Arab Spring threatens Christian minorities

July 28, 2012


Among the biggest losers from the current Arab political upheavals are the Christian minorities of the Middle East.

Long before the Arab Spring, Iraq’s historic Christian community had shrunk dramatically, as tens of thousands fled threats and bomb attacks by Islamist militias. The flood of refugees pouring out of Syria includes many of that country’s Christian minority, who fear a radical Islamist takeover if President Bashar al-Assad falls.

Meantime, most of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of the population, are deeply worried by the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi as president. “There is a feeling that democracy has been a disaster for us,” says Samia Sidhom, managing editor of Watani, a newspaper that serves the Coptic community. (The Coptic church dates back 19 centuries and is based on the teachings of St. Mark, who took Christianity to Egypt.)

What Morsi does, or doesn’t do, to reassure Copts will reveal whether Christians can enjoy equal rights in an Islamist-led Egypt — and will hint at their likely fate in Syria as well.

“At the beginning, Copts had a lot of hopes (in the revolution),” Sidhom told me during my recent visit to Egypt. We sat in her cramped office, which was filled with old computers and worn furniture and was not far from Tahrir Square, as she worked on the next issue of the weekly.

There were simmering tensions between radical Muslims and the Coptic community under the Mubarak regime, including attacks on the Copts’ places of worship. To open new churches, Copts were required to get presidential permission, which was rarely forthcoming, forcing them to worship in “unlicensed,” and thus vulnerable, structures.

“We thought the revolution would solve our grievances,” Sidhom said, ruefully. “It took a lot of people by surprise that Islamists were able to take advantage of the revolution.”

Under Hosni Mubarak, she said, despite the problems, ultraconservative Salafi Muslims had no power. Now, young Salafis return from the cities to their home villages, where Copts and Muslims have lived side by side, and warn them against Christian “infidels.” She reeled off a list of churches that have been burned down since the revolution.

Some of these churches were rebuilt by the Egyptian military, including one I visited in the working-class Cairo district of Shoubra. But the military carried out a brutal attack on peaceful Coptic demonstrators near Cairo’s Maspero television building in March, which has left many Copts embittered. More than 20 demonstrators died, some deliberately run over by military vehicles.

Now that Morsi has won, Copts feel there will be even greater discrimination. Sidhom believes Christian women will face social pressure to veil and expects more government pressure to close unlicensed churches.

The biggest threat — the one that most terrifies Copts — is that the new government will push to enshrine Islamic sharia law in the constitution. At present, it is the Salafi-oriented Nour party that is demanding the specific application of Islamic law. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party still supports the current, more vague, provision in the current constitution, which says sharia “principles” should be the basis for law.

However, Sidhom believes the Brotherhood will ultimately apply a conservative form of Islam, in which “there is no national Egyptian identity,” but rather an emphasis on a pan-Islamic community. This, she says, would foreclose equality for Copts or other minority groups.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood talk a good game about inclusivity. But few Copts — or moderate Egyptian Muslims — have forgotten that in 2007 he drafted a Brotherhood platform that specified that no Copt or a woman could become president. (After an outcry, this platform was withdrawn.)

If he genuinely wanted to demonstrate good faith toward Copts, Morsi could take concrete measures to prove it. First, as a new Human Rights Watch report suggests, he could end the Mubarak-era impunity for incidents of sectarian violence. If Egyptian authorities finally punished those responsible for notorious attacks against Christians, and arrested those responsible for the Maspero deaths, it would set a new tone in the country. If the president ended the restrictions on building churches, Copts would have renewed hope.

Many doubt that Morsi is ideologically capable of such enlightened positions (which is why members of the community voted heavily for the presidential candidate backed by the army, Ahmed Shafiq, and why they support a continued strong military role behind the scenes). There’s no doubt the president would face intense pressure from Brotherhood hard-liners and from the powerful Salafis.

But Morsi’s presidency will be defined by how he deals with the Coptic minority. This will show whether he grasps the meaning of pluralism and democracy and wants a modern country. The West should press for such pluralism, and make aid contingent, but it cannot force him.

“Morsi will go forward with Islamicization,” predicts Sidhom, pessimistically. I’d say the odds favor her prediction. Does Mohammed Morsi have the vision to prove us wrong?

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Paul R Getto 5 years, 5 months ago

Pluralism and democracy.....we struggle with this too. So sad to see people slaughter others in the name of their loving god.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 5 months ago

God is pretty clear in the Qur'an about dealing with non-Muslims. This is confirmed in the Qur'an in Surah al-Mumtahina, Verses 8-9: 'Allah does not forbid you to deal justly and kindly with those who fought not against you on account of religion and didn't drive you out of your homes. Verily, God loves those who deal with equity. -- It is only as regards to those who fought against you on account of religion, and have driven you out of your homes, and helped to drive you out, that God forbids you to befriend. If the "Islamist" government in Egypt or other places follows the Quran, then Christians and others should not be alarmed. But if they bring war upon Muslims, take their homes or remove them from their homes and kill them, then the non-Muslim would be warned. I have never seen an article or read anything that contends that Coptic Christians in Egypt have done such against Muslims, therefore, they should be quite safe and their liaisons with Muslims is welcomed.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 5 months ago

In the past, I've cautioned against interpreting other people's religion when you are not a member of that faith. In my way of thinking, Muslims get to define Islam, Christians define Christianity, Jews likewise. The same is true for every faith.

