As Americans are stripping their Christmas trees of tinsel and ushering in the new year, Coptic Christians in Egypt are celebrating their Christmas today, which falls on January 7 of every year. However, there’s a difference in the aura surrounding Christmas to the Copts: It is celebrated with the shadow of the terrorism they’ve faced in years prior looming over their communities — and especially their churches.
On January 5, an Egyptian police officer was killed while defusing a bomb that was placed near a Coptic church in Egypt. It’s no coincidence that this happened with such close proximity of the day that Copts celebrate Christmas. In the past five years, there have been 500 sectarian attacks against Copts, according to Samuel Tadros, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, including two bombings of churches on Palm Sunday in 2017, shootings during pilgrimages to monasteries, and the beheadings of Copts in Libya in 2015. Nermien Riad, the executive director of nonprofit group Coptic Orphans, tells me that church bombings are only part of the larger picture, which includes daily persecution at all levels of Egyptian society.
Coptic Orphans was founded to provide children who had lost the primary breadwinner of their family with financial aid so they can pursue their education and receive any other aid they may need. The Copts are the largest ethnoreligious minority in Egypt, and are descendants of the ancient Egyptians. But in Egyptian society, they are often the subject of vile rumors among their Muslim neighbors who malign the Copts and often treat them like second-class citizens. “There is even a complete erasure of Copts in Egyptian schools, where children do not learn about the Copts in Egyptian history. We just don’t exist,” Nermien tells me. “This sends a strong message that we’re not worthy of mention.”
Copts risk their lives on a daily basis, whether they are going to church or merely presenting themselves in public. Coptic women are particularly at risk for harassment, and in an especially tragic case, a 72-year old Egyptian woman was stripped naked and dragged throughout the streets of an Egyptian city by a Muslim mob in 2016 after false rumors of an affair between her son and a Muslim woman.
With the condition worsening in recent years, Copts are in desperate need of international recognition of their plight so as to not be forgotten, and so the Egyptian government is pressured to create effective policy that would increase Coptic representation in government and pursue justice for victims. Often, the perpetrators of violent attacks and discrimination toward Copts are never held accountable.
According to Nermien, despite suffering through the worst wave of persecution in 700 years, Copts remain devout in their faith, packing their churches for mass and holidays. “In Egypt, it’s often the opposite from American society, where parents are trying to convince their children not to go to church because of the risk they face.”
This Christmas, the Coptic Egyptians ask the world for their prayers, so that they may, God willing, celebrate in peace.