The massacre of 21 Coptsat a New Year’s Eve mass has been called ‘a watershed moment’.
The Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg blogs:
“I’ve been struck over the past couple of days by the lackadaisical coverage of what seems to be the most important story coming out of the Middle East right now — The Salafist war on Christians in the Middle East is intensifying fairly rapidly, with profound consequences not only for Christians in the lands of their faith’s earliest history (keep in mind that Christianity had planted itself in Egypt well before the birth of Muhammad) but for the rights of all ethnic and religious minorities in the greater Middle East”.
Helloooo, Jeffrey! We have been here before. Where were you when the Jews – also in the region well before the birth of Muhammad – were being systematically deprived of their rights ? Where were you when the Jews were ‘ethnically cleansed’ from the Middle East and most of North Africa, to the point where the 80,000 Jews of Egypt are down to double figures, the 150,000 Jews of Iraq down to single digits, and no Jews live in Libya or Algeria?
If the massacre at the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria tells us anything, it is that the Jews of the Middle East were not driven out as a backlash – in revenge for the creation of Israel, as is often argued. Pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism long ago sounded the death knell for non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities. The former had to acquiesce to being stripped of their identity and language (Kurds and Berbers), while the latter were squeezed out of public life by violence and systemic discrimination (Jews, Eastern Christians, Mandaeans and Baha’is).
The marginalisation of the Copts has closely mirrored that of the Jews. In their heyday, Copts and Jews reached the very pinnacle of office (although Egypt’s Coptic Prime Minister Boutros Ghali Pasha was assassinated by a Muslim fanatic). Like the Jews, Copts were 90 percent of civil servants and played a key role in Egypt’s intellectual and cultural life. They were in the forefront of the Egyptian nationalist movement in the 1920s and 30s, and the Wafd party’s symbol was the Muslim crescent and Christian cross intertwined.
The Muslim Brotherhood targeted both Jews and Copts for attack from the 1930s on, but the officers’ coup led by Nasser in 1952 put paid to Coptic integration while driving out the mass of Jews, Greeks, Armenians and other non-Muslims. Political parties were banned and Egypt became increasingly Islamised. Attacks, church burnings, abductions and forced conversions since the 1960s have driven thousands of Copts to leave Egypt for the West.
Nevertheless, there are more Christians in Egypt than there are Muslims in Saudi Arabia. There are twice as many Christians in Egypt as there are Jews in Israel. There are 10 to 15 million Christians in Egypt, four times the size as the powerful Christian community in Lebanon.
Yet, these 15 percent of Egyptians only account for 1.5% of civil servants. They are excluded from the higher echelons of the army and from the justice system. A non-Muslim cannot become a head of department. Neither can he become a teacher of Arabic, nor an obstetrician.
Of 444 members of Parliament, there is only one Christian.They are allocated no time in the official media, while Islamic religious instruction is everywhere. To build or repair a church requires a presidential decree, seldom given.
What is new, in the wake of the New Year’s eve massacre, is that a Christian-free Egypt has become a realistic prospect.
Hani Shukrallah, an Egyptian journalist of Coptic origin and the managing editor of the Egyptian Al-Ahram weekly, published a scathing op-ed entitled “J’accuse.” He accused the Egyptian regime of failing to combat Islamist extremism, and of even nurturing Salafist Islam in the hope of undermining the Muslim Brotherhood. He also condemned Egypt’s “supposedly moderate Muslims” for their growing bigotry and hostility towards the Christian community. They practised double standards, loudly condemning any Western measure they perceive as anti-Muslim, while turning a blind eye to the flagrant persecution of Christians in their own country. Finally, he condemned the liberals and intellectuals, both Muslim and Christian, for keeping silent in the face of the violence against Christians:
“….The massacres continue, each more horrible than the one before it, and the bigotry and intolerance spread deeper and wider into every nook and cranny of our society. It is not easy to empty Egypt of its Christians; they’ve been here for as long as there has been Christianity in the world. Close to a millennium and half of Muslim rule did not eradicate the nation’s Christian community, rather it maintained it sufficiently strong and sufficiently vigorous so as to play a crucial role in shaping the national, political, and cultural identity of modern Egypt.
“Yet now, two centuries after the birth of the modern Egyptian nation state, and as we embark on the second decade of the 21st century, the previously unheard-of seems no longer beyond imagining: a Christian-free Egypt, one where the cross will have slipped out of the crescent’s embrace, and off the flag symbolizing our modern national identity. I hope that if and when that day comes I will have been long dead, but dead or alive, this will be an Egypt which I do not recognize and to which I have no desire to belong.”
As Shukrallah says, it will not be easy to empty Egypt of its indigenous people, the Copts. But Egypt is going the right way about it.