Amid the extensive Western media coverage of bloody battles between Egypt’s military regime and the Muslim Brotherhood supporters of ousted President Morsi, a significant story has been virtually ignored.
The ancient Christian community of Egypt is under siege. Last week, Priest Selwanes Lotfy of the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram monastery in Degla told the Egyptian Independent that Aug. 18 marked the first Sunday in 1,600 years that “we did not hold prayers in the monastery” because people feared for their lives. Human-rights groups report that 42 churches as well as numerous schools and other Christian-owned buildings have been destroyed or damaged by fire. Several deaths have been reported. Across Egypt, but especially in the south, the Muslim Brotherhood is carrying out a targeted campaign against Christians.
The Christians in Egypt, called Copts, trace their community to the first century C.E. — long before the coming of the Muslims. For centuries, the minority Copts — who today make up an estimated tenth of the population — suffered discrimination, but their situation deteriorated drastically with the fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011 and the ascendancy of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. In his new book, Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, Samuel Tadros estimates that more than 100,000 Copts have fled Egypt since.
Clearly, the Brotherhood has decided to scapegoat the defenseless Copts for the army’s removal of Morsi and his government, and put the army in the position of defending the unpopular Christians. Yes, the Coptic pope was one of the many national figures who backed the ouster of Morsi. But to call it a Christian-led coup is absurd. Tens of millions of Egyptians — the vast majority of them Muslims — took to the streets to demand the ouster of the inept regime, and the military takeover, however deficient in democratic procedure, was the only alternative. But the Brotherhood conveniently targets the Copts, who are vulnerable as religious “outsiders,” despite their predating Muslims in the country by centuries.
There are instructive parallels here to the traditional treatment of Jews. In many countries, both in the West and the Islamic world, Jewish minorities have been blamed for economic frustrations, social cleavages and political upheaval. In Egypt itself, with the exception of a few elderly women who remain, the once-thriving Jewish community — some 80,000 immediately after World War II — that had fully participated in a multicultural society is gone, chased out as the insidious “other.” And yet ironically, even in the absence of Jews, the conditioned reflex to scapegoat them still lives: Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has publicly stated that the ouster of the Morsi-Muslim Brotherhood government was the work — not of Copts — but Jews!
Much of the support in the United States for the removal of Morsi rests on the recognition that one election does not necessarily constitute democracy — as we learned earlier with the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections of 2006 — if the elected government proceeds to assume dictatorial powers.
Similarly, another litmus test of a democracy is how it treats its minorities. Muslim discrimination against Christian minorities across the Middle East has led to a gradual decline in their numbers. The Egyptian Copts, the largest single Christian community remaining in the region, shows signs of dwindling like the others, and if the Muslim Brotherhood has its way, faces possible elimination.
The military government that now rules Egypt has come under criticism — and rightly so — for not sufficiently protecting the Copts from Islamist aggression. Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is the aggressor and, hence, far more dangerous. Its return to power would deal mortal damage to any hope for a democratic Egypt, and any future for its ancient Christian community.
Brian D. Siegal serves as director of the Miami and Broward Office of AJC (American Jewish Committee).