One of the pleasures of living in Jerusalem is the ever-changing kaleidoscope of intriguing people and historic places that surrounds me. Especially when I walk around Jerusalem’s Old City, I am conscious of a myriad of Christian clergy, garbed in a multitude of various robes and head coverings.
The Coptic monks who serve at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are particularly easy to recognize because of their distinctive black hoods.
These koulla (Coptic) hoods are embroidered with 12 small crosses that represent Jesus’ 12 disciples, and one large one that signifies Jesus Christ. This symbolic array of crosses is meant to remind the monks that they, like Jesus and those who followed him during his earthly ministry, must leave everything temporal behind and look only to God.
Against the backdrop of today’s tumultuous Middle East, more and more members of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt and beyond – clergy and church members alike – are facing that very same choice.
Last Sunday, it was just such a koulla that caught my eye as I boarded a flight from Los Angeles to London. I spoke to the man wearing it: “You’re a Coptic clergyman, aren’t you?”
He smiled and nodded. “Yes, I’m the Coptic bishop of Los Angeles. My name is Bishop Serapion.” He went on to say that he was traveling to a Coptic Synod in Cairo, and for the next few minutes we talked about the plight of Copts and other Christians in the Middle East.
Later, while the plane taxied toward takeoff, I reflected on some of the recent catastrophes that have brought the Coptic community into the world’s focus.
Most notorious was the massacre of 21 Coptic Christian men on a Libyan beach, where the Islamic State’s executioners beheaded them in a choreographed bloodbath. Many of those faithful Christians – who refused to recant their faith – were murmuring or crying out the name of Jesus as the killers’ blades permanently silenced them.
This horrendous scene was broadcasted globally on YouTube, thanks to media-savvy ISIS’ ongoing campaign to terrorize the world while recruiting new warriors.
But infamous as it was, the massacre in Libya was far from the only attack on Coptic Christians in recent years. And ISIS has not been the only persecutor.
My colleague and friend Samuel Tadros is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and the author of the critically acclaimed Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity.
On May 20, Tadros testified before the United States House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa on the subject “Egypt Two Years After Morsi.”
In his testimony, among other matters, Tadros described what happened in Egypt following the massacre of the 21 Coptic believers in Libya:
In … Al Our village, home to 13 of the Copts beheaded in Libya by ISIS, a mob attacked Coptic homes on the 27th of March in order to prevent a church from being built. The construction of that church had been ordered by President Sisi to honor the Coptic martyrs and as a symbol of a new Egypt where Copts were to be treated as equal citizens.
Instead, the church became a symbol of an Egypt in which Copts suffer from violence because of their faith and are treated as second-class citizens. The mob attack involved rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Rather than upholding the rule of law by arresting and prosecuting the attackers, the governor organized a reconciliation session between both communities. Unable to walk back the president’s promise, the local authorities forced Copts to accept that the proposed church be banished to the village outskirts. The authorities’ actions naturally encouraged the mob further and on the 29th of April, the house of one of the ISIS victims in Libya was attacked.
The Copts’ historic Christian community – founded in Alexandria during the first century CE by the Apostle Mark – comprises between 8 and 10 percent of Egypt’s 83 million citizens.
The Copts’ bloodlines are even more ancient than their Christian faith; they date back to the pharaohs, centuries before the Arab invasions in the seventh century CE. The Coptic language, still used in liturgy, is the closest existing language to that of ancient Egypt.
However, despite their historical heritage, as a religious minority in a Muslim-majority state, the Copts have lived for centuries under the dhimmi status spelled out in Islamic Sharia law. Simply put, that means that they are treated as inferior citizens. Meanwhile, in recent years, Copts have suffered escalating attacks, as Islamist extremists have specifically targeted them.
Christians in Egypt suffered exceptional abuse during the brief regime of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. Then, in July 2013, in response to multiplied millions of Egyptians taking to the streets in protest against the Brotherhood, Egypt’s military removed Morsi from office.
This stunning turnaround offered some hope to Egyptians who were both wary and weary of the Brotherhood’s efforts to seize control of all branches of government. It also unleashed even greater violence upon the Copts.
