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Fighting persecution with prayer

Egypt’s ancient Christian people remain second-class citizens despite President Sisi’s pledge to protect them

It didn’t look much like a church. On a backstreet near Hassan Basha, a remote village in Minya Governorate, the doors of the concrete building were locked and bolted. It appeared to be an abandoned house, aside from a plaque that read, in Arabic and English, “Assembly of God Church”.

A man called Zaki led me to the entrance, struggled with the key and heavy chain and finally pushed the door open. The interior was dusty and chilly: a small altar, a few chairs, some scattered pews. It appeared to have not been used in months. “It’s not easy keeping it up,” Zaki said. “But nothing about being a Christian is easy in Egypt.”

This is particularly true in Minya, about four hours’ drive from Cairo, where Egyptian Christians, a minority in their native land but the largest Christian community in the Middle East, are frequently targeted for their faith. At least 35 per cent of Minya’s population is Christian, the largest proportion in any of Egypt’s 27 provinces. The persecution can take the form of harrassment, not allowing them places of worship or even direct attacks and bombings. The worst was in May 2017, when masked gunmen stormed a bus, killing 28 Christian pilgrims en route to St Samuel the Confessor monastery.

Earlier that year, at the start of Lent, hundreds of Christians were forced to flee their homes in North Sinai after an edict by Islamic State, who forbade their celebration of Easter. The Christians ran, but on Palm Sunday, IS bombed two churches in other parts of the country anyway, killing 45 and wounding 125, largely as a symbol of their power.

“When there is a bombing, it is always a message to Christians throughout Egypt,” one young worshipper told me. “You are not welcome here.” The following year, in November 2018, Islamic State militants attacked another bus carrying Coptic Christians to St Samuel on the same road in Minya — the hardest-hit governate. This time they killed eight and injured 13 people.

There have been many more such incidents, including a bloody catalogue of attacks  that occurred while I was travelling in Egypt in December and January: more bombs, more burning of houses and churches. Every Christian I spoke to told me of something that happened to either a family member or someone in their village or parish. No one in this Christian community is untouched by persecution. It’s not just radical Islam that is harming them. Societal persecution is at times far more damaging than a bombing, said Zaki. It is the constant sense of alienation and inferiority, the laws and the taboos. “Sometimes it’s not even a direct attack,” he told me. “They don’t have to throw a bomb at you. They just always manage to make you feel a lower caste.”

Largely dominated by the Coptic Church, Egypt’s Christian community is one of the oldest in the world and comprises around 10 percent of the country’s population of 102 million. But it’s difficult to determine real figures — the last census was in the 1960s and President General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in power following a 2013 military coup, is reluctant to encourage sectarianism by dividing the population by religion. Sisi has enough problems enforcing his authoritarian rule, imprisoning journalists, activists and human rights lawyers in a purge he believes will improve security and eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni organisation founded in Egypt in 1928. The Brotherhood formed a democratically-elected government in 2012 after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak following the Tahrir Square demonstrations in February 2011.

Throughout the Middle East, there is a long tradition of Christians being protected by dictators

On a scale of suffering, Christians in Egypt are not in the same position as other Middle East Christians I have spent time with. By and large they are “discriminated against rather than persecuted”, in the words of one US State Department official. They are not in danger of being eliminated entirely, like Chaldeans or Assyrians in Iraq. Though the string of Christian villages north of Mosul, in the Nineveh Plains in Iraq, are now  being rebuilt after Isis stormed through in 2014, there are still fears this ancient people will be eradicated. In Iraq, I documented cases of Isis burning villages, capturing Christian women, seizing farms and businesses, destroying churches, imposing taxes, forcing conversions, and worse. Christian families in Mosul had the letter N — for Nazarene — painted over their doors, an eerie throwback to the persecution suffered by Jews under the Third Reich. While Islamic State has been battered down in Egypt, there are other institutional forms of anti-Christian discrimination. And, of course, Isis is not entirely dead, which is a hovering anxiety.

Sisi has publicly vowed to protect christians, but his relationship with Christianity is complicated. Over the Christmas holidays, the churches in Cairo were wrapped in enormous red, white and black Egyptian flags, making them look like gigantic festive parcels. Outside stood military guards. On one hand, it symbolised a kind of protection, but worshippers in churches in the Heliopolis neighborhood told me they saw it more as a kind of threat: you are Egyptians first, Christians second.

Which led to many conversations about their mixed feelings about Sisi: “He has promised to take care of us,” one retired nurse told me, “and he is fighting terrorism.” But there is also an undercurrent of second-class citizenship for Christians, in terms of the justice system and society. “We can’t get elected to powerful positions,” she said. “There are no Christians at high ranks in the Army.”

Throughout the Middle East, there is a long tradition of Christians being protected by dictators. The Christians in Syria sought to hide under the mantle of President Bashar al-Assad, fearing the opposition would usher in a jihadist leader. Saddam Hussein managed to coax the Assyrians, Chaldeans and other minorities in Iraq to support him, although most people were too afraid to do anything else. Former President Mubarak, a Muslim, and Egypt’s then Coptic pope Shenouda III had an extremely close relationship. In exchange for the Copts’ support, the pope gained access to power. Meanwhile Mubarak befriended the pope to make sure his eight million followers supported his regime.

