Time for a Tipping Point on Anti-Christian Persecution After Cairo Cathedral Bombing

Coffins are carried out of the church after the funeral service for victims of a Sunday cathedral bombing, at the Virgin Mary Church, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Coffins are carried out of the church after the funeral service for victims of a Sunday cathedral bombing, at the Virgin Mary Church, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

In the eyes of those truly paying attention, anti-Christian persecution is one of the transcendent human rights challenges of our time, and a priority that requires something greater than simply exhorting national governments such as Egypt to step up their own efforts.

Almost exactly 18 months ago, my colleague Inés San Martín and I were in a small medical clinic sponsored by the Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo, Egypt, which was the site of a massive bombing attack on Sunday, to speak with Doctor Wadie Ramses.

Ramses, in his mid-60s, had been kidnapped and held for ransom for a terrifying 92 days by Muslim militants in 2014, kept in a tent in the desert, beaten, whipped, humiliated, and constantly pressured to embrace Islam, until his family finally coughed up a payment to get him back.

After listening to his story, we asked Ramses for a forecast for the future of Christians in Egypt. He spat back two bitter words: “Very bad.”

Police won’t apprehend those who hurt Christians, he said, judges won’t prosecute their attackers, schools won’t educate children in tolerance, and the government considers Christians second-class citizens.

Ramses also ventured the view that promises of greater protection from the country’s new government under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi were more about political expedience than genuine conviction.

I’m sure it’s little consolation to Ramses that his reply now seems grimly prescient, in light of the December 11 bombing at St. Mark’s Cathedral that left 25 Christians dead and another 49 injured.

While no specific group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, the motives don’t seem hard to intuit: The blast was timed to coincide with the celebration of the Coptic Mass, and it came on the eve of a national holiday marking the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is the dominant Christian tradition in Egypt, representing around ten percent of the national population and forming the most sizeable Christian community in the Middle East.

They’re also some of the most determined Christians on the face of the earth – famously, Copts get a small black tattoo of a cross on their wrist in childhood, usually after baptism, to serve as a lifelong reminder of their identity in this vast Muslim nation.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the symbolic impact of attacking the Copts at St. Mark’s, the seat of the Church and its leader, Pope Tawadros II. For Catholics, it would be a bit akin to a bomb going off at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Pope Francis phoned Tawadros on Monday, telling him the two churches are “united in the blood of our martyrs,” and vowing to pray for the Copts during Monday’s feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Many observers have speculated that perhaps the attack will mark a tipping point in the relationship between the Copts and al-Sisi, causing Christians to rethink what has been fairly compact support for the former army general who came to power by dislodging the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.

Recently, 82 leading Coptic intellectuals signed a letter protesting the Church’s support for al-Sisi and insisting that alleged improvements in conditions for Christians are more cosmetic than real, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recently found that Egypt has taken “one step forward and two steps back.”

Phrasing things in terms of the domestic political fallout in Egypt, however, in many ways seems too small a frame for the reality of the situation.

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John L. Allen Jr.

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