A friend distributed the following e-mail from the Coptic Bishop Thomas, who serves in an Egyptian diocese where the persecution of Christians by Muslims is among the worst in the country:
Thank you for sharing our difficult time.
We are passing through a dark tunnel of violence, feeling grieve of death and injustice. The light of forgiveness is shining with a painful love. Trying to bring forgiveness and justice together is a big struggle, but we are committed to the love that never fails.
We are hardly pressed on every side, yet not crushed. We are perplexed but not lost, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed. We do not lose heart and continue to work for justice to be fulfilled. We continue to love and declare forgiveness so the peace of God will overshadow all hearts. We continue to work on the healing and support of the innocent victims. And we continue to pray for the victims, for the offenders and for a better future.
Thank you all for your love, care, words and actions to bring justice and forgiveness together.
A couple of years ago, Bishop Thomas was in Washington to deliver a lecture on the history of Egypt and the persecution of its Coptic Christians, especially as Islamic fundamentalism has risen in modern times. You can watch all seven videos of the lecture here. I encourage you to watch at least a few minutes of one of the videos, if only to see and listen to this bishop of the persecuted church. I met him five years ago in Istanbul, and had breakfast with him one morning. I can’t think of another person I ever met who was so luminous, and who radiated such peace and serenity. It was doubly impressive given the dire picture he painted about the perilous position of Egypt’s Christian community.
You may have heard of the recent massacre of 24 Copts by Egyptian troops. The Copts had been peaceably protesting the destruction of one of their churches by a fanatical Muslim mob. The Egyptian army turned on them, and killed two dozen. Eyewitness accounts are horrifying. The Copts, who make up between 10 and 15 percent of Egypt’s population, and who were worshiping Jesus Christ in Egypt before the Islamic invasion, have been persecuted for a very long time, even under Egypt’s secular government, which tried to manage Islamist rage at themselves by allowing the Islamists to blow off steam by persecuting Copts. Now that the secularist order has been overthrown, and Egypt waits to see what’s coming next, the Copts are extremely vulnerable. It appears that the Army is trying to maintain popular legitimacy with the Muslim masses by showing itself dealing firmly with the Christians, who have the unmitigated, un-Islamic gall to demand that their right to worship in their own churches be respected.
So far, the movement towards democracy for Egypt’s minority Copts has increased their already considerable danger. Ross Douthat writes today about how the arrival of democracy in the Middle East has been a disaster for religious minorities like the Copts — and what this tells us about democracy. Excerpt:
With the partial exception of immigrant societies like the United States, mass democracy seems to depend on ethno-religious solidarity in a way that older forms of government did not. The most successful modern nation-states have often gained stability at the expense of diversity, driving out or even murdering their minorities on the road to peaceful coexistence with their neighbors.
Europe’s era of unexpected harmony, in particular, may have been made possible by the decades of expulsions and genocide that preceded it. … Along the same lines, the developing world’s worst outbreaks of ethno-religious violence — in post-Saddam Iraq, or the Indian subcontinent after the demise of the British Raj — are often associated with transitions from dictatorships or monarchies to some sort of popular rule. And from Kashmir to the West Bank, Kurdistan to Congo, the globe’s enduring trouble spots are usually places where ethno-religious communities and political borders can’t be made to line up.
This suggests that if a European-style age of democratic peace awaits the Middle East and Africa, it lies on the far side of ethnic and religious re-sortings that may take generations to work out.
So many Americans have this naive view that religious tolerance is part and parcel of democracy. Douthat makes reference to John Derbyshire’s interesting point:
Counterintuitively, for some reason I have not been able to figure out, modernity and diversity are antithetical. A few well-advertised horrors notwithstanding, it seems to have been easier in premodern times for different peoples to live together at close quarters, in large numbers. Or perhaps it’s just easier today for them to separate.
The ability of Egypt’s Copts to exist in peace, however harried, depended on a political order that had the power to protect them, however badly. That order long ago lost real authority, and now has lost power. Nobody knows what is coming next, but there is a strong force in Egyptian society, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, that believes the Koran, strictly applied, is the basis for the political order. That means that all non-Muslims must submit to second-class status. The Christians will be dhimmis — or they will be exiles. Thinking of this, I am reminded of what a young Palestinian Christian told me in East Jerusalem a decade ago: he hated the Israelis, but they were the devil he knew. He utterly and visibly feared Hamas coming to power, because he knew what they would do to their fellow Palestinians who worshiped God as Christians.
Is democracy the best form of government in a situation in which its advent is likely to result in persecution, murder, and expulsion of minorities? Is democracy desirable absent the existence of civil society institutions that have had some time to acculturate people to values of tolerance, religious and otherwise? We Americans, so parochial and enamored of our own blessed history with democracy, almost never think about these questions. Copts? Who are they?
Somewhere down the line, historians may point to Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011, as the date when the Arab Spring began to give way to a deadly winter, especially for the Christians of the Middle East. On that date in a Cairo suburb, at least 25 people were killed and hundreds injured when bands of thugs and the Egyptian army attacked demonstrators, mainly Coptic Christians, protesting the burning of a Christian church in September.
(See below for extracts from an eye-witness testimony from a young Egyptian Muslim woman, who was on hand to express solidarity with the Christians. She’s emphatic that what happened last Sunday was not primarily about Muslim-Christian animosities, but an army that fired indiscriminately on a peaceful mix of Christians and Muslims for its own reasons.)
Whatever the real roots of the violence, it’s tough for Egypt’s Christians, who represent 10 percent of the population and the largest Christian community in the Middle East, not to see Oct. 9 as a sort of “Black Sunday,” potentially marking the beginning of the end. That’s especially tempting when they look across the region at Iraq, another traditional Middle Eastern powerhouse where a dictator recently fell, and where the aftermath has been cataclysmic. Since the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq has lost two-thirds of its Christian population, falling from two million to perhaps as little as 250,000 in the arc of just two decades.
The slow-motion decline of Christianity in the land of its birth has been underway for almost a century, turbo-charged recently by violence and the rise of Islamic radicalism. Ironically, it tended to be the region’s old-style police states, such as Iraq, Egypt, and Syria, where Christians fared the best. Now that those regimes have either vanished or are on life support, many analysts wonder whether Christianity will be the first victim of the new order taking shape.