Human Rights, recent, Religion, World Affairs

The New York Post Whitewashes the Plight of Egypt’s Copts

With Holy Week starting in nine days, Copts across Egypt were preparing for the most important week in their faith. Unlike in the West, Easter—and, more precisely, the week that precedes it—and not Christmas is the center of the Coptic calendar. Church interiors are covered in black cloth, hymns are sung in a funereal tone, and services are conducted day and night. No other event takes place, not even funerals for those unlucky enough to die during that week.

But in the village of Nag Khalaf Allah, in Egypt’s south, Copts’ preparations for Holy week were interrupted by a mob. At 4 pm on April 12, 2019, as children were in their Sunday school classes, the attack began on the Saint Karas church. The church, like thousands across the country, did not have official registration papers since obtaining them from the regime is a nearly impossible task. But Copts had been praying in it for years, and Saint Karas church had submitted its request for registration in 2017, as required by a 2016 law. The mob was driven into a frenzy by rumors that Copts were planning to expand church building. The attack was thankfully not deadly: two Copts were injured, one of whom is the village priest, and damage was limited. The incident, however, was hardly unique. Hundreds of similar attacks had already taken place, and usually for the same reason—rumors of church construction. Like all of these attacks, not a single person was punished in Nag Khalaf Allah. Instead, as is the regime’s common practice, a reconciliation session was held to pressure the Copts. In the case of Nag Khalaf Allah, the security services decided to permanently close the church. Copts in the village would have to do without Holy Week.

In the pages of the New York Post, its op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari laments that “you will never hear the voices of this Christian community, one of the world’s oldest,” in Western media coverage of Egypt. He is correct. Far too often, Western analysis of Egypt, as well as the broader Middle East and North Africa, focusses on the region’s majority population, the Arab Sunni Muslims, and neglects the rich mosaic of religious and ethnic communities that preceded Islam. This weakness is found across the board in Western policy circles, the media, and academic studies of the Middle East, resulting in faulty understandings of the region and, more tragically, catastrophic outcomes. Disappointingly, however, Ahmari’s article does not shed any light on the plight of this ancient Christian community, or tell stories of mob violence and the government’s complicity in such attacks, or expose the legal discrimination in Egypt, or explain what has made over a million Copts leave the country in recent decades. Instead, Ahmari has chosen to defend the regime that discriminates against them.

Ahmari’s real target is five and a half thousand miles from Egypt. While his article quotes Coptic voices, their comments merely serve as ammunition with which to attack the New York Times‘s coverage and opinion pieces on Egypt. His actual concern is not the persecution of Copts but rather the tendency of US punditry to forward idealistic policy prescriptions that fail to account for the likely consequences. This criticism is certainly warranted, but that should never be an excuse to whitewash the persecution of the Copts.

Unfortunately, Ahmari is hardly alone in his analysis. For the past six years, since the Muslim Brotherhood’s government was overthrown by General Sisi, Western delegations, often composed of evangelical leaders, have returned from the country telling a similar story to Ahmari’s; not only is the choice in Egypt a binary one between the Islamists and Sisi, but more profoundly, President Sisi is held to be a champion of religious freedom. Their arguments are often based on similar claims: that Sisi called for a religious revolution in Islam, and that a grand cathedral is built in the new capital (a move that earned Sisi a laudatory tweet from President Trump). To this list, Ahmari adds that Sisi has asked for churches to be built in new cities, and that “a new law has lifted a centuries-old barrier on church-building.” But is any of that actually true?

Let us, for the sake of the argument, ignore Sisi’s dismal human rights record for now and focus instead on the repeated claim that he’s a champion of religious freedom. According to Ahmari, the church building law passed by the Egyptian parliament in 2016 has meant that “Protestants alone have received 227 permits.” In fact, the new law makes it nearly impossible for new churches to be built in existing cities by tying their approval and space to an unspecified necessary minimum number of Christians in an unspecified area. In practice, this has meant that, in the three years since, not a single church has been approved in existing cities. Since taking power, President Sisi has approved the building of 35 new churches in new cities built in the desert, but none in any inhabited by actual Copts. This record is worse than that of former President Hosni Mubarak, who Ahmari compares unfavorably to Sisi.

