From the lips of a little child – an 8-year-old girl from El Arish, Egypt – comes a heartbreaking message. Her words speak volumes about the violent attacks on Christians that are taking place today in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
“I am very sad,” she explained in words too worldly wise for her years, “because I had to leave my friends and my school, and I don’t know if I will go back or not. I saw the threats with my own eyes, on notices and written on the walls of [my] house. I heard what they said to my father on the phone, when they said we had to leave or else they would kill us.”
This young girl, along with hundreds of other Christians, was forced to flee for her life because the Islamic State continues to make bloodthirsty threats against Christians: “We swear that we will repay you, oh Egypt’s Christians. We will expel you, slaughter you, and subject you to Allah’s laws, oh idolaters – oh unclean ones.”
And to make sure no one doubts that declaration, ISIS has killed at least seven El Arish Christians in recent days. The believers were shot, burned alive or beheaded. And their bodies were left, like so much rubbish, by the side of the road.
Any Jewish or Christian child who has attended Sunday school or Bible classes has probably heard the wonderful story of the Exodus, and how God miraculously delivered his suffering people from the brutality of Pharaoh.
With Passover approaching next month, the story of the Jews’ deliverance will take on even more significance for the people of Israel. And some of them still remember all too well that their people have experienced not just one Exodus from Egypt, but two.
The second departure took place between 1948 and 1970, when a thriving Jewish population of some 90,000 in Egypt was reduced to just a few dozen. Today, only about 10 elderly Jews still live in Egypt.
Thankfully, many of those who were expelled were able to start their lives over in Israel, where the Jewish State offered them a new beginning.
However, as an infamous jihadi saying in the Middle East forebodes, “First the Saturday People, then the Sunday people.” Or, in other words, “On Saturday we kill the Jews and on Sunday, we kill the Christians.”
Today, thanks to strong military deterrence and wise diplomacy, Israel is at peace with Egypt. But the “Saturday people” in Israel are watching a horrifying scenario unfold in Egypt, which, for some of them, recalls their own suffering.
And it’s taking place somewhere not far away.
A pogrom against Christians has begun in the north of Sinai, a part of Egypt that Israel conquered during a defensive war, and later – for the sake of peace – gave back to the Egyptian government. Today, rockets are periodically fired from Sinai into Israel.
Meanwhile, the Coptic Christians in the Northern Sinai – the “Sunday people” – are running for their lives. And for good reason.
One of the women who fled along with the 8-year-old girl told a MEMRI interviewer the horrifying scene in her home. The reporter’s words are below:
“There was a knock on her door one night, and when her son opened it, terrorists burst in, shot him dead, and then searched the house for the other men of the family. They found her elderly husband and shot him too, and then they stole her jewelry and set the house on fire.”
Unfortunately, persecution of Christians in Egypt isn’t a new situation. But since 2011, violence against Christians has been escalating. As I wrote in the Huffington Post in 2013,
There is a pattern of attacks on Coptic Christians … at the hand of radical Islamists. These assaults have increased exponentially since the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s government. Incidents of violence against Copts are usually underreported in the western media, and my friend and Hudson Institute colleague Samuel Tadros, who is in close touch with the Coptic community in Egypt, provides some perspective.
“In the past two years from April 2011 until today,” Tadros told me, “59 Copts have been murdered: 28 in Maspero, four in Abu Qurqas, six in Imbaba, 12 in Mansheyet Nasser, one in Libya, one in Dahshur, and at least eight in Khosous.
“Besides the fatalities, 714 Copts have been wounded and not one assailant has been tried for those attacks.
“114 Coptic families have had their property looted; 112 have been forced to leave their homes.
“24 churches have been attacked, 4 of which have been completely destroyed.
“Eight Copts, including three children, have been imprisoned for insulting Islam.”
In July 2013, the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood at the hand of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi kindled hope in the Coptic Christian community, which comprises roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population, numbering some 9 or 10 million. Optimism increased as Sisi publicly reached out a hand of friendship to the Coptic Pope, while calling on the Islamic leadership in Egypt to moderate Islam.
But today there is growing disappointment. Change – real change – has not begun to appear.
Last May, a riot – based on a salacious rumor – led to ferocious violence against a Coptic family in El-Karm, located in Egypt’s southern province of Minya. Some 300 raging Islamists stripped a 70-year-old mother naked and paraded her, shamed and weeping, through the streets of her hometown, while torching seven Christian houses.
