A DISTURBING feature of the crisis in Egypt this week has been the paucity of any discussion of the implications of the decline of the Mubarak regime and the possible rise of fanatical Islamists for the Christians of Egypt.
This applies particularly to the sizeable Coptic Christian population, estimated at 10 to 15 per cent of the Egyptian population.
The few vague references to the fate of the Christians were generally expressed, almost as an afterthought, regarding the repression of women.
This puzzling gap is indicative of the thought processes of many Western analysts geared to political explanations and impressions that have little to do with the deeper social and historical complexities of the Middle East, which in turn have everything to do with religion and the culture.
They really don’t understand the importance of religion. Unless religion has an overt political face it is usually a mystery to most secular Western journalists.
Yet Christians have been out on the street with their fellow Egyptians this week, desperate that an Islamic outcome should be avoided.
Ignoring the fate of Coptic Christians is not new, and their persecution has intensified over the past 20 years. It is also a product of a general ignorance in the West about the broader history of the Middle East, where there have been Christians for 2000 years.
The Copts are regarded as the descendants of the Pharaonic Egyptians and their liturgical language is the closest thing we have to their original language. Egypt was a template for Christianity.
Its origins there are apostolic. It was introduced by the evangelist Mark as early as the year 42. Monasticism was founded in Egypt and one can’t help being overwhelmed by the antiquity of the country’s monasteries and many of the churches. In fact Islam did not begin to dominate Egypt until the end of the 12th century.
The Copts are integrated into virtually every strata of life in Egypt, from the lowest, such as the famous rag pickers of Cairo, to the highest, including the multi-billionaire telco tycoon Naguib Sawiris and former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
But all this is lost on your average Westerner who equates the rise of Islam with women having to get out of their mini-skirts and under the veil. If only that was the main problem the Copts will face in the event of an Islamic revolution in Egypt.
The general lack of interest in the fate of the Copts is doubly curious because a terrible massacre in Alexandria on New Year’s Day, the Coptic Christmas, seems to have heralded the beginning of the present upheavals.
But judging by some media reports one would think it was sudden and unexpected. Not according to the Coptic Bishop Anba Suriel of Melbourne, who told me he believes the nascent revolution began with the New Year massacre of 23 Copts. It is easier to attack a church than a police station.
The Copts are used to these atrocities being perpetrated on their people. This was the culmination of a series of similar modern atrocities against the Christians by fanatical Muslims that go back to former president Anwar Sadat and which have not improved under Mubarak’s regime.
The number of massacres has been shocking; there were at least 40 incidents in the 10 years before the Alexandria bombing. There are also numerous reports of daily discrimination in jobs and education, property ownership and most particularly in freedom of belief and worship.
New churches are routinely destroyed or desecrated and it is made difficult for an Egyptian Muslim to convert to Christianity. The government will not recognise the change of religion on their ID cards and makes it hard for such people to leave the country. There are stories of spouses who have converted being persecuted, and even kidnapped.
As Australian journalist Peter Day, who has travelled extensively in Egypt and is familiar with the Coptic culture and situation, puts it, the tactics of the regime in relation to the fundamentalists is merely to “outflank the [opposition] Muslim Brotherhood by indulging the anti-Christian bigotry of the Muslim masses”, in fact complying with Muslim demands to stifle Christianity in Egypt. Yet so feared is the prospect of an Islamic regime that the Copts are supporting President Hosni Mubarak.
As for the international reaction to the New Year’s massacre, it was condemned by many heads of state and foreign ministers, although in the past few have bothered with the fate of the Copts, including our own Kevin Rudd, who was singled out by the Australian Coptic movement representing our own 80,000 Australian Coptic Christians of Egyptian origin.
Referring to Rudd’s December visit to Cairo, the movement observed that although he was in Egypt for three days, and met Mubarak, “he failed to convey . . . concern over the ongoing persecution of Egypt’s indigenous population”.
According to Day, ignoring the Copts on this occasion was partly driven by timorousness from Rudd in the face of Australia’s own large and possibly strategically significant Muslim population. In an interview with the Cairo daily Al-Ahram he estimated that population at “a million”, about 4.4 per cent of the population — a startling figure compared with the 2006 census figure of about 340,000 or 1.7 per cent.
However, the Islamisation in many urban areas of Australia, such as Sydney’s southwest, is slowly proceeding.
Lebanese Muslims in particular have a fertility rate four times the average.
The refugee status of Coptics and many other Middle Eastern Christians ranks low. (It is an irony that, since the demise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, probably the only country that assures the safety and rights of its Christians is Syria, another dictatorship.)
Under those circumstances, perhaps we Australians should redress the imbalance of the immigration and refugee intake, which in the near future should be in favour of Coptics and other Christians of Middle Eastern origin .
In the West we have to take our blinkers off. Hani Shukrallah, the editor of Al-Ahram, who is a Copt by family origin, said in a recent English-language editorial headed “J’Accuse!” (taking the title of Emile Zola’s powerful 1898 open letter to the then French president): ” I accuse the liberal intellectuals, both Muslim and Christian who, whether complicit, afraid, or simply unwilling to do or say anything that may displease ‘the masses’, have stood aside, finding it sufficient to join in one futile chorus of denunciation even as the massacres spread wider, and grow more horrifying.”
As the Coptic Pope Shenouda III remarked of the Islamic fundamentalists to the secular Egyptian press: “Be careful. They will have us for lunch and you for dinner.”
The Australian 5/2/2011