The 227 permits Ahmari mentions are registration applications made by existing churches where prayers have been held for decades. But even here, the new law, supposedly a blessing, has turned into a nightmare. It stipulates that applications from churches like Saint Karas must be submitted for approval by a government committee headed by the Prime Minister and including representatives of the military, intelligence, and state security; entities hardly known for supporting religious freedom. Egypt’s various Christian denominations have submitted requests for a total of 3,730 churches and around 2,000 church service buildings. Three years on, the government has approved less than 20 percent of that number. Moreover, as in the case of Saint Karas church, security services often resort to closing existing churches to prevent them from obtaining approval. In the past three years, the government has shut down 22 Coptic churches, which hardly constitutes a record of religious freedom.

One example sums up the government’s policy; the new grand cathedral. According to regime propaganda repeated by Western supporters, the cathedral is the largest in the Middle East (it isn’t) and was built by the government (it wasn’t—Coptic businessmen paid for the building). More insulting still is the fact that Sisi named it. Contrary to the Coptic practice of naming our churches after Saints, Sisi decided to name it “the Cathedral of the Birth of Christ.” A president naming a church may be insulting enough, but the name is no coincidence. Muslims acknowledge the miraculous birth of Christ but not his crucifixion or resurrection. This is why Sisi has always visited the Coptic church on Christmas but never on Easter.

What of government appointments? Ahmari states that “under former President Hosni Mubarak, the ruling party typically had one or two Coptic Christians in Parliament; today, there are 38.” This is not true either. Under Mubarak there were typically between five and eight Christians in parliament, and the reason there are now 38 is that the new constitution, passed before Sisi became President, stipulates a time-limited quota system for Copts and six other categories. While Sisi has taken the courageous step of appointing two Coptic governors in the country, his government only includes one Copt with an unimportant portfolio among its 30-plus ministers. Even Mubarak always had two Copts in his governments, and one of them was the Finance Minister. More importantly, why has Sisi not opened the doors for Copts to join the Egyptian intelligence and state security, two government bodies that are Copt-free? And why are there no Coptic senior officers in the military?

But the plight of Copts in Egypt is not limited to church building or the lack of equality. In the past several decades, over 1,000 mob attacks have taken place on Copts in Egypt’s villages and towns. Under Sisi, the number of those attacks has increased. In none of these incidents, whether under President Sadat, Mubarak, the military rule, Morsi, or Sisi has a single person ever faced trial. The government is always happy to try Islamists, its sworn enemies, but it has shown no interest in punishing regular Egyptians for pogroms that have terrified Copts and which have included dozens of murders. Instead, the Sisi government continues the practice of holding reconciliation sessions. These have created a culture of impunity and encouragement which rewards the attackers by meeting their demands. The message is clear: you can attack Copts, get away with it, and be rewarded.

In Ahmari’s telling, this is all the fault of local officials and not President Sisi. Quoting the head of Egypt’s Protestant community he writes, “local officials haven’t always kept up with the central government’s new mentality,” and these attacks are the workings of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radicals who “have a plan to attack Christians from time to time and especially when the President is meeting foreign officials—to embarrass the central government.” The President must be meeting a lot of foreign officials, because these attacks take place on a regular basis. But, more importantly, blaming local officials ignores the fact that Egypt is a dictatorship, in which any dissent is punished. Why has Sisi not fired those officials who publicly ignore his supposed policies? And why, after five years as president, has he failed to address the problem? Mob attacks are not driven by the Muslim Brotherhood, they are conducted by regular Egyptians, the Copts’ neighbors. If Sisi really cared, why hasn’t he addressed the hate speech coming from Al Azhar which is rampant in Egypt’s educational system? And why has he not attempted to amend or repeal the blasphemy law that has almost exclusively been applied to Copts and other religious minorities?

The answer can actually be found in Ahmari’s article. If Sisi is already receiving praise from Western journalists for his great record on religious freedom record, why should he do anything to actually protect Copts? Instead of helping Copts, articles like Ahmari’s only help to enshrine their persecution in Egypt, by removing any pressure on the Egyptian regime to address the plight of Copts.