Then, on December 11, a suicide bomber attacked St. Peter and St. Paul Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, killing 29 and injured dozens. MEMRI reported, “Jihadis took to social media to express their satisfaction, even before any organization claimed responsibility. Many ISIS supporters shared posts on social media … explaining why Egypt’s Coptic Christians deserve punishment, while others vowed that Egyptian Christians will either be expelled or slaughtered.”
Today, the hopes of Egypt’s Copts have been all but extinguished. Hundreds if not thousands of Christians have permanently left the country.
The Economist put it this way:
It has been over two years since Mr. Sisi, an observant Muslim, lamented that some of his co-religionists were becoming “a source of worry, fear, danger, murder and destruction to all the world.” He urged Egyptian clerics to push back against the jihadists of Islamic State. Egypt itself was a victim, he said: Angry Islamists have attacked the government, and an affiliate of IS battles the army in Sinai. To combat such extremism, “a religious revolution” was needed, said Mr. Sisi – and Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s oldest seat of learning, should take the lead.
But the clerics … have largely resisted Mr. Sisi’s appeal. Though al-Azhar bills itself as moderate, critics say that it has allowed hardliners to remain in senior positions and failed to reform its curriculums, which include centuries-old texts often cited by extremists. It has blocked efforts at social reform and tried to censor its critics. “Nothing has been done since the president called for renewing religious discourse,” said Helmi al-Namnam, the culture minister, last August.
Some hold onto the frail hope that Sisi – who is seeking a way to resettle the Christians who have fled North Sinai – will find a way to crack down on the jihadi violence against Christians. Others have lost any confidence that relief will come, particularly in light of the seemingly endless bloodshed in the greater Middle East.
My friend Mina Abdelmalak – a Coptic activist based in Washington, D.C. – first brought the present attacks on the Sinai Christians to my attention. I asked him for his thoughts on the current situation. “Generally,” he told me,
I understand that the Egyptian military is facing a great challenge in Sinai, and it doesn’t seem like they are capable of restoring control. However, the attack against the Copts in El-Arish has been taking place for some time now, and the Egyptian government knows that Copts are a target for ISIS. So, either the government could have helped to evacuate the Copts from there. Or they could have done their job and secured their safety.
What happened in El Arish sends a message: The Egyptian government and military don’t really care about the safety and wellbeing of the Copts.
Christians in the Muslim world have been the victims of their careless, complicit governments and Islamic terrorism for so long now that our communities are vanishing in our home countries. El-Arish isn’t the first place where they’ll manage to destroy the Coptic existence. And it won’t be the last.
Will today’s Christian believers, who are suffering persecution in the Middle East, be delivered in some new, modern-day Exodus? And if so, where will they go? There is no Israel – no well-defended home country – for Middle East Christians.
Meanwhile, Israel also watches and wonders. The Jewish State is said to be quietly cooperating with Egypt in its war against ISIS terrorists in the Sinai. And, as writer Micah Halpern pointed out in The Jerusalem Post, despite the fact that the Western media barely acknowledges the plight of Christians in the Middle East, there is good reason for Israel to pay close attention.
The massacres of Christians in the Middle East have barely made a blip on the radar of the Western news media.
Sisi is reacting much the way Western media is reacting. The Copts are not a part of the mainstream; they don’t belong. Their tradition, their practice, looks nothing like Western Christianity. There are no significant populations and affiliations outside of Egypt to take up the battle cry and defend them. Libya and Sudan have small Coptic communities, but they’re not going to make waves and risk their relative safety to help out in Egypt. Western Catholic and Protestant groups are not connected to these Christians who are part of the Eastern Church, sometimes referred to as the National Churches.
That leaves Israel and Jews around the world.
Defense of Egypt’s Christian community is not purely selfless. We have, as they say, skin in the game. We must call attention to the plight of the Christians under ISIS and other oppressors in order to make certain that moderate regimes in the region remain stable.
The deadly “Saturday people, Sunday people” threat continues to menace the Middle East, Europe and beyond. It is being acted out wherever jihadis are given a free hand to impose their seventh-century violence on 21st-century Jews and Christians.
Bloodthirsty Islamist attacks impose indescribable grief and loss on those who manage to survive. Just ask the Iraqi and Syrian Christian survivors of the ISIS genocide. They are caught between their utterly devastated and unsafe ancient homelands, and a world that turns a blind eye and cold shoulder to their suffering.
Will Egypt’s Christians be next?