When a boy in a blindfold drew his name in a church ceremony in Egypt yesterday, 50 year old Bishop Tawadros might have just gotten the toughest job in the world: he has been chosen as the leader of the largest remaining Christian minority in the Middle East at a time when Islamist revolutions are transforming the region.
The last 100 years have seen repeated episodes of violence against the dwindling Christian minorities of the Middle East. Some have been killed, others forced to convert and many others have fled to more hospitable homes, but the pattern of rising intolerance and isolation has steadily reduced the numbers of Christians—with a handful of exceptions.
Egypt’s Copts currently face one of their gravest moments of crisis since Arab Muslim warriors took Egypt from the Byzantine Empire more than 1300 years ago. Islamists now tasting political power for the first time are looking to integrate Sharia into the Egyptian constitution and transform the Egyptian Republic from a secular state into an officially Isamist one.
Life for most Copts was not good under the old regime, though a small minority prospered under Mubarak thanks to personal connections. Copts often faced discrimination and the police often ignored communal violence—as long as Muslims were winning. Permissions to restore old churches or build new ones were grudgingly given and frequently reversed. A glass ceiling prevented almost all Copts from rising too high in politics and government.
But Egyptian Christians are resourceful and experienced and have managed to survive for more than a thousand years under Muslim rule—and for long periods of that time, Muslims and Christians got along pretty well. There were dark episodes of violence and forced conversions, but they passed.
The rise of Islamist forces in politics, not only of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood but also of more radical Salafi movements as well, signals the beginning of a new and more difficult time. It is not just a matter of politics; a religious revival means that many ordinary people, including local officials, now feel a more fervent sense of Islamist piety, and for some at least that also means a greater degree of intolerance for people of other faiths. The local Christians can look to uneducated, angry neighbors steeped in the political paranoia and conspiracy thinking so prevalent in Egypt like agents of western or Zionist plots against Islam and Egypt. Copts will face new barriers, formal and informal, to advancement on the job, to getting government contracts, to fair treatment in land and inheritance disputes and so on. If, as seems likely, the Egyptian economy doesn’t do particularly well, Copts must worry about being scapegoated in a climate or increasing radicalism.
A serious deterioration in the situation of the Copts would create both a humanitarian and a political crisis. Action by western countries to protect the Copts from violence would likely deepen the anger and polarization that threatens to bring on Sam Huntington’s dreaded clash of civilizations.
The Coptic ritual in which a blindfolded boy chooses one of three names echoes the ritual in the Book of Acts when the 11 surviving apostles chose a replacement for Judas Iscariot by casting lots. The idea then and among the Copts now is that the ‘random’ choice allows God to choose the right person for the job. Pope Tawadros has his work cut out for him, and much in Egypt and beyond will depend on his wisdom and his success. People of goodwill whatever their personal faith should ask God to sustain and guide this man as he assumes his new responsibilities; he will need all the help he can get.