In a lengthy and disturbing piece on Egypt’s Coptic Christians this week, Rod Nordland of the New York Times described them as a community at the “breaking point,” to borrow the words of Bishop Makarios of Minya.
This is not what a casual consumer of Egyptian news would expect, and it is not what the Copts expected, either. Nordland writes of high hopes for protection after the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi was toppled by the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is often given solid marks by foreign observers for his stance against Islamist oppression.
Egypt’s Christians are disappointed with the return for their support of Sisi, who was the first Egyptian leader to attend a Coptic Christmas service in 2015. Nordland writes of “violence and humiliation” in the city of Minya:
Houses have been burned, Copts attacked on the streets and hate graffiti written on the walls of some churches. In all, Coptic officials have counted 37 attacks in the past three years, not including some 300 others right after Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were ousted from power in 2013.
The turning point for local Copts came in May when an older Christian woman was stripped naked by a mob, which had been incited by reports that the woman’s son was having an affair with a Muslim.
“After that woman was stripped, we couldn’t be quiet, not after that,” Bishop Makarios said. What especially angered Copts, he added, “is that officials came out denying the incident.”
“Had they apologized or said they would follow it up, it would be different, but this was an insult to Egypt and the women of Egypt,” he said.
Not only was the Muslim woman not having an affair with the son, the bishop said, but she is suing her husband for libel for having started a false rumor.
Bishop Makarios complained that attacks on Christians result in no prosecutions — even lethal ones, like the stabbing of a Christian by a mob in July, reportedly following an argument over whether Muslim or Christian children had higher priority to pass through a crowded street.
“In such attacks, every one of them is released, not a single one has been punished, and that’s what really upsets the Copts. So long as no one is punished, this is just going to get worse,” said Makarios.
One of the problems highlighted by Makarios is that the system constructed to resolve disputes through arbitration, rather than prosecution, ends up pressuring intimidated Christians into accepting settlements that are far more advantageous to their more numerous Muslim neighbors.
The government’s appointed arbitrator, Muslim cleric Mahmoud Gomaa, refuses to budge from his “everything is good” position. The Coptic Pope talked his followers in the United States out of staging a White House demonstration to call attention to the plight of Egypt’s Christians. There is clearly a great deal of pressure on the Copts to avoid making waves.