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Although Christians and Muslims joined in protests against Mubarak, shown here in Cairo's Tahrir Square this past February, violence against the Copts escalated soon after the regime fell. (Alfred Yaghobzadeh)

A New Crisis for Egypt's Copts

The toppling of Egypt's government has led to a renewal of violence against the nation's Christian minority

Fakhri Saad Eskander leads me through the marble-tiled courtyard of the Church of St. Mina and St. George in Sol, Egypt. We pass a mural depicting St. George and the Dragon, climb a freshly painted staircase to the roof and gaze across a sea of mud-brick houses and date palm trees. Above us rises a white concrete dome topped by a gold cross, symbols of Coptic Christianity. The church—rebuilt after its destruction by an Islamic mob four months earlier—has a gleaming exterior that contrasts with the dun-brown townscape here, two hours south of Cairo. “We are grateful to the army for rebuilding our church for us,” says Eskander, a lean, bearded man of 25 who wears a gray abaya, a traditional Egyptian robe. “During the time of Mubarak, this would never have been possible.”

Eskander, the church custodian, was on the roof the night of March 4 when some 2,000 Muslims chanting “Death to Christians” arrived at the compound in fevered pursuit of a Coptic man believed to have taken refuge inside. The man had been involved with a Muslim woman—taboo throughout Egypt—setting off a dispute that ended only when the woman’s father and cousin had shot each other dead. The pair had been buried that afternoon, and when a rumor spread that another Christian was using the church to perform black magic against Muslims, “the whole town went crazy,” Eskander says.

He leads me downstairs into the chapel. As the sun filters through stained-glass windows, he and a Muslim acquaintance, Essam Abdul Hakim, describe how the mob knocked down the gates, then set the church on fire. On his cellphone, Hakim shows me a grainy video of the attack, which shows a dozen young men smashing a ten-foot log against the door. The mob then looted and torched the homes of a dozen Christian families across the street. “Before the January 25 revolution there had always been security,” Eskander tells me. “But during the revolution, the police disappeared.”

One hopeful thing did come from the attack. During the 30-year era of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who this past August was hauled to court in his sickbed to face murder and corruption charges, outbreaks of sectarian violence were typically swept under the rug. This time, YouTube videos spread on the Internet, and journalists and human rights workers flocked to Sol. In addition, Muslim leaders in Cairo, as well as Coptic figures, traveled to the town for reconciliation meetings. And the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the 20-member panel of generals that took power after Mubarak stepped down this past February, dispatched a 100-man team of army engineers to reconstruct the church. With a budget of two million Egyptian pounds (about $350,000), they finished the job in 28 days. When I got to town in July, a small contingent of troops was laying the foundation of an adjoining religious conference center that had also been destroyed.

Repairing the psychic damage will take longer. “At the beginning I was filled with hate,” Eskander tells me. Today, though he still regards his Muslim neighbors with distrust, he says his anger has abated. “I realized that not all Muslims are the same,” he says. “I have started to calm down.”

The Coptic branch of Christianity dates to the first century A.D. when, scholars say, St. Mark the Evangelist converted some Jews in Alexandria, the great Greco-Roman city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. (The name Copt derives from the Arabic word Qubt, meaning Egyptian.) Copts now make up between 7 percent and 10 percent of the country’s population, or 7 million to 11 million people, and are an integral part of Egypt’s business, cultural and intellectual life. Yet they have long suffered from discrimination by the Muslim majority. Violent incidents have increased alarmingly during the wave of Islamic fanaticism that has swept the Middle East.

On New Year’s Day 2011, a bomb exploded in the birthplace of the Coptic faith, Alexandria, in front of al-Qiddissin church, the largest of the city’s 60 Coptic churches, as worshipers were leaving midnight Mass. Twenty-one died. “We all rushed into the street and saw the carnage,” said Father Makkar Fawzi, the church’s priest for 24 years. “Those who had gone downstairs ahead of the rest were killed.” Alexandria “has become a focal point of the [Islamic fundamentalists], a breeding ground of violence,” says Youssef Sidhom, the editor of Watani (Homeland), a Coptic newspaper in Cairo.

Since the New Year’s Day bombing, sectarian attacks against Egypt’s Copts have escalated. Forty Egyptians died in 22 incidents in the first half of this year; 15 died in all of 2010. Human rights groups say the breakdown of law and order in the first months after Mubarak’s ouster is partly to blame. Another factor has been the emergence of the ultraconservative Salafist Muslim sect, which had been suppressed during the Mubarak dictatorship. Salafists have called for jihad against the West and the creation of a pure Islamic state in Egypt. “They announced that their role is to defend ‘real Islam,’” says Watani’s Sidhom, “and that the tool they would use is the early Islamic penal code.”

In one incident this past March, Salafists attacked a 45-year-old Copt in the Upper Egyptian town of Qena, slicing off his ear. The Muslims claimed the man had had an affair with a Muslim woman. “We have applied the law of Allah, now come and apply your law,” the assailants told police, according to the victim’s account. Salafists were also blamed for the violence that erupted in Cairo on May 8, after a rumor spread that a female Christian convert to Islam had been kidnapped and was being held captive in a Cairo church. Led by Salafists, armed crowds converged on two churches. Christians fought back, and when the melee ended, at least 15 people lay dead, some 200 were injured and two churches had been burned to the ground.

In half a dozen other Arab countries, the rise of Islamic militancy (and, in some cases, the toppling of dictatorships) has spread fear among Christians and scattered their once-vibrant communities. One example is Bethlehem, the West Bank birthplace of Jesus, which has lost perhaps half its Christians during the past decade. Many fled in the wake of the al-Aqsa intifada of 2000-2004, when the Palestinian territories’ economy collapsed and Muslim gangs threatened and intimidated Christians because of their alleged sympathies with Israel. In Iraq, about half of the Christian population—once numbering between 800,000 and 1.4 million—is thought to have fled the country since the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, according to church leaders. Offshoots of Al Qaeda have carried out attacks on churches across the country, including a suicide bombing at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad in October 2010 that killed 58 people.

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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