Commentary Magazine


Topic: Coptic Christians

Re: What is Being Done to Protect Copts?

Last week I first raised the issue of Muslim Brotherhood attacks on Christian churches in Egypt as a way of expressing their anger about the military’s toppling of the government of Mohamed Morsi and the crackdown against Islamists in Cairo. Earlier today, our Michael Rubin again highlighted this appalling development and pointed out that the violence was so intense that services were cancelled at one monastery for the first time in 1,600 years. But also today, our Max Boot raised another aspect of this story as part of his argument that the United States should not support the military government in its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, a point on which both Michael and I disagree. As Max writes, though opponents of the Brotherhood have used the issue of their attacks on Coptic Christians to justify the military’s behavior, the new government hasn’t lifted a finger to help the victims of these assaults.

Egyptian Christians are angry about this and rightly so. Their lot was not easy under the Mubarak regime and the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule was perhaps even worse. As such, it is hardly surprising that the new power in Cairo has shown little interest in defending religious freedom. But even as we acknowledge one more flaw in a regime that we already knew was, at best, authoritarian in nature, that doesn’t justify an attitude of neutrality when it comes to the conflict between the military and the Brotherhood.

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Last week I first raised the issue of Muslim Brotherhood attacks on Christian churches in Egypt as a way of expressing their anger about the military’s toppling of the government of Mohamed Morsi and the crackdown against Islamists in Cairo. Earlier today, our Michael Rubin again highlighted this appalling development and pointed out that the violence was so intense that services were cancelled at one monastery for the first time in 1,600 years. But also today, our Max Boot raised another aspect of this story as part of his argument that the United States should not support the military government in its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, a point on which both Michael and I disagree. As Max writes, though opponents of the Brotherhood have used the issue of their attacks on Coptic Christians to justify the military’s behavior, the new government hasn’t lifted a finger to help the victims of these assaults.

Egyptian Christians are angry about this and rightly so. Their lot was not easy under the Mubarak regime and the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule was perhaps even worse. As such, it is hardly surprising that the new power in Cairo has shown little interest in defending religious freedom. But even as we acknowledge one more flaw in a regime that we already knew was, at best, authoritarian in nature, that doesn’t justify an attitude of neutrality when it comes to the conflict between the military and the Brotherhood.

The Christian minority are, unfortunately, the innocent bystanders in a growing conflict in which they stand little to gain. But the Brotherhood wasn’t wrong in surmising that Christians were, like the vast majority of Egyptians, outraged by Morsi’s push for total power that he would never have peacefully relinquished had the military failed to step in. Principled observers like frequent COMMENTARY contributor Elliott Abrams believe that the U.S. must run the risk of making Egyptians believe we favor the Brotherhood even if that is not the case in order to send a necessary statement about the military’s beastly behavior.

However, I believe the stakes in this conflict are such that neither the world nor the Egyptian people should labor under any doubts about the necessity of the Brotherhood’s complete defeat. As I wrote two weeks ago before the government began clearing out the Islamists’ armed camps in Cairo, this conflict is a zero-sum game in which there are only two choices. It may be possible to, as Max does, view the military’s attacks on the Islamists as morally equivalent to their assaults on churches and the Copts. Neither the military nor the Brotherhood present us with an attractive option in Egypt, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary that the Islamist movement be dealt a crippling blow from which it should never be allowed to recover.

The Islamists present a clear and present danger to non-Muslims, secular and liberal Muslims as well as the State of Israel and the West. Egyptian Christians may not like the military, but they still understand that they are far better off with them in power rather than Morsi and his crowd. Americans should be no less smart in their view of the conflict.

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Why Does the Muslim Brotherhood Attack Churches?

The world is focusing much of its sympathy today on the members of the Muslim Brotherhood that were gunned down in the streets of Cairo by armed police and soldiers seeking to end the Islamist attempt to put Mohamed Morsi back into power. The violence is regrettable and the casualties are widely interpreted as evidence of the brutality of the military regime that toppled Morsi and his Brotherhood regime last month. But the notion that the Brotherhood is the innocent victim of a nasty junta seeking to bring back Mubarak-era authoritarianism is only half right. Though the military government is an unsavory partner for the United States, no one should be under any illusions about the Brotherhood or why the majority of Egyptians (who went to the streets in their millions to support a coup) probably approve of the military’s actions.

