The Plight of Egypt’s Copts – Washington Speech – “Respect for religious liberty and minorities – the hallmarks of a civilised society”
Washington Conference: June 2012.
(Prof.Lord Alton of Liverpool – Hon. President of the UK Copts Association).
At the beginning of 2011, just after the carnage after Midnight Mass at the Coptic Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria, Amira Nowaira, a Muslim writing in The Guardian newspaper, described the changing nature of Egyptian society.
She recounted two stories which sum up the alternative paths which Egypt can take – one is built on cultivating a civilised respect and tolerance of difference; the other rests on uncivilised intolerance, violence, and hatred of difference. One is about unfulfilled hope; the other about loss.
Her first story concerned a young Coptic woman called Mariam “Mariouma” Fekry who on the last day of 2010 entered the following note Facebook:
“2010 is over…..this year has the best memories of my life….really enjoyed living this year……I hope 2011 is much better…….I have so many wishes in 2011….hope they come true…..plz God stay beside me & help make it all true.”
Just hours after writing her message, Mariam was killed in Alexandria, along with her mother, her aunt and her younger sister, Martina.
Amira Nowaira’s second story concerned herself. She described how:
“As a child growing up in a traditional Muslim family in the 60s, I remember quite clearly after suffering a bout of illness that conventional medicine seemed unable to cure, my mother took me to an Orthodox church in the popular district of Moharrem Bek to light a candle in honour of the Virgin Mary. As we stood together in the beautifully decorated and darkly lit church, my mother, an ordinary, middle-class woman, whispered some heartfelt prayers. She didn’t feel that she was on alien territory, or that she was in any way betraying her faith in appealing to the Christian God to heal her daughter. This simple and spontaneous act of reverence seems sadly unthinkable in today’s Egypt.”
The violence which robbed Mariam, her sister, her mother and aunt, of their lives – and the subsequent violence at Maspero – and the loss of the innocent co-existence described by Amira Nowaira, are all part of the festering story which characterises Egypt today. I will argue that this is a story which no only has implications for the Middle East but our failure to protect minorities or to stand up for violated human rights has security implications for the United States and for Europe too.
What has been happening in Egypt and many other parts of the region amounts to ethnic cleansing, resulting in an exodus of Biblical proportions:
The Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organisation believes that over 100,000 Coptic Christians left Egypt last year. Its director says:
“Copts are not emigrating voluntarily; they are coerced into that by threats and intimidation of hard-line Salafists, and the lack of protection they are getting from the Egyptian regime”
Building the confidence of Egypt’s Coptic minority will be the greatest challenge facing Mohammed Mursi as he assumes office as President of Egypt. Will Egypt become a nation for all its citizens – or just some? Will it be a nation which focuses on a person’s religious or political beliefs or on a citizen’s willingness and ability to contribute and to become a nation where all men will be treated equally and justly before the law?
The 2011 attacks in the ancient city of Alexandria graphically illustrate the choices which now lay before President Mursi.
Alexandria is one of the most wonderful cities in the world – and I have happy memories of my own visits.
Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great it was Egypt’s capital for nearly a thousand years – and was celebrated for housing one of the Seven Wonders of the World. For some centuries it was only second to Rome. After the Muslim conquest in Egypt in 641 it was displaced as the capital and yet it remained a richly diverse city, a city of learning, a beacon of civilisation in a darkened world – with the influences of many languages and cultures – including Greek, Hebrew, Roman, Coptic, Arab, Ottoman Turk, French and British.
The 2011 attack on the Coptic church of the two saints was a premeditated attack on all that Alexandria has stood for historically, as well as what it might be.
Notwithstanding, Alexandria’s rich history there are undoubtedly those in Europe and America who regard Egypt in the same way that, in September 1938, Neville Chamberlain regarded Czechoslovakia when he set out his case for appeasement.
He famously justified his decision not to confront Hitler’s Nazi ideology of domination over all minorities and neighbouring nations saying that Czechoslovakia is “a far-away country… of whom we know nothing…. However much we may sympathize… we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account.”
