A woman holds her hands together during an early morning prayer service at the Church of the Virgin Mary.
Credit: Laura El-Tantawy/VII mentor program

Coptic Christians across Egypt celebrated Orthodox Christmas on Tuesday, with security precautions stepped up due to concern that Islamists would attack worshippers. Though the post-Mubarak era has been particularly fearsome for Copts, a constitutional referendum scheduled later this month could bring about greater protections for religious minorities in Egypt. This is the third in a series of posts about dwindling Christian communities in the Middle East, originally published in March 2013.

CAIRO — Down the narrow warrens of the gritty neighborhood of Shoubra, past the bakeries and butcher shops adorned with pictures of the new Coptic pope and ancient martyrs and saints, the Church of the Virgin Mary opened its doors for Mass.

A congregation of mostly working class Cairenes filed into the pews at 7 a.m. on a recent Sunday morning. The women with their cross necklaces and small linen veils took seats on the right. The men, with their small dark blue tattoos of the Coptic cross on their wrists just at the edge of their shirt cuff, slid into the left side.

A wan sun shone through stained glass and reflected on the iconography paintings that tell the 2,000-year history of the Coptic Church. One pictured the Holy Family traveling by donkey along the Nile. A series of icons featured the evangelist St. Mark and the martyrs St. Mina and St. George slaying serpents, the biblical symbol of courage against evil. The priests, dressed in the traditional white Coptic robes, emerged from the sacristy amid a billowing gray cloud of incense. Prayers were chanted for the martyrs of a 4th century attack by Berbers from North Africa on the ancient monastery of Wadi Natrun. Forty-nine were killed then and their names were read.

The Coptic Church has always revered its martyrs. The history starts with the revered St. Mark the Evangelist who “received the crown of martyrdom” in Alexandria in 68 A.D. after being hunted down by a mob of Roman pagans on Easter. The Coptic calendar itself begins with the “year of martyrdom” in 303 A.D. when decades of Roman brutality to Copts reached a deadly crescendo. Whether it was North African brigands ransacking their monasteries in the 7th and 8th centuries or Islamic fundamentalists attacking churches in the 1990s and right up until 18 months ago when the Egyptian army killed 29 Copts who dared to protest over a church burning, fear is part of what it is to be an Egyptian Copt.

But many young Copts were proud to take part in the early stages of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and around Egypt that toppled the brutal regime of Hosni Mubarak.Then, within months of the popular uprising and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Copts realized that they were as vulnerable as ever in a predominantly Muslim country where Islamic fundamentalist movements were on the rise. The newly elected Coptic Pope Tawadros II has spoken out forcefully against the Islamists.

And since then there have been church burnings and a spate of murders. The number of attacks is not as high as it was in the mid-1990s when Egyptian Islamic fundamentalists targeted Christians, but Coptic leaders say a palpable wave of fear is now more intense than anyone can seem to remember.

And the Mass on this Sunday carried a passage in the gospel that has given Copts in particular solace and courage from one century to the next.

“Be not afraid. That was the message today,” said Mina Tamer, the Coptic priest who is referred to here in Arabic as “Abouna Mina,” of Father Mina.

Abouna Mina added, “Thank God the Lord confided to us that we should not be afraid. Everyday people come to us with complaints. It is not easy. People want to leave to escape. They are fearful. But we tell them what the Lord has said, ‘Be not afraid.’”

“We understand that they want to emigrate, but we tell them our life is here. Our faith is here,” said Abouna Mina, who stroked a long gray beard as he talked and looked up over reading glasses in a small office just after the Sunday service where he was recording birth certificates, marriage licenses and death certificates.

“We have a lot more of these,” he said, pointing to the column recording deaths and then moving his finger to the ledger for births, adding, “and a lot less of these.”

His office overlooked a small courtyard where young people gathered in loosely tied knots and families huddled together in circles. They were lingering, buying the sweet rolls for sale and reviewing religious books laid out at another table. The courtyard of the church is set back behind a wrought-iron gate, protected and separated form the bustling streets of this poor corner of Cairo where Muslims have often lived peacefully with Christians, but where religious tension have also periodically flared into violence.