Proof of the true nature of the Brotherhood was available for those who read accounts in the last weeks of life at their Cairo encampments that were policed by Islamist thugs with clubs and other weapons. Brotherhood gunmen fought the police in pitched battles. Non-violent civil disobedience isn’t in the Brotherhood playbook. Even more damning was the Brotherhood response elsewhere in Egypt. As the International Business Times reports:

Supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi have attacked churches in Dilga, Menya and Sohag after government security forces backed by armored cars and bulldozers stormed protest camps outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.

The Churches of Abraham and the Virgin Mary in Menya were burning after Morsi supporters set fire to the outside of the building exteriors and smashed through doors. … Muslim Brotherhood members also threw firebombs at Mar Gergiss church in Sohag, a city with a large community of Coptic Christians who represents up to 10 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people, causing it to burn down, the official MENA news agency said. Protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the Bon Pasteur Catholic Church and Monastery in Suez, setting it ablaze and breaking windows.

Why is the Brotherhood attacking churches as part of its argument with the military government?

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The world is focusing much of its sympathy today on the members of the Muslim Brotherhood that were gunned down in the streets of Cairo by armed police and soldiers seeking to end the Islamist attempt to put Mohamed Morsi back into power. The violence is regrettable and the casualties are widely interpreted as evidence of the brutality of the military regime that toppled Morsi and his Brotherhood regime last month. But the notion that the Brotherhood is the innocent victim of a nasty junta seeking to bring back Mubarak-era authoritarianism is only half right. Though the military government is an unsavory partner for the United States, no one should be under any illusions about the Brotherhood or why the majority of Egyptians (who went to the streets in their millions to support a coup) probably approve of the military’s actions.

Proof of the true nature of the Brotherhood was available for those who read accounts in the last weeks of life at their Cairo encampments that were policed by Islamist thugs with clubs and other weapons. Brotherhood gunmen fought the police in pitched battles. Non-violent civil disobedience isn’t in the Brotherhood playbook. Even more damning was the Brotherhood response elsewhere in Egypt. As the International Business Times reports:

Supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi have attacked churches in Dilga, Menya and Sohag after government security forces backed by armored cars and bulldozers stormed protest camps outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.

The Churches of Abraham and the Virgin Mary in Menya were burning after Morsi supporters set fire to the outside of the building exteriors and smashed through doors. … Muslim Brotherhood members also threw firebombs at Mar Gergiss church in Sohag, a city with a large community of Coptic Christians who represents up to 10 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people, causing it to burn down, the official MENA news agency said. Protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the Bon Pasteur Catholic Church and Monastery in Suez, setting it ablaze and breaking windows.

Why is the Brotherhood attacking churches as part of its argument with the military government?

The first reason is because the Christian minority, unlike the military, is vulnerable. Throughout the long year when Egypt suffered under Morsi’s Islamist rule, Christians and their churches were increasingly subject to attacks as the Muslim movement sought to make the position of the religious minority untenable. As the Brotherhood seeks to demonstrate that it is still a viable force in the country’s streets even after its Cairo strongholds are uprooted, expect more attacks on Christians to remind Egyptians that the Islamists are still a force to be reckoned with.

Second, the attacks on churches are not just a regrettable sideshow in what may be soon seen as a civil war as the Islamists seek to regain power after losing in the wake of the massive street protests that encouraged the army to launch the coup that ended Morsi’s rule. Rather, such attacks are an inextricable part of their worldview as they seek to transform Egypt in their own Islamist image. In the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egypt, there is no room for Christians or even secular Muslims. That is why so many in Egypt applauded the coup as perhaps the last chance to save the country from permanent Islamist rule.

The church attacks should remind the West that the stakes in the conflict in Egypt are high. If the U.S. seeks to cripple the military, they won’t be helping the cause of democracy. The Brotherhood may have used a seemingly democratic process to take power in 2012, but they would never have peacefully relinquished it or allowed their opponents to stop them from imposing their will on every aspect of Egyptian society. As difficult as it may be for some high-minded Americans to understand, in this case it is the military and not the protesters in Cairo who are seeking to stop tyranny. Though the military is an unattractive ally, anyone seeking to cut off vital U.S. aid to Egypt should remember that the only alternative to it is the party that is currently burning churches.

