As of 2012, the Middle East’s Christian communities are in wide retreat. From a population of about 1 million in Iraq before the US-British invasion, half have fled the country at some point since the war started and a great many have not yet returned. In Lebanon, the formerly majority Christian community has mostly emigrated. There are about 4 million Lebanese in Lebanon, maybe a third of whom are Christians. 15 million Lebanese live abroad, and virtually all of them are Christians. Other communities are in flight, including Palestinian Christians, whose numbers around traditionally Christian Bethlehem have extremely thinned out. One reason is Islamic militancy, another ethnic relations breaking down, and then the breakdown of political and economic stability. In Egypt, some have fled since 2011’s revolution, but most have not and probably never will. Here’s why.
Egypt’s Christians constitute the biggest Church in the Middle East. In a country of 70 to 80 million people, they take up about 10 million. Only the richest have fled to communities abroad in more affluent places like Brooklyn or Queens, New York. In general. Egyptian Christians have a much stronger connection to Egypt than the other communities. Even if they didn’t, they would have fewer places to run. None of the countries around Egypt have both the space and tolerance necessary to host a massive amount of Christian refugees.
But the situation in Egypt is not one of civil war. The large Christian community makes an impression on the political environment. Think of how the staunchly Shi’ite Hezbollah advocates (publicly) for tolerance of the extreme diversity in Lebanon (big communities of Christians, Sunni Muslims & Druze). That is also true in Egypt, where the community’s numbers give it recognition from significant Muslim leaders – political and religious.
Additionally, the community is highly organized on the religious level. It has one of the oldest churches in Christendom. The name “Copt” comes from another version of the Greek name for the country & is directly related to the English word “Egypt.” The Church also has direct influence over national churches in Israel, Ethiopia & across Africa.
But the religious strength of the community dwarfs its political activism. It’s a problem that’s become acute since the Egyptian Revolution, as Islamist politicians have risen rapidly to the front of the electoral pack. Over 70% of Egypt’s new parliament comes from members of the Muslim Brotherhood and more fundamentalist or Salafi groups of Muslims. Calls for more influence by Islam in a new constitution are adding immeasurable pressure on the Coptic community.
Since 2011, attacks against members of the community have grown. Clan rivalries in the Egyptian countryside have become full religious clashes on the streets of Cairo. In October, a spate of Church arsons sparked riots in Cairo. Twenty four people were killed fighting Muslims and eventually Egyptian soldiers trying to keep order:
Arsons have mostly been outside the capital. Other spates between Christians and Muslims include marriage issues. While intermarriage is a massive problem for any minority, particular incidents in 2010 purportedly had a Coptic priests’ wives leave them to convert to Islam. Those set off back and forth barbs between communities, as to whether the Muslim view is right or the Christians’ view that she was coerced into converting. The truth is rather elusive. Incidents like this have become absurdly common and underscore the tensions happening in the cities between the two communities.
There have been a number of holiday attacks on Christians in the last few years. In 2009, Muslim shooters killed Christians 4 people the day before Easter. In 2010 and 2011, there were attacks in January that killed about 20 combined, one of the attacks being a bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year’s.
Many Copts are resistant to the idea of getting more involved in politics, but many have already started go that way. The numbers of active Christians are low, but pressures on the community have stirred debate about needing to be more aggressive or at least pro-active. Copts have the largest Church in the Middle East and might be able to play a leading role for other Mideast Christians at a time of massive flight from their home countries. Only the Church leadership has played a significant political role in years past, and the choice of a new Coptic Pope later in 2012 (writing before the selection process begins) might lead to more or less involvement by Copts in the country’s politics.