For the first time in 1,600 years, they didn’t pray this past Sunday at the Virgin Mary and Anba Abraam monastery in a village in southern Egypt.
Islamists firebombed and looted the monastery, which dates back to the fifth century. For good measure, they destroyed a church inside. They then announced that they would be converting the monastery into a mosque.
Egypt is in the midst of an anti-Christian pogrom. Supporters of ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi are lashing out at the country’s Copts for the offense of being Christian in Egypt. The militants have the same nihilistic spirit as the Taliban destroyers of the ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001, the same poisonous arguments as anti-Semitic propagandists in every time and every place, and the same sectarian intent as Slobodan Milosevic on the cusp of his ethnic-cleansing campaigns of the 1990s.
If there was any doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood couldn’t be trusted with power, the wanton hate of its rampaging backers in the wake of its ouster should remove it.
Coptic Christians supported the massive protests that prompted the military to move against Morsi, and Coptic Pope Tawadros II was one of more than a dozen national figures who appeared with General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when he announced Morsi’s removal. But the Christians were hardly the decisive force in the anti-Morsi uprising that reached across the spectrum from youthful democrats to Communists to supporters of the old Hosni Mubarak regime.
Islamists have nonetheless portrayed Coptic Christians as the moving force behind events. When the military attacked Muslim Brotherhood encampments in Cairo with deadly force August 14, a local mosque in Al Nazla broadcast the news that Christians were the ones killing the protesters, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Shouting “Allahu akbar,” the villagers looted and burned a church that had only just opened after being under construction for 13 years.
The Islamists want to portray the Coptic Christians as an alien force, a fifth column working to subvert the country, when in fact the Christians were there first by a matter of centuries. The Christian church was founded in Alexandria around 50 A.D.
The stagecraft of some of the anti-Christian attacks is eliminationist. After a mob ransacked a Franciscan school in suburban Cairo, knocking the cross off the gate and replacing it with a black banner, the nuns were paraded through the streets like “prisoners of war,” in the words of one.
Reports say more than 50 churches have been targeted and the attacks have continued since the initial onslaught August 14.
According to Sam Tadros of the Hudson Institute, a Coptic Christian who is author of the new book Motherland Lost, there has been nothing like it since 1321, when a similar wave of church burnings signaled a centuries-long period of intense persecution that saw the Coptic Christian community decline from somewhat less than half of Egypt’s population to its current 10 percent.
For the Islamists, the ongoing pogrom serves the immediate purpose of whipping up popular sentiment and the longer-term one of cleansing the country of Christians, who may ultimately face the fate of Egypt’s Jews. They went from a population of 80,000 after World War II to literally a handful today. If Muslim Brotherhood rule would have been particularly dire for Coptic Christians, none of the recent regimes in Egypt — including the latest set of military rulers — has shown any interest in protecting them.
Our power to change that is limited. At the very least, we should take an active interest. In his remarks after the bloodshed began in Egypt, President Barack Obama relegated his concern over the anti-Christian attacks to a three-word dependent clause at the end of one sentence. More substantively, we should be pushing for the adoption of a non-Islamist constitution that protects religious freedom.
But the hour is late. August 14, 2013, may be remembered as the day that Egypt’s churches and monasteries began to go dark.