This is the third post in a four-post series called Egypt: The Brotherhood, the Christians and the Americans. The first post lays out the major groups in Egypt. The second post looks at what’s next for the Muslim Brotherhood. The third post is concerned with the fate of Christians in Egypt. The fourth post is about America’s role in the current Egypt.
There are about 2,000 churches in Egypt — compared to 93,000 mosques. Last week, nearly 50 of those churches and monasteries were burned. The homes, offices and businesses of many Christians were also set ablaze. Police and firemen could do little, even where they tried, as angry mobs and roadblocks held them back.
Some of the churches were historic monuments of Christianity in Egypt, a country where the original disciples first preached and where the Church began. Other churches were brand new. One in al Nazia was just completed in April following 13 years of construction (permits are scarce and it takes a long time to build in Egypt), before being looted and burned during countrywide violence between pro-Morsi demonstrators and the military and police.
For centuries, Egypt’s Christians have been the religious and social minority. Many believe they are treated like second class citizens, if not outright persecuted. As in several other countries in the Middle East — Lebanon, Syria, Palestine — Christians and Muslims in Egypt have lived side by side for more than a millennium, but now tensions are high.
The situation for Egypt’s Christians
Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy reported in April that over 100,000 Egyptian Christians had emigrated from the country since June, 2012, when Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. Even in the year leading up to Morsi’s presidency, the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak seems to have emboldened extremists, prompting an increase in discrimination and violence against Christians.
Egypt’s Christian population almost unanimously supports the military’s opposition to the MB. Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Church, publicly backed Morsi’s ouster, which has granted Christians an alliance with the pro-military majority, but made them more of a target for pro-Morsi radicals.
Christians are an easy target in Egypt. For one thing, they are vastly outnumbered. Especially outside of Cairo and Alexandria, there is little protection available because the military is tied up in population centers and the Sinai. For another thing, Christians are already objects of suspicion and, sometimes, resentment, thrown into categories with Jews and Westerners. If ever a scapegoat is needed in Egypt, Christians are the logical choice.
Egypt’s Christians will not go the way of Egypt’s Jews, who are now almost nonexistent. There are still millions of Christians who will not leave the country, and there are even more Muslims who are friendly to the Christian population. Most Egyptians are perfectly happy to coexist in peace. Additionally, the military — the most powerful and popular organization in Egypt — is tolerant of religious diversity, which bodes well for Christians remaining in Egypt.
Many will have seen the viral photo that shows Muslims protecting a church under threat of attack. It’s reminiscent of Muslims protecting Christian masses during the 2011 revolution, and Christians protecting Muslims at prayer. These sorts of stories should give us hope.
It’s true that Christians have been persecuted in Egypt, and that the last two years have seen flareups in such persecution, but it’s also true that anti-Christian violence has brought out support for Egyptian Christians from within the country and abroad.
When I read facebook posts and tweets from Egyptian Christians, many are sad and many more are angry, but they are not hopeless. They are not in a mood of surrender, of giving up. They are in the same struggle as the rest of the country, and they are going to forge ahead.
What can other Christians do?
1. One of the first thing we must do is acknowledge our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt. They may be a minority, but there are more of them than most Westerners think. Egyptians Christians make up 10 to 15 percent of the population of 85 million. Most are Copts, the Egyptian brand of Orthodox Christianity, but there are also a considerable number of Catholic and Protestant believers. We have a tendency to forget about them because they seem far away and mostly of a different brand of Christianity, but really, they are our parents. They’ve been doing Christianity much longer than we have in the West, and it’s from them that much of our theology and orthopraxy has come.
2. We should also recognize how important the Arab Christian community is to us. Not only is it from them that all strands of modern Christianity arose — as though they are merely history — but they’re also in our current family. They are equally the Church. They are living out the persecution that Jesus promised would come. They are committed to the faith in a land that is hostile to it. We need to “see [our] Father in [our] brother.”
3. And then we should give of ourselves. If we cannot give resources, we must at least give friendship and solidarity. And, above all, we must give prayers.