Earlier this month, a young Coptic woman from Shosha, in the Minya province of Egypt, reappeared in her village after a two-month disappearance. But she returned in a different state: Married to a Muslim man and pregnant with his child. Muslim celebrations over her newfound conversion, marriage, and pregnancy devolved into riots, house burnings, and attacks on her Christian family and community. This was no accident: The woman and her new husband were brought back during the celebration of Eid, when tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians are high. In reality, this incident was part of an intentional campaign of persecution against the largest Christian community left in the Middle East.
Local reports suggest this young woman’s case was yet another example in a horrific trend of forced conversions. Though Copts in Minya and other regions face various threats of violence, Coptic women in particular are vulnerable to abduction and forced marriage to Muslim attackers — who subject them to rape, blackmail, and slavery. Such “conversions” create a tragedy for both the victims and the loved ones they are forced to abandon. Families face increased targeting by attackers, and those kidnapped cannot legally convert back to their chosen religion, leaving them isolated from their communities.
These attacks challenge the legitimacy of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s promises to provide increased protection for Copts and other religious minorities. At recent Laylat al-Qadr celebrations in Cairo, the president encouraged Muslims to safeguard Egypt’s legacy of religious pluralism, positing that “strong religion could be weakened by its believers’ behaviors.” He emphasized that well-wishes toward “Christian brothers” do not equate to support for Christianity, and implied that civility toward the minority can favorably represent — even strengthen — Islam.
Unfortunately, Sisi’s rhetoric has failed to translate into change on the ground, and these most recent attacks continue a long pattern of violence against Egypt’s religious minorities. The Muslim Brotherhood and other religiously motivated groups specifically target Christians, whom they blame for political changes that have jeopardized their power in recent years. This violence is particularly pronounced in more remote regions of the country, away from the eyes of the Western media.
Reports of mob violence, abductions, beheadings, stonings, forced conversions, church bombings, and church shutdowns are not uncommon — especially in the rural Minya province, which is home to one of the highest concentrations of Coptic Christians in Egypt. The infamous Alexandria and Palm Sunday church bombings tragically amounted to totals of at least 60 killed and 196 injured. In 2015, reports circulated worldwide of a mass beheading of kidnapped Copts in Libya. Open gunfire on a bus of Copts headed for a monastery saw 28 deaths and 25 injuries on the eve of Ramadan 2017. These headlines are only a few of many documented attacks against Copts — a population with little legal recourse.
Egyptian law actively marginalizes Coptic Christians. Given that Egypt forbids conversion from Islam, enforces blasphemy laws, institutes building regulations that prevent Copts from reconstructing destroyed churches, and often neglects to prevent or even address attacks perpetrated against the minority, there are few avenues for justice. Copts must live in fear and anticipation of harm, knowing their government has left them completely vulnerable.
In fact, rather than intervene to protect minority Copts, local security forces often stand by and allow the violence to occur. In this most recent incident, Islam’s favored status in Egypt meant that only Copts were arrested. Only the Copts have consistently and repeatedly had their places of worship burned, their women kidnapped, and their people hunted down and killed by radical mobs.
At times, this persecution can pervade every aspect of daily life. As Marlo Safi writes for National Review, “Copts face daily discrimination; their churches often face attacks from mobs, or they are not permitted to participate in government or even soccer teams due to their conspicuously Christian names.” In the words of an evangelical Egyptian who spoke to The Guardian in 2018:
You hear the president speaking about Christians with a lot of respect and sympathy. Just a few days ago, he made a beautiful, emotional speech when inaugurating our new cathedral…then you have the local authorities in villages and towns – police, judges, business owners – and it’s evident that many of them are infected with a rejection of Christianity….there is only a minority of violent extremists, but the culture in Egypt cherishes the perception that Christians are infidels.
In light of the weak support for Christians within Egypt, advocacy groups have urged Westerners to pressure President Sisi to make good on his promises. Sara Salama, international human rights lawyer and president of the organization Coptic Voice, explained that Westerners often have more influence over the plight of Copts than Copts do in their own country. Increased awareness really can make a difference, she stressed, especially given the billions of dollars in foreign aid that the U.S. provides to Egypt. Sisi “must be encouraged” to protect the religious rights of all Egyptians, Salama explained.
Christians are already borderline extinct in the Middle East, and Egypt’s 18 million Copts are one of the few bastions of native Christianity left in the region. If Westerners don’t want to see Islamic extremists bring an end to the church’s 1,977-year history, we must “speak out on behalf of the voiceless,” bring international attention to these atrocities, and hold Sisi and his ministers accountable through aid policy or other diplomatic means. In the words of Salama, “It’s time the United States puts its dollars where its values are.”