Sohrab Ahmari asks us to listen to Egyptian Christian voices, and we should. But, like any community, the voices of Copts are hardly monolithic. They include those of the families of the martyrs of Mapsero, killed by Egyptian soldiers, who still wait for justice. They include Coptic youth who chanted for the fall of Sisi after the Saint Peter church bombing. They include those of Mueller Edward, Bassem Hanna, Alber Ashraf, and Clinton Youssef, four Coptic kids who faced five-year sentences for a video deemed offensive to Islam, and who escaped Egypt to Switzerland, while their teacher languishes in prison. They also include over one million Copts who fled to the West to escape persecution. These voices are certainly freer than those of the Copts inside who understand the consequences of criticism, or of those who betray their own besieged community by collaborating with the regime.

Ahmari and others are welcome to argue that there is a binary choice in Egypt and that Sisi is better than the alternative. They can contend that the United States has no option but to support Sisi and that change in Egypt would have catastrophic results. But those arguments should be made on their merits and not by whitewashing the plight of Copts. The least we should expect from Western Christians is that they refuse to become accomplices in our persecution.

 

Samuel Tadros is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. You can follow him on Twitter @Samueltadros

Feature image: Women mourn for the victims of the blast at the Coptic Christian Saint Mark’s church east of Alexandria, on April 10, 2017, MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

Comments

  1. These are the sorts of things that an honest western media would be focusing on. Instead, they’re busy deifying Elizabeth Warren, patron saint of the War on Reason.

    The Eternal Campaign has no interest in news.

  2. Nothing will chill a conversation with an American journalist faster than casually mentioning that you are a a Christian and a regular church-goer.

    She’ll act as if she suddenly noticed that you have a Nazi armband on your sleeve.

  3. An important article and thank you for writing.

    I do have a couple of things to add. The first is the absence of clear condemnation of the Muslims who are persecuting the copts (as far as I see). The author instead focuses on the West. Now I 100% agree–the West should condemn this in no uncertain terms, and should not publish articles whitewashing or ignoring the regime and its actions. However, the West is not the main issue. Let’s be clear here. Islam in Egypt is.

    The author says, “If Sisi is already receiving praise from Western journalists for his great record on religious freedom record, why should he do anything to actually protect Copts?..Instead of helping Copts, articles like Ahmari’s only help to enshrine their persecution in Egypt, by removing any pressure on the Egyptian regime to address the plight of Copts.”

    Why should Sisi do anything? Because it’s wrong. Because it’s evil. Why should Sisi only care about what the West says, and not be motivated under his own moral compass? If our nation does wrong, do we complain that The East didn’t criticize us forcefully enough and therefore our leaders aren’t going to stop persecuting a subset of its citizens? Egyptians are full humans who are responsible for their own actions. What about his own constituents? What about righteous Muslims? Where are their voices? What happens when they speak out? What about other Muslim nations, who have more power to pressure? Why isn’t there a concerted protest amongst them? The author speaks of pressure being removed, but doesn’t address the deafening silence from Egyptian citizens and Arab nations.

    The other thing I’ll add is that not long ago, Egypt had a very thriving, ancient Jewish community, much of it 2000 years old. A few of my relatives are from there. The Jews were very proud of their Egyptian nationality and very involved in the arts and culture. In the 1940s to 1960s Jews were persecuted, jailed, robbed of their businesses and homes, and frequently expelled, sometimes killed. They mostly went to Israel. Do you ever hear about this? Just one example: From 1945 to 1948, riots and targeted bombings of the Jewish community and Jewish businesses resulted in 108 unprosecuted deaths, injuries in the hundreds, and the looting and razing of over 200 Jewish businesses.

    If Islam in Egypt is capable of doing this to Jews, it is capable of doing this to the copts. Several Arab nations are now nearly 100% Muslim, when not very long ago they were vibrant mixtures of copts, Jews, christians and other sects and religions. The reason all this is important is that it helps frame what is going on now. Just as before, the rest of the world sits on its hands while this radical Islam persecutes and brutalizes whole ethnicities and races. And just as before, the Arab Muslim community either does nothing, participates, or is terrified of speaking out. Western nations could definitely play a large role in pressuring Sisi to change, and should. Totally agreed. But let’s not shy away from treating Sisi as the adult he is, and the Muslim community as comprised equally of full grown adults, responsible for their own actions or lack thereof.

