Copts at risk

With the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, the fate of Egypt’s non-Muslim minorities, especially the substantial Coptic minority, is uncertain. This week the Institute of World Politics discussed “The Rise of Islamists: The Challenges to Egypt’s Copts.”  Samuel Tadros and Nina Shea discussed discrimination against Copts in pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Egypt as well as the future perils, as manifested by the experiences of other religious minorities in the region.

Samuel Tadros, Research Fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute, is an Egyptian Copt.  He focused on the situation within Egypt, where in the Mubarak era the interaction of four factors ensured discrimination against Copts:

  1. the Egyptian state, while claiming to protect minorities, treated the Copts as a collective rather than as equal citizens;
  2. the Islamists viewed Copts as a challenge to Egyptian identity;
  3. the Egyptian religious establishment;
  4. society at large.

Post-revolution, exclusion from positions of authority in the police, the army, and intelligence service has continued.  New factors include collapse of the state, which has removed constraints on anti-Copt behavior, the rise of emboldened Islamists, the filing in court of blasphemy cases, and an increase in attacks on Christians. The country’s new constitution, with its many loopholes and Sharia-based limitations to freedoms, will make religious minorities worse off than before. Tadros concluded his discussion:

It is not Christians as individuals who are being attacked. It is any manifestation of Christianity.

Nina Shea, Director of the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute, focused her attention on discrimination against religious minorities and sectarian-related violence in the region.  The situation is not just a human rights issue but also a security issue. The Islamists could pose additional security threats to the region if members of Al Qaeda find a place among radical Salafis.  Shea also said:

If Copts disappear, the region will be Islamized for the first time in history.

In her view, it is the responsibility of the US government to ensure the well-being of religious minorities.  It should halt its military aid to Egypt until it can ensure that no massacres like the Maspero killing of Christian protestors by the military forces in 2011 will occur again.  Shea thought there might be systematic violence against the Copts, suggesting that another Iraq may develop in Egypt and that the Copts might even “disappear.”  Any sectarian strife in Egypt would destabilize the country and have spill-over effects throughout an already turbulent region. Tadros thought that genocide would not occur but that mass emigration may take place.  A Coptic exodus would undermine pluralism in the Middle East.

It went unremarked, but is important to note, that the Islamists are not only a threat to the Coptic community.  They also represent a threat to Muslims who have different interpretations of Islam or seek to incorporate Islamic norms with non-Islamic ones. Egypt’s Islamists seek to monopolize the right of interpreting and defining what is and what is not Islamic. Their rise is not only a threat to a certain community or group of Egyptians, but rather to Egyptian identity as developed over more than 7,000 years of history.

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