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A Coptic Exodus From Egypt

One of the last and largest Christian populations in the Middle East faces mounting persecution---and begins to flee.
A Coptic Exodus From Egypt

In the aftermath of President Mohammed Morsi’s overthrow earlier this summer, Egypt’s Coptic Church has faced an onslaught of persecution. Pro-Morsi supporters vented their anger by burning Christian homes and shops, and when the military staged an August 14 crackdown on protesters, the repercussions for Copts were enormous and tragic: at least 42 churches were assailed, looted, and demolished. Mobs destroyed Christian convents, orphanages, schools, shops, and homes.

This is the culmination of several years of rising persecution for the Copts, whose freedoms were already significantly threatened under President Morsi’s rule. In this volatile situation, the ancient church is increasingly faced with a sobering choice: stay and be persecuted, or leave.

Hudson Institute fellow Samuel Tadros explains this dilemma along with its historical context in his new book Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. The book offers timely background on this religious persecution, demonstrating how the Copts’ encounters with modernity and Islam have shaped their role in Egyptian society. Now facing religious repression and violence, Copts’ best option, says Tadros, may be to leave Egypt—ending a 2,000-year sojourn in the country. Tadros sees this as detrimental both to the church’s traditions and history and to the future of Egypt itself.

TAC: What is the historical Islamic attitude toward Coptic Christians?

TADROS: Islamism has adopted this clear language towards Christians. As I explain in the book, the Islamist goal for the Copts is not massacre. We’re not talking about complete genocide or Holocaust … but they want Copts to accept the idea that they are second-class citizens, that they are dhimmis in the land of Islam and acknowledge the supremacy of Islam. The lack of acknowledgement of this, a Coptic attempt to ask for or demand equality, is viewed by the Islamists as an assault, and leads to all the attacks.

The Islamist discourse on Copts is that of the “lucky minority”: they were rescued from Byzantine persecution by the Muslim army, they lived happily ever after under the rule of Islam, and they should be thankful for that. They are the ones trying to destroy Egypt with their foreign conspiracies, but they don’t have equal rights in the country at all.

TAC: Do you think, keeping in mind the Muslim Brotherhood’s history, that Morsi could have eventually delivered a more liberal, representative government?

TADROS: The Muslim Brotherhood was always geared to outside pressure, and not to internal change of hearts and minds. So due to outside pressure, the Muslim Brotherhood was forced to be more pragmatic in its efforts and its approach. But once they no longer needed to do that–once they had free hand over the country, and understood that the American president was not going to crack down on them … the army was not that big of a challenge, and they went for getting everything at once. So I don’t think there would have been any internal cooperation.

On the other hand, I don’t think they would have been able to create a sharia-based system, simply because Egypt is not organized enough for anyone to actually build a centralized system of any sort … There’s simply too much chaos and anarchy. The country really doesn’t function on a daily basis. You have a massive bureaucracy with a mind of its own, which was unwilling to work for Morsi’s government. You’ve also got an army that thinks for itself.

TAC: Now the army is back in power, what challenges do you predict for Egypt’s political future?

TADROS: The army’s popularity is enormous. There is no doubt that there is majority support for the army’s action. There has been talk of a military coup, but it really isn’t so. The people really do show a majority support for the army. Part of it is understandable; the army has always been a respected institution. The army has maintained this image of being a national institution that enjoys popular support. So they have this support, the question is: What happens in the future?

Today the army is excluding Islamists from their government, and whatever one thinks of them, they are a huge [percentage] of the Egyptian population.  So the system in place [has] within it a seed of instability. The army [is] likely to face pushback, especially as the economic situation continues to deteriorate, especially as politicians don’t have any solution for Egypt’s structural economic problems. As the crackdown continues, they’re likely to face a more resistant population.

TAC: What do you think can be done to help alleviate the persecution Copts have undergone lately?

TADROS: Something to ponder and really think about is that regimes in Egypt have changed, but the persecution of Copts has not.

Mubarak went from the palace to prison, Morsi from the prison to palace to prison again—a lot of things have changed in Egypt, but the plight of the Copts has not. Under Mubarak… there was the Nag Hammadi massacre. Under Morsi, they were under attack and forced evacuation. And then you get this horrific attack on Coptic churches on the 14th of August, which is really unprecedented in Egyptian history. You have to go back to the 14th century to find another attack of this size on Coptic Christians in Egypt. So it’s something to think about. Regimes might change in Egypt, the country might adopt democracy or it might not, but the plight of Copts is not changing, the situation is still the same. It’s a huge problem.

