A disturbing feature of the crisis in Egypt has been the paucity of any discussion of the implications of the possible rise of fanatical Islamists for Christians, particularly the sizeable Coptic Christian population, estimated at between 10-15 percent of the Egyptian population. The few vague references to their fate were generally voiced as an afterthought to reflections on the repression of women.
This puzzling gap is characteristic of Western analysts who respond only to political and economic explanations. But these have little to do with the deeper social historical complexities of the Middle East and everything to do with religion and the culture. Western analysts seldom understand the importance of religion. Unless conflict has an overt political face it is usually a mystery to them. Yet Christians were out on the street with their fellow Egyptians when Mubarak was ousted, desperate to ward off an Islamic take-over.
In fact the persecution of Copts has intensified over the past 20 years even though few in the West have paid attention to it.
The Copts are the descendants of the original Pharonaic Egyptians and their liturgical language is the closest thing we have to demotic Egyptian spoken in Roman times. Christianity was introduced by the Evangelist Mark as early as 42 AD and flourished for hundreds of years. The Christian monastic tradition began in Egypt. In fact Islam did not dominate Egypt until the end of the 12th century.
The Copts are integrated into virtually every strata of life in Egypt from the lowest, like the famous rag pickers of Cairo, to the highest, including the multi-billionaire Telco giant Naguib Sawiris and Boutros Boutros Ghali, former United Nations Secretary-General.
But all this is lost on your average Westerner who equates the rise of Islam with women having to get out of their mini-skirts and into the veil.
If only that were the worst of the problems Copts will face in the event of an Islamic revolution in Egypt!
The lack of interest in the fate of the Copts is doubly curious because a terrible massacre on New Year’s day (the Coptic Christmas) was widely reported. The Coptic bishop of Melbourne, Suriel, told me that the revolution began with the massacre. It is easier to attack a church than a police station.
The Copts are used to these atrocities, although this was the bloodiest of a series of attacks against Christians by fanatical Muslims. The number of massacres has been shocking — there have been at least 40 incidents in the last 10 years. There is also daily discrimination in jobs and education, property ownership and most particularly in freedom of belief and worship. New churches are routinely destroyed or desecrated. It is very difficult for an Egyptian Muslim to convert to Christianity. The government will not recognise the change of religion on ID cards and makes it difficult for such people to leave the country. There are numerous stories of converted spouses being persecuted and even kidnapped.
The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed a secular Muslim who expressed his own fears about the rising menace of Islamists: “The issue is not that they have gotten stronger since the revolution. It is that they are getting bolder. There is no counterbalance to their street dominance in certain poor neighborhoods. They’re not scared of the government. They’re not scared of being prosecuted.”
Australian journalist Peter Day has travelled extensively in Egypt and is very familiar with the Coptic culture and situation. He says that the tactics of the regime in relation to the fundamentalists are merely to “outflank the Muslim Brotherhood by indulging the anti-Christian bigotry of the Muslim masses” — in short, complying with Muslim demands to stifle Christianity in Egypt. Yet so feared is the prospect of an Islamic regime that the Copts supported the Mubarak regime.
According to Day, Australian diplomats have overlooked the discrimination, persecution and violence because of Australia’s own large and possibly strategically significant Muslim population. The growth of the Muslim population in Sydney worries many Australians. Lebanese Muslims, in particular, have a fertility rate four times the national average. Yet Copts and other Middle Eastern Christians with well-founded fears of discrimination and persecution find it difficult to claim refugee status in Australia. (Ironically probably the only country, since the demise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which assures the safety and rights of its Christians is Syria, another dictatorship.) Shouldn’t Australia give priority to Copts and other Christians of Middle Eastern origin who are far closer to traditional Australian values and culture?
We Westerners have to take our blinkers off. Hani Shukrallah, the Coptic editor of the Cairo daily Al Ahram, alerted his countrymen to the danger in a recent English-language editorial titled “J’Accuse!”. He has a message for us in the West as well:
“I am no Zola, but I too can accuse. And it’s not the blood thirsty criminals of al-Qaeda or whatever other gang of hoodlums involved in the horror of Alexandria that I am concerned with…
“I accuse you all, because in your bigoted blindness you cannot even see the violence to logic and sheer common sense that you commit; that you dare accuse the whole world of using a double standard against us, and are, at the same time, wholly incapable of showing a minimum awareness of your own blatant double standard.
“And finally, I accuse the liberal intellectuals, both Muslim and Christian who, whether complicit, afraid, or simply unwilling to do or say anything that may displease “the masses”, have stood aside, finding it sufficient to join in one futile chorus of denunciation following another, even as the massacres spread wider, and grow more horrifying.”
As the Coptic Pope Shenouda remarked of the Islamic fundamentalists to the secular Egyptian press: “Be careful. They will have us for lunch and you for dinner.”
Angela Shanahan is an Australian newspaper columnist.