Coptic calamity

To hear Copts denigrated as Crusaders should ring alarm bells, since they are among Christianity’s oldest sects and their members largely comprise vestiges of ancient indigenous populations.

February 18, 2015 21:56
3 minute read.
Egyptian Coptic Christians

A Coptic Christian attends the Coptic mass prayers for the Egyptians beheaded in Libya, at Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Islamic State beheadings are no longer exclusive to Iraq and Syria. The terrorist group’s Libyan subsidiary has horrified the world with a grisly video showing the mass-decapitation of 21 Egyptian Copts on a beach near Sirte. The sea water turned red from blood.

The hapless victims were all migrant workers from the impoverished villages of Upper Egypt who crossed into Libya in search of employment. They were kidnapped sometimes in December or January.

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Besides the geographical variation, there is another striking departure from the hitherto customary Islamic State execution rituals. Although these victims were not Westerners, the beheaders depicted them as such in their lengthy accompanying diatribe. Westerners, who belittle the threat of a religious war, ought to pay heed.

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The masked announcer, in military camouflage uniform, elucidated in flawed English that shown to us is the “chopping off the heads that had been carrying the Cross delusion for a long time, filled with spite against Islam and Muslims, and today we... are sending another message: O Crusaders, safety for you will be only wishes.”

The term Crusader packs loaded connotations in Muslim parlance. It refers to Western invaders. The inclusion of the Copts in this category is especially cynical since the Copts – whose Church traces its origins to 50 CE Alexandria – are anything but foreign interlopers. In fact, their history most parallels that of Syria’s Assyrians – another group that had suffered atrociously at Muslim hands.

The Coptic and Assyrian churches are among Christianity’s oldest sects and their members largely comprise vestiges of ancient indigenous populations. To hear Copts denigrated as Crusaders should ring the loudest alarm bells.

They face xenophobic fanaticism reminiscent of that brazenly practiced by Afghanistan’s Taliban honchos. In 2001, the latter dynamited the sixth-century monumental Buddha statues of Bamiyan – an iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site that offended Muslim fundamentalists for supposedly embodying idol worship. During the recent Muslim Brotherhood hegemony in Cairo, some of Egypt’s Taliban counterparts served warning that they would target the Pyramids. But meanwhile, before the Islamic State horrors, the ultra-vulnerable and reviled Copts constituted much easier and softer targets.

Dozens of churches, monasteries and schools were ransacked during the brief period that Mohamed Morsi held power in Egypt. His supporters whipped up passions by accusing the Copts of having orchestrated the killing of pro-Brotherhood demonstrators. The Copts were popularly portrayed as European conquerors who scheme to undermine Islam in the Land of the Nile. There was no official intervention on their behalf.

Although the Copts were never remotely a friendly force so far as Israel is concerned – to no small degree because they feel obliged to curry favor with the Muslim and nationalist Arab majority – their travails under Morsi were evocative of Egypt’s ethnic cleansing of its ancient Jewish community between 1948 and 1956. Effectively, Egypt had been rendered Judenrein. Nowadays many Copts are packing up and emigrating.

This is not just a Coptic calamity. Egypt’s Christians, who comprise 10 percent of the 80-million population, have long been hounded and persecuted. Their lot grew dire during the Muslim Brotherhood tenure, although Brotherhood predecessors hardly went out of their way to safeguard beleaguered religious minorities from plunder, murder, and abductions of women and their involuntary conversion and forced marriage to Muslims. Despite occasional lip service, no succor was offered in practical terms.

In the region as a whole, Christians today account for between 1.5% and 4% of the population versus 20% 100 years ago. Lebanon’s Christians are at the mercy of the Shi’ite Hezbollah, whereas in Syria and Iraq Christians are endangered by Islamic State. In the Palestinian Authority Christian numbers keep falling sharply, as evidenced by the Muslim majority of once-Christian Bethlehem. Most of the Gaza Strip’s Christians ran for their lives.

The one steadily growing Christian community in the Middle East is to be found in much-maligned little Israel. Only under Jewish sovereignty are Christians safe and free from serial terrorism. But the one beacon of genuine liberality in an unkind and callously intolerant region is hardly likely to win accolades from the self-styled enlightened world.

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