The Middle East has turned hostile to Christians and other religious minorities. The Iraqi Christian community has been devastated. Syria’s civil war loosed the murderous Islamic State on Christians and others. Libya’s disintegration opened the nation to IS fighters bent on killing anyone of the wrong faith.
Also at risk are Egypt’s Copts, who make up about ten percent of that country’s population. Coptic Christians predate Islam and played an important role in Egypt’s development. But they long suffered from discrimination and persecution.
Under dictator Hosni Mubarak the U.S. State Department called the status of religious liberty “poor” and noted that Christians and Baha’is faced “personal and collective discrimination, especially in government employment and their ability to build, renovate, and repair places of worship.” Moreover, explained State, the government “sometimes arrested, detained, and harassed” those “whose beliefs and/or practices it deemed to deviate from mainstream Islamic beliefs and whose activities it alleged to jeopardize communal harmony.”
At times state-controlled media and -funded mosques encouraged violence. Attacks on Copts were common and perpetrators rarely were prosecuted. Indeed, victims sometimes were arrested too. The government also failed to respond seriously to the kidnapping of Christian girls who were forced to marry Muslims.
Even when the authorities did not actively persecute Copts, observed Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “a prejudicial legal framework has created a permissive environment that allows Egyptian officials and private individuals to discriminate against Christians freely and with impunity.” As elsewhere in the Middle East, converts and Baha’is tended to be most at risk. Reported William Inboden of the Strauss Center for International Security and Law: “Egyptian converts from Islam to Christianity, though very few in number, suffered particularly heinous treatment—including imprisonment and sadistic torture.” Dina Guiguis of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy blamed Mubarak’s regime “for creating the fertile ground on which pernicious and egregious sectarian violence has become routine.”
Understandably, Mubarak’s overthrow led Copts to hope for a freer and safer Egypt. But President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood failed to accept checks on executive authority, accommodate political opponents who feared centralization of power, and reassure those who feared the Brotherhood was determined to Islamize Egyptian society. Indeed, violent attacks on Copts increased.
Morsi was not the only culprit. Responsible for many incidents were Salafists, who emerged as allies of the army against the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, reported the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, after the revolution “military and security forces reportedly have used excessive force and live ammunition targeting Christian places of worship and Christian demonstrators.” In one infamous case the military, then headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, shot down more than a score of Coptic protesters. As a result, USCIRF recommended that Egypt be designated a Country of Particular Concern.
Two years ago al-Sisi overthrew Morsi and eventually became president. While the previous Coptic Pope Shenouda III was controversially connected to Mubarak, Pope Tawadros II publicly supported the coup and subsequently called al-Sisi a “hero.” Coptic film critic Joseph Fahim said the revolt “was a renewal of hope, a promise of a secular Egypt where political Islam will never have a say again. The then-field Marshall Sisi was no mere military leader; he was the great savior.”
Alas, secular saviors rarely keep faith with Christians. This case was no different. The military used extreme brutality—killing hundreds of demonstrators on the streets of Cairo—to maintain control. But the church remained as vulnerable as it was visible, and found itself targeted by angry Islamists because of its high profile support for the military. Dozens of churches were destroyed. A priest at the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria, Father Mina Adel, told Breitbart that “Most of our people are afraid” and many were leaving.
In January al-Sisi celebrated Christmas at a Coptic service and promised to rebuild churches that had been destroyed. He apologized for past inaction: “This year everything will be fixed,” he said. Some Copts, including in the U.S., appeared to take al-Sisi at his word and believed he would act as defender of the church.
So far, however, the government has delivered more promises than actions. Mina Thabet of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms complained that al-Sisi was no liberal and “doesn’t care about religious freedom.” Certainly he evidenced no interest prior to assembling support for the coup.
