Nina Shea and Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom spoke at Washington, DC’s Institute of World Politics on January 28 at “The Rise of Islamists: Challenges to Egypt’s Copts.” The pair described a bleak future for Christians in Tadros’ native Egypt and the wider Middle East under an aggressive and authoritarian Islamic ascendency.
Tadros began the afternoon presentation with an examination of Christian life in Muslim-majority Egypt under the previous dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Tadros’ own personal background was in Egypt’s largest Christian denomination, the Coptic Church, one of Christianity’s earliest churches with a claimed founding in 57 A.D. in Alexandria by the apostle Mark and a name derived from the Greek word for Egypt (Aigyptos). Tadros described an Egypt in which Christians lived as “second-class citizens.” Only one percent of the military and police leadership was Christian, even though Christians account for an estimated 10% of Egypt’s population of 83 million, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) World Factbook. Only one Christian, moreover, became governor in Egypt’s 27 provinces. No Christian was the dean of a university or headmaster of a school, nor did Christians head state-owned companies.
Egypt’s treatment of Islam and other religions such as Christianity amounted to a “one-way street” leading to Islam. The building or renovating of Christian houses of worship required presidential approval from Mubarak, a policy extending even to the construction of a bathroom in the church of Tadros’ grandfather. The state also automatically registered the conversion of underage children to Islam if their parents converted, while converting back to Christianity would be difficult.
Rumors of matters such as church building, insults to Islam, and sexual relationships between Muslims and Christians could often provoke Muslim communal violence. Merely interested in avoiding domestic disturbances, the police in response would arrest both Muslim perpetrators and Christian victims in order to impose a “reconciliation” process upon the parties. The result was a “culture of impunity” for Muslim violence and a corresponding “culture of acceptance” for a Coptic Church that after centuries of persecution now “prides itself in a strong tradition of martyrdom.”
The situation for Egypt’s Christians has only become worse under an Islamist-dominated post-Mubarak regime. The Islamist ascendency throughout Egypt coupled with revolutionary disorder has made any “public manifestation of Christianity…unacceptable.” Muslim association with Christians of opposition to the presidency of Muhammad Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and thereby to Islam in general, for example, has led to increased Muslim attacks on Christians. Additionally, Tadros discussed how Muslims demanded during a nationally-known controversy over the building of a church near Aswan in southern Egypt that any such structure not have a dome, bells, a cross, or a microphone. In short, the building would not be a church.
The legal status of Christians in particular has worsened under Egypt’s new constitution. References to sharia as the foundation of Egyptian law in articles in two and 219 entail that Egyptians are now subject to legal sanction not just on the basis of duly ratified legislation but also Islamic norms. Article 4 declares Cairo’s Al-Azhar University as the interpreter of sharia, creating a theocratic legal regime similar to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Article 81 contains a non-contradiction clause referencing sharia in Article 2 limiting individual freedoms. Article 43’s understanding of religious freedom, meanwhile, encompasses only the “divine religions”, interpreted by various Islamic authorities as meaning solely the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to the exclusion, for example, of Egypt’s small Baha’i community.
Shea followed Tadros and placed the plight of Egypt’s Christians in the context of Christianity’s perilous status throughout the Middle East. Shea noted in particular the precipitous decline of Iraq’s similarly venerable Christian community following the American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Ongoing attacks by various Muslim militias as well as government harassment through, for example, refusals to connect Christian communities to public services such as electricity have led to an estimated decline in Iraq’s Christian population from 1.5 million under Hussein to 400,000 presently. This decline parallels developments in Afghanistan, which saw its last church destroyed in March 2010 under an American-supported Afghan government.
Christian exodus from Egypt, Iraq, and other countries in the Middle East such as Lebanon and Syria in the face of Islamic repression, Shia observed, would leave behind a region “entirely Islamized for the first time in history.” This denuding of diversity would be a terrible loss for the Middle East, Shea stated with reference to observations previously made by her online at National Review, because Christians, as discussed by the Catholic Lebanese scholar Habib Malik, are the “region’s modernizers, the mediators bridging east and west, its educators and academics.” For “empirical evidence” of this fact Malik can look to his own father Charles, a Lebanese diplomat who was a key drafter of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As Shea phrases the matter, Christian flight from the Middle East entails both a “brain drain” and a “sane drain”, leaving behind societies dominated by regressive fanatics.
As Tadros noted during the question and answer session, such flight imposes considerable personal difficulties upon the Christians involved, for they have “no Israel for them to go to.” In recognition of this desperation, Shea called for the equal treatment of religious minorities to become a “red line” in American foreign policy, entailing significant sanctions in case of noncompliance. In this respect, Shea questioned why Egypt under Islamist domination is receiving a high-technology American arms package of 16 F-16 fighters and 200 M-1A1 Abrams tanks.
Shea also reiterated her previous calls that American officials abandon rhetorical neutrality between Muslim perpetrators and Christian victims around the world. The Obama Administration manifested this most egregiously with invocations of mutual “restraint” after Egyptian soldiers massacred peaceful Christian protesters in Cairo’s Maspero neighborhood on October 9, 2011. Quoted by Shea, Tadros’ at the time expressed online the sarcastic demand upon the “security forces to refrain from killing Christians, and upon Christians to refrain from dying.” As current events indicate, even such modest mutual moderation among religious communities in the Middle East and elsewhere will remain elusive.