Shortly after the murderous New Year’s Eve attack on the Coptic Church of the Saints in Alexandria, Egypt, several reformist Arab websites began reporting and commenting about it. On the 4th of January, 2011, al-Awan website posted an article by an intellectual, ‘Oreib al-Rentawi, entitled: “Will the Arab World become a ‘Christian-free Zone”!?
The following is a translation of the Arabic text:
“Should the situation in the Arab world continue on its present course, it won’t be long before ‘the Arab Homeland,’ which is Christianity’s first home, becomes a ‘Christian-free zone.’ This is due to the fact that the ‘modern’ Arab states have failed to secure for their Christian citizens the proper conditions for living in their original homelands. During the last few decades, a continual hemorrhage of Arab Christians from their homelands has been occurring to such an extent, that ultimately their presence in ‘the Arab Homeland’ will become a mere ‘symbolic presence.’
“It is true that both Christians and Muslims suffer from the failure of the modern Arab states to strengthen their independence, achieve total economic development, freedom, and democracy. However, Arab Christians face their own specific problems and challenges arising from the political regimes that seek their legitimation from the Islamic religious authorities, instead of the ballot box! Added to that, is the lack of societal tolerance and the absence of a culture of dialogue between the majority Muslim Egyptians and the minority Copts whose rights are often ignored.
“Of course, we should not forget that all segments of Arab societies have been the target of terrorists who have been trying to achieve their goals by the shedding of innocent blood. It is also undeniable that the number of Muslim victims of terrorism is much greater than that of Christians. On the other hand, terrorist attacks directed at Christians have as a goal to deny them continued existence in the Arab world. They are being forced to emigrate so that ultimately Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world, would become ‘a Christian-free zone.’
“In varying degrees, we are all responsible for this criminal state of affairs. The state has proven impotent by failing to secure security for all its citizens. The government that has been unable to bring about wholesome relations between its citizens bears responsibility. Those who remain silent, simply watching a deteriorating situation are equally responsible. And there are those who claim that terrorism is coming from the outside world, in order to exempt themselves from their responsibilities to govern fairly and justly.
“And let’s not forget those who regard and treat the Christians of the Arab world as if they were newcomers, not citizens. After all, they are the original inhabitants of these lands. Radical Muslims bear a very heavy responsibility for the tragedy in Alexandria. The Christians are in their own homeland; they are neither guests, nor refugees living in ‘temporary camps.’ Just because we are bothered by certain actions of the ‘Infidel West’, when it bans the wearing of the hijab, the building of minarets and the call to prayer blaring from the mosques’ loudspeakers, is no reason to retaliate against Arab Christians. They are not responsible for such actions in Western countries. We should not attack them just because a ‘European or American racist’ has mistreated a Muslim. We must treat the Christians in the Arab world as citizens, and not as dhimmis; otherwise, we become partners in the crime perpetrated at the Church in Alexandria. We better shape up and protect the Christians of our lands. For when we take up the challenge of stopping these despicable acts of terrorism aimed at Christians and their houses of worship, we are protecting our own very existence.”
It was good to read an article which exhibits such a forthright concern for the future of Eastern Christians. Oreib al-Rentawi stresses the cruelty of denying them all the benefits of citizenship and residency wherever they live in the Arab world because they have as much claim to the lands they inhabit as the Arabs do.
Before anyone thinks that the article may have exaggerated the serious conditions surrounding the Copts of Egypt, and their fellow Christians in the Levant, attention must be given to a report that confirms its truths. The French News Agency (AFP) reported several clashes that took place in Egypt between Muslims and Copts. The report appeared on 2 January, 2011, on the widely-read Arabic online daily, www.elaph.com It listed nine major bloody clashes between 1981 and 2011, most of which had to do with the objection of local Muslims to the building or repairing of a Coptic church.
But to restrict my article only to anecdotal accounts does not go deeply enough into the endemic causes for the plight of the Christians of Egypt. A scholarly work from the last century by Edward Wakini entitled “A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt’s Copts (William Morrow & Company, New York, 1963) goes into more detail and analysis. The author’s son Daniel, who is a reporter for the New York Times, wrote an obituary for his father, who died in 2009. In it he said that “A Lonely Minority…, was arguably Edward’s most important book. The Copts, the largest Christian community in the Arab world, were a sensitive subject in Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt, and Mr. Wakin said he had to smuggle his notes out of the country hidden in his luggage,” Daniel Wakin continued: “Even 40 years later, Egyptian Copts would contact Mr. Wakin in appreciation of the book.”
The following excerpts from this valuable book should serve to give an objective and sympathetic understanding of the accelerating pace of the persecution of the Christians living in the Middle East for the last two millennia, centuries before the Arab-Islamic conquest of their original homelands. After reading this, we will surely appreciate the alarmist title of the Arabic piece posted on al-Awan’s website: Will the Arab world become “a Christian-free Zone!?”
