By Con Coughlin (The Telegraph)
In the 19 or so centuries since Christianity first took root in Egypt, the ritual of mourning has become an all-too-familiar experience for the majority of the country’s Coptic community. Egypt’s eight million Copts may claim to be their nation’s oldest surviving indigenous faith, but that has not spared them from prolonged periods of persecution, most recently at the hands of Islamist militants.
In many respects, the tone was set for nearly two millennia of oppression of the Copts, one of the world’s oldest Christian sects, by the martyrdom of St Mark the Evangelist, the disciple who established the Christian faith in Alexandria just a few years after the ascension of Christ.
The establishment of a new religion was bitterly resented by the city’s pagan population, who feared it would turn Alexandrians away from the worship of their traditional gods. They exacted their revenge on Easter Monday in 68 AD when Roman soldiers put a rope around St Mark’s neck and dragged him through the streets of Alexandria until he was dead.
These days the methods used to persecute Egypt’s Copts might not be so primitive, but their overall effect is
no less barbaric. During the latest outbreak of Coptic-related violence in Cairo on Sunday night, several Copts are reported to have been crushed to death by the tracks of an armoured military vehicle that ploughed into a group of protesters as they sang hymns and held aloft the Cross.
The roots of the current wave of anti-Coptic violence are murky. At first it was assumed that Islamist
militants, who have waged a vicious campaign of intimidation, sparked the unrest by burning down a church in the southern province of Aswan. This attack was the latest in a series of clashes between Muslims and Christians, which began when 21 worshippers were killed as they left mass at a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve.
Thousands of Copts descended on the state TV building in Cairo on Sunday to protest against what many Christians regard as the growing strength of ultra-conservative Islamists since the overthrow of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in February. But the uncompromising response of the Egyptian authorities, which resulted in government forces firing live rounds at stone-throwing protesters, has prompted
accusations that the army, which has interim control of the country, is deliberately fostering sectarian hatred in order to disguise its own plans to maintain control of the country.
Following the high-profile protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square earlier this year – during which Muslim and Coptic protesters joined forces to demand the overthrow of President Mubarak – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed responsibility for creating a modern, pluralistic democratic state following decades of authoritarian rule.
But the delays that have hindered plans to hold fresh parliamentary and presidential elections – they are now due to start at the end of next month – have led many to conclude that the military, which effectively ran the country during the Mubarak era, has no real interest in establishing democratic institutions. And what better way to abort the transition from military to democratic rule than to instigate nationwide sectarian violence?
As one Coptic protester commented in Cairo yesterday: “This is not about Muslim-Christian hatred. It is about the army trying to start a civil conflict for its own reasons, and we all know what those reasons are.”
Certainly the vitriolic language used by state-controlled broadcasters during coverage of the protests undermined the interim government’s claim to represent the interests of all Egyptians, Christians and Muslims alike.Newsreaders appealed for “honest Egyptians” to protect their soldiers against Christian “mobs”, while the Copts were denounced as “sons of dogs”, despite the fact many moderate Muslims, who want Egypt to be free of sectarian divisions, supported the protesters.
But then Egypt’s Copts are used to state-sponsored persecution. Tens of thousands of Copts fled the country in the 1950s after Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalised Egypt’s private businesses, most of which were owned by Christians. Today it is estimated that two out of three Egyptians living in Britain are from Christian families. Egyptian communities in northern Europe, North America and Australia are also disproportionately Christian.
Nor is the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East confined to Egypt’s Copts. One of the more alarming trends of recent years has been the violent persecution of Christians throughout the region.
In Iraq, for example, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 was supposed to herald a new era of sectarian harmony. Instead a wave of al-Qaeda-related attacks has had a devastating impact on Iraq’s once-thriving Christian community, which numbered around 1.4 million 10 years ago, but has now declined to around 400,000.
As in Egypt, the exodus was hastened by a series of grotesque attacks on Iraqi churches, the worst of which was the suicide bomb attack on the Church of our Salvation in Baghdad at the end of last year, which killed 58 people. To mark their contempt for the Christian faith, the al-Qaeda bombers blew themselves up on the altar, together with a child hostage.
Not all the persecution of Christian minorities is as violent as that experienced in Iraq, but the refusal of even
pro-Western countries such as Saudi Arabia to tolerate any expression of Christianity has forced believers to practise their faith in private. There are an estimated one million Catholics in Saudi Arabia, most of them guest-workers from the Philippines, but they risk immediate expulsion if they are found observing their religion.
In Iran, meanwhile, the persecution of Christians that began with the 1979 Islamic revolution resulted in a Christian pastor being sentenced to death in the provincial town of Rasht earlier this month for refusing to renounce his faith. The ayatollahs’ refusal to countenance any other faith has also resulted in an upsurge in the persecution of the country’s Baha’i sect, the world’s youngest monotheistic faith.
Much of the blame for the deterioration in relations between Islam and Christianity in the region can be laid at the door of the growing legions of Islamist militants who refuse to acknowledge the other main monotheistic faiths. They point to the comment made by the Prophet himself on his deathbed, when he instructed his followers that only one faith – Islam – could be tolerated in Arabia.
This interpretation is disputed by moderate Muslims – such as those who joined the Copts for Sunday night’s
protest in Cairo – who argue that Islam is a tolerant faith, which allows for peaceful co-existence with other religions.
Unfortunately for Christians in the Middle East, this is increasingly the minority view among the region’s ruling elites, which are no longer prepared to recognise basic rights of their citizens, such as freedom of worship.
Arguably the most extreme example of this intolerance has been seen in Sudan, where decades of mistreatment of non-Muslims by the conservative Islamic government in Khartoum resulted earlier this year in the secession of the country’s Christian population to form South Sudan. The new state, which is the size of France but has just 38 miles of paved roads, is the world’s poorest, but simply to be free of the tyranny of
their former Islamic rulers is reward enough for the new country’s four million Christian inhabitants.
The break-up of neighbouring Sudan will serve as a warning to the military authorities in Cairo, who should be mindful of St Mark’s remark that “Every affliction tests our will.” The current wave of persecution directed at Egypt’s Coptic community constitutes not only a major test of the interim government’s ability to maintain order, but also of its desire to establish a government that represents the interests of all Egyptians, irrespective of their creed.