The obvious problem arrises when two members of the same faith claim conflicting interpretations. How should a non member of that faith try to understand that conflict. In this country, a predominately Christian country, we see that conflict all the time. And being a predominately Christian country, most of us have some level of understanding of that religion even if we are not members of that religion. But those of us in our predominately Christian country have much less knowledge when it comes to a religion like Islam. So if you, wounded, were to quote a passage from the Qu'an and another Muslim quoted some other passage that seems to contradict your interpretation, what am I to make of that contradiction?

And of course, that doesn't even address the issue of members of each faith behaving in ways contrary to agreed upon tenets.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 5 months ago

"So if you, wounded, were to quote a passage from the Qu'an and another Muslim quoted some other passage that seems to contradict your interpretation, what am I to make of that contradiction?"

If you can find a contradition, please let me know. I have read this book over and over again from start to finish and I have never seen a contradiction. Why would God contradict Himself? He does explain things in different ways but the message is always the same. The only real tenet of Islam is to worship God and God alone, He has no partner or son, His are all things in the Heavens and on Earth. All I can say, is get a copy of the A Yusef Ali Translation of the Quran (if you don't read Arabic) and read it yourself. That is all that I can say. If you don't read it, you don't know it and use only the words of others who also haven't read it to argue with me. Read it then we can discuss it.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 5 months ago

Just a small clarification, wounded. As I've said in the past, I'm not a religious person. As such, I have never taken the time to read the sacred writings of any religion. I have never read the Bible, though as I stated above, living in a predominately Christian society, it's almost impossible to not have become somewhat familiar with it. My familiarity with the Qu'an is much less.

I did not mean to suggest that God would contradict himself. What I was suggesting was that one man's interpretation of those writings might contradict another man's interpretation. And when that happens, I, as man unfamiliar with the text, will have great difficulty understanding whose interpretation is correct.

Look around the world, wounded. Muslims are living in very different ways all the while claiming that the reason they live that way is because their faith requires it of them. They all can't be correct. And I don't at all mean to pick on Muslims alone for this. Jews are doing the same. Christians the same. Other faiths I'm not as familiar with though I would expect the same. I see the Taliban throwing acid on young girls in school. And claiming their faith compels it. I see other Muslims condemn it. A contradiction. One of many, as many exist in other faiths.

As Muslims deal with members of other faiths in the Middle East, as they have dealt with that for centuries, people will see contradictions. And as Muslims, Christians, Jews and others move around the world, they will bring their conflicting interpretations with them. It's not a condition of God. It's a human condition.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 5 months ago

Just like the Tanakh or the Christian Bible, the Quran has been subverted by many in order to promote their own agenda. What is being taught in many of the madrassas is far from what many Americans believe are basic human rights. And, many of the students in the madrassas hear nothing that conflicts a prejudicial mindset.

Consider Boko Haram, that is a very horrific example.

Just like most religions, what is being taught in many religious schools is not all of the possible ideas behind the canonical works, instead only one interpretation is taught. Unfortunately, since many have no other education, they believe that what they are being taught is literally true.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 5 months ago

How do you know that Ron? Have you been to a Madrassah? I don't think so, because you are not Muslim. The Quran of today is Exactly the same one revealted to Muhammad in the 7th Century. There are many Qurans dating back to that time and they are identical with the one that sits on the shelves in Mosques and homes today. God says in the Quran that He will protect it from being subverted like the Bible and the Torah have been because only His word is true. There are no contradictions in the Quran only different interpretations. If we read the scholars, they all agree on the meanings.

The Muslim schools that you call madrassah (which in Arabic means simply "school") do not teach hate or other unsavory things. They teach the Quran and if you want to know it, READ IT and stop misquoting it and the way Muslims do things. Muslims are not out to kill the world of non-Muslims, they are only taught to worship God.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 5 months ago

"stop misquoting it"

I could not have misquoted it, because I didn't quote anything at all.

definition of: quote Verb: Repeat or copy out (a group of words from a text or speech), typically with an indication that one is not the original author or speaker.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 5 months ago

From the Quran: The Disbelievers 109.6

"You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion."

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 5 months ago

Well, it appears that I did quote the Quran there. Is that the passage you were complaining about?

Abdu Omar 5 years, 5 months ago

You are right and that is the way Muslims are supposed to treat those of other religions and ask that you treat us the same. We do not want to convert others to the Islamic faith. "God guides whom He chooses and whomever He choses to guide no one shall misguide him."

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 5 months ago

“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

  • Martin Niemoeller

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