Since the founding of the modern state of Egypt, Coptic Christians have always been the largest minority in the country. Since long before that, they have been living—mostly in peace—with various majorities that ruled the country over the centuries.
But with the gradual rise of Islamism in Egypt over the past 60 years, Christians have felt that discrimination against them has been on the rise, and the church developed a loose relationship with the government for protection.
This persecution reached its peak during the long rule of Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011). To protect the 8 to 10 million or so Christians in Egypt, Pope Shenouda III (on the throne 1971 – 2012), who led the church at that time, had an unwritten agreement with the government that was then cracking down on Islamists. That period, however, also saw the rise in sectarian attacks against Christians that were often sanctioned by the government.
In later years, up to the January 2011 uprising, these sectarian attacks became increasingly common, especially in rural areas of Egypt, and the police were often accused of siding against Christians. Christians were often forcefully displaced from whole towns after clashes, and particular nasty conflicts saw the burning of Christian homes and shops, with the police often turning a blind eye.
The overthrow of Mubarak, however, quickly changed the status quo. Young Christians joined the protests en masse, standing shoulder to shoulder with Islamists during the Tahrir sit-in, united under a common banner.
When the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) was in power, a peaceful protest by Christians in October 2011 was attacked by security forces, leaving 28 dead and hundreds injured. Footage showed army vehicles crushing protesters and soldiers firing discriminately at them. State television aired reports calling on “noble Egyptians” to come and support the army and attack protesters.
“I just can’t understand why the army did this in Maspero,” says Christina Sorial, a young Christian working for a multinational oil company in Egypt. “I think they just wanted to silence Christians again, as they always have in the past.”
The first free presidential elections after the revolution in 2012 came down to a race between the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, and Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik. Revolutionaries were divided between backing Morsi and boycotting the elections, but the Christian community strongly supported Shafik. Shady Michel, a 33-year-old Egyptian Christian, was not totally convinced but finally voted for Shafik. “It’s the lesser of two evils,” he adds in an interview with Fanack.
Morsi won the elections by a very small margin. Fearing that the Muslim Brotherhood would come to power, resulting in increased persecution of Christians, there was a mass exodus of Christians who sought to emigrate to Europe and the US. While the Muslim Brotherhood vowed that Christians would not face discrimination, a long, often bloody history with Islamists and Salafis—who also enjoyed greater power when they secured a large number of seats in parliament—failed to reassure the church or Christians.
“I do not believe that the Muslim Brotherhood had plans against Christians, but there’s a long history of conflict between Muslims and Christians, and I believe that the Muslim Brotherhood should have done more to assure Christians that they will be safe when they were in power,” said a young member of the Muslim Brotherhood who preferred not to be named.
The Muslim Brotherhood, however, did little to alleviate the worries of the Christian community. In addition to Islamists securing nearly two thirds of parliament, there was an increase in Islamists in the government, and Christian representation dropped. “They made me feel Egypt was not my country anymore and I was scared with these fanatics coming to power,” says Sorial.
The Coptic Community’s Support of el-Sisi
Morsi lasted one year in power, before a popularly backed military coup removed him from power on 3 July 2013. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rose as the strongman behind the movement that led against Morsi and was hailed by Egyptians as a hero, particularly by the Christian community.
“I felt that [Christians] were totally expendable to the Muslim Brotherhood. That drove the rise of hate-crime sprees against us during the time of Morsi,” says Michel. This anti-Christian sentiment decreased considerably after Morsi was removed, he adds.
El-Sisi’s rise in popularity amongst Egyptians was dwarfed by the rise of his popularity amongst the Christian community. “He made us feel part of this country again,” says Sorial, who adds that she no longer considers leaving the country, despite its faults.
Besides support from the average Christian on the street, el-Sisi also had strong, systematic support from the church. When he decided to run for president in 2014, the church strongly backed him and mobilized Christians to vote for him. In return, he showed support for the Christian community, becoming the first Egyptian president to visit the cathedral during the Coptic Christmas celebrations.
The visit was greeted by loud cheers from Christians at the cathedral, and the president was fondly greeted by Pope Tawdros II. Bishop Bola of Tanta went as far as to make a public statement on television following the visit, to the effect that “he saw Jesus enter the church while Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus,” a statement that was widely reported in the media the next day and met with considerable opposition amongst some young Christians as clearly mixing the church and politics.
The line between church and state has often been blurred in Egypt. “The church does play a slightly political part, and, yes, that is wrong, but it is doing that for the good of Christians,” says Michel. Sorial echoes his sentiments, even though she compares some church tactics to those of the Muslim Brotherhood. “But they need to form an effective voting bloc to have a candidate that will support Christians against discrimination.”
While Christians in Egypt feel safer since the crackdown on the Islamists, many Christian activists oppose the erosion of the human rights that were achieved after the 2011 revolution. Many stress that, while they feel safer now, they fear that it is only a matter of time before they will be scapegoated once again. “It will never be safe for Christians, especially those in Upper Egypt and poorer communities, but at least things are better now,” says Sorial.