Viewed today from the West, the Copts are a major test of modern coexistence between a large Christian minority and a Moslem majority. In the Middle East, the Copts constitute the largest body of Christians in that part of the world where Christianity was born. For Egypt which is trying to mobilize all its human resources into a modern state, the test may be decisive. For a mosaic of minorities in the Middle Eastern countries of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, the Coptic story can be read as handwriting on the wall. For the Christians of Lebanon, who are maintaining an uneasy dominance in a country evenly divided between Christians and Moslems, their prospects in Moslem Arab hegemony can be deciphered from the Coptic situation in Egypt. It is a problem echoed nearby in the tenuous Greek-Turkish partnership of Christian and Moslem in the island republic of Cyprus. (p. 4)
Edward Wakin described this facet of the Copt’s life in a chapter entitled: THE PEOPLE’S CHURCH.
The cross suits this cruel culture of poverty and persecution, both as identification and an outlet for the Copts. It is their brand and their balm; it gives a meaning to life when there are only blind nature and inexplicable misfortune. If Western Christianity gives prime glory to Easter, the day of Resurrection, deliverance and confirmation of Christ’s divinity — Good Friday is more appropriate psychologically to the Copts. On this day when the cross was born as a universal Christian symbol, modern Copts say “Kyrie elesison” (Lord, have mercy upon us) 400 times at home, 100 times in each direction, and flock to their churches. (p. 136)
While the Copts share the cross with the rest of Christianity, with no other group is its presence so obsessive. This ranges from the Patriarch, who holds the cross in front of himself as though it were both a shield and a weapon, to the ragged village children who run after strangers, with crude blue tattoos of the cross on the inside of their right wrists and crosses around their necks. Whenever the Patriarch appears, Copts rush forward to kiss his cross. The fixation is symbolized at baptism when the infant is anointed 36 times all over his body. (p. 137)
Crosses are painted over the doors of Coptic houses in towns and villages or formed in bas- relief in mud over the openings of mud homes. Sometimes the house and cross are brick. The Copts, who are fond of reading the family Bible at home, are aware of Exodus 12:13 and the significance of a sign in order to escape the wrath of the Lord: “And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. (p. 138)
One of the sadder consequences stemming from the lack of tolerance Copts of Egypt experience, generation after generation, is that their own homeland is robbed of one of its greatest resources: a purposeful and energetic community of nationals. We must keep reminding ourselves of this often forgotten fact: the Copts have been in Egypt long before the Arabs. In the past the Copts’ attachment to Egypt was so great that it kept them from ever wanting to leave it. Today that is no longer so. Thousands of Copts are now found in Canada, the United States, Australia and several other parts of the Western world. Usually, they are highly educated people whose skills Egypt has lost forever. Before this migration wave became as strong as it is today, Edward Wakin wrote these moving words at the end of his book:
Both Egypt and Islam, like all other countries and ways of life in the modern world, must meet the test of toleration. For Islam it is a moral challenge spread over its proverbial range from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans. Citing its theoretical toleration does not silence the cry of its minorities. For a Moslem nation, it is the practical problem of using human resources. The Copts themselves, within the microcosm of their history and its manifestations in church, community, nation and minority, present everyman’s tale of dream and nightmare, fulfillment and frustration in a world not of their making. Insofar as the Copts have received their due — without ignoring their blemishes — this modern story of Egypt’s Copts is an account of the human condition.
At the end of this intimate rendezvous with the Copts, a concluding moral note is unavoidable. The obligation to oppose tyranny wherever it stands, even when the tyranny is elusive and unannounced, even unintended. It begins with labeling injustice long before shop windows are smashed, icons broken, and families torn apart. This labeling is an antidote to the danger of dulled sensibilities in our time and while the Copts can be accused of hypersensitivity, their problem is by no means imaginary. They are feeling pressures that inflict suffering without mutilating, that intimidate relentlessly without exploding sporadically that wound without bloodshed.
The Copts are numbed and helpless as well as anxious as their historic cycles of acceptance and rejection, their recurring stages of toleration, discrimination, and persecution move inexorably in the direction of rejection. Persecution is still the nightmare, discrimination the reality in the latest chapter of a long story of a people. They are there in Egypt and there they remain, the “true Egyptians,” the “original Christians,” the four million Copts of the Nile Valley, that troubled, enduring, lonely minority. (p. 175-76)
i Dr. Edward M. Wakin, (1928-2009) was a communications professor at Fordham University, for more than four decades. He authored more than 20 books. A Lonely Minority is still in print, and is available at major bookstores.