Opinion Columns & Blogs

Trudy Rubin: Christians in Egypt are watching, worrying

Among the biggest losers from the current Arab political upheavals are the Christian minorities of the Middle East.

Long before the Arab Spring, Iraq’s historic Christian community had shrunk dramatically, as tens of thousands fled threats and bomb attacks by Islamist militias. The flood of refugees pouring out of Syria includes many among that country’s Christian minority who fear a radical Islamist takeover if President Bashar Assad falls.

Meantime, most of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of the population, are deeply worried by the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi as president. “There is a feeling that democracy has been a disaster for us,” said Samia Sidhom, managing editor of Watani, a newspaper that serves the Coptic community.

What Morsi does, or doesn’t do, to reassure Copts will reveal whether Christians can enjoy equal rights in an Islamist-led Egypt – and will hint at their likely fate in Syria as well.

“At the beginning, Copts had a lot of hopes (in the revolution),” Sidhom told me during a recent visit to Egypt.

There were simmering tensions between radical Muslims and the Coptic community under the Mubarak regime, including attacks on the Copts’ places of worship. To open new churches, Copts were required to get presidential permission, which was rarely forthcoming. That forced them to worship in “unlicensed,” and thus vulnerable, structures.

“We thought the revolution would solve our grievances,” Sidhom said, ruefully. “It took a lot of people by surprise that Islamists were able to take advantage of the revolution.”

Under Hosni Mubarak, she said, despite the problems, ultraconservative Salafi Muslims had no power. Now, young Salafis return from the cities to their home villages, where Copts and Muslims have lived side by side, and warn them against Christian “infidels.” She reeled off a list of churches that have been burned down since the revolution.

Some of these churches were rebuilt by the Egyptian military, including one I visited in the working-class Cairo district of Shoubra. But the military carried out a brutal attack on peaceful Coptic demonstrators near Cairo’s Maspero television building in March. That has left many Copts embittered. More than 20 demonstrators died, some deliberately run over by military vehicles.

Now that Morsi has won, Copts think there will be even greater discrimination. Sidhom believes Christian women will face social pressure to veil themselves, and expects more government pressure to close unlicensed churches.

The biggest threat – the one that most terrifies Copts – is that the new government will push to enshrine Islamic Shariah law in the constitution. At present, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party still supports the more vague provision in the current constitution, which says Shariah “principles” should be the basis for law.

However, Sidhom thinks the Brotherhood ultimately will apply a conservative form of Islam in which “there is no national Egyptian identity,” but rather an emphasis on a pan-Islamic community. This, she said, would foreclose equality for Copts or other minority groups.

Morsi’s presidency will be defined by how he deals with the Coptic minority. This will show whether he grasps the meaning of pluralism and democracy and wants a modern country. The West should press for such pluralism and make aid contingent, but it cannot force him.