The Plight of Egyptian Christians and Islamic Persecution: ‘Forced to Flee in Rivers of Blood’

Egyptian Christians (or Coptic for Egyptian, ie. Coptic Christians or Copts) are facing “unprecedented levels of persecution and suppression,” according to The Open Doors 2018 World Watch List Report. In 2017 more than 200 Copts were driven out of their homes and 128 were killed because of their faith.

CBS News describes the plight of Copts as having “suffered one of their worst periods in nearly 2,000 years.” Its 60 Minutes program reported that Christians,

were the target of revenge by Muslim mobs this summer after Egypt’s first Islamist president was overthrown in a military coup.Over 40 Christian churches all over Egypt were gutted by arson and looted — some over a thousand years old and full of priceless relics. Copts have also been murdered in ongoing sectarian violence.

After the military overthrew the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Copts and their churches were targeted and blamed for the military coup. Heba Morayef, head of Human Rights Watch Egypt explained, “Accusations that Christians were responsible for the coup. Chants that would call Christians ‘the pope’s dogs,’ could be heard at demonstrations.” (The Coptic leader, Pope Tawadros II, had appeared in public with the new military leaders.)

Here’s a description of one mob attack of an Egyptian church in Kerdasa, near Cairo:

A mob broke down the gate and entered the church.  “They looted everything, from chairs to pews,” says Redha Girgis.  “They stole anything that could be carried, what they couldn’t carry, they destroyed,” he says.  “They set the whole place on fire with Molotov cocktails and gasoline.”

Copts are Egypt’s Christian minority and represent the largest Christian community in the region. Roughly 9 million in total, they represent 10 percent of Egypt’s population and roughly half of the Christians living in the Middle East. Since 2014 their persecution has increased, the World Watch List Report notes, listing Egypt as the 17th most dangerous place for Christians to live.

Open Doors UK and Ireland CEO Lisa Pearce said of the Copts’ plight:

Christians in Egypt face a barrage of discrimination and intimidation yet they refuse to give up their faith. It is hard for us…to imagine being defined by our religion every single day in every sphere of life. In Egypt, as in many other Middle Eastern countries, your religion is stated on your identity card. This makes discrimination and persecution easy—you are overlooked for jobs, planning permits are hard to obtain and you are a target when you go to church.

The Times described their situation in an excruciating headline: “Coptic Christians forced to flee from ISIS’ rivers of blood,” and described in detail the brutal murder of one MBB man, marked as an apostate by his Islamist killers.

But Adel Guindy, the former president of Coptic Solidarity, a U.S.-based human rights organization that promotes equality for Coptic Christians in Egypt, told the Jewish News Service that such attacks are not being solely perpetrated by ISIS. The reality, he notes, is that Christian persecution has intensified under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Islamic persecution, he says, “has reached an all-time high” despite any public remarks the president may make about tolerance or supporting Christians, or blaming ISIS for attacks. Guindy clarified:

El-Sisi is quick to blame it on ‘external forces,’ [but] it is in fact homegrown. It’s a direct result of a permeating hate culture that dominates the entire public space. Furthermore, the ‘big violence’ events that attract international media’s attention are in fact a mere tip of an iceberg of systemic and systematic discrimination and persecution that amount to a state-sanctioned ‘war of attrition.’

The World Watch List report describes a range of persecution that Coptic Christians endure at the hands of their Islamic neighbors and government. Specifically, Muslim Background Believers (MBB) are primary targets for death or torture unless they return to Islam. Islamic persecution ranges from violence on one extreme to restricting where Copts can worship.

On Palm Sunday last year, suicide bombers killed 49 Copts worshipping in their churches in Alexandria and Tanta. Eight months later during Advent, Islamists killed at least eight Coptic Christians worshipping in their church south of Cairo.

In May, Islamists attacked Christians traveling to a monastery in Upper Egypt, killing 29.

In the Minya governorate alone, more than 15 Christian girls were kidnapped to be sold and forced into an arranged marriage with Muslim men and convert to Islam.

Despite this persecution, love and forgiveness is repeatedly expressed by Coptic Christians. A senior leader in the church, Bishop Thomas, told CBS News that

revenge is not his religion’s way. Forgiveness is a very important principle in the Christian life. When you are able to present forgiveness, and love, you are able as well to ask for justice.

Coptic Christians are an historic community dating to their discipleship by the Apostle John Mark and author of the Gospel of Mark. Mark is believed to be the first bishop of the Coptic church c. AD 42 to 62. Prior to the East-West Schism of AD 1054, the Coptic Church was distinct from the Roman Catholic Church and Empire, having affirmed the doctrines established by the Council of Chalcedon c. AD 451. (The council clarified the hypostatic nature of Jesus Christ as “one hypostasis in two natures” (one person with two distinct natures)). Under Roman rule Copts were of different cultural backgrounds (Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians) but were united under Mark and through the gospel. Estimates of the Coptic population worldwide today ranges from 10 to 60 million.

The World Watch Report is produced annually, is independently audited, and ranks the top 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted. Persecution is determined by several factors, including violence and restrictions on private, family, community, national and church life.