As political and economic conditions in Egypt deteriorate, a new kind of refugee is beginning to appear, one that will test America’s character. Violence against Christians is growing; bad economic times, the inability or unwillingness of security forces and police to keep order, and the growing tide of Islamist political and religious mobilizations is making life increasingly insecure for Egypt’s eight million Christians.
An article in the Wall Street Journal offers a harrowing picture of a minority that is beginning to come under siege. Christians are being threatened with violence if they fail to convert; women who do not cover their hair are harassed, harangued and threatened on the street; churches are burned and the wall of isolation around this ancient community deepens every day.
Under US and international law, growing numbers of Egyptian Christians will qualify as refugees if these conditions continue to worsen.
For Americans, the persecution of religious believes in other countries is more than a foreign policy problem. Russian persecution of the Jews in the 19th century led millions of Jews to immigrate to the United States between 1880 and the start of World War One. Religious and ethnic minorities fled to the US from all over Europe and the Middle East in the old days. One reason that so few Christians remain in most of the Middle East is that the United States primarily, but other western countries as well, have allowed millions of Christian Arabs to escape — in some cases looking for security and an end to persecution, and in others for better economic opportunity and the absence of discrimination.
The long record of Christian-Muslim relations contains much of which people of both faiths should be ashamed. However, while there are exceptions (such as Serb treatment of Muslim Bosnians and Kossovars in the Yugoslav wars), in general the Christian treatment of Muslim minorities has been improving in the last 100 years; Muslim treatment of Christian minorities does not show as encouraging a trend. Many Muslims don’t see it that way; they point out that western countries have invaded and occupied Muslim lands and have backed Israeli violence against Palestinians. They set French violence in Algeria and US wars in Iraq and elsewhere into the long and bitter list of wrongs followers world’s two largest religions have inflicted on one another.) These arguments will go on, and so will the flight of Christians from increasingly militant Islamic societies.
There are, unfortunately, reasons to believe that the worsening of intercommunal relations in Egypt is more than a flash in the pan. While political chaos and economic distress can unleash dark forces everywhere, the rise of an Islamist political consensus among many Egyptian Muslims suggests a more ominous long term trend. Modern Egyptian history has seen waves of expulsions and dispersion. Like much of the Ottoman world, Egypt’s great cities were once cosmopolitan places where many religions and ethnic groups lived cheek by jowl. Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Albanians, Jews and many others made Cairo and especially Alexandria vibrant cultural and commercial hubs.
In Egypt as in many other countries, the twentieth century saw that diversity fade. Instead of 80,000 Jews, Egypt now has a few hundred. Nationalist and communal feeling combined with the socialist bent of the Nasser revolution led to the disappearance of most of the country’s urban diversity. For Egypt as for many countries, nationalism was partly about purifying the country of a foreign presence seen as reflecting imperialism.
Egyptian Copts (unlike the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians and other religious groups seen as foreign) were protected by the secular Arab nationalism of the Egyptian revolution. Secular Arab nationalism, which developed in part under the benign eye of American missionary universities, sought to submerge the religious differences among Arabic speaking peoples in the name of Arab unity. Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Druze, Alawi and others were all Arabs first. Iraq, Syria and Egypt all paid lip service at least to the primacy of Arab identity over religious difference, and while discrimination continued not far under the surface, Christian Arabs could reach high positions in the business world and even politics. (Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister is an Iraqi Christian though perhaps not always a very good one; former UN Secretary General and Egyptian vice foreign minister Boutros Boutros-Gali is an Egyptian Copt.)
Secular Arab nationalism died slow and it died ugly, ending more as a cover for despots like Saddam Hussein and the Butcher of Damascus than as a viable political philosophy. In Iraq it degenerated into a veil to cover Sunni domination of the Shia and Saddam’s domination over all; in Syria it covers the domination of the Sunni by the (sort of Shia) Alawites and of the House of Assad over all. In Egypt it was little more than a fig leaf to cover the increasingly pharaonic Mubarakracy.
As secular nationalism died in the Arab world, religious rather than ethnic identity came to the fore. Arab Christians are no longer seen by many as fellow citizens of a minority faith (like Mormons in America); they are seen as aliens of doubtful motives and allegiance. Because many enjoyed good jobs and privilege under the nationalist governments, they are blamed for many of the failings of the old regimes, and much of the public believes that “justice” will involve a redistribution of privilege and access away from “pampered”, foreign leaning Christians to honest Muslim sons of toil.
There is no telling how this will work out. The restoration of stable political authority (even if Islamist) and an economic recovery could leave Christians in a diminished but livable situation. More chaos and polarization could lead to something uglier. It is, alas, not rare for problems like this to culminate in massacres and ethnic and religious cleansing. Most likely will be a period in which Egyptian Christians must live in suspense between the two scenarios, as conditions get better in some places, worse in others, and never quite settle down.
Many Egyptian Christians will now want to follow the well worn path of emigration. Many will have legitimate grounds to seek asylum based on well founded fears of persecution at home.
America is going to have to make up its mind: will we find room for what could very well be a significant stream of Egyptian Christian refugees with us here in the inn, or will they have to go find a manger somewhere? We can hope that we don’t have to face this choice and that cool heads and wise counsel will prevail in Egypt, but it is time to begin to think the possibilities through.