Encouraging reports continue to emerge about significant improvements in Israel’s relationship with Egypt. With Cairo battling an explosive ISIS presence in the Sinai Peninsula, and destroying Hamas smuggling tunnels into Gaza, news of quiet cooperation between the two countries comes as a breath of fresh air. Overall, considering the ongoing bloodbaths elsewhere in the region, such positive accounts can’t help but spark a flicker of optimism in Israeli hearts.
But for those of us who are concerned with Christian persecution, all has not been well in recent days. On May 25, the Daily Telegraph reported a horrendous attack on a village of Coptic Christians in El-Karm, located in Egypt’s southern province of Minya.
The trouble began – as anti-Christian attacks in Muslim-majority countries often do – with a salacious rumor. The story in this case was that a Christian man, Ashraf Thabet, was having a sexual relationship with a Muslim woman. In an Islamic-oriented culture, this portends a death sentence – an honor killing – on the purported lovers.
Once the accused adulterer got wind of the local gossip, he ran for his life, with his wife and children in tow. His parents, knowing very well how vulnerable they also were, rushed to the police for protection.
That, as it turned out, was a wasted trip.
The Telegraph wrote,
The next day, around 300 Muslim men set fire to and looted [the [parents’] house…and stripped the mother naked out on the street. They also set fire to and looted six other houses, witnesses told Reuters.
"They burned the house and went in and dragged me out, threw me in front of the house and ripped my clothes. I was just as my mother gave birth to me and was screaming and crying," the woman, who requested anonymity, told Reuters.
Later identified as Soaad Thabet, the 70-year-old mother of the accused was not only stripped naked. She was paraded around the neighborhood, humiliated beyond description and fearing for her life. It may be difficult for western readers to imagine the degree of cultural dishonor and disgrace to which this innocent woman was subjected.
This was, indeed, a sensational story. But it was nothing new to those of us who keep an eye on such incidents. Muslim attacks on Coptic Christians aren’t exactly a novelty in Egypt. As I wrote just about a year ago,
The Copts’ historic Christian community – founded in Alexandria during the first century CE by the Apostle Mark – comprises between 8 and 10 percent of Egypt’s 83 million citizens.
The Copts’ bloodlines are even more ancient than their Christian faith; they date back to the pharaohs, centuries before the Arab invasions in the seventh century CE. The Coptic language, still used in liturgy, is the closest existing language to that of ancient Egypt.
However, despite their historical heritage, as a religious minority in a Muslim-majority state, the Copts have lived for centuries under the dhimmi status spelled out in Islamic Sharia law. Simply put, that means that they are treated as inferior citizens. Meanwhile, in recent years, Copts have suffered escalating attacks, as Islamist extremists have specifically targeted them.
Christians in Egypt suffered exceptional abuse during the brief regime of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. Then, in July 2013, in response to multiplied millions of Egyptians taking to the streets in protest against the Brotherhood, Egypt’s military removed Morsi from office.
This stunning turnaround offered some hope to Egyptians who were both wary and weary of the Brotherhood’s efforts to seize control of all branches of government. It also unleashed even greater violence upon the Copts.
After a litany of horrific incidents in 2011-2013, and after the brutal massacre of 21 Coptic Christian men on a Libyan beach in February 2015, reports of attacks on Christians have diminished somewhat, although such episodes have not ceased.
Meanwhile, since his election in May 2014, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has taken several highly visible steps toward bettering state relations with the Coptic community, including his unprecedented move in attending last winter’s Coptic Christmas Mass, celebrated by Pope Tawadros.
And following the recent Minya outrage, President Sisi issued a statement demanding that officials hold the perpetrators accountable. He also ordered that the seven Christian houses, which had been burned and looted, be rebuilt and restored by the state, at no expense to the owners.
In light of all this, I asked my Egyptian colleague and friend Samuel Tadros – senior fellow at Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and the author of the critically-acclaimed book Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity – if there has been real progress in relations between the government and the Coptic community. Tadros explained,
A spike in attacks came after the 2011 revolution for two reasons; collapse of security and rise of Islamists not just on national level, but on local one, where they attempted to force their will on villages and small towns.
Following the removal of President Morsi, these two factors have been somewhat contained. Policing is a bit better, not by much – they still ignore attacks on Copts – but there is somewhat better security in the streets; and Islamists are on the run.
The result is that the Copts are back to a bit higher number of attacks than during the Mubarak era, which of course is not something to look up to. But we have to remember, the president has changed, but the local security officer who won’t protect the Copts is the same man, the local mayor or governor who will hold the reconciliation session is the same official, and most importantly the neighbors who hate the Copts are the same neighbors.
Sam Tadros’ reference to “reconciliation sessions” is of great importance. These sessions amount to a disgraceful tactic, which is used again and again following incidents of Christian persecution. Such events essentially release violent perpetrators from all responsibility.
The idea of reconciliation may sound good on the surface: why not bring together the village’s Christians and Muslims so they can work out their differences and get along with one another?
What really happens, instead, is that an attitude of moral equivalency prevails. “Everyone” is responsible for the problem. Therefore, the Muslim radicals, who may already have been arrested and even indicted for their criminal behavior, are for all practical purposes “forgiven.”
The mob attack in El-Karm, Minya, was no exception to this scheme.
Bishop Macarius of Minya and Abu Qirqas, who was delegated by Pope Tawadros II to speak on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church on the Minya case, denounced the subsequent reconciliation meeting, stating that it would prevent the perpetrators from being held accountable. "I refused to attend the meeting so as to deliver a message that enforcing the law should come before any meeting," he said in an official statement.
Sam Tadros goes on to say,
There are several problems with the reconciliation programs that take place after every attack on Copts. First they are non-judicial practices that replace the courts. As such, no punishment is ever handed down to the attackers. By not punishing the attackers, the sessions create a culture of impunity. You can attack Copts and get away with it.
Secondly, the sessions end up giving the attackers what they want: If they were objecting to a church being built, no church is built; if they were angry after a rumor about a Christian man insulting Islam or having a relationship with a Muslim woman, then he and his extended family are forced out of the village.
As such, the sessions create a culture of encouragement. If you are unhappy with something the Copts did, attack their homes, burn some houses, loot a few shops and not only will you get away with it, but your actions will be rewarded by giving you what you want.
Lastly, the sessions create a false impression that the problem has been solved or that there is no problem between Copts and Muslims in the first place. This, in turn, provides no incentive for the state to take the issue seriously and attempt to solve it.
Of course it’s true that Christians are meant to forgive. We are also called to be peacemakers. But at the same time, while being gentle as doves, we are equally advised to be “Wise as serpents.” With that in mind, there seems to be much wisdom in the Coptic leaders’ resistance to the phony peace and forgiveness promoted in Egypt’s reconciliation sessions.