By Nina Shea
The Arab Spring has not been kind to Egypt’s Christian minority. Over the weekend, Muslims apparently incited by Islamist hardliners again terrorized Coptic Christians, in what is now a pattern of attacks against them and their churches. Possibly the Islamists are jockeying for political power in this transitional period, or even trying to immediately effect a religious cleansing similar to the one that has happened in Iraq.
Copts, numbering about 10 million, constitute the largest Christian group and the largest religious minority in the Middle East. Their size will likely prevent an escalating persecution of them from going unnoticed for long in the West.
Coptic Christians in the Imbaba district of Cairo report that on Saturday night they were assaulted by Muslims who looted and burned St. Mina’s Church and the Church of the Virgin Mary and attempted to burn St. Mary and St. Abanob Church. The press has reported that, according to the Copts, twelve people were killed. According to the Egyptian interior ministry, which habitually downplays or ignores attacks against Christians, possibly six victims were Christian and six were Muslim. More than a hundred people were injured, as Copts fought back with sticks and stones.
The latest attacks follow others earlier this year. In March, a Coptic church was torched in Soul, and on New Year’s Day a church in Alexandria was targeted with explosives.
On Sunday and Monday, the Copts held large protests in Tahrir Square and outside the main Egyptian television station, demanding an investigation. Typically, these kinds of incidents result in a “reconciliation” session held by the state or its courts, in which the Christians are pressed to forgive their Muslim attackers, who then go free. The Assyrian International News Agency reported that “the Bishop of Giza, Anba Theodosius, said ‘These things are planned. We have no law or security, we are in a jungle. We are in a state of chaos. One rumor burns the whole area. Everyday we have a catastrophe.’ Addressing the Salafis he said ‘We will never leave our country.’”
The Copts believe that fundamentalist Salafi (also known as Wahhabi) Muslims were behind the attacks, which were apparently triggered by rumors that a Copt had abducted a woman who had allegedly converted to Islam. These rumors were in turn triggered by the airing of a broadcast from another woman, Camilia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest, who had also been rumored to have converted to Islam and then been abducted by Copts. In the broadcast, Shehata said that she remained a Christian and had never converted to Islam.
In this week’s issue of The Weekly Standard, my colleague Paul Marshall describes recent Salafi violence against Copts in Egypt, noting that the size, influence, goals, and activities of this extremist faction have drawn scant media attention. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis want to see Egypt ruled under Islamic law, and some are using violence to bring that about. According to the English-language Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, 50,000 Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood supporters held a joint rally in Giza over the weekend at which protesters chanted slogans of unity and support for Islamic law. At the rally, prominent Salafi preacher Safwat Hegazy proclaimed, “The United Arab States and the United Islamic States are inevitably coming. . . . And soon we will have one caliph to rule us all.” Violence against the Copts was denounced by some rally speakers. The recent attacks were also condemned by the Saudi monarchy, the sheikh of al-Azhar University, and the Muslim Brotherhood on its English-language site. Egypt’s government officials vowed quick justice for the perpetrators, though trials for massacres of Copts over the past ten years continue to languish or have ended inconclusively.
It has been observed that the American mainstream media does not get religion. Regarding the weekend atrocities in Egypt, the most egregious blindspot was probably displayed by the New York Times, which uncritically reported the Egyptian interior ministry’s press releases, appearing to blame equally the victimized Coptic minority and their attackers. Quoting unnamed people on the street, it advanced the economic-determinist theory that unemployment rather than ideology was the trigger: Times correspondent David D. Kirkpatrick wrote that “people on both sides said the fighting pitted one group of frustrated and underemployed young men from the neighborhood against another, along battle lines that had more to do with tribal allegiances than any religious or political ideas.”
Largely because of mounting violence against the Copts, and against other, smaller minorities, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended on April 28 that the State Department list Egypt as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act and adopt foreign policies to defend religious freedom there.
Nina Shea is a Senior Fellow and Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. This article appeared in NRO’s The Corner Blog and is reprinted with permission.