Written by YOUSSEF IBRAHIM
The New York Sun
On January 6, the Orthodox Christmas for millions of Egyptian Christians, gunshots rang from a drive-by car, killing 7 parishioners exiting evening mass. The Nagaa Hamadi Church Massacre, as it became known, left 26 seriously injured in the small southern town.
During the funerals, greater mayhem erupted. In surrounding towns and villages some 3,000 Muslims broke into Coptic properties, agricultural plots, and businesses, looting and setting fires to shops. Across the country churches were burned. It took Egypt’s police three days to show up and six weeks to arrest a single culprit.
As it has become customary, the government described the attack as ‘’an individual incident’’, another dispute among villagers. The phrase has become so habitual in describing attacks on Christians over the past 40 years, it is used as a practical joke.
In reality The Nagaa Hamadi Church Massacre was the latest spike in a 40-year-long campaign of killing and violence against of Egypt’s estimated 12 million Christians, known as Copts It’s a campaign that is all the more ghastly for the fact that it has been largely ignored by the world of elite opinion. Yet in the past 40 years, the numbers of victims has soared to well more than 20,000, if the count includes those killed, wounded, dispossessed, or otherwise harmed, according to human rights groups.
In that period, Copts started to flee Egypt, and at least 2 million, mostly members of the upper and middle classes, now reside abroad. Within Egypt, the Coptic community has continued to grow, but nowhere as rapidly as the Muslim communities, whose numbers have soared, in line with a birth rate that is far above that of the Copts.
The word Copt refers to Egyptians whose ancestors embraced Christianity in the first century after Christ. It has its origins in ancient languages of Pharos to denote ‘’original Inhabitant’’ or simply ‘’Egyptian’’. Copts are part of the Eastern Orthodox Church that ranges widely from Ethiopia to Russia. In the Arab world however, they constitute the largest Christian minority.
In the 14 centuries since Muslim Arabs invaded Egypt, those who remained Copts were descendents of Egyptians who resisted conversion to Islam. Indeed they refer to themselves as the country’s founders and Egypt was a Coptic nation in the first seven centuries of Christianity.
Since, they have suffered cycles of persecutions that ebb and flow as Muslim rulers succeed one another.
By and large the Copts enjoyed a golden period of tolerance starting the1860s. It came to an abrupt end when a group of army officers, led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy and took power in 1952. Under the officers’ rule, but especially starting in the early 1970s, a systematic campaign, with evident government acquiescence, was set in motion to reduce Christians to second class citizens.
“Egypt has witnessed confessional tensions over the centuries involving attacks on Copts, but they were never as intense and widespread as they have been since the 1970s,” Moheb Zaki, a former managing director of the Ibn Khaldun Center, a nonprofit organization that supports democracy and civil rights in Egypt and the Middle East, told this reporter.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Mr. Zaki asserted that “the violence of the last few years is more like a purge, as waves of mob assaults have forced hundreds, sometimes thousands of Christian citizens to flee their homes. In each incident the police, despite frantic appeals, invariably arrive after the violence is over.” The Ibn Khaldun Center was founded by the Egyptian Human Rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was jailed by the Mubarak regime and now is living in exile in America.
Copts have been eliminated from all senior positions in government administrations, the army, the police, the security services, and top echelons of the vast public sector. In the educational sector once largely endowed with Christian leadership, there are virtually no Christians left. Out of Egypt’s 17 government-owned and administered universities which have a total of 71 presidents and 274 vice presidential jobs, there is one Coptic Christian dean and one Christian Vice President.
Egypt stands out for a number of reasons. It is, with 81 million citizens, the most populous Arab nation, the second largest recipient, after Israel, of American financial and military aid, and the intellectual leader of the Arabs. Since 1979 America has given Egypt well more than $ 60 billion and totally re-equipped its entire army with advanced weapons.
In that same period, successive governments especially those of Anwar Sadat, who took power in 1970, and Hosni Mubarak, who acceded in 1981, refined a system of “Islamization” across the whole society that includes a calculated marginalization of Christians.
Sadat referred to himself as “The Believer President,” coming to power with an extensive Islamist agenda. He welcomed the return from exile in Saudi Arabia of hundreds the banished Muslim Brotherhood leadership and released thousands of them from Egyptian jails. In those jails they fundamentalists were replaced with secularists, socialists and many Christian activists.
Sadat cancelled Egypt’s secular constitution designating Sharia Islamic Law instead as the source of all legislation. By September 1981, after ten years of power, he had stripped the Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, leader of the Christian community, of all authority, banishing him to a desert monastery and ordered the arrest of some 125 Coptic clergy and lay activists along with hundreds of secular Muslims.
Ironically, a month later, in October of 1981, militant Islamist army officers assassinated Sadat, as he reviewed a military parade. Hosni Mubarak, a former air force commander and Sadat’s vice president, stood next to him when he died along with 25 others on the reviewing stand.
Mr. Mubarak moved immediately to strike a deal with the Islamists in return for their subtle agreement to retain a dynastic rule for his family. The covenant turned over to Islamists control in media, education, and government administrations in return for allowing Mr. Mubarak’s rule to go on unchallenged, setting the stage for the Rais, as Egyptians call their leaders, to prepare for his son, Gamal, to succeed him. As part of the deal, this Rais agreed to feed Egypt’s Christians to the growing Islamic beast.
In the Wall Street Journal article of Tuesday, Mr. Zaki related, among other things, that this year alone witnessed several attacks by roving bands of Muslims. In the run-up to Nagaa Hamadi, a mob of several tens of thousand Muslims gathered in the Mediterranean city of Marsa Matrough, after an imam exhorted them to cleanse it of “infidel Christians.” They went onto ten hours of rampage that burned or destroyed 18 Christian homes and 23 shops, as well as 16 cars, as 400 Copts barricaded themselves in their church, where they stayed for those hours, until the frenzy died out.
Last year saw a dozen such attacks. Typically the police show up after the damage is done. The government-controlled press describes consistently individual incidents. Equally typically, the Egyptian government, bans publication of the full scale of assaults on Christians, even in the single Coptic weekly that is allowed to publish.
As a result accurate statistics are slow to surface. But NGOs and Human Rights groups record dramatic heap of ruined lives, expropriated lands, and injured, wounded, homeless and killed. Weekly reports surface of kidnapped Christian girls, who are raped and — to save their honor — forced of convert to Islam and marry their rapists. The government only intervenes to prevent the girls from leaving their marriage or reverting back to Christianity. Altogether these attacks add up to around 10,000 since 1971.
It is a narrative of persecution that keeps piling on. Higher and upper middle class Coptic Christians responded by immigrating in huge numbers. Today these immigrant Copts form a nascent Diaspora that is moving to political activism. It is estimated to number between 2 million to 3 million spread over Canada, Australia and the USA. My extended family and I are among those who are in America.
But the bulk of ordinary Egyptian Christians, who number at least 12 million and possibly as many as 14 million, remain trapped in Egypt. The government does not permit census numbers to be released insisting in unofficial statements for well over two decades now, that Copts do not number more than 8 to 9 millions.