Archive for ‘Coptic Christians’

April 19, 2012

Egypt’s Christians: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

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.

Advertisements
April 14, 2012

Israel toward Egypt’s Christians

by Gedalyah Reback

For Easter 2012, Egypt’s Coptic Christians had an opportunity they formally hadn’t had in decades – visit Jerusalem. Pope Shenouda III (who?), the leader of the Coptic Church (20 million+ members worldwide), passed away last month. In addition to his being a significant religious figure, the late Pope also banned Copts from making any pilgrimage to Jerusalem as so long as it was considered occupied. But his recent death has marked an unexpected shift for Egypt’s Christians and maybe Israel’s diplomatic opportunities around the Nile.
Copts have unprecedented pressures in Egypt: a revolution’s new wave of violence against Christians; Islamists’ election victory; and now, their spiritual and de facto political leader’s demise. At the helm since 1971, it is a tremendous power vacuum. Simultaneously, Israel’s link to Egypt is fraying and the country has no social traction with the Egyptian on the street. So, the Copts of Egypt should be a vital concern for Israeli diplomacy, and electing a newer Pope should certainly have some bearing on where either side goes in respect to each other.
The idea of leveraging minorities in neighboring countries is often a fantasy of Israeli commentators or enthusiastic politicos who can’t resist thinking of ways to make Israel’s security more solid. But it’s hardly unprecedented. Innumerable resources were poured into Iraqi Kurdistan pre-Yom Kippur War to pressure the Baath Party, and Israel was quick to align with the Catholics of Lebanon in 1982. Extending these policies to Egypt would be seeing an Egyptian Christian minority have controlling votes in a new parliament and blunting the political blades of Islamists in government. But it’s tough to tell if Egyptian Christians really would hold any measurable or favorable sway on their country’s foreign policy if they were to become more politically organized. But this latter event is a prerequisite to any significant amelioration of the relationship between Egypt and Israel.

Christians’ Politics

A new Pope already has more pressing concerns, like keeping open the opportunities the revolution has given and defending the community against ethnic and religious attacks. Israel has plenty to talk about with a new Church leader: priority among them would be the dispute over Coptic Church property in and around Jerusalem. Even if Israel does recognize, negotiate with and reach a deal over disputed spots in the holy city, that doesn’t translate into good will between Israelis and Copts on a general level. And even with a maximum outburst of positive emotions, Copts’ physical security (that is, their own preservation) is the overwhelming priority.

But taking the diplomatic path with a reinvigorated Church could bear unexpected fruit. At the onset of Hosni Mubarak’s power, the Coptic Church has been relatively independent. All it and the late Pope Shenouda III had to do was support Mubarak or stay out of his way. The side-effect was an uninvolved Coptic community, grossly unprepared for the better organized and experienced Muslim Brotherhood to win post-revolution seats in the parliament in December. Standard along with that, Shenouda III always toed the line on the social climate regarding Israel – before Mubarak, he vocally opposed Sadat’s normalization with the Jewish State. It doesn’t stop there.

Isolation is a tempting strategy in the Middle East, but what comes with it is letting enemies encroach on what minimal boundaries you have. An aggressive minority would have a better chance of defending its interests, and Copts should be initiating their own political parties, matching Islamist political enthusiasm and distinguishing their views from the Muslim Brotherhood. The community gains a sense of direction beyond politics with a well-defined platform. Fearing a similar result in the next elections, some vibrant counterbalance to Islamist politics isn’t against the interests of the Egyptian army.

Israel

Relations with Israel are a political issue, not unlike how Americans debated ties to Napoleonic France. Coptic authorities also dispute property in the Old City that Israeli police handed to a different Church in the early 1970s. These issues are probably interrelated. Resolving one would unbind the other. While Israelis consider gestures for the next Pope, he’ll in turn have a chance to solidify a political stance and philosophy being engaged with Israel.

Shenouda III was not John Paul II. But therein might lay a solution to the Church’s problems. In a broader scope, it works in defining the Coptic Papacy as a socio-political pillar in Egypt and the Arab World. tandem with promoting ethnic and religious harmony across the Middle East. Being an outspoken advocate for the fortune of Arab Christians will work well in tandem with promoting other causes for coexistence in the Middle East.

But ultimately, Copts will weigh the benefit versus the cost of being more open to Israel.  In today’s climate, they might be inviting more pressure from Muslim Egyptians.

Israel’s options for facilitating the reputation of such a man are limited, but probably more from a lack of imagination than ability. It would be in their interest to open a new chapter with the Church beyond traditional political issues and foment an alliance. Israel should facilitate a leader that can stabilize a shaky fault, and tremors in the Coptic community imply an opportunity to do just that. Anything Israel can do overtly and covertly to facilitate those mechanisms and developments ought to be a priority. It can change the calculus in Egypt and balance the equation across the Sinai.

%d bloggers like this: