Living on a prayer

After Mubarak’s resignation and the increase of violent religious persecution, Copts fear the repercussions of an Islamic state.

Coptic monks 521 (photo credit: Victoria Hazou/ Bloomberg News)
Coptic monks 521
(photo credit: Victoria Hazou/ Bloomberg News)
Those who venture into Jerusalem’s Old City often encounter Christian clergy in various robes and head coverings. Coptic monks, who serve at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, are particularly recognizable because of their distinctive black hoods.
These koulla (Coptic), or kalansuwa (Arabic) hoods are decorated with 12 small crosses and one large one, meant to remind the monks that they must leave everything earthly behind and look only to God. In today’s troubled times, more and more members of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt are facing that very choice.
Thus far, 2011 has not been kind to the Copts, who face everincreasing threats, persecution and violence. Their ancient community, which according to tradition was founded in Alexandria during the first century CE by the Apostle Mark, comprises between 8 percent and 10% of Egypt’s 83 million population. There are small communities of other Christians in Egypt as well, including Greek and Syrian Orthodox, Armenian, Chaldean, Greek, Melkite, Roman and Syrian Catholics, Maronites and 16 small Protestant denominations.
The Copts’ bloodlines are even more ancient than their Christian faith, dating back to the pharaohs, centuries before the Arab invasions in the seventh century. Their liturgical language, Coptic, is the closest existing language to that of ancient Egypt. As a religious minority in a Muslim majority state, the Copts have long faced discrimination under the dhimmi status spelled out in Islamic law. In recent years, they have suffered escalating attacks, as Islamist extremists have specifically targeted them.
The abuses Copts endure – incidents of forced marriage, rape, honor killing, extortion and murder – are rarely reported by Western media. Such dangers have now multiplied, beginning late last year. During a terrorist attack on worshipers in Iraq, at Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation on November 1, masked assailants demanded the release of two Muslim women, allegedly held by Egyptian Coptic Christians (a charge that had begun to circulate in September).
Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia was quick to take credit for the 57 dead in the Baghdad massacre, while in the days that followed, it made continuing threats against the Copts. On satellite TV and on the Web, there were ongoing accusations against Coptic churches, but also the targeting of specific Coptic leaders even in the West, whose names and addresses were published online. In a fatwa emanating from Shumukh al-Islam, a radical Islamist website with links to al-Qaida, more than 200 specific Copts were targeted for death.
These were not idle threats. Two months later, on New Year’s Day, 23 were killed and 100 wounded in a bombing at All Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt.
The New York Times reported, “Analysts said the weekend bombing was in a sense the culmination of a long escalation of violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christians...
But at the same time the blast’s planning and scale – a suicide bomber evidently detonated a locally made explosive device packed with nails and other shrapnel, the authorities said Sunday – were a break with the smaller episodes of intra-communal violence that have marked Muslim-Christian relations for the past decade.”
Then came something unexpected and startling – the upheaval in the “Arab street” that seized the world’s attention, first in Tunisia, but far more dramatically in Egypt. A global audience was transfixed as hundreds of thousands of protesters – seemingly representing all sectors of the community, including some Copts – demanded that Hosni Mubarak step down after three decades as president.
The demonstrations against Mubarak – infamous as a fierce ruler with an iron fist – were applauded around the world. Only a few cautious observers voiced concern, and among them were members of the Coptic community. Their sensible question, “What kind of regime will come next?” was drowned out
by enthusiastic applause for “freedom and democracy.”
IN THE midst the euphoric international outpouring, the Copts were attacked again. According to the Assyrian International News Service, following allegations of an affair between a Copt and a Muslim, “a massacre took place on Sunday, January 30 at 3 p.m. in the village of Sharona near Maghagha, Minya province. Two Islamist groups, aided by the Muslim neighbors, descended on the roofs of houses owned by Copts. The two families were staying in their homes with their doors locked when suddenly the Islamists descended on them, killing 11, including children, and leaving for dead four other family members. In addition, they looted everything that was in the two Coptic houses, including money, furniture and electrical equipment. They also looted livestock and grain.”
For obvious reasons, this new violence magnified Coptic caution about the ongoing political revolution.
Veteran reporter Arne Fjeldstad, in daily contact with Egypt’s Christians, noted, “They are very uncertain about the future. As the crisis develops, their uncertainty is predominantly related to the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and other even more radical Islamic groups. Of course there were Coptic Christian youth among the masses demonstrating both in Alexandria and Cairo as well as other cities. But so far this popular uprising has been dominated by the Muslim majority.”
On February 23, Compass Direct, a Christian news agency, reported that one monk and six church workers had been shot when the Egyptian army attacked the Coptic Orthodox Anba Bishoy Monastery in Wadi al-Natroun, 110 kilometers northwest of Cairo. The attack was meant to destroy an “illegal” wall that the monks had built to protect the monastery from mobs during the weeks of protests against the government; they had built it hurriedly, and without a permit. In a similar incident, the army also attacked the Anba Makarious Al Sakandarie Monastery in Al-Fayoum, 130 km. south of Cairo.
