Ignoring a persecution, not only in Egypt, that is happening in plain sight
Opinion: After Egyptian security forces cleared three sit-in camps, the reprisals were concentrated disproportionately on Christians
An Evangelical church, located about 245km (152 miles) south of Cairo, was recently burnt out. Photograph: Reuters
For very understandable reasons, current Irish coverage of Egypt is likely to focus on the Halawa family, the four Irish siblings who were caught up in violence and detained in Cairo. It’s a local angle, and a human interest story.
Unfortunately, though, when it comes to gaining the world’s attention, Egypt’s Coptic Christians are unable to access the same interest, either here or abroad. There has been some coverage, but given what is going on, nothing like what might be expected.
Tradition has it that the Egyptian Christian Church is one of the oldest in the world, and that it was founded by John Mark, close disciple of St Peter. “Coptic” is simply a word for Egyptian, so there are Coptic Catholics and Coptic Orthodox, and also some Protestant groups.
Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the Egyptian population, have in recent history always been a persecuted minority. But since they supported protests against Mohammed Morsi, the retaliation has grown ever more vicious. Yet the majority of the anti-Morsi coalition are Muslim.
The events of recent weeks have therefore highlighted divisions within Islam, as well as discrimination and violence against Christians.
In mid-August, Egyptian security forces cleared three sit-in camps, and hundreds were killed. The reprisals concentrated disproportionately on Christians.
Some 58 churches were looted and burned. The Catholic press office in Egypt compiled a list of Christian churches of all denominations, Christian institutions, businesses, and homes that had come under attack, and it stretched to over 250 incidents, including seven alleged killings and 17 kidnappings.
A monastery, which was targeted, was forced to cancel Mass for the first time in 1,600 years. Three Franciscan nuns were paraded through the streets like prisoners of war, and were only released when a Muslim woman colleague pleaded for them.
The military have failed to protect their Christian allies, perhaps hoping that the Muslim Brotherhood rampage might dilute western sympathy.
Given the virtual indifference of the West to the attacks, it is hardly a winning strategy. More likely is that there is no great desire among the military to protect the often despised Christian minority.
Courage and solidarity
However, many Muslims have shown great courage and solidarity. There is a moving picture circulating on Facebook of Muslim men forming a human chain outside a Christian church in order to protect it from attack.
Sr Darlene DeMong, a Canadian member of the Congregation of Notre Dame de Sion who has worked and lived in Egypt since 1978, described how in Berba, 150 miles south of Cairo, Muslim neighbours protected a Catholic church and development centre for 24 hours until the developing threat receded.
There is a meme called Godwin’s law, usually interpreted to mean that the first person to mention the Nazis in an online argument automatically loses and the discussion terminates. However, what is less well known is that it was originally formulated to outlaw spurious analogies with Nazism, so that such analogies could retain their impact when merited.
The American-Israel public affairs committee has described what is happening in Egypt as an anti-Christian pogrom. Some Coptic Christians have described it as being eerily similar to Kristallnacht, the night in November 1938 when a wave of co-ordinated violent attacks targeted Jews. Of course the actions of the Nazis, in both scale and ferocity, are unique. Kristallnacht saw the destruction of hundreds of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, and some 7,000 businesses.
However, even if the Nazi analogy is not justified, it does not mean that people are not ignoring a persecution that is happening in plain sight.
There is still an odd reluctance among western liberals to recognise the scale of persecution of Christians, not just in Egypt, but in many other places, too.
John L Allen jnr, a highly respected reporter and commentator on religion, has a forthcoming book, called The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution. He cites 2010 research from the Pew Forum, which says that “Christians face harassment in a staggering total of 133 countries, representing more than two-thirds of all nations on earth”.
Nor is radical Islam the only culprit. Ultra-nationalism, such as in Turkey, or totalitarian states like China and Korea are also major threats. Not to mention organised crime and drug barons, as in Mexico, where Catholic priests and Protestant pastors are constantly being threatened and subjected to extortion and abuse. Others have been killed.
Religion of distinction
A vox pop conducted on any Irish street asking which is the world’s most persecuted religion would be very unlikely to nominate Christianity, but it has that dubious distinction, nonetheless.
John L Allen believes that the issue suffers from first being put on the American political map by American right-wingers. However, the irony is that many Christians who have been tortured or killed fall firmly into the left-liberal category, such “as in Brazil’s Amazon region, where Christian activists have been killed for protesting injustices by agri-business conglomerates”.
More importantly, since when did not liking the people who draw attention to something become an acceptable reason to ignore the persecution of others?