In some cases, Christian girls in government schools are made to wear the hijab by the Islamist headmasters, who are now free from government control. In a very disturbing incident in October, a 17-year-old Christian student was asked by his teacher to remove the cross that he was wearing around his neck. When he refused, the teacher beat him; his Muslim classmates joined in the beating, which resulted in his death.
The government, meanwhile, evinces a continued lack of interest in protecting Christians. The solution of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the burning of a church in Atfih in March was to invite Salafi preacher Mohamed Hassan to try to cool down the local Muslims. Appearing on national TV later, however, he explained that the attack was not sectarian, but was driven by the discovery of black magic conducted in the church. No attackers were ever punished. After an attack on a church in Aswan on September 30, the local governor actually encouraged the attackers: He declared on TV that the Christians were to blame for a building violation and that “our boys” had corrected the wrongdoing.
When the pressure for action becomes high, the government resorts to the old tactic of arresting Christians: Following the recent attack at Cairo’s Maspero building that left some 25 Christians dead, the government arrested a number of young Christians and accused them of killing their coreligionists. Criminal proceedings were also initiated against two priests, Fr. Mittias Nasr and Fr. Philopatear Gamil, who had helped organize local Christians to demonstrate peacefully for their rights. Father Gamil is now in hiding.
For Christians in Egypt, the participation of the general Muslim population in these attacks is the greatest threat to their future. It is not that their neighbors want them dead; they just want the Christians to live, permanently, as second-class citizens. Any attempt by the Copts to break the chains of dhimmitude and act as equals is seen as an affront to the supremacy of Islam in its own land. What fueled the attack on the Aswan church, for example, was not that Christians wanted to pray; they can do so, as long as the building in which they do so is not a church. The local Muslims’ demands were that the building have no bells, no microphones, no crosses, and no domes. What instigated the attacks on the Christians during their march, before they were brutally killed by the army, was their chants of “Raise your head up high, you are a Copt” and their raised crosses. In the new Egypt, you can exist as a Copt, but you are not allowed to be proud of that fact. You will be allowed to survive, but you must show your submission to the religion of the majority and recognize your inferior status.
Faced with these hardships, it is no surprise that the Copts are questioning whether there is a future for them in the new Egypt. The younger members of the ancient community refuse to accept the inferior status that their parents accepted. They refuse simply to disappear, as many ancient communities in the Middle East have done in the last century. They will continue to raise their heads up high with their crosses, but they will not succeed. They number 8 million. Their small percentage in the overall population and their lack of a geographical concentration, combined with Egypt’s geography itself, make their chances of offering a substantial resistance minimal. Their plight is further worsened by their isolation from Western Christendom. After their break with the Catholic Church in 451 over the nature of Christ, the Copts — fearing an agenda of forced conversion — remained skeptical of any approaches from Catholicism. Western colonialism further deepened their suspicions. Unlike the French in the Levant, who favored minorities, the British in Egypt attempted to limit the Coptic presence in the bureaucracy.
The most likely outcome, then, is a wave of emigration. Like the Jews before them, 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. For them, the winter has already arrived, and it will be cold and long.
– Mr. Tadros is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.