The security implications of silence, indifference and weakness are writ large over the events which then spiralled into World War Two – events which might have been avoided if the world had accepted the reality of the threat which it faced.
It is not fanciful to draw a parallel between the catastrophic appeasement of the last century and our attitude, today, toward forced Islamisation, the use of force against minorities and the routine and systematic egregious violation of human rights.
Modern Jihad has been embraced by the Mullahs of Iran and is adhered to by adherents of Al Quaeda, Hamas, Laskar Jihad, and other mutations in Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Pakistan and Egypt. Think too of the recent depredations of Boko Haram in Nigeria, the new genocide in south Kordofan, and al-Shabab’s reign of terror in Somalia. The abuses range from outright murder to persecution-by-law, such as the existence and capricious use of Blasphemy Laws in many Muslim contexts to suppress and intimidate. The security implications range from acts of terror in New York and London to piracy on the high seas around Somalia.
Simply ignoring the ethnic cleansing of the ancient churches and other minorities throughout the Middle East carries profound implications for Europe and America as well as the region.
This contagion knows no customs post and respects no national borders Therefore, you are right in this session to spend time considering why these events should be an American and European national security priority.
What is happening in Egypt is part of a grim and shocking picture.
In 2007 His Holiness Pope, Benedict XVI, warned that “Churches in the Middle East are threatened in their very existence…”
Palestinian Christians now constitute just 0.5% of the population and in Lebanon they have declined from 75% to 32%. In Iraq – Mesopotamia –this cradle of the ancient churches is the scene of their asphyxiation and annihilation.
Christian sources in Iraq have said: “The attacks on Christians continue and the world remains totally silent. It’s as if we have been swallowed up by the night. “
That the world has been largely indifferent was a thought which I expressed the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in a long letter which I sent to him 18 months ago on the morning after the Alexandria massacre.
I wrote that:
“There is no indication that Egypt’s political leadership, or the wider international community, has come to realise the need to address the “Coptic issue.” While the government makes great efforts to present to the outside world an optimistic picture of the situation of the Copts, it does little to address the reality.”
I reminded Mr.Hague that in addition to the killings in Alexandria that in the preceding weeks and months live ammunition had been fired at Coptic protesters and of Coptic homes being torched, including one attack in the village of al-Nawahid, in Qena province; and of an assault by a mob on some 400 Christians while they were at prayer.
I told the Foreign Secretary that “this situation is grievous. Far more needs to be done to encourage the Egyptian authorities to provide security and protection for its Coptic minority – and to work much harder at promoting religious toleration and respect.”
Yet, who could truthfully say that, following the 2011 atrocities, the international community has worked harder to promote toleration or respect?
Who could say that we have properly evaluated or made it an international priority to combat this virus.
International leaders have been sleep-walking through these events just as they shamefully ignored the prelude to these horrors. Appeasement and indifference have become stable mates.
Consider what has happened in Egypt – with barely a murmur of protest.
Egypt’s Copts make up as many as perhaps 12 million from a population of 80 million Egyptians.
As Christians in a predominantly Muslim society, the Copts have suffered a wide range of persecution and discrimination for centuries; however, many Muslims and Christians were able to peacefully co-exist for much of the time. With the arrival of radical Islamic ideas and calls for an exclusively Islamic State, Christian groups are at much higher risk and today face constant persecution despite Constitutional protections.
It is twenty years since I wrote a report for The Jubilee Campaign on the plight of the Copts. It was based on firsthand accounts and evidence which was collected during a visit to Egypt. I had the opportunity to meet His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III on three occasions – his memory we bless, giving thanksgiving for his life and offering prayers for his successor.
It was Pope Shenouda who memorably insisted on the right to religious freedom, stating that:
“The Coptic Church respects the law but it does not accept rulings that go against the Bible and our freedom of religion” and, in reminding the world that the ancient Coptic community is not made up of foreigners in a strange land:
“Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us.”
Following the publication of my report, and as honorary President of the UK Copts Association, in both the House of Commons and House of Lords I have regularly raised the egregious violations of their human rights faced by Egypt’s Coptic community.