It’s likely that the wave of immigration that we’re seeing is going to continue. It also tells us something that no matter how much they try to change things on the national level, the main threat to Copts today is on the local level. It’s a fact that their very neighbors are the ones attacking them. There was some excellent reporting by Human Rights Watch International on attacks on Copts in the village of Luxor, on the 4th of July this year. In it, they interviewed some of the victims, who told them, “We could hear the voices of the people attacking our homes from the outside. They were the voices of our neighbors.” That’s where things need to change, because changing constitutions and laws is good, but changing the hearts and minds of men when they’ve been filled with hate—that is very hard.

So whatever is to be done, one has to keep in mind that we’re not only talking about government actions to protect a community or change the constitution of a nation, we’re also talking about a culture that’s becoming extremely anti-Christian, where people are attacking their Christian neighbors. Hatred is a very hard thing to change.

TAC: Would you say that Copts’ only choice is to leave?

TADROS: It’s a personal and individual choice each person is making. If you’re my age, you’re still young, you’re thinking about your kids’ future … But if you’re older, the formula is different. It depends on the individual level of persecution. In depends on how much you have in the country that you’re willing to leave behind. It’s a combination of factors.

But there’s no doubt that many Copts today are asking whether the country is still likely to be a home for them and their children. We’re seeing this massive wave of emigration, unlike anything we’ve seen before, over the last several years. As I mention in the book, my local church here in Fairfax, Virginia has really grown by about 50 percent in two years. We had a community of about 3,000 Copts before the revolution, and now we have an extra 1,500 new immigrants in the past two and a half years. So it’s a massive wave, it’s going to make the United States a place where Copts want to move.

TAC: If there is a massive exodus of Coptic Christians from Egypt, do you think Egypt’s secularists will be able to mount any resistance to the Islamization of the country?

TADROS: So far non-Islamists have depended on the state’s power to stop the growth of Islam. The problem for them, of course, is that the state has a mind of its own. The state likes to use the non-Islamists at certain points, to use them as a nice image for the West, but the state is not like Turkey, which has rejected the Islamist project. While the state might include liberal or secular politicians within its government, the general Islamization of society is taking place on the local level.

Egypt’s religious [makeup] is very different from what you would have seen 20 or 30 years ago. Look at any image of the graduates of Cairo University in the year 1970 and the year 2011, and you’ll see huge differences. In the year 1970, only one or two girls in that photo of graduates would have been veiled. Today, you can really pinpoint the unveiled girls, and they’re likely to be Christian girls. This Islamization of the country has been going on for some time, and it is going to continue.

This is part of a wave we’re seeing across the Middle East … the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century, in the year 1900, had about 25 percent non-Muslims among its population, including a variety of Christian sects and Jewish communities. That religious mosaic has survived for about a century.

But today when we talk about the Middle East, we’re talking about a region that’s now—outside of the state of Israel—3 percent Christian. [The Copts in Egypt] are the vast majority of those numbers, plus the Maronites in Lebanon and what remains of Iraq’s Christians and Syria’s Christians. So we’re talking about an enormous demographic change that is largely going unnoticed, one that will have a profound impact. We have to remember that they’re a religious minority that has always taken the role of the link with the West. They are the bridge between two civilizations. If that no longer exists, then we’re talking about a huge problem in the link between two worlds.

TAC: Do you think the Coptic Church can become global without losing its tradition and character?

TADROS: I think it’s a huge challenge. I don’t think I have an answer. It’s a humongous challenge. But you cannot approach Coptic history without this dual sense of the decline and the survival. It’s striking. You see the loss of the Coptic Church after the climb, from a majority of the country to a less than 10 percent community and the loss of everything. But you also realize that of all the North African churches, this is the only one that remains standing. The places where Saint Augustine walked are no longer home to Christianity. It is only in Egypt in all of North Africa that Christianity has survived. That tells us something about the survival of this church.

As I think about the church’s future, I have to return to this theme of the dual nature of decline and survival. There might be decline in some areas; the church might lose its traditional home in Egypt, but we’re seeing a flourishing of the church outside of Egypt. We’re seeing half a million sub-Saharan Africans join the Coptic Church … Because it doesn’t have the ugly history of colonialism associated with Western European churches, you’re seeing this tremendous growth of the Coptic Church in Africa. We’re seeing a growth of Coptic communities all around the world. We can talk about a Coptic church that is African, a Coptic church that is European, a Coptic church in Fiji, and a Coptic church in Sweden: the Church has become a global one in reality.

Gracy Howard is associate editor at TAC.



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