Egypt's Arab Spring has become a nightmare for the nation's 2,000-year-old Coptic Christian community, now the terror target of choice for Islamist radicals. Christians' "personal security has gotten much worse" since the February ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, says Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute, who monitors the situation of religious minorities in the Muslim world.
Christian homes, businesses and churches have come under increasing attack from militant Islamists, with many of the assaults coming shortly after angry sermons given at Friday prayers. The sermons inciting the violence often come from Salafist imams subsidized by the Egyptian government.
Since February, violent Islamists have exploited an atmosphere of "lawlessness" to assert that they are in control, said Coptic American activist Michael Meunier. Meunier, who is currently visiting Egypt, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism that the government's refusal to challenge anti-Christian violence has "provided a way out to criminals and encouraged violent attacks."
Prominent examples of violence directed against Egyptian Christians include:
The Copts requested help from the Egyptian Army, but soldiers didn't arrive until four and a half hours later. Watch video here.
On May 14, Islamist mobs attacked Christian demonstrators holding a sit-in in downtown Cairo to protest the May 7 attacks in Imbaba. Attackers threw rocks, tossed gasoline bombs, burned cars and charged at the demonstrators. Christians said more than 100 people were injured in the attack and ensuing street brawls that erupted. Riot police initially stood by while the violence took place.
A church in Soul, Egypt was destroyed by hammer-wielding Islamists in March. The attackers were angry about a relationship between a Muslim woman and a Christian man.
That same month, witnesses said 500 Christians in Cairo were surrounded by several thousand Muslims. Young men set nearby apartment buildings and a factory on fire. Christians who witnessed the incident said soldiers stood by for hours while the violence occurred.
In the southern Egyptian city of Qena, a Christian accused of having a relationship with a Muslim woman had his ear cut off. The victim, Ayman Mitry, blamed Salafis. He said they called him a "kafir" (infidel) and tried to spit on a cross tattooed on his wrist. The military tried to mediate reconciliation between the perpetrators and the victim.
The Egyptian Army has reportedly attacked Christians and their churches. Christian activists say that in February, soldiers assaulted a Coptic Orthodox monastery in al-Natroun, 68 miles north of Cairo, with small arms, heavy machine guns and armored personnel carriers in order to bulldoze a wall. A monk and six church workers were shot and wounded in the attack. The Army said the monastery had failed to obtain the proper permits.
Also in February, the Army attacked another monastery in Al Fayoum, 80 miles southwest of Cairo, to destroy a security wall built to keep out criminals. The military claimed the wall had been built on land set aside for a nature preserve.
Since Mubarak's fall, the Egyptian government has repeatedly failed to take action against Muslim militants involved in anti-Christian violence including the destruction of churches, Muenier said. Instead of sending the Egyptian Army in to protect Christians, the government forces Christians to negotiate rebuilding issues with "fanatical" Muslim clerics who are not acting in good faith.
Shea sees the violence as part of a larger pattern of marginalization of Egyptian Christians that has gone hand-in-hand with the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood and more militant Salafist groups. If current patterns continue, "I expect Egypt to become more and more like Iran," she said.
The result is going to be "an Islamic awakening" in which the state "uses its coercive powers" to induce conformity with Shariah law, Shea told the IPT. The major victims will be Christians and non-Islamist Muslims who don't want to conform to the rigid religious ideology of the Brotherhood and the Salafists.
Islamists have taken some steps to soften their public image. These include the announcement that the Freedom and Justice Party, formed by the Brotherhood, had chosen a Christian to be vice-president. Meunier termed the move "window-dressing" and expressed skepticism that the Brotherhood would permit non-Muslims to gain a position of genuine influence in the party.
Coptic Christians and their supporters say the government's response to violence and coercion has worsened their plight. In Egypt, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found "serious, widespread and long-standing human rights violations against religious minorities," said Shea, a USCIRF commissioner.
For years, Egypt's response to the violence has been to conduct "reconciliation" sessions between Muslims and Christians. In its 2009 human rights report, the State Department found that those sessions "prevented the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes against Copts and precluded their recourse to the judicial system for restitution." This situation "contributed to a climate of impunity that encouraged further assaults."