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Outrage Lacking on Religious Persecution

The news today from Egypt ought to send a shiver down the spines of all Americans. The protests of millions of Egyptians against the Brotherhood and their leader Mohamed Morsi backed up by the military may have derailed the attempt to transform Egypt into an Islamist state. But the Brotherhood is, as should have been expected, far from finished. The prospect of a counter-revolt or even a long-term Islamist insurgency should not be discounted. But whether or not the Brotherhood can find a way to counter the efforts of the military as well as secular and liberal Egyptians to keep them out of power, the Islamist group is lashing out at a familiar scapegoat: the country’s Christian minority.

As the New York Times reports this afternoon, the Coptic community is bearing the brunt of the Brotherhood’s resentment about the reversal of fortune in Cairo:

Since Mr. Morsi’s ouster on July 3, the activists say, a priest has been shot dead in the street, Islamists have painted black X’s on Christian shops to mark them for arson and angry mobs have attacked churches and besieged Christians in their homes. Four Christians were reported slaughtered with knives and machetes in one village last week.

The attacks have hit across the country, in the northern Sinai Peninsula, in a resort town on the Mediterranean coast, in Port Said along the Suez Canal and in isolated villages in upper Egypt.

Given the way Christians were increasingly targeted for violence—including an attack on their main cathedral—while Morsi was in power, it is hardly surprising that a movement that is determined to squelch all opposition to the creation of a purely theocratic state would focus their attention on the Copts. But while we would hope that the military—which has often been slow to protect Christians—will crack down hard on these outbreaks, these incidents should also prompt not only a strong response from President Obama but also outrage from Americans. Unfortunately, as weak as the administration’s response to events in Egypt has been, there’s also no sign that this apathy toward the fate of religious minorities in the Middle East is something that most Americans care about.

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The news today from Egypt ought to send a shiver down the spines of all Americans. The protests of millions of Egyptians against the Brotherhood and their leader Mohamed Morsi backed up by the military may have derailed the attempt to transform Egypt into an Islamist state. But the Brotherhood is, as should have been expected, far from finished. The prospect of a counter-revolt or even a long-term Islamist insurgency should not be discounted. But whether or not the Brotherhood can find a way to counter the efforts of the military as well as secular and liberal Egyptians to keep them out of power, the Islamist group is lashing out at a familiar scapegoat: the country’s Christian minority.

As the New York Times reports this afternoon, the Coptic community is bearing the brunt of the Brotherhood’s resentment about the reversal of fortune in Cairo:

Since Mr. Morsi’s ouster on July 3, the activists say, a priest has been shot dead in the street, Islamists have painted black X’s on Christian shops to mark them for arson and angry mobs have attacked churches and besieged Christians in their homes. Four Christians were reported slaughtered with knives and machetes in one village last week.

The attacks have hit across the country, in the northern Sinai Peninsula, in a resort town on the Mediterranean coast, in Port Said along the Suez Canal and in isolated villages in upper Egypt.

Given the way Christians were increasingly targeted for violence—including an attack on their main cathedral—while Morsi was in power, it is hardly surprising that a movement that is determined to squelch all opposition to the creation of a purely theocratic state would focus their attention on the Copts. But while we would hope that the military—which has often been slow to protect Christians—will crack down hard on these outbreaks, these incidents should also prompt not only a strong response from President Obama but also outrage from Americans. Unfortunately, as weak as the administration’s response to events in Egypt has been, there’s also no sign that this apathy toward the fate of religious minorities in the Middle East is something that most Americans care about.

It’s a shocking yet all-but-inarguable truth that the rest of the world has been largely content to stand by indifferently as Muslim extremists have targeted religious minorities throughout the Middle East. All too many Western Christians seem to consider their co-religionists to be strictly on their own when it comes to dealing with Islamists.

As New York’s Catholic leader, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, wrote last month in the New York Daily News:

Religious persecution isn’t just something from the history books. The early 21st century will go down as an age of martyrs, and the situation is only getting worse. It’s hard to believe, but today, more than a billion people live under governments that suppress religious liberty.

In many nations, the lack of religious freedom is a matter of life and death. Believers and non-believers alike suffer as a result of intolerance.

The news is grim. Two Orthodox archbishops on a mission of mercy are kidnapped in Syria. The ancient Christian community of Iraq is alarmingly reduced in the wake of the war. Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are used to intimidate Christians and other religious minorities with the death penalty. And churches are bombed in Nigeria on Christmas and Easter. Shockingly, some 150,000 Christians are killed for their faith each year.

