The Christians of Egypt are a forgotten people. For nearly 14 centuries they have been marginalized and subjected to second class “dhimmi” status under the empire of Islam, the crescent and the sword. Prior to the Arab invasion of 641 A.D. and subsequent Islamification and later “Arabization” of Egypt, a process in which not only religion, but language and cultural identity was forced to shift from that of the Greek speaking Egyptian, to a pan-Arabic identity, Christianity in Egypt had flourished.
According to tradition, the Apostle Mark brought Christianity to Egypt and at Alexandria he established the first Catechetical school in all of Christendom. It was in Alexandria that the foundations for later Christian theology and pedagogy were established by such masters as Origen and his teacher Clement of Alexandria. The Christian Monastic movement, too, had its origins in Egyptian Coptic practice. Antony of Egypt is considered to be the “father of Monks” who began the meditative and ascetic practice of “going into the wilderness” to better experience the Divine. The Egyptian Christian experience was formative for the later Christian writers and thinkers.
In 641 A.D., Islam swept out of the east from Arabia and brought all this to an end. Today, the Christians of Egypt comprise a mere 10% of the population and are facing considerable discrimination and violence under the vice of the larger and increasingly radicalized Islamic population. While the traditional tax imposed on Christians under Islamic rule, the Jizya, was abolished in the late 19th century in Egypt and the later secularized regimes were more protective of their Christian subjects, the blossoming of the “Arab spring” has again put the Christians of Egypt in dire circumstances.
An article published by PBS news hour in the early months of the “Arab Spring” entitled, “Why did Assad, Saddam, and Mubarak protect Christians?”, offers little in the way of reasons other than that these dictators were secularized and used the Christians in their countries as a guaranteed support network. In return for their loyalty, the rulers, specifically Mubarak, would protect the Christian minority from Islamic fundamentalist and use fear to maintain that support, often by subtle and sometimes explicit warning that if the secular regime falls, the Christians of these countries would face terrible persecution at the hands of an Islamic government. As politically unhealthy as this situation seems to us in the democratic west, the PBS article quotes one expert as saying “The (Christian) Copts have for sure lost a protector with Mubarak gone.” This is survival for minorities in the Middle East.
And so the subtle hints Mubarak often employed to maintain Christian loyalty have come to pass as truths. Since the Arab Spring, hundreds of Churches have been vandalized and burned, an as yet undetermined large number, probably in the hundreds, of Christians have been killed for no other reason than that they are Christians, and numerous Christians have faced legal indictments for various offenses including “insulting Islam.” Under Mubarak, there was the occasional criminal and fanatical mob that carried out terror attacks on Christians, but nothing of this nature or to this degree has been seen in the country since the first Arab armies marched across the Sinai and invaded 14 centuries ago.
Things are unlikely to get better with the ouster of Morsi. The supporters of the now deposed Muslim Brotherhood leader have increased their attacks on Christians. Just this week, a mob of Morsi supporters chased down an Egyptian Christian and hacked him to death. This is one of many incidents just since the fall of Morsi. And the Copts are unlikely to get a reprieve anytime soon. The overthrow of Morsi was not an indictment of Morsi’s Islamic policies, but of Morsi himself, that he was unable to stabilize food prices. In 2010 a poll indicated that 85% of Egyptians believe that apostasy from Islam should carry the death sentence. There is no reason to believe these sentiments have altered drastically. This is not a polity in which we can expect a Patrick Henry or Alexander Hamilton to emerge. And until that time that the mentality of the average Muslim Egyptian changes, the Christians of Egypt will either be protected by dictators or butchered by Islamists.