MIDDLE EAST – Middle Eastern Christians: cautiously hopeful in the face of adversity

Mercatornet | William Huang | May 27, 2020

After months of restrictions and a war of words between bishops, pastors and governments, church services have finally returned to parts of the Western world, especially Italy and the United States, albeit with social distancing restrictions and hygiene practices firmly in place. Whilst some believers in parts of the West have lamented the closure of their churches during the pandemic as “persecution”, many of their brethren in the Middle East have lived for years under far worse persecution.

This past weekend, Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the last havens for Christians in the Middle East, have also seen their services restored. Their continued existence in Iraq is a miracle and this pandemic makes their lives even more perilous, but after years of horrible persecution, dare we say that hope is returning to Christians in the Middle East?

In this article, we will look at two nations, Egypt and Iraq, where in the face of extreme adversity, things might finally be looking up for the beleaguered Christians.

Egypt

Coptic Christians in Egypt are now the single largest group of Christians remaining in the cradle of Christianity. Estimates of their population have always varied. More than a decade ago, the previous head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda, estimated his flock at around 15 percent of the Egyptian population, which would mean at least 12 million members. Official Egyptian statistics make it half that number: 5.13 million believers or 5.7 percent of the country’s population with. Despite the disagreement, one thing is clear: Coptic Egyptians far outnumber any other Middle Eastern Christian groups.

Copts have always been part of the Egyptian national mosaic and they believe they are the descendants of the original Pharaonic Egyptians. Their Coptic language is also a living preserve of the ancient Egyptians, though Arabic is now their official liturgical language. Copts have withstood 1400 years of Islamic rule since the seventh century Arab conquest of Egypt, and despite all odds, have thrived culturally and economically. Since British colonial rule in the 19th century, many have become economically privileged and are proud to produce some of Egypt’s best sons, including former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali. For many centuries, Copts maintained a majority in several regions of Upper Egypt and they continue to form a sizeable minority in these regions today.

However, since the ascendancy of Islamism in Egypt and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, coupled with Salafism in the second half of the twentieth century, Copts have been subject to many terrorist attacks and sectarian conflicts throughout Egypt. They have also been denied the right to build or receive permits for their churches for decades, causing their services to overflow and worshippers become subject to harassment. Violence against Copts is frequent in their Upper Egypt homelands, with Muslim villagers often incited to attack Copts and kidnap young Coptic women for conversion. It is estimated that every year between 10,000 and 20,000 Coptic women convert to Islam, mostly due to marriages but also forced conversion.

The sufferings of these Christians captured world attention when Isis militants kidnapped and beheaded 21 Coptic villagers who were working in Libya in 2015. The beheading videos went viral, causing great trauma to their fellow Copts and outrage in Egypt. But this was merely the continuation of a trend: in 2011, Coptic churches in Alexandria were attacked on New Years’ Day, whilst two years after the Libya beheadings the very seat of the Coptic papacy, St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo was bombed. Copts also suffered from violence nationwide after the Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood was toppled in a revolution-coup. The Egyptian Army cracked down on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who took out their anger on Copts.

Things have improved significantly under the government of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. El-Sisi has attended Christmas services at St Mark’s Cathedral for several years now, making him the first Egyptian president to do so in decades. After the beheadings of Copts in Libya, he ordered the Egyptian Air Force to bomb the militants’ hideouts in the Libyan desert. St Mark’s Cathedral was repaired under his orders following the 2017 bombings. The martyrs of Libya also got some closure too: a martyrs’ church was built in their honour under El-Sisi’s orders, and today four-meter high statues of every one of them grace the church, which is in their home village in Minya, Upper Egypt.

El-Sisi’s rule has also seen the relaxation of the hated restrictions on church building and more church permits issued to them. Some 1638 churches out of 5500 applications have been legalized and issued permits, which is far greater than the numbers issued during previous regimes. This month, 70 churches were legalized despite Egypt battling the pandemic at the same time. Rigorous barriers to church legalization and buildings dating back to the Ottoman era are finally abolished.

Perhaps the biggest sign of El-Sisi’s commitment to the Coptic minority has been the construction of the Cathedral of the Nativity in the new administrative capital east of Cairo. The largest church anywhere in the Middle East and the first major church to be built in Egypt in decades, the cathedral was completed in January 2019 and its first service was attended by El-Sisi himself. It has since been visited by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.

Of course, huge challenges still remain in Egypt. Thousands of Coptic churches remain “unlicensed” and Copts are still vastly underrepresented in the country’s armed and security forces as well as government personnel. Discrimination in the workplace remains widespread. Egypt is also combatting a major Islamist insurgency in Northern Sinai, where Islamists have vowed to eradicate Christians.

Copts, however, have healthy birth rates. Middle Eastern Christians have long had lower fertility rates than their Muslim counterparts, and some estimate that Coptic fertility is 20-30 percent lower than that Egyptian Muslims, especially in urban areas. But Egypt has one of the highest fertility rates in North Africa, with a TFR of 3, and about half of all Copts are from traditional homelands in Upper Egypt which have some of the highest rates in the country. In these areas Copts make up 20-45 percent of the local population, boosted by TFRs above 4 in a couple of centres. This means that the absolute numbers of Copts will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. Coptic numbers in Cairo are also replenished by migrants from Upper Egypt, guaranteeing their increased presence in the city.

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