The New York Post, 12/22/2010
t's shaping up to be a bad Christmas for one of the oldest Christian sects in the Middle East, where Christianity was born -- and an even bleaker future for Egyptian Copts.
Police fired live ammunition last month at Copts protesting the government-halted construction of a house of worship, the Church of the Virgin Mary and Saint Michael Archangel, supposedly for failure to acquire the proper permits. At least 100 demonstrators were arrested, 60 injured -- and a 19-year-old Christian student died from a gunshot wound. The anger quickly spilled to émigré Coptic communities from Australia to Europe to midtown Manhattan.
The attack on Egypt's Christians go far beyond denial of church permits, said Magda Gendy, who participated in the peaceful East Side demonstration along with thousands of other Egyptian-American Copts last week. Increasingly, Christian girls aged 12 to 16 are being kidnapped, forced to marry Muslim men and convert to the religion of their "husbands," she told me.
But while Copts -- 10 percent of Egypt's mostly Muslim population of 80 million -- have always suffered discrimination, this incident presents a new and dangerous turn.
"Before, it used to be just the Muslims" who attacked their Christian neighbors, Gendy said. "Now it's the government." Copts blame the district's governor, Sayyed Abdel Aziz, a former army general.
Like most officials in the government of the aging President Hosni Mubarak, Aziz simply denies permits for any Christian symbol of worship -- from churches to cemeteries.
Aziz "wanted to burn the church," said Sam, who only gave his first name for fear of retaliation against his family back in Cairo.
The only political opposition allowed in today's Egypt is that centered on a mosque. By turning a blind eye to attacks on Christians -- or worse, joining them -- the government helps to deflect public anger caused by the fast-deteriorating economy.
As things get worse, the memory of days when Copts held high government positions fast fades. "Hillary Clinton needs to speak out more often," one demonstrator after another told me last week.
Yes, a State Department report last month noted that Egypt's "government failed to prosecute perpetrators of violence against Coptic Christians in a number of cases," and concluded that the country's Christians "face personal and collective discrimination." But Mubarak's government shrugged off the report, saying that it would only listen to "internationally recognized" authorities, such as the United Nations.
Clinton certainly can do a lot of good this holiday season by highlighting the plight of Christian minorities in Egypt and the rest of the Arab Middle East.
Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups (Shiite as well as Sunni) increasingly attack Christians from Iraq to the Palestinian territories. In Lebanon, the once influential Maronite community is split up and quickly losing political power as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah is taking over. Why?
According to a major Vatican report issued last spring, bishops from across the Middle East blamed the decline of Christianity in the region on political "instability" -- as in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Speaking in Cyprus, Pope Benedict XVI made an appeal for "international efforts" to resolve the region's conflicts, "especially in the Holy Land."
Praying for Palestinian-Israeli peace may be appropriate, but the pope surely knows that Israel (despite increasing harassment by Muslims in the country's Arab towns) is practically the only place in the region where a Christian minority thrives.
The report elsewhere fingers "political Islam," which -- along with those who let it flourish, such as Egyptian government officials -- tolerates no other religious or secular beliefs.
In fact, one of the top regional emissaries cited in the Vatican report, Turkey's top bishop, Luigi Padovese, was assassinated as the report was issued in June. According to the Turkish press, the man who stabbed him to death yelled "Allahu Akbar!"