Since December 2010, when protests erupted in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, a wave of revolutions has swept across the Middle East. These revolutions, known collectively as the Arab Spring, precipitated the overthrow of several authoritarian leaders, including Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.
As these Middle Eastern countries attempt to build democratic governments, however, violence against religious minorities, most notably the Coptic Christian community, continues to escalate.
On April 8, a panel at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus discussed the predicament of Christians in the Middle East following the Arab Spring.
Moderated by George Demacopoulos, Ph.D., associate professor of historical theology and co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Program, the panel included:
- John Entelis, Ph.D., professor of political science and director of the Middle East Studies Program;
- Michael Wahid Hanna, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that addresses a range of public policy issues;
- Mark Salah Morgan, president of the Coptic Lawyers Association; and
- Yuri J. Pacheco, a senior at Fordham College at Rose Hill double-majoring in Middle Eastern studies and theology, with minors in international affairs and Orthodox Christian studies.
Pacheco, whose thesis “My Cross is Your Cross: The Effect of the Coptic Lobby on U.S. Foreign Policy in the Wake of the Arab Spring” deals with the politics of the Coptic diaspora, said that Egypt’s 10 million Coptic Christians, or Copts, represent the country’s largest minority group, composing 10 percent of the Egyptian population.
In the last half-century, Copts have emigrated from Egypt in scores, not to seek other opportunities, but rather to flee religious persecution.
“Serious widespread and longstanding human rights violations continue to occur against the Coptic community in Egypt,” Morgan said. “The Egyptian government fails to take necessary steps to halt discrimination.”
He cited numerous episodes of violence against Copts, including an April 7 attack at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. The attack, which killed one person, took place during a funeral service for four Copts who had been killed in an act of religious violence the day before.
“These incidents are part of a pattern of violence that is pervasive upon Egypt’s ancient Christian minority, which have taken place since the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood has taken power,” Morgan said. “It has become apparent that this sectarian violence is the manifestation of religious extremism, which receives no consequences, because the Egyptian government fails to prosecute those who are responsible.”
Entelis argued that sectarian violence in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East is not strictly religious in nature. It is primarily political, he said, as Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood gain power in the region.
“Are these movements inherently anti-Christian? I would argue no. They’re basically trying to empower those who have been left powerless for a very long time,” Entelis said. “What we’ve been witnessing in Egypt is much more a fight over political, economic, and social resources than it is about a clash of civilizations.”
Exacerbating the situation is the Western world’s waning commitment to Christianity, he said. This absence of commitment on a local level—as evidenced by a widespread decrease in church attendance and religious vocations—means that these Christians are less likely to intervene on behalf of other Christians.
“[Middle Eastern] Christians have been caught in the middle, and those who have historically supported them in the world have lost interest,” he said. If this interest is not revived and directed toward protecting victims of religious extremism, then Christian communities may virtually disappear from the Arab world.
Hanna disagreed, and warned against too much “tolerance and protection” at the expense of equality and inclusion.
“We do a disservice if we assume these movements have no real ideological roots—because they do. We should take the professed beliefs [of these movements]seriously, because one of those beliefs is religious supremacism,” he said.
The event was sponsored by the Young Members Committee of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.