    I do want to stress that the article itself was important and courageous to write.

  4. Islam in Turkey was capable of murdering 1.5 million Christians in the 20th Century.

  5. I read the articles and the comments here but I only feel slightly more informed. Who, exactly, are the mobs, and the ringleaders of the mobs, who attack these Egyptian Christians? For them, what is it about - is it superstitious? is it political? Sohrab Ahmari writes an op-ed in the New York Post, Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros critiques it in Quillette, @Dcl says Tadros doesn’t go far enough.

    But all this commentary is coming from the fringes of events. Egypt itself is a country of almost 100 million people, many of them very poor (and the country is dangerously dependent on a single river, the Nile), and about 90% of them Muslim. The west sees Sisi as Egypt’s secular alternative to political Islam (and remember that elected president Morsi died just a few months ago, while still going between prison and court, six years after his deposition).

    But Sisi is Muslim. The struggle in Egypt is not between Islam and non-Islam, it’s among Muslims with various ideas of what their religion implies and how their society should be governed. Like the 50+ other Muslim countries in the world, whatever temporary political equilibrium they reach at any moment, it’s going to involve Islam and belief in Islam.

    So it raises the question of the angle from which westerners (most Quillette readers are in the west) are supposed to take an interest in what happens to the Copts. Is it supposed to be Christian solidarity? A matter of human rights? Or is it going to be channeled in support of geopolitical objectives? Are we doing this from the perspective of a clash with Islamic civilization? Is it about supporting Israel or advancing some Christian end-times belief? Most of us reading these articles know close to nothing about Egypt, really - certainly about its politics, or the recent history of interfaith and intercommunal relations there.

  6. Would you ask this question about, say, 40 black churches being looted and burned down? Would you wonder what the angle to view this as? Personally, I would take the angle of simple human rights.

  7. Yes, @MorganFoster, 100% agreed. I wasn’t writing extensively about the issue, just bringing up a single objection that is one component of the overall complexity.

  8. Understood. I was merely contributing some emphasis.

  9. It is obvious to most people that there is more than one struggle in Egypt, and yes, there is a struggle there between Islam and non-Islam.

    So it raises the question of the angle from which westerners (most Quillette readers are in the west) are supposed to take an interest in what happens to the Copts.

    Because an increasing number of Muslims are being allowed to emigrate to the U.S., I take a great interest in what Muslims in their countries of origin are doing to the Jews and Christians who (still) live there.

    My angle, as you put it, is the long-term survival of my descendants.

  10. I’m an Australian. I already had to decide what to make of “Black Lives Matter”, as an American phenomenon. If you believe the mainstream media, BLM is a response to an epidemic of racist police violence. If you believe certain alternative media, BLM (however it may have started) became a tool for activists and politicians to actually aggravate race relations.

    It’s hard enough to know one’s own society. For years I didn’t know that over a thousand had drowned, trying to get in, after Australia temporarily relaxed John Howard’s ocean border controls. I only learned recently that a quarter of all Australian prisoners are Aboriginal.

    So how much less equipped am I, to judge how close Ahmari, Tadros, or yourself is, to the truth of Egyptian affairs? National minorities can be used by outside forces to affect the politics of a country. When it comes to other countries, I prefer to understand things in a top-down, majoritarian way. What does the Egyptian ruling class, or the average Egyptian, think is going on here, and how much significance do they attribute to it, relative to, say, counterterrorism in the Sinai, or economic issues? If I don’t know the answers to questions like those, how can I possibly make a rational assessment of what I’m reading here?

  11. The author uses a dirty trick, comparing Mubarak and Sisi. This is not a real alternative for Egypt. The real choice is between Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Sisi. And the choice is clear: MB is much, much worse for Christians, than Sisi. Moreover, I am sure, that MB is worse than Sisi for great majority of Egyptians.

