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A Coptic Orthodox bishop surveys the damaged evangelical church in Minya, Egypt, Aug. 26, 2013. Attacks on Christian properties by Muslim Brotherhood and other groups supportive of ousted leader Mohammed Morsi are not uncommon in Egypt. CNS photo/Louafi Larbi, Reuters

Purging of Christians well underway in Egypt

  • November 13, 2014

In Michael Coren’s new book, Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity, The Catholic Register’s award-winning columnist examines the relationship between Islam and Christianity and minces no words in decrying widespread Christian persecution. Here is an excerpt from his book. 

Coptic Christian weddings in Egypt tend to be glorious, loud, beautiful and grand affairs. I have attended more than one, and the sheer largesse of emotion and unbridled hospitality and sense of communal grace, lightness and joy is irresistible. Rich or poor, the Christians of Egypt are always determined to make their weddings events to remember. As a Coptic friend once said to me after more than a few drinks, “It might be an awful marriage, but the wedding is something to remember!” 

It was supposed to be such an event in October 2013 on the edge of Cairo but, tragically, it was not to be. The gunmen were not heard or even noticed because of the celebrations, but as people spilled outside to celebrate, the Islamists opened fire and four people were immediately killed. Two of them were adults and two others little girls in dresses their mothers had made especially for the occasion. They were aged eight and 12, and the large bullets ripped their small bodies apart. They died where they stood, but the two adults held on to their lives for a little longer. 

Many others were wounded, and the wounds were not scratches but deep stomach wounds leading to lifelong disability and limbs so shattered they necessitated amputation. Others lost eyes or suffered brain damage from head wounds. 

In a way, the attack was not surprising. More than 40 churches had been raided by Muslim radicals since August when protest camps set up to support Muslim Brotherhood leader and former president Mohamed Morsi had been cleared by the army. Islamists blamed Christians for this and for the demise of their regime and leader, even though those Christians they scapegoated had been persecuted for generations and had no particular loyalty to either side in the divisions that so hurt modern Egypt. Their struggle was not for power but for mere existence. 

The reality is that to be a Christian in contemporary Egypt is to live under daily threat and constant danger; the diaspora of Egypt’s Christians is a growing international phenomenon because the persecution has become even worse in recent years. This situation is profoundly worrying because there are more Christians in Egypt than in any other country in the Arab world, and although it is impossible to accurately measure the numbers, the Christian population in Egypt could be as high as 20 per cent of the total and is certainly greater than 10 per cent. Many Christians in Egypt refuse to identify themselves in surveys and questionnaires, such is their anxiety and fear. They prefer to live quietly rather than be persecuted or die loudly. 

The Christian community can be traced back to the Roman era — Alexandria was one of the centres of the ancient Church — with early Christianity owing much of its life and energy to followers of Christ who lived in Egypt. The Christians of Egypt are to a large extent the closest we can get to the indigenous people of the country, but they are treated as invaders and unwanted aliens. As in so many Muslim countries, belonging and deserving depend on religion rather than citizenship, history or identity. 

Over 95 per cent of Christians in the country are members of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, an ancient and oriental church that is part of the greater international Eastern Orthodox community. Egyptian Christians like to claim that the apostle Mark brought the faith to their country just a few years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; we have no idea if this is true but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. If it wasn’t Mark who brought the Gospel to Egypt, it was very early followers of Christ. Egyptians converted to Christianity in large numbers and Egypt became what was effectively a Christian country with a pagan and Jewish minority. 

Islam developed at a much later date but did manage to transform Egypt into a Muslim nation with extraordinary speed and success, albeit always with a large and vital Christian Church existing within the Muslim majority state. There were times of relative peace and times of persecution, but the latter was never as consistent and severe as it has been for the past 40 years. It’s worth remembering that Jews had lived in Egypt since long before the life of Mohammad, had played a central role in Egyptian society and were considered integral to the country’s way of life. After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, however, they were gradually marginalized, then persecuted, and then expelled. The Jews no longer live in Egypt and their existence is generally forgotten. It will be much more difficult to expunge the Christians but the campaign is well under way. 

The list of attacks could fill an entire book, and while this is not the place for such an analysis, we have to consider the number of incidents and the violence of what has occurred in the past few years alone. The nature and style of government is usually irrelevant to these occurrences, and fundamentalist and alleged Muslim moderates alike have encouraged or allowed a persecution of millions of people that surely one day will be looked back upon with international shame. 

The last decade is the worst in recent memory. In 2004, the church at the Patmos Centre was burned down by Islamist groups within the army, killing one worshipper and injuring two others. Shortly afterwards in Taha al- Aamida, Islamists who served in the police force kidnapped three Christians working to repair a church — repairing a church is forbidden under sharia law unless specific permission has been given by the Islamic authorities. All three of the men, one of them a priest, were killed. At the beginning of 2005, a nun and her friend were stabbed outside their church in Alexandria, and a Christian minister in Cairo was killed after a prolonged campaign of threats against him and demands that he stop preaching the Gospel. At the beginning of 2006 in al-’Udaysāt, a Muslim mob attacked Christians and Christian property in a mass attack, resulting in numerous injuries and the deaths of a 45- year-old man and a 10-year-old child. 

As was and is so often the case, these incidents are investigated in a perfunctory manner and the culprits are seldom if ever brought to justice. If, however, Christians defend themselves or retaliate, arrests, charges, trials and imprisonment are routine. There is, in effect, a two-tier justice system in much of Egypt. 

. . . 

Egypt is the Christian key in the door to the Arab world. There will always be Christians in the country, but if the exile continues and the persecution does not stop — and it shows absolutely no signs of doing so — numbers will reduce and begin to resemble those of other Arab countries, and Christianity will become little more than a humiliating minority having no impact or influence on the most powerful country in the Arab world. If Egyptian Christianity drains to a trickle, the Christians of the rest of the Middle East will become virtually invisible. The purging will have been complete. 

(Excerpted from Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity. Copyright © 2014 Michael Coren. Published by Signal, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.) 

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