Nor is the only problem attacks on churches (which have diminished). Egypt’s blasphemy law is frequently deployed against Christians. In fact, the government never stopped targeting Copts. Fahim pointed out in July 2014: “Copts, too, are not safe from the new government’s oppressive measures. Two weeks ago, a 23-year-old Coptic teacher was sentenced to prison for six months for insulting Islam. On June 23, a Christian convert reporter was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly reporting false information about discrimination against Copts. The following day, a 29-year-old Copt from Upper Egypt was given a five-year prison sentence for liking a Facebook page put up by a group of Christian converts—so much for the secular utopia we conjured in our imagination.”
The State Department’s most recent religious freedom report, from 2014, noted that Egypt’s government did not recognize conversion from Islam, prosecuted people for religious defamation and blasphemy, and failed to respond to attacks on Christians. “Accountability for previous sectarian crimes was uneven,” noted State. Moreover, “The government failed to prevent, investigate, or prosecute crimes targeting members of religious minority groups, which fostered a climate of impunity.”
Last year’s USCIRF annual report concluded: “the Egyptian government has not adequately protected religious minorities, particularly Coptic Orthodox Christians and their property, from periodic violence. Discriminatory and repressive laws and policies that restrict freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief remain in place. Egyptian courts continue to prosecute, convict, and imprison Egyptian citizens for blasphemy, and new government initiatives to counter atheism emerged during the year.”
Those who commit sectarian violence generally are not convicted, leaving conditions for Copts “precarious.” Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned, while anti-Semitism is rife. Blasphemy cases are on the upswing. Most cases are brought against Sunni Muslims but, noted the Commission, “the majority of those sentenced by a court to prison terms for blasphemy have been Christians, Shi’a Muslims, and atheists, mostly based on flawed trials.” In February four teenage Copts were sentenced to five years in prison for a video directed against the Islamic State but treated as an attack on Islam. At the end of March the court upheld a three-year sentence against the poet Fatma Naoot for “contempt of religion” and “insulting Islam.”
Indeed, al-Sisi may be consciously using ostentatious state piety to maintain power in a society in which social hostility runs high against religious minorities. In reporting on the conviction of Naoot, who, ironically, had supported al-Sisi, the Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan explained: “there have been more religious-based convictions during President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s time in office than under the Islamist government the former general replaced two years ago.” Film director Ama Salama argued that “What happened with Fatma Naoot would have never happened under the time of Mubarak, or under the time of the revolution, or under Morsi.”
Even if Copts believe they remain safer under al-Sisi, they may have sold their liberty birthrate for what turns out to be a mess of security pottage. With the al-Sisi government instituting its own reign of terror, the Coptic Church appears to be on the side of the oppressors. Fahim contemplated Cairo’s urban massacre, which was bloodier than Tiananmen Square: “The Coptic Orthodox Church watched the bloodshed and did nothing.” And that was just the beginning.
Copts live in the same unfree society as everyone else. Fahim wrote two years ago: “more than 40,000 arrests have been made since Morsi’s overthrow, journalists have been prosecuted, artists have been censored, opposition voices have been violently silenced, dissented politicians have been witch-hunted, the Mubarak regime has successfully reassembled itself, institutional corruption has grown more rampant, the country has descended into further chaos and fear has become the prevailing sentiment of the day.”
Today the government targets all critics, including many who opposed Mubarak. In fact, the regime outlawed the April 6 democracy movement which organized protests against the previous dictator. Some activists received lengthy terms for participating in similar demonstrations against al-Sisi. TV host Wael al-Ibrashi originally supported the military but recently told the Wall Street Journal that the Mubarak “apparatus” is using violence to return to power.
The State Department’s 2015 human rights report on Egypt is a depressing read: “The most significant human rights problems were excessive use of force by security forces, deficiencies in due process, and the suppression of civil liberties. Excessive use of force included unlawful killings and torture. Due process problems included the excessive use of preventative custody and pretrial detention, the use of military courts to try civilians, and trials involving hundreds of defendants in which authorities did not present evidence on an individual basis. Civil liberties problems included societal and governmental restrictions on freedoms of expression and the press, as well as on the freedoms of assembly and association.”