  12. Great comment, @Dcl. I think the above point isn’t made enough, and indeed many people are resistant to the notion. Post-modernism has inflected society with the idea that good and evil are artificial constructs that can legitimately vary based on culture. This opens the door to excusing the horrible way most Muslim countries treat their minorities.

    To those of us with a consistent standard for right and wrong, this looks like infantilization and the bigotry of low expectations. The post-modernists are essentially admitting that they don’t think it’s possible for Muslims to not persecute others, that it is in their nature, and that they shouldn’t be judged for it.

  13. Thanks for clarifying, @mitchellporter. So what you’re saying, I think, is that the world is complex and you are not suited to judge what happens in other countries and cultures, and don’t know who to listen to. This is a good point. I know very little about, say, your own nation, and would be cautious about judging most things as I dont know the context, and many issues are layered and complex.

    That said, I dont see how systemically targeting copts and burning and looting churches can be taken in any other way than appalling. I dont see why this needs context.

    But if you do want context, surely you can do that yourself. You ask how you can possible make a rational assessment? Well, by educating yourself. I agree that it’s wrong to judge based on a few media outlets’ headlines or, worse, social media posts or, here, a single article, but if I hear about a controversy in a country I am unfamiliar with, I read up on the conflict and its history. I get my sources from several places. This doesn’t mean you have to read up on every conflict everywhere - that’s not possible - but it does mean that you can’t really say, “I don’t know anything about this,” as a way to not judge and give up having an opinion.

    What does a “top down majoritarian way” mean? (I’m asking genuinely). Surely you don’t mean “try to listen to what most people seem to be saying in the country”? That way surely leads to all the concerns you were saying, lack of context, lack of historical background, and so forth, and certainly leads to being vulnerable to propaganda. Why does it matter what the 'average citizen" thinks (how could you find out, unless by survey?). Or for that matter, the ‘ruling class’? What if the average Australian thinks - to use a clear example (not true, just an example) - that killing gays is a good idea? How would that impact your own moral compass if gays started to be targeted and mowed down? To use an overused example, would you have asked average German citizens what they thought about Hitler to find out whether you should condemn Hitler? Or the ruling state for that matter? Or perhaps I"m misunderstanding what you mean?

    Regardless, thanks for engaging in the dialogue.

  14. Great point, @MorganFoster. It’s not just theoretical or an issue of abstract morals (which is important). It’s also a hugely practical concern given recent largescale global emigration, not to mention weapons in the hands of nations who openly declare they want to annihilate entire peoples. Not saying this of Sisi. But it is important to see movements that may well impact the entire world for various reasons.

  15. in August 2013, more than forty churches were burned and looted in a wave of attacks across the country… in retaliation against Christians for supporting the ouster of President Morsi”

    I don’t know if that’s true - it sounds plausible - but notice the difference between “forty churches were burned” and “forty churches were burned because Christians supported a coup”. A coup whose leader had five hundred civilians killed a month later, to end a sit-in by supporters of the ousted president.

    So yes, in a situation of political or communal conflict, you do need context, to have any hope of understanding what you’re hearing about.

    Incidentally, here is a slightly more detailed description of the incident described in this essay - which fortunately involves nothing like church-burning. According to this account, it was the mayor of the village who first came and demanded that they stop expanding their unauthorized church. Later came the mob, and the closure of the building.

    Again, who among us can really say what was going on in this incident. Is the mayor a Muslim zealot? Were the Christians provocatively breaking the law? I cannot say, though I’ve done more research; I can say that this is one of the poorer regions in Egypt, although Chinese are now there making solar panels.

    On this occasion, it meant viewing (in translation) the Arabic language edition of “Al Ahram”, in order to glimpse, perhaps, what middle-class Egypt views as important right now. One thing I noticed, was a series of stories about the BBC, illustrated with a cobra, on how the BBC is undermining Sisi’s Egypt by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. I guess it’s their version of “Russia is grooming Tulsi Gabbard”.

    More generally, it means trying to understand the worldview of the people actually running things in a country. After all, they have more say than anyone, over these events that we are being called upon to deplore.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

Participants