Call on Egypt’s President to Fulfill His Promise to Christians
The death of Mohamed Morsi on June 17 has invited reflections about his short rule over Egypt, his complicated legacy, and the extent to which current President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has or has not been able to succeed where his predecessor failed. One core concern many observers of Morsi’s rule shared was the treatment of Coptic Christians in an Egypt ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood for the first time. Sisi and his government assert that the improved treatment of Christians under his rule is a top reason why the U.S. should strengthen their investment in his vision for Egypt. However, the Egyptian government has yet to bring meaningful change to Coptic Christians and the U.S. should call on Sisi to enact reforms that match his rhetoric.
To be fair, after Morsi’s failure to govern in an inclusive manner, one of Sisi’s first actions in office was to stand alongside the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Pope and declare that “[w]e are Egyptians.” He hosted Pope Francis in 2017 and, earlier this year, inaugurated the largest cathedral in the Middle East, the “Church of the Nativity,” where he declared to Egyptians, both Christian and Muslim, that “we are one.”
However, while Sisi deserves credit for raising the bar for tolerance higher than that of his predecessor, he has yet to address some of the most pressing issues facing the Coptic Community. He has not fully lived up to the weight of his words and has yet to deliver peace, equality, and security for Egypt’s Christians.
Before the passing of Morsi, these last two weeks have witnessed a very different conversation about Egypt. In Minya Governorate, home to the largest concentration of Coptic Christians outside of Cairo, Copts have been struck with yet another wave of hate crimes and intolerance. The first incident was the arrest of eight Coptic Christians in Samalot, Minya in response to a mob of Muslim Egyptians vandalizing Coptic homes to celebrate the conversion of a Christian woman to Islam.
The second incident occurred in Ishnien Al Nasara, Minya and witnessed the destruction of three Coptic homes out of retaliation to a Facebook post by a Copt that reportedly “insulted religion.” Once more, the Copt was arrested, despite his apologies and statements from the local diocese affirming the young man’s claim that his Facebook account had been hacked and he did not post the message. These two incidents reflect a recurring issue facing Coptic Christians in Minya: when push comes to shove, Sisi’s rhetoric has failed to translate to action
Egyptian Journalist Walid Salah noted in a profile of the problem in Minya that, as of January 2019, 17 incidents of sectarian violence, not including terrorism, had taken place in there. Sara Salama of Coptic Voice also has highlighted in a strong op-ed that “more than 160 incidents have been reported in the Minya governorate alone between 2013 and 2018." Kamal Zakher, a Coptic intellectual, characterized the situation in Minya in Salah’s coverage of the issue as one that is “a reflection of the conflict between the official state and the deep state in which sectarianism prevails.” Salama, quoted in a recent op-ed by Alexander Cureton for the Daily Wire, highlights that Egypt is the second highest recipient of defense aid from the U.S. and that “[i]t's time the United States puts its dollars where its values are.”
Many of these issues are what prompted Rep. French Hill, R-Ar., to introduce H. Res. 49-Supporting Coptic Christians, a bi-partisan bill with over 50 cosponsors, which calls on President Sisi and the Government of Egypt to enact meaningful change when it comes to protecting and ensuring equality for Egypt’s Christian population.
Rep. Hill himself has argued for this resolution’s importance because while “President el-Sisi has set the right tone at the top levels of his government...the streets, sadly, tell a different story.” Today, in many Coptic villages in Minya, the streets are the only places where the children of St. Mark are able to tell their story thanks to mundane bureaucratic procedures which have delayed the state licensing of thousands of Coptic Churches.
However, interestingly enough, Jane Arraf with NPR found that “Christians in Minya don't blame Sisi for the lack of churches. They say it's officials under him who are caving into Muslim extremists in the villages.” This proved to be the case when local Copts in Minya booed local security officials at the November 2018 funeral for the seven Copts who were killed by ISIS on their pilgrimage to the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor in Minya.
Sisi’s golden opportunity to prove himself lies here. He should apply increased oversight toward (and, if necessary, terminate) local government officials, including Minya Governor Qasem Hussein. On a deeper level, he must enact systemic reform to the application of justice and the security apparatus in Minya. Perpetrators of hate crimes and discrimination should be criminally prosecuted, victims of hate crimes should not be arrested, and the local police force should undergo a personnel review to remove officers who are prejudiced toward Copts and fail to do their job. The level of discrimination and harassment faced by Copts in Minya merits a broader security and policing solution mandated to stand up to mobs and protect victims.
While these injustices in Minya persist, H. Res. 49 remains an important pressure point on an Egyptian Government saying all the right things, but continuing to fall short.
Steven Howard is currently the National Outreach Director for In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. He previously served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco from 2015 until 2017.