Among the issues that stood out for me when I visited Egypt on an American Council of Young Political Leaders trip in 1998 was the situation of the country’s Coptic Christian population.
On our first day in that country, our group of eight young political leaders spent our initial hours at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo being briefed on Egyptian issues we might encounter while we were there. The very first matter discussed dealt with the Coptic Christians.
Egypt’s population is about 85 million people. Ten percent of Egyptians are Coptic Christians which I soon learned is one of the oldest sects in Christianity. Evidently, in 1998, Congress passed a law restricting aid to countries engaging in various forms of religious persecution. Egypt was included on that list for its alleged mistreatment of Coptic Christians.
The Embassy official explained to us that Egyptians were extremely angry that they’d been included on this list.
“You are going to hear a lot of them come up to you since you’re American and tell you that they don’t persecute Coptic Christians,” our embassy contact explained.
At first, we were a bit dumbfounded since none of us had even heard of the law. Nevertheless, everywhere we went people we met made sure to tell us that they didn’t persecute Coptic Christians. The words they each used were so uniform that it almost felt like they were all working off the same talking points when they met us. For good measure, later in the trip, we were even introduced to a government official who was a Coptic Christian intent on driving home the point that there was no persecution.
Since returning from that trip, I’ve learned more about the Coptic Christian community and its relationship to the Egyptian government.
Evidently, during the Hosni Mubarak years, Coptic Christians supported the Mubarak regime since it offered them a form of protection from more militant sectors of the population. That doesn’t mean they were treated well. They still suffered discrimination, but they generally didn’t suffer outright persecution.
All of that clearly changed with the election of Mohamed Morsi. All indications are that Coptic Christians were being mistreated by the new Morsi regime. Because of this treatment, the Copts recently favored the overthrow of the Morsi government and a return to more military rule.
Morsi’s supporters now blame the Copts and other Christians, in part, for the overthrow of Morsi and the rounding up of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In retaliation, they’ve now taken to burning churches and surrounding homes of Coptic Christians. In Egypt, Christians are now clearly being targeted and persecuted.
Many Morsi supporters would like nothing more than to escalate the current confrontation into an all-out religious war. Given the vast disparity in numbers between the Coptic Christians and the rest of the Egyptian population, however, that is a fight we probably don’t want.
Still, we cannot sit back while Christians in Egypt are being persecuted in this manner. It is easy in this entire saga to forget the Coptic Christians.
Let’s keep them in our thoughts and prayers and help them if we can.