For centuries, the Copts — Egypt's Christian, indigenous inhabitants — have been subject to persecution, discrimination, humiliation, and over all subjugation in their homeland (etymologically, "Copt" simply means "Egyptian"). In the medieval era, such treatment was a standard aspect of sharia's dhimmi codes, first ratified under Caliph Omar in the 7th century and based on Koran 9:29. Conversely, during the colonial era and into the mid 20th century, as Egypt experimented with westernization and nationalism, religious discrimination was markedly subdued. Today, however, as Egypt all but spearheads the Islamist movement — giving the world Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Aymen Zawahiri in the process — that is, as Egypt reverts to its medieval character, the Copts find themselves again in a period of severe persecution.
And there appears to be no one to stop it — not even those most accountable: America's friend and ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his government. Indeed, recent events indicate that the Mubarak regime is intentionally inciting Egypt's Muslims against the Copts.
Consider: on September 15, prominent Egyptian Muhammad Salim al-Awwa, ex-secretary general of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, appeared on Al Jazeera and, in a wild tirade, accused the Copts of "stocking arms and ammunitions in their churches and monasteries"— imported from Israel, no less, since "Israel is in the heart of the Coptic Cause" — and "preparing to wage war against Muslims."
He warned that if nothing is done, the "country will burn," urging Muslims to "counteract the strength of the [Coptic] Church." Al-Awwa further charged that Egypt's security forces cannot enter the monasteries to investigate for weapons — an amazing assertion, considering that Coptic monasteries are not only at the mercy of the state, but easy prey to Islamist/Bedouin attacks.
Needless to say, these remarks have inflamed Muslim passions (not to mention paranoia) against Egypt's Christians, who make approximately 12% of the population. To make matters worse, right on the heels of al-Awwa's "monastery-conspiracy-theory," Islamist leaders began to circulate baseless rumors that the Church and Pope Shenouda III "kidnap" Coptic women who willingly convert to Islam, and trap them in desert monasteries, "torturing" and "re-indoctrinating" them back to Christianity — even when the women in question publicly insist they never converted to Islam.
Due to all these allegations, since last month, there have been at least ten mass demonstrations in Egypt — most numbering in the thousands — condemning the Copts, the Coptic Church, and Pope Shenouda. The "Front of Islamic Egypt" issued a statement promising the Copts a "blood bath." Most recently, on October 8, Muslim demonstrators chanted "Shenouda, just wait, we will dig your grave with our own hands," while burning the 86 year-old pope's effigy.
At the very least, the usually intrusive Mubarak regime could have easily dispelled the absurd rumor that Coptic monks, among Egypt's most humble figures, were stockpiling weapons for an imaginary coup d'état in Egypt, by formally investigating and clearing the monasteries of the charge. Same with the ludicrous rumors that the Pope is kidnapping and torturing Coptic women who freely convert to Islam — an especially odd rumor considering the reverse is true: in Egypt, Christian women are regularly kidnapped and compelled to embrace Islam.
To further exacerbate matters, on September 26, Al Azhar, a formal state body of Egypt, denounced a remark on Koran 5:17, which accuses Christians of being "infidels," made by a Coptic clergyman at an internal meeting on dogma, as "blasphemous." It further took this opportunity to state formally that citizenship rights in Egypt "are conditional to respect for the Islamic identity" of Egypt, thereby reversing any modern progress made regarding Egyptian equality and reinforcing the Copts' historical role as dhimmis (i.e., conditionally tolerated religious minorities). Pope Shenouda was further compelled to publicly apologize "if our Muslim brothers' feelings were hurt."
All this in a nation where Christian and Jewish scriptures are systematically denounced as fabricated. Indeed, mere weeks earlier, a well known publishing house in Egypt issued a book dedicated to "proving" that Christians had forged the Bible. Such double standards are well entrenched: after all, whereas the Coptic clergyman privately remarked on a Koranic verse, the Egyptian government openly interferes with Christian doctrine, while preventing Muslims from converting to Christianity, in accordance to sharia's ridda, or apostasy, laws. For example, Mohammad Hegazy is one of many Egyptians who tried formally to change his religion from Muslim to Christian on his I.D. card —in Egypt, people are Gestapo-like categorized by their religion — only to be denied by the Egyptian court. (Many other such anecdotes abound.)
Considering the citizenship rights Copts enjoyed in the early to mid 20th century, how did things come to this pass? Much of this can be traced to Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, who altered Egypt's Constitution — by adding Article 2, "sharia is the principle source of legislation" — only to be rewarded, ironically, with assassination by the Islamist "Frankenstein monster" he had empowered. Since then, there has been a tacit agreement between the government and the Islamists. As Youssef Ibrahim puts it, the agreement "turned over to Islamists control in media, education, and government administrations in return for allowing Mr. Mubarak's rule to go on unchallenged, setting the stage … for his son, Gamal, to succeed him. As part of the deal, [Mubarak] agreed to feed Egypt's Christians to the growing Islamic beast."
Hence the dire situation the Copts find themselves in. Magdi Khalil, a human rights activist at the forefront of the "Coptic question," states that "Egypt is on the verge of chaos and change of regime and there is a plan for Copts to pay the price of this predicted chaos, by directing the surplus violence, hate and barbarism towards them." This redirection onto the Copts is obvious even in subtle things: aside from the habitual anti-Copt indoctrination that goes on in mosques — all of the aforementioned demonstrations occurred immediately after Friday's mosque prayers — Egypt's state run public education system also marginalizes, if not ostracizes, the Copts (see, for example, Adel Guindy's "The Talibanization of Education in Egypt").
More obvious proof of the government's complicity is the fact that, not only has it not prevented or dispersed the increasingly rabid demonstrations against the Copts — the way it viciously and unequivocally does whenever any protests are directed against itself — but Egyptian security, as Magdi Khalil affirmed in a phone conversation, actually facilitate, and sometimes participate, in these mass demonstrations. After all, Islamists who publicly call for the death of the Pope do so, writes Ibrahim Eissa, "knowing quite well that State Security will not touch them, since demonstrations are directed against the Pope and not the President, the Church and not the inheritance issue [Gamal Mubarak as successor of his father]. Those who go out in Jihad against 'inheritance,' democracy and election fraud are beaten mercilessly by security forces but those who go out to incite sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians believe …that they are the friends and 'buddies' of the police and the State Security."
As history teaches, whenever a majority group casts all its woes onto a minority group, great tragedy often follows. This is especially so when the majority group in question begins taking on an Islamist—that is, intolerant, violent, and medieval — character. Yet if Egypt's "secular" government and U.S. ally is willing to sacrifice the Coptic scapegoat to appease the ever-burgeoning Islamist monster it has been nurturing for some four decades, to whom can Egypt's Christians look for relief?
Raymond Ibrahim is associate director of the Middle East Forum, author of The Al Qaeda Reader, and guest lecturer at the National Defense Intelligence College.