The leaders of Coptic Christians, whose community is facing growing persecution in Egypt, say they have been unsuccessful in efforts to gain a hearing from the White House or other parts of the Obama administration.
Heightened persecution of Egypt’s 12 million Christians coupled with growing power and prestige of their Coptic Diaspora in America and Australia is leading to new political efforts here. Educated and skilled Egyptian Copts who migrated in large numbers in recent decades are talking to Congress, organizing lobbies, and making other efforts to be heard.
They say they are frustrated by the current administration in Washington, particularly after President Obama’s overture to the Muslim world via a speech at Cairo. In the speech Mr. Obama President apologized for America’s misdeeds to Muslims, stating that he came “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” Coptic leaders say that even while reaching out to Muslims the administration has turned a deaf ear to the pleas Arab Christian minority in the very country where he delivered his apology to Muslims.
“The Obama administration’s benign neglect of Arab Christians, is putting freedoms and human rights in the whole Middle East at risk,” is the way it was put in an interview with the Sun by the president of the U.S. Copts Association, Michael Meunier, who is headquartered in Washington “Friendships with Muslims has been the Obama Administration’s opening theme from his first day in office and in that famed Cairo speech in which he extended a hand to all Muslims in partnership.”
Mr. Meunier added that that the president’s failure to speak as extensively about the persecution of Arab Christians was a departure from American policy and a grave error. “We have no problems with American friendships with Islam and Muslims, but it cannot be accomplished at the expense of our rights as Egyptian Christians and Arab Christians, and as the very lives of our people there are endangered,” Mr. Meunier told the Sun.
One area of complaint by the Copt community is a law banning the repair or construction of churches without a “presidential decree.” The measure, known as the Hamayuni Law, is based on an 1856 Ottoman decree but was rarely enforced in Egypt under the monarchial dynasty overthrown by army officers in 1952.
Indeed, until the coup that put Gamal Abdel Nasser in power in 1952, Christian communities in Egypt — including Catholics, Protestants, Armenians, Greeks and Italians in addition to the Copts — enjoyed a climate of moderate Islam as the country westernized itself.
Because Christianity in Egypt is so ancient, preceding Islam by seven centuries, the country is a repository of multiple centuries-old churches, part of its international cultural heritage. As attractions for tourists, they rival the Pharos heritage. Those churches benefit somewhat as tourist sites, getting a measure of protection by the state. Elsewhere in Egypt, smaller, ordinary churches are burning. Because of the Hamayuni Law, the churches that are attacked or burned down remain gone.
Copts say they are down to 2,524 churches now, down from more than 3,000 churches in the early 1950s. The bigger problem is not only that of systematic destruction of churches but the inability to replace the losses and build more to keep up with the normal growth of the Christian population.
The squeeze has become bad enough that Copts have often have to travel far distances outside of their towns for religious services for baptism, marriage, funerals, and regular mass.
Since 1971 only 37 “presidential decrees” were issued to build new churches and a further 34 decrees for menial repairs or refurbishments, including absurd things like replacing broken windows, across all of Egypt.
Both the regimes of Presidents Al Sadat and Mubarak revived the Hamayuni Law, refusing or ignoring applications by Christians to repair, rebuild or erect churches. Egypt’s parliament, which is led by Mr. Mubarak’s National Party, has refused multiple proposals to write off the law or cancel it. Christian landowners need official permits to build a church. Muslims, by contrast, need no such permissions from the state, the presidency, or the government to build mosques anywhere in Egypt.
As a result, thousands new mosques, some starting as nothing more than storefront shops, have been established over the past 30 years. Most were funded with Saudi money. As the expansion of Islamic houses of prayer proceeds in Egypt , Christians there remain frozen in place.
Sectarian outbursts, which always end up in attacks on churches, are diminishing their numbers. Nagaa Hamadi is close to Luxor the fabled capital of ancient Egypt where several dynasties of Pharos ruled, a place replete with splendid ancient sites and a region of the Deep Nile Valley South, where millions of Coptic Christians live and work as merchants, landowners and businessmen.
Attacks on those Coptic Christians and their shops in Luxor, as well as in major cities like Cairo and Alexandria, are now monthly occurrences. Their employees are mugged, robbed, stabbed, and occasionally shot and killed, while their establishments are damaged or destroyed. The Islamists’ objective is to drive Copts out of the business of tourism and commerce,
That objective is voiced openly by advocates of the Moslem Brotherhood, who voice the ambition in weekly sermons, as well as over the airwaves by such broadcasters as the Qatari Al Jazeera and the Suadi Al Arabia television networks. Both networks keep a large contingent of reporters in Cairo and carry a stream of anti-Christian speeches and news programming. Anti-Christian exhortations are far from discreet; they are made openly on loud speakers in mosques on Fridays across Egypt, even in Christian neighborhoods.
Imams routinely urge Muslims to boycott Christians in business and social gatherings, cross the street to avoid mingling with them, refrain from shaking hands with them, or joining them in business ventures.
Much of this is reported and written about in the press, including in the government owned Al Ahram, the largest Arab daily newspaper, which has a contingent of liberal writers. The Coptic church routinely files complaints to the police. Yet to date, such complaints have been largely ignored. The government has been either unable, or unwilling, to challenge, stop, or question radical imams.
Luxor itself came to the world’s attention in November 1997, but only when Islamists massacred 62 Swiss tourists in a bloody attack. The ongoing dispossession and massacres of thousands of Egyptian Christians in and around the rest of Egypt, has yet to receive much attention, while the government dismisses each attack as an “individual incident.”
By Youssef Ibrahmim