The Egyptian government "goes through the motions of taking action," Shea said. The policy consists of getting "the Christians to shake hands with the people who attack them."
But the reconciliation panels remain a part of the Egypt's response to Muslim-on-Christian violence. For example, after the axe-wielding mob destroyed the church in Soul to avenge a relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, Coptic and Muslim families held a reconciliation meeting. They decided that the Christian (whose house had been torched by the mob) would have to leave town.
The problems are further exacerbated by discriminatory Egyptian laws that make it very difficult for Christians to rebuild churches and bar teaching the Coptic language in Egyptian schools.
Shea warned it is a mistake to think that the effects of continued marginalization of Coptic Christians will be confined to Egypt. An Egyptian society unwilling to tolerate the Copts likely will be hostile to a Jewish state in the region, and that could have troubling consequences for Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. With that in mind, Shea urged that Washington speak out more forcefully on behalf of embattled minorities like the Copts.
Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis Join Forces
Brotherhood representatives joined representatives of Gama'a al-Islamiya in announcing they would form a coalition in September's parliamentary elections in order to combat secular forces in Egypt. "God's words must rule and Islam must be in the hearts of the citizens," said Osama Hafez, a spokesman for the group.
Gama'a representatives have called have called for the establishment of a medieval-style virtue police "to arrest those who commit immoral acts."
Gama'a al-Islamiya says it has renounced violence, but the organization's long history of jihad makes many skeptical.
Members of the group were involved in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In the 1990s, its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, merged his faction of Gama'a with al-Qaida. Its spiritual leader is Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, currently serving a life sentence in the United States for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a plot to blow up other New York-area landmarks including the United Nations building and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels; the George Washington Bridge; and the New York office of the FBI.
Between January 1996 and November 1997, Gama'a carried out multiple terrorist attacks targeting Christians and foreign tourists in Egypt, killing more than 100 people. The most deadly of these occurred on November 18, 1997, when it massacred at least 58 people, most of them tourists, in Luxor.
Following the Luxor massacre, President Hosni Mubarak's government launched a harsh crackdown against the group, killing or jailing many of its members. That forced the group to split into factions, one of which was Zawahiri's armed wing that joined al-Qaida. Another faction consisted of ex-terrorists who renounced violence.
But the "moderate" faction of Gama'a apparently regards bin Laden as a victim of American perfidy. At a conference earlier this month, Gama'a representative, Abbud al-Zumar, suggested that Christians and Muslims were both to blame for the Imbaba violence and said bin Laden is a victim of his U.S. enemies. Zumar warned Arabs about U.S. arrogance in dealing with Arab Islamic nations.
Meunier expressed skepticism about recent efforts by Islamists to cast themselves as supporters of nonviolence and moderation. Salafist "leaders and clerics" can be found "all over YouTube with videos encouraging their followers to attack churches and Christians," he said. Although the videos have been turned over to the Egyptian military, "there seems to be no will at this stage to arrest" the individuals behind the attacks, Meunier said.
The military's unwillingness to act against Islamists does not come as a total surprise given its connections with organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Writing in Middle East Quarterly, Egyptian activist Cynthia Farahat points to numerous actions the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces since Mubarak's ouster that have been favorable to Islamists and discriminatory against minority Christians.
According to Farahat, the council has made decisions to arrest a secular liberal blogger and sentence him to three years in prison; at the same time, it freed Col. Aboud al-Zomor, described as the "mastermind" of Sadat's assassination. It issued a declaration making sharia "the principal source of legislation" and has failed to prosecute "Muslims responsible for hate crimes against Christians."
This pattern isn't accidental. Farahat marshals arguments to show that for close to 60 years, the Muslim Brotherhood has exercised a surprising degree of power by working with the Egyptian military. She argues that in the short run, the real question "is not whether the Muslim Brotherhood will seize power, but whether it will continue to hold it, either directly or by proxy."
Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood "don't want to take responsibility for the results of the ideology of hatred" that they are advocating, Shea said. If the Egyptian government and military are unwilling to confront this reality, Islamism will continue gaining in strength, with dark consequences for Egypt.