The United States has paid lip service to this issue with a Commission on International Religious Persecution that issues reports, but the gap between rhetoric and policy has often been lacking. The problem isn’t that we don’t know what’s going on so much as the general lack of interest in prioritizing this issue.

That must change.

What is needed is not so much a new set of policy pronouncements but a genuine sense of anger on the part of Americans about the possibility that ten percent of Egypt’s population will be subjected to pogroms. Rather than the chattering classes worrying about the deposition of Morsi being a blow to the cause of Egyptian democracy—a ridiculous charge since there was nothing democratic about the way the Brotherhood went about consolidating power since Morsi’s election—the question of the safety of religious minorities ought to be our top concern. If that fails to materialize, the Islamists will have been sent a message to the effect that the West doesn’t care about religious persecution. No one should pretend that such silence wouldn’t constitute complicity in what will follow.

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Obama’s Ominous Silence on Egypt Chaos

Egypt appears to be on the brink of chaos this week but the best advice America’s ambassador has for an embattled religious minority in the world’s most populous country is to stay home. The report about the visit of Ambassador Anne Patterson to Coptic Pope Tawadros II came from an Egyptian paper but is spreading rapidly around the Internet and being cited as an example of the tacit support the United States continues to show for the government of President Mohamed Morsi even as the country starts to fall apart. But with a mass protest scheduled for Sunday—the event Ambassador Patterson wanted Copts to stay away from—the president’s attitude toward the demonstrations that are shaking Morsi’s grip on power is more than a matter of curiosity.

This is, after all, an administration that did a lot to encourage the first round of Arab spring protests in Egypt that took down longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak and ultimately replaced him with a Muslim Brotherhood government that may be far worse than the deposed authoritarian. But with Morsi’s calling on loyal army units to be reinforced and to be prepared for what may be an effort to suppress the protests, the White House has been remarkably quiet about what’s going on in Egypt.

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Egypt appears to be on the brink of chaos this week but the best advice America’s ambassador has for an embattled religious minority in the world’s most populous country is to stay home. The report about the visit of Ambassador Anne Patterson to Coptic Pope Tawadros II came from an Egyptian paper but is spreading rapidly around the Internet and being cited as an example of the tacit support the United States continues to show for the government of President Mohamed Morsi even as the country starts to fall apart. But with a mass protest scheduled for Sunday—the event Ambassador Patterson wanted Copts to stay away from—the president’s attitude toward the demonstrations that are shaking Morsi’s grip on power is more than a matter of curiosity.

This is, after all, an administration that did a lot to encourage the first round of Arab spring protests in Egypt that took down longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak and ultimately replaced him with a Muslim Brotherhood government that may be far worse than the deposed authoritarian. But with Morsi’s calling on loyal army units to be reinforced and to be prepared for what may be an effort to suppress the protests, the White House has been remarkably quiet about what’s going on in Egypt.

The problem here is that as far as many Egyptians are concerned, they have merely swapped a secular tyrant for a theocratic one and now see that that placing the Brotherhood in power was a terrible mistake. The Brotherhood hasn’t shown much aptitude for government and its actions have given the lie to the promises its leaders made to naïve Western journalists about not wishing to impose their fanatical religious beliefs on the rest of the nation.

There was a moment when Obama could have used the limited leverage that the U.S. has over the situation due to the billions it gives Egypt every year to try and help the military keep the Islamists from taking power. But instead, Obama pressured the army to let the Brotherhood rule. Now, after having been placed under Morsi’s thumb as part of a number of measures undertaken to solidify his party’s grasp on every aspect of Egypt’s government, the Islamists are looking to the army to help keep them in control and the U.S. seems to have nothing more helpful to say about than to tell Christians to stay out of it.

As with the protests that have shaken the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—another Obama favorite—the U.S. has adopted a position of indifferent silence toward pro-democracy protesters in Cairo and other Egyptian sites where demonstrations have spread. This is very different from the outspoken position the administration took in 2010 when the Arab Spring protests spread across the region.

The question Americans ought to be asking about U.S. policy toward Egypt is why it was in the interests of the U.S. to support the Arab Spring in 2010 but not to support those Egyptians who wish to prevent their country from falling irrevocably into the hands of Islamists? The inability of the White House to provide a coherent answer to that query can be directly linked to the decline in U.S. influence in the region and the daunting prospects of even worse to come in the future.

