Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lights Out for the Middle East’s Christians?

The tumult in Cairo may spell much worse to come for the Copts.

By Rich Lowry
February 11, 2011 12:00 A.M.

An Egyptian Muslim mob attacks a Coptic Christian

Hosni Mubarak can count on at least one loyal supporter. Coptic Christian leader Pope Shenouda wants the anti-Mubarak protesters to stand down. He has two inarguable reasons to stick with the dictator: fear and experience.

Even if the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t take over, there is every reason to believe that a democratically elected Egyptian government will become more Islamist and more hostile to the country’s roughly 8 million Christians, who are overwhelmingly Copts. As a horrifying premonition, the Copts need look no farther than democratic Iraq, where the ethnic cleansing of Christians is still unspooling, slowly but inexorably.

It’s an irony almost too bitter to bear that George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian fired by a vision of freedom with religious overtones, waged a war of liberation in Iraq that led to the uprooting of the country’s Christians. And did almost nothing to prevent it, or even remark upon it. Iraq’s Christians are the collateral damage of the country’s post-Saddam revolution.

In a civil war, a small, defenseless minority hated by fanatics of both warring sides will not fare well. But even after the surge tamped down Sunni–Shiite violence, the war on Christians continued. One convent in Hamdaniyah in the north has been attacked 20 times since the start of the war, and as recently as last spring; according to USA Today, it was down to four nuns last year out of an original 55.

Before the invasion, roughly 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq. About half of them have fled, with many more sure to follow. For a community that dates back almost to the inception of Christianity, this is nothing short of a historic cataclysm.

Iraq’s Christians have fallen prey to a one-two punch of terrorism and official indifference. Sunni extremists attack churches and assassinate individual Christians. In October, gunmen took 100 Christians hostage at Our Lady of Perpetual Help church in Baghdad and slaughtered more than 40 of them. The Shiite government can’t or won’t stop these depredations. By one estimate, 2010 was the deadliest year yet for Iraq’s Christians.

In Egypt, Copts are already targeted. A suicide bombing on New Year’s Day in front of an Alexandria church killed more than 20. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute notes that “the context is a government that has failed to make the rights of religious minorities a priority.” And this was under the pro-Western, relatively secular dictator.

When the Muslim Brotherhood takes a place at the table, it will no doubt do all it can to imbue Egyptian government with Islamism’s enmity toward Christians. In terms of public opinion, the Brotherhood may be pushing at an open door. According to a Pew survey in Egypt last year, 84 percent of Egyptian Muslims — not yet familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists — support executing apostates.

If the fashionably tolerant deigned to notice any of this, they might call it “Christophobia.” They prefer, though, to avert their gaze from the rancid hatreds roiling the Islamic world and delude themselves with pleasant absurdities. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says the Muslim Brotherhood is “largely secular.” This is a description that doesn’t even quite apply to American Episcopalians, let alone to the militant Islamic group explicitly devoted to jihad.

In Egypt, we may see another collision between our democratic universalism and Islamic particularism. We rightly believe that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. Many of the people upon whom we project this vision of universal freedom, though, believe justice prevails only if their faith and its believers rule. Unfortunately, they’re the ones who get to vote.

This is why Egypt could experience both a democratic opening and yet more Christian persecution. At 10 percent of the population, Copts are the region’s largest Christian community. If Egypt becomes intolerable for them, it’s lights out for Christianity in the Middle East.

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.


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