As this writer has observed in a number of past articles, Christians in this country struggling against the demands of the sexual revolution may or may not prevail in gaining legal accommodation. We cling to the ideal of religious freedom, so clearly expressed in the First Amendment’s term, “free exercise,” (which by the very definition of the term must involve activity). Religious freedom is supported as well by the clear statement of the First Amendment’s author, James Madison, in his Memorial and Remonstrance that each citizen’s duty to God is superior to his duty to the state.
But it is that duty which is the real reason for all our words and action in the conflict. This duty is clear from the Bible, especially in the apostle Peter’s statement, so commonly cited in today’s controversy over conscience, that “we must obey God rather than men.” Our objective is not political success, nor securing the ideal of religious freedom, but being faithful to God in all of life regardless of the circumstances.
American Christians have had no experience in living under a hostile legal regime until this generation, and even now it is only distantly felt by most of us. So we might learn something by considering the life of Christians in the Middle East, and especially notice the history and current situations of Christians in Egypt, where there is the largest Christian minority, and a substantial church structure continuing from ancient times. These are Christians who once lived in a Christian country, and now have lived almost 1,400 years under regimes committed to a rival religion that sees itself as history’s final and true religion.
Egyptian Christianity made major contributions to early Christianity. Like the rest of the Roman Empire, Christians in Egypt experienced periodic persecution, one of the last being that of the emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century. Emerging from that trial, the fourth century saw the great Christological controversy over the nature of Christ between Arius and Athanasius, both from Alexandria. The conflict was decisive for mainstream Christianity, and its outcome in favor of Athanasius’ orthodoxy can surely be regarded as ancient Egypt’s greatest contribution to the Christian faith.
The larger part of Christianity’s history in Egypt is, however, in a post-Christian period, characterized by the country’s increasing Islamization, subordinate social status, intermittent intense persecutions, Coptic resistance, and finally life as a small but significant minority, resolutely holding to orthodox faith to the end of life, or Christ’s return. Scholars debate exactly when Egypt became predominately Muslim after the Arab conquest in the sixth century. A common answer is the twelfth century, although a relatively recent analysis proposed a much earlier date in the ninth century. Whatever the truth, it is clear that it was accompanied by violence and bloodletting.
The modern world brought both relief and further persecution to the Copts. A more tolerant policy beginning in the mid-nineteenth century made some degree of political and cultural development possible and individual Copts contributed in significant positions in society and the wider world. But the rise of Islamism beginning in the late twentieth century brought episodes of violent persecution, which still continue to this day.
Professor Matthew Anderson of Georgetown University discussed some of the challenges of Copts in contemporary Egypt in a presentation at the Institute on Religion and Democracy on Aug. 20. He recounted that he witnessed the 2011 Egyptian revolution, an event which allowed him to see “the humanity of Egypt, the creativity of the country.” He discussed different viewpoints presented regarding the situation of Christians in Egypt.
The government favors a viewpoint holding that Christians and Muslims in Egypt “stand together for the good of the country.” In the government narrative, Christians and Muslims “stand together relatively well.”
In contrast, others hold that the important point about inter-religious relations in Egypt is that Christians “are systematically discriminated against” and there is “open persecution.” A serious problem is that the government “is often apathetic … if not complicit” in the persecution of Copts. This opinion would seem to be well borne out by the extensive factual chronology starting from 1980 in the article linked to above. Anderson noted many Christians inside Egypt agree with this assessment.
Islamists within Egypt hold that Christians and any other non-Muslims should be inferior, with Islam the state religion. This has been made more explicit in the Egyptian constitution in recent years, he said. Christians in Egypt, as elsewhere in the Middle East, are therefore perceived as supporting governments that minimize Islamist influence. The church burnings of 2013, which followed the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, is reflective of this viewpoint.
Finally, international human rights organizations hold that Egypt has an authoritarian government. They take the morally relative view that Christians are oppressed together with everyone else.
Anderson said that there is “no single, monolithic experience of Egyptian Christians.” Some people appear to be doing well, others are struggling with a difficult situation. But the “pattern of attacks” has been “growing since the (19)80s.” And the severity of the attacks is also growing.
The mass killings, such as that of the Saint Mark and Pope Peter Church bombing or the Maspero Massacre of 2011 are each a “national trauma.” These attacks continue to the present. This writer would observe that persecution is really a continuum. It may be relatively “soft” (civil disabilities, job insecurity, censorship) or “hard” (property destruction, physical assault, torture, deportation, and killing).
As the Islamists proceed with their campaigns, inadequate response reasonably encourages further and more intense attacks. While life may go on for many Copts, as indeed it must, and while churches and monasteries continue to function, it is hard to see how people could not be much more apprehensive than before the rise of Islamist movements in the late twentieth century. Certainly they have far more reason to be apprehensive Christians normally are in America.
Although it has historically been difficult to build or repair churches, requiring Presidential approval, Anderson observed that many new churches are being built in the Cairo area. This would seem to be an improvement, but Cairo is a cosmopolitan place, and the countryside, where Christians suffer more repressive handling, is less in the spotlight.
In Upper Egypt, Anderson observed the practice of “reconciliation sessions” which in fact result in Christians being pressured to accept less than full public expression of their faith. Church building does not seem to be occurring there to the same degree, he said. There does “not seem to be the political will power” to carry forward greater religious freedom.
A major problem in the atmosphere with religious freedom in Egypt is “impunity, and holding people accountable for what happens” when Christians are attacked. He said that “security is the most secretive aspect of the Egyptian government,” so that it is hard to say whether or not it acted, and what its role was in any particular situation.
But both the Egyptian people and their government are on the whole horrified by terrorist attacks on the Copts, he said. “There is a kind of unity there,” he said. However, he predicted “a long road” toward what Americans would regard as proper level of religious freedom and security for the Copts. Freedom to convert to another religion in particular is an explosive issue, he said. Important will be having an Egyptian leadership with the “political will to push” religious freedom forward.
The example of Egypt’s continuing Christian community, having survived so many centuries of persecution and subordinate status, and with a glorious Christian heritage in the remote past, should serve to inspire western Christians.
For the first time in centuries, and for the very first time in American civilization, Christian commitment is becoming a distinct disadvantage in parts of society, penalized to some extent socially and legally. While it seems impossible that the legal problems American and European Christians suffer will turn from “soft” disfavor to hard persecution, this difference is, as noted above, a continuum. Hostility to Christianity in Europe is arguably stronger, and may be expected to get worse without constant attention.
Like Christians in Egypt, Western Christians can look back on a glorious past, with the difference that Western Christianity flourished and developed a Christian culture for many centuries. But whatever our past, we should not rest our faith on past achievements, however much they serve for inspiration, or on future prospects. Our commitment can only rest on the faith that God has given us, and that requires a wholehearted commitment of mind and body, regardless of the favor of state or society.