The human rights group Freedom House recently judged Egypt to be “not free” and getting worse. The group cited “the complete marginalization of the opposition, state surveillance of electronic communications, public exhortations to report critics of the government to the authorities, and the mass trials and unjustified imprisonment of members of the Muslim Brotherhood.” In the name of fighting terrorism journalists who contradict the government face fines and arrest.
Many people simply disappear. Explained Khaled Mansour, a writer and former executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights: “Security officers kidnap individuals they believe are activists, force them to provide information or testify to wrongdoing, and deny for days, weeks or months that they are keeping them in custody. Some of those kidnapped are then taken to court—or released—while the whereabouts of others remain unknown.” The security forces appear to be largely unaccountable, perhaps even to the government.
To be so detained is said to be going “behind the sun,” a phrase dating back to the dictatorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser, since anyone looking for you may go blind. Last year Human Rights Watch documented several cases of “enforced disappearances.” Public attention in Egypt focused on student Esraa al-Taweel, who was kidnapped along with two male friends and taken to the headquarters of state security, where the two men were tortured into confessing to violent activity.
The latest case to embarrass the government involves 28-year-old Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, who was investigating Egyptian labor unions. He disappeared in January; his mutilated body, which sustained the sort of torture typically inflicted by the security forces, was discovered several days later. The government initially blamed his death on a car accident, but later claimed he was murdered by a newly discovered criminal gang, whose members all happened to be killed at a police checkpoint.
Finally, Cairo currently is engaged in a systematic campaign to shut down organizations which simply report on government abuses. Scores of domestic and international NGOs engaged in documenting human rights violations reportedly are under criminal investigation. In March the government sought to freeze the personal assets of Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid, founders respectively of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
Another human rights advocate, Negad al-Borai, had been detained and threatened with criminal charges. The regime also launched legal attacks on the women’s organization Nazra for Feminist Studies and the anti-torture Nadeem Center. The Working Group on Egypt, whose members include leading neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan and Elliott Abrams, warned that these efforts are part of the “Egyptian authorities’ campaign to crush the last remnants of Egypt’s independent civil society and human rights community.”
Two years ago I was a member of a delegation of lawyers who visited the Nadeem Center. We met with co-founder and psychiatry professor Aida Seif al-Dawla, who told us that torture was more pervasive then than at any point during the Mubarak era. Security personnel acted with complete impunity. Last year, reported the organization, the government abducted 464 people, caused the death of nearly 500 detainees, and tortured at least 676 people. Since February the government has been attempting to shut down the center. Seif al-Dawla told the Associated Press: “The problem now is that you cannot predict what can put you in jail or not.”
In short, Egypt is scary for anyone who dissents. People disappear and die. Prison conditions are harsh. Judicial verdicts reflect political demands. Journalists are punished for expressing independent opinions. Academic freedom is restricted. Human rights organizations are harassed and closed. Official corruption has spread. Security forces act with impunity.
Unfortunately, sustained repression has only encouraged radicalization and more terrorist attacks. Which raises questions about the stability of al-Sisi’s rule. In April public protests erupted over the gifting of two islands to Saudi Arabia, apparently in exchange for financial “aid” received. Egyptians unwilling to turn out on behalf of democracy demonstrated against this public prostration before Riyadh. Scores of protesters were arrested and imprisoned. Rumors of military dissatisfaction with al-Sisi abound.
In the end Coptic Christians could end up more vulnerable than ever. The al-Sisi dictatorship does little to protect them and his promises of aid remain unfulfilled. Yet the Coptic Church has tied itself to his rule, which grows ever more repressive. If he falls, Copts again could find themselves targeted, but this time by a much wider proportion of the population.
Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East have few good options. Unfortunately, Coptic reliance on Egypt’s al-Sisi increasingly looks like a bad deal. He is delivering little of the secularism that was supposed to accompany his dictatorship. And his brutal repression risks triggering another revolution, one in which Copts might find themselves to be targets. Now is the time to search for a new approach that doesn’t sacrifice national liberty for sectarian security.