EGYPTIAN CHRISTIANS ARE UNDER SIEGE
New York Cesar Chelala
Sunday prayers were canceled for the first time in 1,600 years at the Orthodox Monastery of the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram in Degla, south of Minya, because three churches had been destroyed by a mob, remarks Nina Shea, Director of the Hudson Institute’ Center for Religious Freedom. That wasn’t the only incident of violence against Christians which have resulted in dozens of deaths and widespread destruction of Christian properties since Mohamed Morsi was removed from power by the Egyptian military.
Although Christianity is a minority religion in Egypt, Egyptian Christians, known as Copts, account for 5-20% of the country’s population. Despite that relatively small proportion, Egypt’s Christian population is the largest in absolute numbers in the greater Middle East and North Africa. Today, Christians make up about five percent of the entire Middle Eastern population, down 20 percent from a century ago.
95 percent of Egyptian Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, an Oriental Orthodox Church. It is estimated that it has approximately 4 to 8 million followers in Egypt; in addition, it has three o four million followers abroad. According to the magazine Coptic Christianity, the actual number of Copts may be between 11 and 13 million. In 2011 alone, after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell from power, 93,000 Copts left Egypt.
There is widespread belief that violence against Christians is because they are being made the scapegoats by the Muslim Brotherhood for the fall of Morsi. However, this position seems to ignore that the revolt against Morsi was led not by Christians but by political liberals, the middle class youth and even secular Muslims who were opposed to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood trying to impose a strict Islamist regime in the country.
Writing this week in the National Review Online Rich Lowry says, “Egypt is in the midst of an anti-Christian progrom. Supporters of ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi are lashing out at the country’s Copts for the offense of being Christian in Egypt.” And Carlos Duguech, a political analyst, states, “Copts in Egypt run the risk of being a religious minority in a Muslim country.”
As of August 21st, several dozen convents, monasteries, schools, Christian homes and businesses have been looted and destroyed by Islamist rioters, and the Christian Pope remains in hiding, fearing for his life. In Cairo, Franciscan nuns were marched through the streets as mobs shouted abuse at them.
Presently, the highest concentration of Christians is in the villages of Upper Egypt. In Minya’s governorate, about 150 miles south of Cairo where many of the incidents took place, Christians make up about 35 percent of the population, the highest in Egypt. But Minya is also an Islamist stronghold and the heart of the Salafi Muslims.
Although the Christians and the Muslims had lived in relative peace, serious incidents between both communities began after Mr. Morsi’s overthrow on July 3. Businesses in downtown Minya were marked with large X’s -red for Christian-owned stores and black for Muslim’s owned stores- making thus easier to identify the Christian ones as target for attacks.
The attacks on Christian properties were not rapidly investigated by the police, despite the Christians’ requests. Although the governor of Minya, Gen. Salah El Din Zidaya, admitted the lack of police response, he said that it was because the security forces were fighting off Islamists attacks in other areas. For Bishop Makarias, head of Minya governorate’s Coptic community, the government is using the Christians to justify their repression of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As attacks against Christians continue, international human rights organizations have accused the government of not protecting them, and demand stronger actions against the attackers. As Hassiba Hadja Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director stated, “It is a serious dereliction of duty that the security forces failed to prevent these sectarian attacks and protect Coptic Christians. Attacks against Coptic Christians must be investigated and those responsible brought to justice.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is the foreign correspondent for The Middle East Times International (Australia).