The events in Alexandria were a reminder of the, at best, tenuous status of Christians in the Islamic world.
The Egyptian government immediately dismissed the possibility that animus toward Christians played a role in the attacks. Egypt’s Interior Ministry said that the attacker suffered from “psychological disturbances.” How convenient.
Egyptian Christians, known as Copts, did not buy it, and for good reason: Police officials had a different version, announcing that “three men had been arrested in four simultaneous church assaults.” According to the police, these assaults had killed one and injured another seventeen.
That sure sounds like a coordinated attack to me. CBS News put it this way: The Egyptian government has a history of “[playing] down incidents that can be perceived as sectarian in nature.” By “sectarian,” it means violence against Christians.
This isn’t the only manifestation of the Copts’ second-class status. Copts, who constitute at least 10 percent of Egypt’s population, are discriminated against in employment, especially in government. And to add insult to injury, they face “severe restrictions” when it comes to building or repairing their churches.
The Copts aren’t the only besieged ancient Christian community in the Islamic world. Iraq’s Christian community, often called Assyrians or Chaldeans, dates back to at least the second century. If any group has an historical claim to their part of Iraq, they do.
Yet sadly, an increasing number of Iraqi Christians have concluded that “there is no future” for them in Iraq. According to Lawrence Kaplan of the New Republic, “Sunni, Shia, and Kurd may agree on little else, but all have made sport of brutalizing their Christian neighbors.” Christians “routinely disappear from the sidewalks of Baghdad;” others are kidnapped and held for ransom. They are, as Kaplan puts it, “today’s victims of choice.”
Since, as one Christian put it, “we have no militia to defend us,” and neither Iraqi nor Americans officials are willing to protect them, Christians are leaving their ancestral home.
Christians in other Islamic countries are treated even worse. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Christians must practice their faith in secret. While being a Christian, in and of itself, isn’t illegal, saying or doing something that lets others know it is. And, as we recently witnessed with Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan, conversion from Islam to Christianity is a crime punishable by death, as it is in many parts of the Islamic world.
The Islamic world’s treatment of its Christian minority raises crucial questions for our effort to export democracy as a way to combat terrorism—an effort I support. But if democracy means anything, it means the protection of fundamental human rights like freedom of religion. So long as Christians remain targets of religious persecution in the Islamic world, not only will there be no future for Christians; there will be no future for true democracy, either. Our government and Christians must keep up the pressure.
“Man with Knife Attacks Egypt Worshippers,” CBS, 14 April 2006.
“U.S. Copts Association to Hold White House Demonstration against Anti-Christian Hate Crimes in Egypt,” U.S. Copts Association press release.
“Maronite Union Blame Jihadists for Crimes against Copts,” World Maronite Union, 17 April 2006.
Lawrence F. Kaplan, “Crossing Over: The Plight of Iraqi Christians,” New Republic, 23 March 2006. (Available to subscribers only.)