On June 1, 2020, President Trump issued a statement titled "Presidential Message on Global Coptic Day, 2020." (Copts are Egypt's indigenous Christians, now a minority.) After sending his "best wishes" to the "millions of Coptic Christians in the United States and around the world," he said that recognizing Global Coptic Day provides "an opportunity for the world to mark the contributions, legacy, and ongoing challenges facing the largest Christian group in the Middle East." He continued:
Today is also a time for us to acknowledge the importance of religious freedom and reaffirm our commitment to promoting and defending this core tenet of a free society. Tragically, far too many people the world over face persecution on account of their faith.
This is certainly true for the Copts. Most recently, on April 14, 2020, an Islamic terror plot to bomb Coptic churches around Easter was thwarted. Previous plots, however — which also targeted churches during Christian holidays, when they are most packed with people and therefore offer the greatest harvest of slain Christian worshippers — came to fruition:
- On April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday, two Christian churches were bombed during mass; at least 50 worshippers were killed.
- On Sunday December 11, 2016, a cathedral in Cairo was bombed during mass; at least 27 churchgoers, mostly women and children, were killed.
- During New Year's Eve mass, 2011, another church in Alexandria was bombed; at least 23 Christians were killed. According to eyewitnesses, "body parts were strewn all over the street outside" and "were brought inside the church after some Muslims started stepping on them and chanting Jihadi chants," including "Allahu Akbar!"
- After Christmas Eve mass, 2010, six Christians were shot dead while exiting their church.
Coptic Christians and their priests have also been randomly assaulted in the streets of Egypt — not by professional terrorists but by regular Muslims — and several Christians have been murdered in cold blood (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
"No one should fear for their safety in a house of worship anywhere in the world," said Trump.
Two examples just from this year include one that took place on January 14, when a Muslim man crept up behind a Coptic woman who was walking home with groceries, then grabbed a handful of her hair, pulled her head back and slit her throat with a knife. Two days later, on January 16, another Muslim man tried to kill a Christian man with a box-cutter; he only managed to sever an ear. When asked about his motive, Muhammad Awad confessed that he did not know the Copt; he simply "hates Christians." Speaking in 2016, one Coptic bishop said that in Minya, which has a large Coptic minority, Christians are attacked "every two or three days".
While the examples above were all carried out in violation of Egyptian law, the most common form of persecution against Copts — the random closure of their churches — is regularly carried out in accordance with Egyptian law. Thus, on May 30, 2020 — two days before President Trump congratulated Copts around the world — Egyptian authorities demolished the only Coptic church in village of Koum al-Farag, even though it had stood for 15 years and served 3,000 Christians. According to the report:
The destruction of the church was a punishment for the 'crime' of building rooms for Sunday school.... When the work began, some extremist Muslims began to attack Christians.
Later, and seemingly out of spite, Muslims, who already have four mosques in the village, started to build an illegal and dangerously constructed mosque on unsuitable land directly adjacent to the church. a separate report on this incident explains:
According to an ancient Islamic tradition, or common law, churches are prevented from being formally recognised or displaying any Christian symbols if a mosque is built next to them.
The authorities decided to solve this issue by demolishing the church, which took a tractor "six long hours," a Copt recalled:
The decision was not welcomed by the Christians in the village, so they protested by appearing at the site in possession of the documents. However, the police and some radicals began to insult and assault Christians, including women and children. The church leader received so many punches in the face and chest that he passed out.
Police further arrested and jailed 14 Christians overnight. The nearest church to the Christians of Koum al-Farag, most of whom are limited to traveling by foot, is 10 miles away.
The worst aspect of this recent incident is that it is not an anomaly. Muslims protesting the renovation or building of a church and local authorities responding by demolishing or shutting it down is a regular occurrence in Egypt.
As one of many examples, on January 11, more than one thousand Muslims surrounded and demanded the instant and permanent closure of another church. Authorities complied — including by evicting the church's two priests and congregants who were holed up inside the church and then shuttering it — to triumphant cries of "Allahu Akbar" from the mob (a brief video can be seen here). Another report elaborates:
Egyptian authorities have closed four churches within the last four and a half weeks. No formal procedures against the attackers of these churches have begun. Instead, in the village of Manshiyet, the police arrested the church's priests and transported them to the station in a car used for carrying animals and garbage.
The Coptic Church responded in a statement:
This is not the first time a place used for worship by Copts in Minya is closed. The common factor among all closures, however, is that they were done to appease fundamentalists and extremists to the detriment of the Copts. It appears to indicate that extremists now hold the upper hand, and appeasing them is the easy way out of problems.
Indeed, a few months earlier — in just one Egyptian province alone, Luxor — eight other churches were closed, all of them "following attacks by Muslim villagers protesting against the church[es] being legally recognized." Due to such closures and an overall dearth of churches in Egypt (see here and here for more examples), Christians have been forced to hold funeral services for their loved ones in the streets (here, here, here).
Responding to one of many church closures, one Coptic lawyer said:
We haven't heard that a mosque was closed down, or that prayer was stopped in it because it was unlicensed. Is that justice? Where is the equality? Where is the religious freedom? Where is the law? Where are the state institutions?
Discussing the closure of a separate church, another local Christian explained: "There are about 4,000 Christians in our village and we have no place to worship now. The nearest church is ... 15km [nine miles] away. It is difficult to go and pray in that church, especially for the old, the sick people and kids." (Months later, a 4-year-old child was killed in an accident during his family's complex trek to a distant church.) He too continued by asking the same questions possibly on the minds of Egypt's millions of Copts:
Where are our rights? There are seven mosques in our village and Muslims can pray in any place freely, but we are prevented from practicing our religious rites in a simple place that we have been dreaming of. Is that justice? We are oppressed in our country and there are no rights for us.
It is good, therefore, and timely, that President Trump touched on the plight of Egypt's Christians in the context of Global Coptic Day. In the same June 1 statement, Trump said,
In September of 2019, during a speech at the United Nations, I called on world leaders to take action to put an end to all attacks by state and non‑state actors against citizens for simply worshipping according to their beliefs. I challenged them to work to prevent threats and acts of violence against our sacred places of worship. No one should fear for their safety in a house of worship anywhere in the world.
Earlier, in May 2017, after Islamic gunmen massacred 28 Coptic Christians — ten of whom were children, including two girls aged two and four — who were traveling home after visiting a monastery (seven more pilgrims were butchered again while returning from that same monastery in 2018), Trump said:
This merciless slaughter of Christians in Egypt tears at our hearts and grieves our souls. Wherever innocent blood is spilled, a wound is inflicted upon humanity... America also makes clear to its friends, allies, and partners that the treasured and historic Christian Communities of the Middle East must be defended and protected. The bloodletting of Christians must end, and all who aid their killers must be punished.
It may be argued that these are just "words." Even so, coming from the U.S. president, they help to create awareness for the plight of Egypt's Copts.
They are, moreover, a breath of fresh air compared to the words of Trump's predecessor: After the worst state-sanctioned terrorist attack on Egypt's Christians in modern history — the 2011 Maspero Massacre, when the Egyptian government slaughtered and ran over dozens of Copts with tanks for protesting the burnings and closures of their churches — all that former President Barack Obama could bring himself to do was call "for restraint on all sides" — as if Egypt's beleaguered Christian minority needed to "restrain" itself against the nation's armed and aggressive military.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Judith Friedman Rosen Fellow at the Middle East Forum.