As a horrified world watched coverage of Christian demonstrators dying at the hands of Egyptian soldiers this week, it underlined the possibility that the Arab Spring might permanently change Egypt after all. Coptic Christians, who have lived in the Land of the Pharaohs since Biblical times, are making an Exodus in all directions. The La Stampa affiliated site Vatican Insider reports:
Since March, increased religious tension in Egypt has led to the emigration of about 100 thousand Christians. The Egyptian Union of human rights organisations has spoken out against this, saying that this mass exodus could alter the Country’s demography as well as its economic stability…According to analysts, this high rate of emigration is mostly a consequence of the Arab Spring revolts which began in December 2010 and are supposed to have boosted the power held by the Islamic component within Egyptian society.
Egypt’s Copts welcomed Islamic forces as liberators in the 7th century AD; the Orthodox Church considered the Copts to be a heretical sect and under the Byzantine emperors the Copts faced persecution. Since then, relations with Muslims have had their ups and downs and in recent centuries Copts have been outsiders in Egyptian society: prosperous enough to have influence, but not populous enough to demand equal treatment as a matter of right. They depend on the ruling establishment for protection but are also convenient scapegoats for governments which rule by playing competing factions against one another.Religious tension has grown as the Egyptian ‘revolution’ stagnates. Rising economic problems stir up anger against a religious minority many Egyptians feel benefited from special treatment during the Mubarak years. Competition over land and water in the south often pits Muslim and Christian villages and villagers against one another. Some of the Islamists reaching for political power in Egypt today are less sympathetic to the concerns of the Copts than others are.Christian emigration from the Middle East is not new. For the last 150 years Christians have fled the region in droves. Some have gone to seek better opportunities in richer countries; some have grown weary of the chronic poverty, tyranny and strife that has characterized so much of the region for so long; others have fled waves of persecution, discrimination and murder that have periodically erupted against the region’s Christian minorities since the 19th century.Most recently, Christians have fled the chaos, violence and persecution they have experienced in Iraq even as Palestinian Christians have been escaping the confluence of Israeli occupation and rising Islamic militancy.The flight of the Copts (should the current flow of emigrants grow) would be a bigger deal. There are more than 8 million Copts and the outflow since March has amounted to slightly more than one percent of the total. Should the numbers wishing to leave increase (not unlikely after the recent violence in Cairo), it is not clear where many of them could go. The pattern in the Middle East in these circumstances has been that the wealthier and better connected Christians get out, while poorer ones experience massacres and forced conversions.But the Copts are more than a significant demographic presence in Egypt; they are an important pillar of the country’s economy — and of its embattled liberal tradition in politics.An Egypt without Copts, like so much of the Middle East that has steadily been losing the cultural and social diversity that once so enriched it, would be a narrower, poorer, more radical and less hopeful place. If the chief legacy of the Egyptian revolution is the destruction of this historic minority, future historians will likely judge it a step backward. A picture of former President Mubarak in a cage may make the front pages, but the destruction of the Copts will do more to define Egypt’s future.