Back in 1992 I wrote that:
“Insecurity and fear remains the most crucial and pressing concern. The same ugly phenomenon of ethnic cleansing as in Bosnia, the destruction of the culture and civilisation of minorities and their vilification, is to be found in the villages in Upper Egypt. Christian women have been raped; men and their families were induced or pressurized in their thousands to convert to Islam. Local police officers have either ignored the attacks or have collaborated.”
In the underlying situation, nothing much has changed – but the gaping wounds are now more openly on display.
In Egypt much of the radicalisation and violence had its origins in the 1970s when President Anwar El Sadat actively encouraged and sponsored the Islamist movement. He believed it would devour the Left and divide his enemies. It was a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease.
The Mubarak regime acquiesced in this strategy; and the West was content to count him and his predecessor as allies rather than making their attitude towards minorities or human rights a determining factor I our dealings with their regimes.
Mubarak’s medicine was 30 years of emergency rule and, under the cover of which, religious intolerance poisoned every organ of Egyptian society.
His regime – and by extension, those who supported him – connived with those who threatened human rights, who had no belief in the rule of law or the creation of a truly democratic or plural society.
From 1981 until 2011, during Muhammad Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30 years as President over 1500 violent attacks occurred against Egyptian Christians – resulting in loss of lives, injuries, and destruction of churches and property.
Between 1981 and 1996 there were more than thirty massacres of Copts and, according to human rights organisations this led to the deaths of more than two hundred persons.
Even before the protests in Tahrir Square and the turbulence which accompanied Mubarak’s fall the attacks had attacks increased in frequency and severity and the attackers have enjoyed impunity from prosecution.
This pattern of persecution was referred to in to the US International Religious Freedom Report of 2010: “The status of respect for religious freedom by the government remained poor, unchanged from the previous year.”
The Arab Spring must be viewed against this long term victimisation of Egypt’s Copts, against the backdrop of radicalisation.
In Tahrir Square Muslims and Copts joined together to demand human dignity, human rights and democracy.
Their banners had barely been taken home before Salafi groups, strongly influenced by Saudi Wahhabi fundamentalism, began to foment sectarian violence against the Copts.
Salafis and elements of the Mulsim Brotherhood see non-Muslims – and Mulsim minorities such as Sufis – as their first targets.
The Egyptian Muslim novelist, Alaa al-Aswany, put it well when he said:
“We can expect Islamists to use the democratic system merely as a ladder to power, which they will climb up and then kick away so that no one else can use it.”
So we should judge the Arab Spring against the following criteria:
Firstly, if we judge a nation by how it treats its minorities and, secondly, if we judge a nation’s right to call itself civilised by the way it respects religious or political difference: how does Egypt measure up?
Respect for religious liberty and minorities are the hallmarks of a civilised society: and both are tragically absent in Egypt today. Clearly, the Arab Spring has not been good for the Copts.
This is an unfolding tragedy which has been a long time in the making; a tragedy to which the world has been scandalously indifferent; and it is a tragedy which is far from over: recall the words from Hamlet; “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.”
We are told the big picture of the Arab Spring is about the mould breaking events in Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Egypt, but beyond the politicians’ and the commentators’ “big picture” are defenceless people in small communities, living as anxious minorities. How they are treated will determine the future of their nations – and thus far the omens are not good.
The current campaign of persecution and violation of the human rights of Egypt’s Copts have included murders both in their churches and in broad daylight, confiscation of property, discrimination and bigotry, the imposition of unjust laws, extortion, the siege of some towns, the bombing and burning down of churches, and ill treatment on a daily basis – all accompanied by the curse of impunity.
And remember what happened when moderate Muslims joined with their Coptic neighbours and marched through Cairo’s Maspero area to protest the burning of a Coptic church and how squads of radicals wielding sticks and swords attacked the protesters.
Having rammed armed vehicles into the Coptic crowd and fired live ammunition indiscriminately, the Egyptian security forces soon prohibited media coverage and rapidly tried to remove evidence. At least 26 people were killed in the massacre and more than 300 were injured. Maspero was the worst sectarian violence in Egypt in sixty years.
