped significantly. There were daily power outages and fuel shortages. Revenue from tourism was almost nonexistent. Food prices soared.

“The presidential election of 2012 produced a largely inexperienced leader who himself covered his incompetence with authoritarianism,” said Griffel, the Yale scholar.

It was no shock, then, that when Egyptians began planning the “Tamarod” or “Rebel” campaign against Morsi, it spread like wildfire, garnering twenty million petition signatures — the same number of votes Morsi had received a year earlier — within weeks. Egyptians, including many previous Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers, were ready to end the Brotherhood’s short-lived reign. On June 30, 2013, in what was described by the BBC as “the largest political event in history,” millions of Egyptians flooded the streets and demanded Morsi’s ouster. While no one was able to accurately pinpoint the number of protesters, all agreed on one fact: far more people showed up to oust Morsi than had shown up to overthrow Mubarak two years earlier.

coptic churchThe Church in Egypt, however, carefully refrained from asking Copts to take to the streets. Had Coptic officials supported the “Rebel” movement, and it had ended in failure, all Christians would have been rendered as enemies of the state. Nonetheless, many Copts were still active in the peaceful protests. For them, it was an opportunity to end the political and economic disasters — as well as to revive sentiments of equality and social justice from the 2011 revolution.

After giving Morsi an ultimatum — which he promptly declined — the army decided to oust him. Pope Tawadros accepted an invitation to appear with General Fattah el-Sisi, the Morsi-appointed army chief, and Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Sunni Grand Imam and a former Grand Mufti of Egypt, to announce to the world the end of Morsi’s one-year rule.

The repercussions of his ousting, however, soon proved horrid for Christians. Angry mobs of extremist Brotherhood supporters stormed churches, Christian schools, businesses, and orphanages, rightly accusing Copts of supporting the military. Although the vast majority of Muslims did not engage in violence against Copts, many Islamic preachers and public figures alleged that Copts had initiated the “Rebel” campaign against Morsi. It was a canny way to discredit the popular movement and portray it as a Christian conspiracy — not only against the Islamist government but against Islam itself.

Human rights groups around the world quickly began investigations into the attacks on Egypt’s Christians. Amnesty International, for instance, called on the Egyptian military to “take immediate steps to ensure the safety of Egypt’s Coptic Christians” after what they described as “an unprecedented rise in sectarian violence across the country.” The European Union, Canadian and Australian governments, and even Republican leaders in the United States also condemned the violence against Copts in Egypt. Yet the White House remained silent.

***

At a place like Yale, I am conflicted. I see the unabashed allegiance most students have for President Obama and his administration. I feel the scorn they have for hard-right politicians and their media backers like Fox News. But for me — the only Coptic Yalie — these conservative talking heads were the ones that formed an envoy of eight Representatives and traveled to Egypt to visit the Pope and condemn the attacks. These right-wing media outlets, such as Fox and the Wall Street Journal, were the ones that aired and discussed our burning churches. They were the ones that brought to light the horrendous crimes endured by my people, and pushed for action.

My background as a Copt informs and shapes my attitude on America’s foreign policy in Egypt. And for many Copts, like myself, the President, Secretary of State John Kerry, and large media outlets like CNN were too busy condemning Egypt’s military, too busy wondering if a “coup” had indeed occurred.

While the United States continues to provide some assistance for health, education, and border management initiatives to Egypt, the 2013 fiscal year is the first since Egypt recognized the state of Israel that the U.S. will withhold military aid. This comes at a time when the situation in Egypt is so precarious and its citizens so desperate for support and stability.

***

“Why are you ignoring us?” asked Father Abraham, sitting in his Hamden church, surrounded by books and beautiful icons. “We could’ve been another Syria,” he said, referring to the atrocities committed against Syria’s Christian minority by rebel forces.

I had asked him what he would tell Americans, if he had one chance to speak with the country at large. Perhaps surprisingly, given the situation Copts face in Egypt, he was calm, even hopeful. “I think it’s getting much better. The Muslim Brotherhood and all Islamists were exposed — many Muslims are now sympathizing with the Copts.”

When asked what his wish would be for Egypt, Father Abraham replied, “I just want Copts to be equal to Muslims in everything.” I asked him if he thought that was ever possible. “I know it’s not possible, but that is my wish,” he said.

Nevertheless, there are stirrings of tolerance — even fraternity — amid the terrors of the last few years. After the church of the Two Saints was bombed, hundreds of Muslims surrounded Egyptian churches as a human shield. The same act occurred after the Sohag Church sacking last August.

Although Mohamed Elfayoumy, the Egyptian consul, agrees that full equality is unlikely, he does not believe it is impossible. “It’s a dream, and it’s a hard one to achieve,” he said. “It will take a lot of time.”

 

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