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The U.S. and the Murders at the Cathedral

Assurances about the benign intent of the Muslim Brotherhood have been the coin of the realm in Washington in the past year as the Obama administration justified its continued embrace of the Egyptian government. But even though we are still being told that there is no alternative to engagement with Mohamed Morsi’s regime, the escalation of anti-Christian violence ought to shock Americans into the realization that they are subsidizing a regime bent on oppressing religious minorities.

The siege of the Christian Cathedral in Cairo was condemned by Morsi, who told the sect’s pope in a phone call that he considered “any aggression against the cathedral an aggression against me personally” and then ordered an investigation into the incident. But the source of the trouble isn’t a mystery. As the New York Times reports, uniformed police and security personnel joined Muslim mobs as they attacked the sacred site in fighting that left four Christians dead. Christians are connecting the dots between the Brotherhood’s sectarian agitation and drive for total power and the growing number of attacks on them. While Morsi tries to give his movement what an American bureaucrat might call “plausible deniability,” Islamist street thugs are under the understandable impression that they have the approval of the movement that has seized control of the country when the police join their depredations rather than stop them. The only mystery is how long it will take for a U.S. government that is still sending nearly $2 billion a year to Egypt’s government, as well as military equipment, to understand that it can’t pretend to talk about supporting the goals of the Arab Spring’s pro-democracy protesters while backing Morsi.

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Assurances about the benign intent of the Muslim Brotherhood have been the coin of the realm in Washington in the past year as the Obama administration justified its continued embrace of the Egyptian government. But even though we are still being told that there is no alternative to engagement with Mohamed Morsi’s regime, the escalation of anti-Christian violence ought to shock Americans into the realization that they are subsidizing a regime bent on oppressing religious minorities.

The siege of the Christian Cathedral in Cairo was condemned by Morsi, who told the sect’s pope in a phone call that he considered “any aggression against the cathedral an aggression against me personally” and then ordered an investigation into the incident. But the source of the trouble isn’t a mystery. As the New York Times reports, uniformed police and security personnel joined Muslim mobs as they attacked the sacred site in fighting that left four Christians dead. Christians are connecting the dots between the Brotherhood’s sectarian agitation and drive for total power and the growing number of attacks on them. While Morsi tries to give his movement what an American bureaucrat might call “plausible deniability,” Islamist street thugs are under the understandable impression that they have the approval of the movement that has seized control of the country when the police join their depredations rather than stop them. The only mystery is how long it will take for a U.S. government that is still sending nearly $2 billion a year to Egypt’s government, as well as military equipment, to understand that it can’t pretend to talk about supporting the goals of the Arab Spring’s pro-democracy protesters while backing Morsi.

It does no good to pretend, as some claim, that Morsi can’t stop the attacks on Christians or that the forces pushing the country to the brink of religious war are unrelated to the Brotherhood and its supporters. While attacks on Christians were hardly unknown during the long reign of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, it isn’t possible to separate the heightened tension from the expectations of Islamists that they have the Christian minority on the run. The brazen manner with which these mobs have attacked a symbol of Christianity like the Cathedral with the assistance of the police is a signal that things are heading in the wrong direction. The spectacle of security forces with armored personnel carriers and tear gas canons joining the violence on the side of thugs throwing rocks and firebombs at Christian mourners leaving the cathedral makes it hard to argue that this is the work of extremists unconnected with the ruling party.

That Muslims who are prepared to riot and murder at the merest hint of insult aimed at Islam taunted the Christians with what the Times called “lewd gestures involving the cross” in the presence of the police is itself appalling. But it is also indicative of a shift in the mood of the Middle East, in which it is clear that anything goes when it comes to religious conflict. Though the Brotherhood has promised gullible Westerners that it won’t impose its beliefs on non-Muslims or turn the country into a theocratic state, evidence is mounting that the Kulturkampf in Egypt is in full swing.

If President Obama is serious about standing up for human rights, it is necessary for him to speak out publicly against what is going on in Egypt and to start using some of the leverage over its government that he was quick to employ when showing Mubarak the door or threatening the military to allow the Brotherhood to take office. If he fails to do so, the Muslim and Arab world won’t be slow to draw the same conclusions that Egyptians in the street are drawing from the role of the police in the assault on the cathedral. They will think that Obama is indifferent to the fate of the Copts or, even worse, that he has no problems with the Brotherhood’s push for power.

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