“WE CAN pray in a nation without a church,” Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church once declared, explaining his support for his country’s strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. “But we can’t pray in church without a nation.”
Some Egyptian Christians these days are questioning that bargain. Egyptian Copts increasingly find themselves targeted as never before by militants who blame the Church for supporting the military takeover that ousted an Islamist president and brought Sisi to power five years ago.
Yet Sisi has failed to repay the church leaders by protecting Christians — neither from the bombs and blades of the militant, nor from the longstanding discrimination that Christians have faced from the Egyptian legal system.
About ten per cent of the 90 million Egyptians are Christian. More than 90 per cent of these belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which traces its roots to the apostle St Mark. Copts are by far the largest Christian community in the broader Middle East. But, in some ways, they are also typical of religious minorities in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Fearful of the Muslim majority around them, Arab Christians have often preferred the protection of authoritarians.
When Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt, he dispensed special favours as patronage to the Coptic pope, then Pope Shenouda III, such as the preservation of strict family laws that barred only Christians from divorce, long after reforms of the marriage laws for Muslims. In exchange, the Pope periodically endorsed Mubarak in his pro-forma re-elections. If lay Christians wanted something from Mubarak, the Pope was their liaison.
The 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square promised an escape from all that. Islamists stood guard as a Coptic bishop led prayers in the square; and Christians protected rows of prostrated Muslims. All professed the same goals for Egypt: a new era of nonsectarian citizenship, responsive government, and legal equality.
BUT the 30 months that followed tested the Church with difficult choices. Copts complained that the fall of Mubarak had unleashed a torrent of sectarian invective from satellite television networks hosting ultraconservative Islamists. In the autumn of 2011, soldiers stationed outside the Maspero state television building massacred 23 unarmed Christians who had marched on the building to demand justice.
After Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the first free presidential election in Egypt the next year, Copts worried about what his organisation — which effectively excludes Christians — might do some day, if it ever wielded real power. The Brotherhood’s opponents spread paranoid rumours that Islamist vigilantes were already harassing Christians in the streets, schools, and subways. None of those stories could ever be confirmed. But the fears were real, and they help to explain why, in 2013, the leaders of the Coptic Church endorsed the military takeover that removed Morsi after just one year in office.
Islamists, in response, blamed Christians for the coup. When the security forces cracked down, angry Muslims had attacked dozens of churches all over Egypt. Yet even after the takeover, Christians complained of the same bias against them. Three months after Sisi took power, a court convicted three Christians of murdering a single Muslim in a sectarian riot in the town of Khusus, near Cairo. Each Christian was sentenced to 15 years in prison. But no Muslims were found guilty of killing any of the five Christians who had died during the fight.
In the years that followed, prosecutors continued to imprison Christians for blasphemy against Islam. A committee of Muslim scholars still censored the screening of movies. Despite a promise from Sisi, Christians still required special permission from security agencies for the building of any new churches — and the agencies frequently denied it.
Worst of all, police failed to protect Christians from the rising violence against them. In May 2016, a rumour spread through the village of Karm, Minya, about a love affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. A mob of 40 Muslims burned the Christian’s home to the ground, beat up the family, and dragged the 70-year-old matriarch, Suad Thabet, naked through the streets. Prosecutors found insufficient evidence to charge anyone for the crimes. No wonder the Islamic State saw an easy target, declaring Christians its “favourite prey” and started bombing churches.
Beginning in 2016, the Islamic State fighters assassinated more than half a dozen Copts around the organisation’s base in North Sinai. The group burned homes, destroyed churches, and forced more than a hundred families to flee for their lives. Then, on Palm Sunday 2017, two Islamic State church bombings far from the Sinai, in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria, killed at least 45 people.
I COVERED the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt as the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times, and, years later, I tracked down the two priests who had led the march for Coptic rights that ended in a massacre at the hands of the military in the autumn of 2011. Both called the military takeover a significant setback for Christians.
Fr Matthias, secluded in a medieval monastery in the mountains near the Red Sea, told me that a soldier who had kicked and beaten him on the day of the Maspero massacre — then Major Ibrahim el-Damaty — had been elevated the next year to chief of the military police under then-Defence Minister Sisi. “Under Sisi, pushing a priest gets you promoted right away,” Fr Matthias said, ruefully.
“After what happened at Maspero, we knew we could not get our rights from the army. There was no way for the Christians to get their rights from the army, and they were against the army now. Nothing had changed in our country.”
Fr Filopateer, who met me at a picnic table outside a strip mall in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., told me that he could no longer return to Egypt. He would be arrested for his activism on behalf of the Copts. “Life for Copts under the Muslim Brotherhood was a lot better,” Fr Filopateer told me.
Copts no longer had the freedom to organise and advocate on their own behalf under Sisi, he argued. “We are dealing with a dictator, and he is ready to do anything to maintain his power. In economics, in politics, in freedom — everything is going in the wrong direction.”
David Kirkpatrick is an international correspondent for The New York Times. His book, Into the Hands of Soldiers, is published by Bloomsbury.