Like most Christians, I have a keen interest in the affairs of Israel. Like most human beings, I have a keen interest in the affairs of the Middle East and nations in the surrounding region, such as Libya and Egypt. So I’m profoundly grateful for the work of faithful scholars like Lela Gilbert and others like Kurt Werthmuller at the Hudson Institute who help keep us informed on these matters. My thanks to Ms Gilbert for this guest post.
Where Will Egypt’s “Sunday People” Go?
A few days ago a chilling video appeared on BBC’s website, relating the story of a Coptic Christian man, Victor Schata-Michael, who had fled Egypt with his wife and children because of religious persecution. Schata-Michael was desperate to save his family from dangers that increasingly threaten Egypt’s Coptic community, comprised of 8-10 million Christians.
Schata-Michael was unable to afford airplane tickets, lawyers and sponsorship in faraway countries like the US. Instead, he opted to hand over what little money he had and his passports to a friend, who returned them later – with Russian visas.
The family arrived in Russia in the midst of Moscow’s sub-zero winter. They slept in an underground pedestrian walkway; they had no winter clothes and no one to take them in. Later, they were permitted to sleep on the floor of the immigration office although they have not yet been approved for asylum. Yet Schata-Michael expresses hope for a better life.
His fragile optimism bears witness to the perilous conditions faced by Egypt’s Christians – since the start of the “Arab Spring” turmoil until now – as Mahmoud Morsi’s Islamist regime steadily tightens the grip of the Muslim Brotherhood’s iron fist. Examples abound.
In January 30, 2011, AINA reported that in the village of Sharona near Maghagha, “Two Islamists groups, aided by the Muslim neighbors, descended on the roof of houses owned by Copts, killing eleven Copts, including children, and seriously injuring four others.”
On February 23, Compass Direct reported that one monk and six church workers had been shot when the Egyptian Army attacked the Coptic Anba Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun, 110 kilometers north of Cairo. The attack was blamed on the monks, who had built a protective wall without a permit.
On March 4, Copts appealed for protection when a mob of several thousand Muslims attacked the Church of St. Mina and St. George in Sole. The local authorities failed to respond to calls for help, despite the massive fire that devoured the building. It was later revealed that a forbidden romance between a Christian man and a Muslim woman had triggered the incident.
In October 2011, Coptic protesters gathered in Cairo’s Maspero District to complain of ongoing attacks against Copts including the recent destruction of several churches. They were ferociously assaulted by the Egyptian military. Gruesome videos posted online showed military vehicles intentionally running over several of them. At least 27 protesters were killed.
Days after the Maspero massacre, Coptic student Ayman Labib was beaten to death by his classmates for wearing a cross.
Kidnappings were another means of attack. In July 2012, the Washington Times reported, “Based on a survey of four lawyers in Egypt over a five-year period, they saw at least 550 cases of disappearances and petitions to restore Christian identity following abductions, forced marriages and forced conversions.”
In early 2013, a Coptic mother, Nadia Mohamed Ali and seven children were sentenced to 15 years in jail at a criminal court in Beni Suef, central Egypt for re-converting to Christianity after the death of Nadia’s Muslim husband’s.
On February 15, Mid-East Christian News reported that a crowd of enraged Muslim arsonists attacked Mar Guirguis Church, following Friday prayers. The mob set the church’s roof aflame, “and the priest was smuggled out before the crowd could assault him.”
Egypt’s neighbor Israel warily watches the ongoing strife in Egypt. There are, of course, worries about security, including the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. But there are other concerns – of a more personal nature. Between 1948 and 1970, between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews were expelled from Egypt – their properties and funds confiscated, their passports seized and destroyed. They left, stateless, with little more than the shirts on their backs to show for centuries of Egyptian citizenship. As Israelis observe the ongoing abuse of Christians in Egypt, they recall the Islamist slogan, “First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People” – a specific reference to the cleansing of Jews and Christians from would-be pan-Islamic lands.
Virtually no Jews remain in Egypt. And today, hundreds of thousands of Copts have already fled – those able to afford airfare and lawyers have sought asylum in the US and Canada. As for the others – those like Victor Schata-Michael – the options are few and frought with danger.
Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian Coptic citizen himself and an expert on Coptic issues in Egypt writes about the results of the so-called Arab Spring in Egypt,
Like the Jews before them, the Christians of the Middle East will be driven out of their homes, but, unlike the Jews, they will not have an Israel to escape to. The most fortunate will take the first planes to the U.S., Canada, and Australia, but a community of 8 million people cannot possibly emigrate en masse in a short time. The poorer Copts, the ones who face daily persecution, will be left behind. For them, the winter has already arrived, and it will be cold and long.
Lela Gilbert is the author of Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner (Encounter, 2012) and co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson, 2013). She is an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.