Christians in Egypt

The future for Egypt’s Christians is far from clear, just as the future of Egypt’s government is far from clear. The Christians may hope that a liberal and pluralist democracy will emerge but others will be looking for an Islamic Republic. In fact the military may continue to govern and frustrate both those hopes. Here we consider the recent background to current disputes.

Pope Shenouda III

Pope Shenouda III

Of Egypt’s 82 million population it is estimated around 10% are Christians, of which by far the greater number are Coptic, the most ancient and the largest Christian community in the Middle East. The Copts stand to lose more than any other group in Egypt’s current drift following the fall of Mubarak’s unpopular autocracy.

One of the strange ironies is that the tyrants who have ruled Middle East countries in despotic fashion have generally been very supportive of the small Christian minorities in their midst. The downfall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was celebrated in the Christian west but led to the flight of more than 400,000 Iraqi Christians who feared the new situation more than the old. Most arrived in Syria where they now live and worship under the protection of the Assad regime which most western countries despise and would like to see toppled. In Libya the apostolic vicar Bishop Giovanni Martinelli declared that Catholics had fled Libya in vast numbers since NATO launched its attacks and the Catholic population fell from 100,000 to 5,000 and the Orthodox congregation had been reduced from a thousand to a dozen. In Egypt, Mubarak’s regime included Coptic Christians in the Cabinet and the government had the confidence of the Coptic Pope, Shenouda lll. In fact when the Copts feared an attack at their Christmas midnight mass, Mubarak’s sons were present as a gesture of solidarity.

All these leaders shared one thing in common-they were secular leaders who lived in fear of a rise of the religious fundamentalism that could overthrow them. Christians also feared the rise of that same radical Islam and that is how the ruthless leaders and the Christian minorities became wedded to each other.

William Dalrymple (Guardian Oct 10th) writes that a generation ago, most Egyptians chose names for their children which could be either Christian or Muslim, such as Karim or Adel. Now they tend to give their children names such Mohammed or Girgis (George) that immediately define their sectarian affiliation. Also, the adoption of the hijab by Muslim women has left Coptic women exposed and subject to abuse. In the face of discrimination the Copts have tended to form their own schools and social clubs, keeping their distance from the Muslim majority. At the same time, the Copts have seen their political influence diminish: under Mubarak’s last government there was still one Coptic provincial governor and two Coptic ministers. But unlike the days of Nasser and Sadat, no senior policemen are Copts, no judges, no university vice chancellors, no military generals.

When the Arab Spring began, the demonstrations were a model of sectarian amity, with Muslim and Christian demonstrators protecting each other from the violence of the police and the regime’s thugs. But a spate of anti-Coptic riots followed, which the army did very little to stop. In May, churches were attacked by Salafist mobs after rumours spread that a Muslim woman had been kidnapped by Copts. The army looked on as the churches burned, encouraging radicals to take the law into their own hands elsewhere. The dilemma and fears of the Copts mirror that of Christian minorities across the Middle East.

The Arab Spring, it is widely feared, could yet mark the onset of the final Christian winter for the forgotten faithful of the Middle East. Only elections and the advent of sympathetic and stable democratic governments across the region is likely to allay such fears. Dalrymple concludes that at the moment this outcome seems less likely with every passing day.

Article written by Tim Biles, Editor of Bible Lands

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