Foreign Affairs

Does Genocide Await Egypt’s Copts?

The Obama administration has repeatedly said it supports giving the Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East’s oldest Islamic extremist movement, a seat at the table in a post-Mubarak Egyptian government.

Whether Egypt is soon ruled by this terrorist group, or whether it simply descends into anarchy, it looks increasingly likely that Egypt is fast approaching a tipping point of violence against its Christians.

Roughly 10 percent of Egyptians are Coptic Christians.  The Copts thrived in Egypt and throughout the Middle East for centuries before Islam existed, but they have been living as second-class citizens for much of the recent past.

During President Hosni Mubarak’s decades in power, converts to Christianity were sometimes arrested, though the government often refused to prosecute crimes against Copts.  Sharia law is even enshrined in the Egyptian constitution.

In recent months, Egypt has seen a rise in violence against its Copts.  A Christmas Day shooting left six Coptic Christians dead.  And 21 people were killed in a bomb attack outside a Coptic church on New Year’s Day.

These events prompted Pope Benedict XVI to publicly urge the Egyptian government and other leaders in the region to protect religious minorities.  Egypt’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said the Pope’s remarks were “an unacceptable interference” in the country’s internal affairs.  The government then withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican.

As bad as Copts have had it in Egypt, conditions are likely to deteriorate soon, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood takes over.  “The overthrow of the Mubarak regime will not by any sense of the imagination lead to the advent of Jeffersonian democracy,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton recently told the Daily Caller news website.  “The greater likelihood is a radical, tightly knit organization like the Muslim Brotherhood will take advantage of the chaos and seize power. … It is really legitimate for the Copts to be worried that instability will follow Mubarak’s fall and his replacement with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Copts are ambivalent about Mubarak’s ouster.  “He’s the best of the worst,” Sameh Joseph, a church worker at a Coptic church in Alexandria, told a Los Angeles Times reporter.  “Whoever comes after him might want to destroy us.”

A Washington Post piece highlighted the tension felt by many Coptic Christians.  “The current situation for the Copts stinks, but Mubarak is the best of the worst for us,” said the Rev. Paul Girguis of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Fairfax County, Virginia.  “If Muslim extremists take over, the focus will be extreme persecution against Copts.  Some people even predict genocide.”

Predictions of genocide might seem like an exaggeration.  But it’s a plausible scenario, especially if things go as they have in the fragile democracy that is Iraq .

During the reign of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Chaldean Catholics and other Christians, like most other Iraqis, didn’t enjoy basic human rights like freedom of speech or due process.  But they were allowed to practice their faith in relative security.

After Saddam and the Baath Party were toppled, Iraqi Christians became targets of Shiite Islamists.  Scores of churches have been burned down and many priests and bishops have been kidnapped, then ransomed or killed.  Thousands of Iraqi Christians have been murdered because of their faith since the war’s inception.

And the violence is not letting up.  Christian leaders in Iraq say 2010 was the most violent year for Iraq’s Christian community since the war began.  Hundreds of thousands of others—more than half of Iraq’s Christians—have fled the country.  Iraq’s Christian leaders now talk of the possible extinction of Christianity from the country.

Sadly, the American government has looked the other way as Iraq’s Christians have been persecuted.  Muslim fundamentalists were installed in the new Iraqi government, and Sharia law was written into the 2005 Iraqi constitution with the consent of U.S. constitutional advisers.

Will the post-Mubarak Egypt look anything like post-Saddam Iraq for Christians?

One thing is certain:  Like Iraq’s Chaldean Catholics, Egypt’s Copts shouldn’t count on American support.  Besides its endorsement of the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in a post-Mubarak government, the Obama administration now has a two-year record of utter disregard for the plight of persecuted Christians worldwide.

Polls suggest most Egyptians have a positive view of the Brotherhood and support a broader and deeper role for Islam in public life.  A Pew poll last year found that 85 percent of Egyptians believe Islam’s influence in politics is positive.

A Zogby poll found that two-thirds of Egyptians want Muslim clerics to have more influence in the country’s politics.  And 85 percent of Egyptians support the death penalty for those who convert from Islam.

The White House’s ham-handed response to the Egyptian crisis has left it with little ability to influence events in Egypt.  Don’t expect it to use the scant influence it retains to speak up on behalf of Egypt’s already beleaguered Christian community.

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