Editor’s note: The following essay is an excerpt from the Hoover Press book Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity.
The fall of the Mubarak regime in February 2011 unleashed a monumental and contagious wave of optimism. Images of Christians and Muslims holding hands in Tahrir Square were broadcast around the world and gave credence to the narrative that a new more liberal and democratic Egypt was being born. The truth was entirely different.
Copts were never enthusiastic about the revolution. Perhaps it was the wisdom of centuries of persecution that taught minorities the eternal lesson of survival: that the persecuting dictator was always preferable to the mob. The ruler, after all, could be bought off or persuaded to back off, or constrained by foreign powers, but with the mob, you stood no chance. Some of the Coptic youth were lured by the promise of a liberal Egypt in which their plight might finally come to an end, but the older generation knew better. The promises of January 2011 soon gave way to the reality of May, when the churches of Imbaba were attacked, and October, the time of the Maspero massacre. The complete collapse of the police and the state’s repression apparatus liberated Islamists from any constraints. On the national level, Islamists soon swept elections and dominated the political sphere, and on the local level, Islamists, much more emboldened by the rise of their brethren nationally and the collapse of the police were asserting their power on Egyptian streets and villages and enforcing their views. While their leaders such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Deputy General Guide, Khairat El Shater, were proclaiming their goal of the “Islamization of life,” local Islamists were making that goal a reality on the ground.
Patterns of persecution continued after the revolution and were reinforced. The number and scope of the attacks swelled dramatically and they were no longer limited to obscure villages or shantytowns but spread to the streets of Cairo and in front of the official TV headquarters. Church buildings were attacked and burned, mob violence against Copts was on the rise, and the new horror of forced evacuations from villages was becoming more common. Copts in small villages were increasingly forced to adhere to the Islamists’ standards and vision enforced on the ground. Accusations of blasphemy and insulting religion rose with Copts as their primary targets. Seven Copts today linger in Egyptian prisons as a result of court verdicts due to such accusations. The most worrisome aspect for Copts remains the participation of their neighbors, coworkers, and people they had grown up with in attacking them. Even if the Egyptian state ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood miraculously decided to intervene, the local hatreds are now impossible to contain.
On the national level the picture is also gloomy. While the Muslim Brotherhood paid lip service to Western and Coptic concerns before its ascent to power promising equality and freedom for all, once it came to power, those promises were forgotten. The dynamics of Egyptian politics and the rise of the Salafis and the threat they pose to the Muslim Brotherhood ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood will not attempt to address Coptic grievances. The Muslim Brotherhood still insists on using sectarian rhetoric that inflames local angers against Copts, and its leaders use Copts as scapegoats for the problems Egypt faces from train accidents to opposition demonstrations. The new Egyptian Constitution, passed in December 2012, further enshrines both the Islamic nature of the state and second class status for Copts.
The Islamists’ goal is not the annihilation of Copts. Copts are not likely to face a holocaust in the future, though local pogroms are all but guaranteed. The Islamists’ goal is to subjugate Copts to their notions of their proper place as dhimmis under benevolent Islamic rule. It is for Copts to accept dhimmitude, live by it, and embrace it. Copts will be allowed to live in Egypt, tolerated as second-class citizens recognizing and accepting their second-class status. Any attempt by Copts to break those chains of dhimmitude and act as equals is frowned upon as an affront to the supremacy and primacy of Islam in its own land.
Indisputably, there is today a Coptic nation. It is however not a nation that seeks to achieve independence and statehood. That nation is not racial nor, after the loss of the Coptic language, is it based on a distinct language or on purely religious lines. Instead, it is a nation that is founded on the unique history of a church. It is a nation, as S.S. Hassan described it, whose topography is invisible. The nature of the dangers facing that nation have varied throughout its history from assimilation in an imagined liberal Egypt, to the erosion of Coptic uniqueness, the threat of Protestant missionaries, and of modernity and its discontents. Today, this nation faces a more serious threat. It can fight back against persecution although overwhelming odds lined up against it assure its defeat. It can accept dhimmitude and live as second-class citizens, or it can withdraw inside the walls of its ancient church finding comfort within those walls.
The prospects for Copts in Egypt are, to say the least, bleak. Their options are limited. Copts are not geographically concentrated in one area so that the potential for a safe haven may be considered, and unlike the Jewish emigrants escaping Egypt in the ’40s and ’50s, for Copts driven out of their ancestral homeland there is no Israel to escape to. Nor does their overall percentage in Egypt allow them to play a key role in shaping its future. The only option in front of them is to pack their bags and leave, putting an end to two thousand years of Christianity in Egypt. A new wave of Coptic emigration has already started and it is immense. Most are heading to the countries their brethren settled in past decades: the United States, Canada, and Australia. Richer Copts are buying houses in Cyprus and with it receiving residence there, while Georgia is becoming a favored destination for their poorer brethren. The sad reality, however, is that not all of them will be able to flee. There is simply no place in the West for millions of Coptic immigrants. In the end, those Copts with better English and skills will be able to escape, leaving their poorer brethren behind. The community will lose its best elements, those who provide jobs for their brethren, those who donate to the church, further elevating its misery.
The feeling of sadness and distress is impossible to overcome as I watch the faces of the new immigrants in my church in Virginia. A church that has withstood diverse and tremendous challenges is now threatened in its very existence. When Copts leave Egypt, it is not only a loss to them and their church. A country and region will lose a portion of its identity and history. Devoutly religious, Copts point to the promises of the Lord in Isaiah 19:19 of the altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt, and to the Coptic Church’s history. Coptic history has been an endless story of decline and despair, but it has also been a story of survival, endurance in the face of persecution, and the courage and blood of martyrs becoming the seeds of the church. Persecution has taken its toll on the church and on Copts, but Coptic history has also been a story of triumph amidst despair and of the Lord’s protection of his people. Under the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo are the relics of two men: St. Mark, who brought the message of Christ to the Egyptians and ultimately shed his blood on its soil, and St. Athanasius, the defender of faith and the man who stood against the whole world and kept the Orthodox faith alive. It is as if the cathedral and the whole Coptic Church stands on those two pillars, martyrdom and faith.
Pope Tawadros II who rose to the throne of St. Mark on November 18, 2012, faces enormous challenges. He has declared his intention to focus on organizing the Coptic Church internally and has already undertaken some very positive initiatives in that regard but, no matter what his intentions are, he will inevitably find himself forced to deal with the growing plight of his people.
The Coptic exodus from Egypt will pose a colossal challenge to the Coptic Church. Today the Coptic Church has more than 550 churches outside of Egypt. At a moment in the not so distant future, the center of gravity of the Coptic Church will no longer be inside Egypt’s borders. The nature of this challenge is one the church has never faced before and is currently ill-equipped to address: how to become a truly universal church and open up the Coptic Church to the rest of Christendom while maintaining its uniqueness; how to keep both the Christian faith of the new immigrants who will move to Western countries and the specific Coptic identity in face of an open market competition between Christian denominations; what does being Coptic actually mean for those living outside of Egypt’s borders; how to provide for the material needs of the new immigrants who cling to the church not only seeking spiritual guidance; and how to cater to the ones who remain and whose lives will be increasingly difficult. These are all open questions that await history’s judgment.