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Concern Over Attacks on Middle East Christians Grows in Washington


Last August, the bloody crackdown on a Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in Cairo by Egyptian security forces drew international condemnation.

But less attention was paid to the scores of Coptic churches set ablaze and destroyed in the days that followed.

Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom says it was “the worst pogrom on Christians in Egypt for about 700 years.”

Across the Middle East, Christian minorities have been targeted in conflicts that ensued from what were supposed to be transitions to democracy.

Some Western leaders, including Pope Francis and Prince Charles, have expressed concern about the threat to Christians in the region that gave birth to the faith. And yet, in the United States, it has drawn relatively little attention outside of a few Christian groups and lawmakers.

Republican Congressman Christopher Smith has chaired several hearings on the matter recently.

“We are witnessing grievous violence and other forms of intimidation directed against religious and political minorities, particularly the Copts and other Christians about which our government and the media have said far too little,” he told a House of Representatives subcommittee at one of the hearings.

But activists concede it’s hard to press the issue because in the West, Christians are not widely seen as a vulnerable minority. Hisham Melhem of Al Arabiya Television says the issue has little traction on both sides of the American political divide.

“The plight of the Christians may be lost on the left because they [the victims] are too Christian, and lost on the rightist groups, the conservative groups here, because they are foreign,” he says.

Melhem, a Maronite Christian from Lebanon, spoke at a recent discussion at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, titled “The Impact of Middle East Transitions on Christian Communities.”

He expressed frustration that “no one in America” accepts any responsibility for the Christian flight from Iraq, where the population is one-third the pre-U.S. invasion figure.

“After all, a large number of Iraqi Christians were forced to leave Iraq, when we as Americans had 150,000 men and women in Iraq,” he says.

There are fears of a similar decline in Syria, where the kidnapping of a group of Greek Orthodox nuns raised fears in the minority Christian community that they were being targeted by extremists among the anti-government fighters. They were released in March.

At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, President Barack Obama devoted his speech to religious freedom abroad.

“No society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all its peoples, including religious minorities, whether they’re Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, or Baha’i in Iran, or Coptic Christians in Egypt,” he said.

“We were really encouraged because at the prayer breakfast, he came out with a very strong statement,” said Jeff King of International Christian Concern, which runs the website persecution.org.

“But you look at the followup to that and there hasn’t been any,” he adds, noting that the president did not even bring up discrimination against Christians in his recent meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, where churches are banned.

King says President Obama “is very vocal on the subject of the persecution of the gay community” in other countries, even though he says Christians have been more frequent targets of killings.
At St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in suburban Washington, many churchgoers were alarmed at the latest report from Egypt of a young Coptic woman who was murdered by a Cairo mob who saw a crucifix hanging in her car windshield.

Reports of Coptic women being kidnapped and raped worry Sandy Salamon, who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of eight. She says they are meant to humiliate the Copts as a people.

“It’s a weapon that - when that piece of your humanity is attacked, it’s very hard to … fight back,” she said, adding that the humiliation is part of daily life.

She recalls visiting Cairo just after the revolution, being out on the street with her mother and aunt.

“I’m not veiled. So, I’m walking down, clearly a Christian,” she said. “The looks, the language, even the body language is very threatening.”

Copts are the largest Christian minority in the region, and they say their church predates the arrival of Islam in the 7th century. According to Coptic tradition, it was established in the first century by Mark the Evangelist - a disciple of Jesus.

American-born priest Paul Girguis says that since the beginning, Copts have known martyrdom and suffering.

“There was an emperor that said, ‘I’m going to massacre the Christians until the blood in the streets reaches to the knees of my horse.’”

Still he says Copts are “a very resilient people,” and if they survived 20 centuries, they will overcome the hardships of the 21st.
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