During a recent ceremony attended by more than 50 ambassadors and diplomats, many from Western nations, Egypt's Coptic Pope Tawadros II reportedly said: "Egypt had a long history and civilization, and has been a model for coexistence between Christians and Muslims for 14 centuries." The quote comes from the English-language Egypt Independent's translation of his speech; its assertion raises a host of questions, from its veracity to the reason it was uttered by the representative head of the nation's native Christians.
That Egypt "has been a model of coexistence between Christians and Muslims for 14 centuries," is somewhat literally true: from Islam's initial invasion of Egypt in the late 630s to the present, Egypt has indeed been a "model" -- a paradigm -- of what happens to native Christians when Muslims conquer their territory. Even the word "coexist," though connoting living peaceably with others, literally means only to live together (especially the Arabic form, ta'ayush).
At any rate, and as documented in my new book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, those 14 centuries saw a continuum of hostility ranging from wholesale persecution (in the worst of times) to mere discrimination (in the best of times).
Much of this is confirmed by the History of the Coptic Patriarchs (which no doubt the latest Coptic patriarch is aware of). This multivolume account, compiled over the course of a millennium, covers the history of the church under Islam until 1894. Unmitigated Muslim persecution of Christians permeates it pages: the burning and banning of churches and crosses; the fiscal extortion, slaughter, enslavement, mass rape, and forced conversion of Christians.
Think of what ISIS has been doing to Christians, but on an exponential scale.
Moreover, the persecutors weren't "radicals" who have "nothing to do with Islam," but Islamic heads of states, whether Arabs, Persians, Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluks, or Turks.
Following a brief respite and "golden age" for Christians under colonial rule, where freedom of religion and equality were expected, the persecution of Egypt's Christians is back in full force.
Since Tawadros became Pope in late 2012, hundreds of Christians have been massacred in repeated church bombings, monastery attacks, and random killings. The mere rumor that a church is being renovated or built, or that a home is being used as a church, prompts Muslim mobs to riot and destroy Christian property, often with the support of officials. For example, it happened again just this month.
So why did Tawadros say what he did (whether it was meant as a double entendre or not being irrelevant)?
Because realpolitik dictates that his speaking the ugly truth would only exacerbate the plight of Egypt's Christians: most Western diplomats in attendance would at best do nothing, and at worst criticize him for being an "Islamophobe." Either way, he would be left alone to deal with his Muslim overlords -- and they would be displeased, and manifest their displeasure in the usual way when a dhimmi, who is tolerated inasmuch as he meekly submits, dares tarnish Islamic Egypt's reputation.
From the start, many in the West have failed to understand this hostage-like relationship. For example, years before the First Crusade was launched, Peter the Hermit (b. 1050) was ill-abused by Muslims while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When he finally reached the Holy Sepulchre, "he saw many forbidden and wicked things occurring there. ... [So] he sought out the patriarch of the holy church of Jerusalem and asked why gentiles and evil men were able to pollute holy places and steal away offerings from the faithful, using the church as if a stable, beating up Christians, despoiling pilgrims through unjust fees, and inflicting on them many sufferings." The frustrated patriarch threw up his hands in exasperation: "Why do you reprimand me and disturb me in the midst of my fatherly cares? I have but the strength and power of a tiny ant when compared to those proud men. We have to redeem our lives here by regular tribute payments [jizya] or else face death-dealing punishment."
Then and now, not a few eastern Christians have also had to "redeem their lives" by, among other concessions, not tarnishing Islam's image -- even as Westerners wonder why they don't "speak up."
Which leads to the real question: If Christian minorities living under Islamic authority have little choice but to speak well of their "coexistence" with Islam, why are Western leaders, politicians, and talking heads of all varieties -- who are not under Islamic hegemony -- also behaving like cowed dhimmis?
If the Coptic pope is hostage to his Muslim masters, then consider Pope Francis, who covers for Islam even more: who or what holds him hostage?
Raymond Ibrahim is a Middle East and Islam specialist and a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.