President Sisi, knowing the importance of Christian votes —  and in Cairo, many Christians are not only wealthy but part of the educated elite — has pledged to protect minorities. He has changed election laws to allow more Christians into the national legislature and eased restrictions on building new churches and renovating old ones. But it’s still a minimal reform and there seems a real gulf between what the government says and what local community leaders actually do. In rural areas, local councils headed by elders settle land disputes and other arguments, inevitably siding with Muslims. “They are always unfair, a Muslim always gets treated better,” Zaki told me.

“We always feel different,” Christine, a young office worker who grew up in Minya but moved to the capital to work, told me on New Year’s Eve. Christine and I met in a Heliopolis café frequented by Christians, who were busily celebrating the holiday. Her head was not covered by the traditional hijab, as is the custom of most Muslim women, and she wore a short skirt and boots. She had been educated in Jesuit schools in Minya city, and recalled the auditorium of her school being burnt down by radicals.

“I remember 73 churches being burnt down in my childhood alone,” she said. She was worried about an attack happening that night — there was indeed a New year’s Eve attack in Minya, as we would later hear.

“But really, there are attacks against Christians every single week,” she said. “Some get reported; some people are too afraid to report them.” Christine said the underlying sense of inferiority is the greatest persecution. “For instance, just walking down the street, I’ve had Muslim men grab me by the hair and try to drag me because I don’t have a headscarf on. But I think the strongest force is  political. Muslims really don’t want us to have a voice.”

Sisi: Vowed to protect Egypt’s Christians

This leads to systemic persecutions, the greatest of which is that many Christians are legally denied a place to worship and pray. Though Sisi’s rapprochement has meant that Egypt has approved applications for more than 500 new churches. Out of 3,000 applications filed over the last two years, there remain severe restrictions on building or securing places of worship. The result is that Christians of all backgrounds — as well as Copts, there are  substantial Protestant and Evangelical communities — still face difficulty in finding a place to worship together.

There is also a societal factor. By law, Muslim women cannot marry Christians (or other non-Muslim men). A Muslim man can only marry a Christian woman if she converts to Islam. If she fails to convert, her children will still be Muslim and she cannot inherit from her spouse unless she converts. Worse, most families will shun the Christian bride.

In rural areas, it is still a violent taboo. In Karama, a village in Minya, in 2016, the 70-year-old mother of a Christian man who was rumoured to have had an affair with a Muslim woman was dragged from her house, stripped naked by a mob, and dragged through the streets as they shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great). Seven Christian houses were then torched.

One winter morning I drove to Mansheya Nasir, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cairo. Nestled in the base of the Mokkattam Hills, this is the slum settlement where the Christian “Zabbaleen” garbage collectors live and work. The Zabbaleen arrived from villages in Upper Egypt in the 1940s and began raising animals and collecting and sorting the rubbish.

Adhum al Sharkawy, born and raised in the community, took me to their spectacular Church of St Simon. Carved inside a cave, it’s the largest church in the Middle East, seating 15,000. As we wandered through the building, he explained how the garbage comes to Garbage City, and is then sorted by men and women. The Zabbaleen prefer to be called “Recyclers” and are estimated at anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000. They manage about 40 per cent of Cairo’s rubbish, an estimated 15,000 tons a day. “Some of them have become recycling entrepreneurs,” Adhum says.

But he is desperate to get out of a society where he feels he is always labelled as a second-class citizen. He has had relatives who were murdered. He remembers being called “Roman” as he walked to school, having things thrown at him and always being made to feel different. As we walk through the streets of Garbage City, he talks about a time when the government had all the pigs (who aid in the trash collection) killed in 2009 under the guise of swine flu. Nearly 300,000 pigs were slaughtered. Adhum says the real reason was not the fear of disease, but a conspiracy to undermine their business. “It was just a way of taking away the Christians’ livelihood,” he said darkly.

I ask him what it means to be a Christian. “It is the most important part of who I am,” he answers quickly. But he also wants to leave Egypt. He wants a new life, one where he says he feels the same as everyone else. “I don’t want my children to grow up like this.”

“You can’t have democracy without social equality,” adds Big Pharoah, a Christian blogger who rose to fame during the 2011 Tahrir Square uprisings. Even though he himself lives a pretty good life — a wealthy family, a good job — he is quick to point out that Christians do not get social equality in Egyptian society.

I drove on the road to Alexandria deep into the desert until I reached the Wadi el Natrun, where there are four ancient monasteries. The monk who showed us through the ancient walls and lush gardens of the Paromeos Monastery said his predecessors were used to Christian persecution and had warded off attacks from bandits, Berbers and Bedouins. They barricaded themselves inside, drew up the ladders and were besieged for months on end, living on bread and water. “They stayed inside and prayed,” the monk, who asked not to be named, told me.

So it is with Christians in Egypt today, he reminds me. They remain besieged, perhaps even more so under General Sisi than Mubarak. The Christian charity Open Doors lists Egypt as the sixteenth-worst country in the world in terms of persecution, behind even North Korea.

The monk is not worried. “We’ve gone through worse,” he says. “The more we are persecuted, the more we pray.”

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