As Pascal once observed “Men never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”.
But, surely, any religious faith which wishes to live up to its name and its ideals should help people to live, not to die; to co-exist, not to kill. The other side of this coin is that unless we have a proper understanding of the role of religion in the world there will never be peace. This is the most pressing and urgent issue of our age.
How can a country begin to call itself civilised when Copts are considered to be second class citizens in their own country and routinely deprived of their inalienable rights?
The West has been pusillanimous and largely silent in the face of such persecution.
It is hard to believe that this is happening to them in 21st Century Egypt, which prides itself on being a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
There is no indication that Egypt’s political leadership, or the wider international community, has come to realise the need to address the “Coptic issue.” While the Egyptian Government has made great efforts to present to the outside world an optimistic picture of the situation of the Copts, it does little to address the reality.
How often have Muslims been sentenced for killing a Copt?
Too often, in a culture of impunity, the Egyptian authorities have attempted to change facts to save face with the Western world for being blatantly unjust towards the Coptic victim, not to prevent justice for the Copts’ murderers.
On satellite channels fanatical preachers have been allowed to incite hatred with vituperative and malicious outbursts, targeting non-Muslims. It’s self evident to what such vitriol leads.
It is a cruel irony that a Government which prosecutes journalists and writers who criticise Government policies does nothing to prosecute those who are responsible for stirring hatred and making unfounded and dangerously inflammatory statements – which even include suggestions that Copts have been amassing weapons and creating a secret army – aimed at inciting further hatred and bitterness. Such rampant hate is the deadliest of all poisons.
Over the years, hundreds of Christian young women and teenage girls have been abducted from their families, raped, forcibly converted to Islam, and forced to become the wives of Muslim men. And the State has done little to support Coptic parents seeking the return of their abducted daughters.
The radicalisation of Egyptian society, says Amira Nowaira, “is now visually present on our streets and in our public spaces, not only in women’s attire but also in the large number of men wearing their beards long in an ostentatious display of their religious creed.”
Under Shari’a law, if a Muslim rejects Islam, he or she becomes an “apostate”. In most cases, this is punishable by death if a man does not repent and return to Islam. There is no explicit legal prohibition in Egypt against conversion or proselytizing, but the Egyptian Penal Code has been interpreted to prevent the conversion of Muslims to other faiths.
Often, the Egyptian Government have been responsible for the persecution and discrimination by making it difficult for Christians to build or repair their places of worship, giving few political positions to Christian leaders, and frequently detaining and torturing Muslim converts to Christianity.
All of this illustrates that, in practice, there is little standard protection for Christian groups.
Egypt has also tried to silence those tolerant members of its Muslim community who speak out against the mistreatment and unjust policies – going so far as to imprison its own citizens when they have attempted to defend the rights of Christian groups.
Those moderate Muslims – like Amira Nowaira – know that central to the creation of a decent society for the majority will be determined by how a country treats its minorities; they know that if you have no respect for the human rights and freedoms of minorities, the human rights of majorities will be ignored too. They understand that the elevation of religious freedom brings great bounty to society in the working out of charitable endeavour and the deepening of the common good.
It is the pre-eminent motivator for the common good and perhaps—in the context of the security challenges to which I have referred—this denotes the greatest benefit and reason why all governments should be seized by the importance of promoting freedom of religious belief.
For countless numbers of people their faith is about love not hate; tolerance not violence; compassion and justice, mercy and humanity.
These are indispensible qualities in a humane and civilised society – but beyond this, if we are foolish enough to believe that the contagion will not spread we will be making the old error of Neville Chamberlain.
Appeasement and indifference to far away countries, about which we claimed we knew very little, ultimately cost us dearly. Chamberlain’s principal adversary, Winston Churchill, described appeasement as feeding a crocodile, hoping it will choose to eat you last. But, eat you it will – and that is why the United States and Europe need to wake up to the security implications of their failure to make the safeguarding of minorities and the elevation of human rights a principal priority.