Under an Egyptian law carried over from Ottoman times, state permission is required to build or repair church property and such permits are rarely issued.
Why the enforcement of this edict required live ammunition to be used on monks remains unclear, but alarming YouTube videos bear witness to the incidents.
On March 4, Copts in Egypt appealed for armed forces protection when a mob of several thousand Muslims attacked their church in the village of Soul, about 30 km. from Cairo. The Church of St. Mina and St.
George was set alight; the local fire department and security forces failed to respond to Coptic calls for help during the arson attack. According to a report from the Washington-based Coptic American Friendship Association, the mob, chanting “Allahu akbar,” pulled down the church’s cross and blew up gas cylinders inside the building. The fire destroyed the church and everything inside, including ancient sacred relics. The motivation was said to be a forbidden romantic relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. This was aggravated, in the eyes of Islamist radicals, by the failure of the woman’s father to restore the community’s “honor” by killing his daughter.
On March 9, Muslim rioters attacked Coptic Christians in Moqatta, one of Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods, where the primary industry is garbage collection and recycling. There were 13 deaths and 140 injuries. The Financial Times quoted a Christian protester named Samia: “‘We were staging a peaceful demonstration for the church, but they attacked us with firearms, stones and Molotov cocktails... The tanks made way for the thugs to come in... there was shooting until two o’clock in the morning.
After that they burned the houses and stole from them. They broke whatever they could not carry away. No fire engines or ambulances came. We had to take the injured to hospital in garbage trucks.’” Many of the bullets extracted from the victims of this incident were Army issued, and are being kept as evidence.
NINA SHEA, who directs Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and serves on the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, writes, “There are growing concerns that Egypt’s 10 million or so Coptic Christians are being targeted under the cloak of political chaos during these uncertain times... local Egyptian police have abandoned their posts in the provinces and thus many churches no longer have armed guards protecting them as they did following the al-Qaida-inspired church bombing of New Year’s Day in Alexandria.”
Paul Marshall, Shea’s Hudson colleague, has kept a summary of Copt incidents since 2003. “It is too soon yet to speak of a trend, but in the four weeks since Mubarak resigned, the rate of attacks on Copts has increased. Some of this is due to security breakdowns, but it also includes attacks by the armed forces, on some occasions using live ammunition.”
Regarding media coverage of the anti- Copt attacks Marshall added, “The term ‘sectarian clashes’ should be banned.
These are pogroms.”
Israel is paying close attention to the ongoing strife in Egypt. For one thing, most observers believe that if a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party takes power, the peace treaty negotiated at Camp David in 1979 could be rendered null and void. The security status of its southern border is already threatened by the new instability, as is the likelihood of increased arms smuggling into Gaza.
But there are also more personal reactions.
For some Israelis, watching the abuses suffered by Coptic Christians stirs a feeling of déjà vu. According to historian Martin Gilbert, following the 1948 War of Independence, hundreds of Egyptian Jews were jailed; riots in Jewish quarters led to beatings and looting. Police broke into homes on unexplained “searches” and authorities confiscated vast amounts of wealth. Family members and friends disappeared, never to be seen again. Between 1948 and 1968, nearly 30,000 Jews fled of Egypt in fear of their lives.
Rachel Lipkin and her family escaped Egypt in 1969, when her father was released from prison, after being forced to sign away all the family assets to the government.
During her father’s three-year imprisonment (thousands of Jews were locked up after the 1967 Six Day War), Lipkin still remembers the kindness of Coptic neighbors who regularly brought eggs, milk and bread to her mother. “I was just 11 years old at the time, but I clearly remember what they said. ‘They are coming after you Jews,’ they told my mother, ‘and once they have driven you out of the country, then they will come after us Christians. We know this.’” Lipkin, whose work involves monitoring Arabic-language radio and television broadcasts, has followed this story closely and does not anticipate a good outcome for Egypt’s beleaguered Christians. Others share her view, “I haven’t seen the Copts as afraid as they are these days. They think that the military itself is penetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Marianne Samuel, 33, a teacher who works in Bahrain and who returned to Egypt to take part in the revolution, speaking to Al Masry Al Yom. After Mubarak’s resignation and the release of countless Islamist prisoners, Copts fear becoming second-class citizens – or worse – under an Islamic state.
Like the Jews before them, the pressure against the Copts is steadily increasing.
Following the example of their monks, who have taken a vow of poverty, this ancient Christian community may be forced to leave everything earthly behind, and to look only to God.

The writer has authored or coauthored many books. She writes primarily in the field of ecumenical nonfiction, and her work includes the award-winning Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion (Oxford University Press, 2008). She also serves as an editorial consultant and an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute.