The Philos Project: Can you tell us, in your own words, who are the Copts?
Mina Abdelmalak: When you are Coptic, you are Christian first and foremost, and either you or your ancestors are from Egypt. The Coptic church is one of the oldest churches in Christianity, and was established by St. Mark the Evangelist in Alexandria, Egypt in 42 A.D. I think it’s important to know how old the church is, and that it was established by a disciple of Jesus. Most Copts are Orthodox. There are also Coptic Catholics, a Coptic Protestant church, and even a Coptic Evangelical church.
PP: Why were Copts targeted in last week’s attack?
MA: The simple answer is, because they are Christians. Christians and other non-Muslims have always been the first targets for Islamist attacks. Islamists’ vision of the world has two sides: There is the home of Islam, and there is the home of infidels. They think that Christians living within the Islamic territories should be paying heavy taxes, converting, or facing the sword. Islamists don’t believe that Egypt is being ruled by Islam. Therefore, Copts are not even Dhimmi, but rather just infidels–and they ought to fight them till death.
Persecution of the Copts has been taking place since the Arab invasion in the seventh century. It’s important to mention that before the seventh century, Egypt was majority Christian, and was ruled by Christians. Muslim Arabs invaded Egypt in the seventh century. Copts are perhaps less than 10 percent of the population. Islamists have developed anti-Coptic sentiments.
There are many sectarian anti-Coptic rumors in Egypt. For example, many Muslims say that there are Coptic militias in the churches, and that they are being trained to attack Muslims as they are sleeping. That they are storing weapons under their churches to attack Muslims.
Or that Copts are helping the Zionists to destroy Islam. They say that Copts are “helping the American crusaders.”
It is interesting, because when you look at most of the pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe, it was over similar rumors: that Jews are killing babies. That Jews are doing this and that. These sectarian rumors have also taken place.
PP: What is it like for the Christian community in Egypt?
MA: The Coptic community is the largest religious minority in Egypt. There are all kinds of stories in the Coptic history of massacres [and] pogroms. Until this day, there are pogroms that happen against the Copts, where mob attacks kill a number of Copts, and the government doesn’t do anything to protect them or even punish the perpetrators. There is no rule of law. In some incidents, victims know who the perpetrators are, but the Egyptian police will pressure Copts to accept reconciliation council instead of the court, where they would be forced to give up their rights for a promise from the perpetrators to do not repeat their actions.
It’s insulting. It’s injustice. There is no justice when the victim is Coptic.
PP: What is it like to go to church in Cairo?
MA: In Egypt, mosques don’t have any type of security, because no one attacks mosques. But in front of every church, there is security in Egypt, because there is a serious threat against this community.
I remember going to Christmas Mass and Easter Mass at the cathedral. After the revolution, I had to show my I.D., because our I.D.s have a religion section on them. In some cases, they check your hand to see if you have the Coptic tattoo. Imagine living under constant threats. That’s not normal life. I don’t want them to remove the security, because I know the consequences will be terrible, but that tells you something about living as Christian in Egypt.
PP: What concerns you about the future of Christians in Egypt?
MA: Sectarian tones have been very public, especially after the overthrow of [Former Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi by [current President Abdel Fattah el-]Sisi. Perhaps that’s also because social media gives the masses voice to do it publicly, but the sectarian tension has definitely increased. That’s what concerns me the most.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, says that Sisi wouldn’t have done the coups without the help of the Coptic church. Many in the American liberal left also share the Muslim Brotherhood’s propaganda and blame the Copts, saying that Copts should have opposed Sisi. Obviously we were not the majority in any decision-making of any kind.
If we learn anything from history, it’s that this kind of violence is a red flag. Perhaps in the future, we’ll see bigger scale pogroms–where the victims are 200 instead of 20. We had an incident in 2013 when–with the overthrow of Morsi–we had a massive attack on churches. Eighty churches were attacked on one night. We hadn’t seen something like that before.
If we learn anything from history, we know that hatred that is not confronted legally and socially often results in a bigger tragedy.
PP: How should American Christians respond?
MA: The American church is very active. Perhaps church members can raise awareness so that Americans and policymakers see that the Christian question in the Middle East is important. Also, we need prayer—a lot.
Christians in the West should understand the significance and the importance of the church of the East. People often forget that the first churches in the world were in the East. Christianity was spread throughout the world by people from these eastern churches. Now we are losing these churches. It’s a very sad time for Christian history.