On Aug. 27, 2013, I found a message in my inbox from Egypt’s Maspero Youth Union, an organization of young, outspoken Coptic Christians. It was a report about the widespread attacks on Coptic communities by the Muslim Brotherhood between Aug. 14 and 16:
- 38 churches completely destroyed, burned and looted
- 23 churches attacked and partially damaged
In addition, the following:
- 58 houses owned by Copts in different areas burned and looted
- 85 shops owned by Copts
- 16 pharmacies
- 3 hotels (Horus, Susana & Akhnaton)
- 75 cars, buses owned by churches
- 6 people killed based on their religious Christian identity
- 7 Coptic people kidnapped in Upper Egypt governorates
On Aug. 22, Kirsten Powers wrote in the Daily Beast,
The Muslim Brotherhood has been inciting violence against the Copts in an effort to scapegoat the religious minority for the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi. The FJP Facebook page is filled with the rhetoric the Brotherhood leaders have been using in their speeches at the sit-ins: “The pope of the church is involved in the removal of the first elected Islamist president. The pope of the church alleges Islamic Sharia is backwards, stubborn, and reactionary.”
It’s true that Pope Tawadros and most Coptic Christians supported Morsi’s removal. But they were a fraction of the larger coalition against him.
Tadros told Powers, “These attacks are the worst violence against the Coptic Church since the 14th century.”
President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was elected in a landslide vote a year ago, in May 2014. His election was welcomed by many Egyptians, and after his acceptance speech, Sisi was endorsed by several religious and political leaders, including Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II.
On Sunday, I asked Bishop Serapion if the Copts were faring better now, under Sisi’s presidency. Choosing his words carefully, he told me that there has been progress at the top levels of government, but that local authorities are still inclined to turn a blind eye to anti-Coptic persecution.
In his testimony, Tadros expanded on this theme:
President Sisi has undertaken some symbolic gestures towards Copts, such as visiting the Coptic Cathedral on Christmas Eve, and has developed a good relationship with Pope Tawadros II. Symbolic gestures need to be followed by meaningful steps. Despite repeated promises, the Egyptian regime has failed to pass a new law governing the building of houses of worship, which would streamline the process of building churches. Despite proclamations that all of Egypt’s citizens are equal, Copts continue to suffer from discrimination in government appointments.
Unofficial caps on Coptic representation in key state institutions such as the military and police force continue with several of them such as the intelligence service and the state security not having a single Copt within their ranks. President Sisi needs to change these discriminatory practices and develop a civil service based on merit and not one based on one’s faith.
In his speech to scholars of Al-Azhar, President Sisi underscored the need for religious reform. The fight against terrorism can no longer be limited to security means, but must be accompanied by a policy tool kit that addresses the root causes of radicalization and terrorism. He has stressed the need to change a religious discourse that has fueled hatred. While President Sisi’s call came as a welcome step, the Egyptian regime needs to prove its seriousness by beginning the process of reform.
For some Israelis, watching the abuses suffered by Coptic Christians stirs a feeling of déjà vu. According to historian Martin Gilbert, between 1948 and 1968, nearly 30,000 Jews fled Egypt in fear of their lives.
Rachel Lipkin and her family escaped Egypt in 1969 and she told me about their Coptic neighbors’ kindness and generosity during her father’s three-year imprisonment; they regularly brought eggs, milk and bread to her mother.
“I was just 11 years old at the time, but I clearly remember what they said,” she told me. “‘They are coming after you Jews,’ they told my mother, ‘and once they have driven you out of the country, then they will come after us Christians. We know this.’”
Indeed, Egypt’s Copts continue to brace themselves for the persecution that too frequently erupts against them, often without warning.
Leaders may come and go, but Islamists never stop targeting them.
“Like the Jews before them,” Tadros has written, “the Christians of the Middle East will be driven out of their homes, but, unlike the Jews, they will not have an Israel to escape to. The most fortunate will take the first planes to the U.S., Canada, and Australia, but a community of 8 million people cannot possibly emigrate en masse in a short time. The poorer Copts, the ones who face daily persecution, will be left behind.”
Following the example of their monks, who have taken a vow of poverty, Egypt’s beleaguered and defenseless Coptic Christian community is poised to leave everything earthly behind.
Their eyes are fixed on God – and for good reason.
Where else can they turn?