Samuel Tadros is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and the author of the book Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. He talks with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians killed on February 14 in Libya by ISIS and about the future of Christianity in Egypt and the region.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is the most important thing for Americans to know about what happened to those 21 Coptic Christians a little over a week ago?
Samuel Tadros: I would argue that the most important aspect of the story, and one that was absent from the White House’s reaction, is that these men were murdered because of their faith. ISIS gunmen chose these men from among other Egyptians living there because they were Copts. This was no random choice. ISIS holds deep hostility to say the least toward Middle Eastern Christians. Its goal is quite simply the eradication of their existence.
Lopez: How did ISIS come to be there? Who is to blame?
Tadros: Where there is a vacuum, ISIS will fill it, and Libya today is a huge vacuum. The ill-described phenomenon of the Arab Spring was really about state collapse. The nation-state had never struck deep roots in the Middle East. Once the dictators fell, the deeply rooted divisions among tribal, ethnic, and religious lines were bound to explode. Qaddafi was a blood dictator and an enemy of the West, responsible for many lost American lives, and there is no doubt that the world is better off without him, but while the United States was willing to join, or lead from behind, as the administration liked to term it, in removing him from power, it has abandoned Libya to its fate following his demise.
Especially following the horrific attack on the consulate in Benghazi, the United States has been reluctant to take any action in Libya. Naturally ISIS utilized that opportunity. Nothing is more appealing than success, and as all other forms of Islamism have failed in achieving the Islamist utopia, ISIS has become all the more appealing. Failure to deal with the ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria has made it the natural choice for thousands of Islamists.
Lopez: How much is Islam to blame in any of this?
Tadros: Islam, like any major religion, is complex, with various sects, groups, and historical narratives claiming to be the one authentic interpretation and representation of the religion. ISIS of course justifies its actions based on religious texts. We have seen that even in the statement they released following the beheading of the Copts. It cited works by Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Hazm, and Mohamed Ibn Abdel Wahab as well as Koranic verses.
Lopez: Can Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi be a help to voices of reform within Islam?
Tadros: No. A country’s president is hardly the most suitable agent of religious reform. Sisi’s call for reform is welcome and at least in his Al-Azhar speech goes beyond what previous leaders have stated, but he lacks a program or a vision. Even if he did, the official religious institution would push against any major change, and they have already downplayed his call by framing it as a campaign to explain the tolerance of Islam. Moreover, Sisi is dependent on them and on Salafis to fight the Muslim Brotherhood.
Lopez: Has the U.S. done anything to help? Could President Obama be saying or doing anything that would help?
Tadros: No. The United States has even been reluctant to call this crime what it is. While many world leaders condemned this as a murder of Christians, the White House spoke of murdered Egyptians. Whether out of policy or simple ignorance, the White House has dishonored those men by refusing to acknowledge their sacrifice and their faith. The administration needs to be aware and develop a policy that places this not as an isolated incident but as part of an eradication campaign against Christianity in its birthplace.
Lopez: You write in Motherland Lost: “The narrative of the persecuted church, the theme of Egypt as the land that paid an unparalleled price for its faith in Christ, would become central to the Copt’s self-understanding. Generations would be told of the heavy price in blood that their ancestors paid for them to receive this faith, whether at the hands of the Romans, or later on at the hands of their fellow co-religionists the Byzantine emperors, or at the hands of Muslims. While the narrative of the endless persecution would lead to acceptance of discrimination and persecution as a necessary and natural aspect of their faith, it would also give Copts great pride and internal strength. If all those emperors, caliphs, kings, and rulers could not break the Coptic Church, no one could.” What’s so existential about the current threats? When and how did it get this bad?
Tadros: One needs to take a look at the whole region to realize how existential the threat is. In Iraq, the number of Christians has been reduced to less than a third of what they were before the U.S. invasion in 2003, and ISIS is wiping out what remains. In Syria, Christians have paid a heavy price in the ongoing civil war, as they are caught in the middle. Copts represent more than half of Middle East Christians. If they leave, then Middle East Christianity is finished. And they are already leaving. Following the Egyptian revolution of 2011, tens of thousands of Copts have already fled their ancient homeland.
Lopez: There is a Divine Mercy image on the front of your book. Why?
Tadros: The image of the young Coptic girl holding a picture of the Divine Mercy with the Egyptian flag behind her really captured the two interlinked themes of my book: The Egyptian and Coptic quest for modernity.
Lopez: “Some attribute it to a closeness of the idea of the Trinity to ancient Egyptian mythology, others to an early form of native nationalism, but for Copts the answer was quite simple; the heart of Egypt had been touched by the Lord and they became his people.” This is not something easy to convey in a media context. What does it mean, practically? And how is it that they have such a keen sense of “closeness” (a word Pope that Francis uses a lot but that I’m not sure we all understand) to the Trinity? What can others learn from them about faith? Christians, in a particular way?
Tadros: Egypt had always been central to the Biblical narrative. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all came to Egypt. Moses led his people to freedom from the land of the Nile. But most importantly for Copts, Egypt is the place where the baby Jesus and his mother sought refuge. Coptic tradition holds that they spent three and a half years there. Across the country there are places, on which churches are now built, that the Holy Family passed by and blessed.
No other land with the exception of Israel can claim such an honor and link. It is also in Egypt that Christianity made an early home. It was Egyptians such as St. Athanasius and St. Cyril who framed what is Christianity as they fought heretics. It is also in Egypt that monasticism was born at the hands of St. Anthony the Great. These are not ancient stories for Copts. They are living memories and testimonials that are passed from one generation to the next. Copts are a deeply religious people. Their faith is central to their identity.
Lopez: What can we learn from the witness of the Copts in Egypt — and these 21 who were murdered?
Tadros: The last words from the mouths of the martyrs were “Jesus Christ.” We often read stories about early martyrs of the Church. We produce movies depicting their stories and lives, but nothing can capture it like the scene of men dying for their faith in their Savior and Redeemer. Sometimes we think of martyrs as being above human, as legendary figures who lived extraordinary lives, but these men were ordinary. They were men who lived normal lives, poor men who traveled to Libya to feed their families. Yet at the critical moment, they did not deny their Savior or run away from him. Pushed on their knees to be killed, they stood taller than their murderers. They stood tall for the whole world to watch what Christianity is all about.