Through centuries, Copts, who make up between five and ten percent of Egypt’s population of 82 million, have learned how — and when — to profess their faith and when to hide it. For women that sometimes means slipping the cross necklace discreetly inside their shirts and for men it means pulling their cuffs down over the cross tattoos. Under Hosni Mubarak and now under the Muslim Brotherhood leader-turned-President Mohamed Morsi, human rights activists say, they have often been treated as second-class citizens.

Mina Gergis Khalil, 20, who was standing in the courtyard after mass with a group of friends, said, “We feel the discrimination. And there is never justice when this happens, which makes it even worse.”

He estimated that of the 50 young, Coptic men who graduated with him from high school two years ago, 30 to 40 percent have left the country and are trying to emigrate by overstaying tourist visas while visiting family in the United States, Canada, Australia and throughout Latin America.

He began to count on two hands his cousins and siblings who had left just in the last year.

“What you do is take a tourist visa anywhere and then apply for asylum. I am hoping to do this. If I can do it, I will,” he said.

It is hard to get a precise number on the size of the dwindling Coptic Church and even harder to get a handle on the extent of the exodus. The government has long claimed approximately 9 percent of the country is Christian. But there is no reliable census data and so it is impossible to tell. Some critics believe the failure to implement a census is intentional as it would reveal far fewer Christians remain in Egypt. Experts say there may be 10 percent of all Copts — in Egypt and in the diaspora — who are Christian but a very large percentage of that Coptic community lives all over the world.

The percentage of Copts as a whole in Egypt is probably no more than 4 percent, according to some demographers who have studied the numbers. Some church officials will agree to this figure off the record, but none will say it on the record as they fear that such a low number weakens the standing of the church.

There are anecdotal signs of a diminishing population, such as the recording of more funerals than births in a local parish. Or a family’s story of losing its young sons and daughters as they emigrate to America and elsewhere. And there are interesting new signs, such as long lines for visas at the Embassy of the Republic of Georgia.

Two Facebook pages have been established for Copts seeking to emigrate to Georgia, which is offering citizenship in exchange for investment in the country. Because the former Soviet country is an Eastern Orthodox country, the Copts feel at home there and so the invitation is open. How many have gone is uncertain, but some church officials say they believe the number is in the thousands.

The fear that prompts Christians to flee emanates from stories — some real and some imagined — of persecution. One recent story is almost medieval in its barbarity. The story is of a torture chamber in a mosque in Moqattam, a village on the outskirts of Cairo where reportedly local Copts who dared to protest against President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were rounded up and taken and savagely beaten.

The story has been reported by Christian news services last week and Fox News picked up on their reports. But the story has not been independently confirmed. Another big story is of a small town called Wasta, about 60 miles south of Cairo, where there has been a series of attacks on Christians and a boycott of Coptic shops after some members of the Muslim community began making inflammatory claims that Christians were carrying out a forced conversion of a Muslim girl, who has gone missing.

Amnesty International has documented the tensions in Wasta. Hassiba Hadj Sahraou, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, said, “Coptic Christians across Egypt face discrimination in law and practice and have been victims of regular sectarian attacks while authorities systematically look the other way.”

Human rights organizations including Amnesty International have, over time, documented what they say is a pattern of discrimination against Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Under Hosni Mubarak, at least 15 major attacks on Copts were documented and the situation didn’t improve under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which ruled the country between the downfall of Hosni Mubarak and the election of President Morsi.

This year Coptic Christian activists reported at least four attacks on churches or affiliated buildings in addition to Wasta, taking place in the governorates of Aswan, Beni Suef, Cairo and Fayoum.

A sore point for decades and even centuries has been discriminatory practices that prevent Copts from building or restoring their houses of worship. This was the case under Mubarak and the Supreme Council of Allied Forces, which was ruling Egypt before the election of Morsi.

“It is high time for the authorities to take sectarian violence and threats seriously. The Egyptian authorities are responsible for ensuring the protection of people, their homes and livelihoods. Time and time again, President Morsi claimed to be President of all Egyptians. Now, he needs to take action to ensure that sectarian violence is prevented and when it occurs it is properly investigated, and those responsible face justice,” said Amnesty’s Sahraoui.

“By not prosecuting those responsible for sectarian violence, the Egyptian authorities are signaling Coptic Christians can be attacked with impunity,” he added.

Egypt is a state party to a number of treaties which prohibit any forms of discrimination based on the grounds of religion including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Heba Morayef, the director of Human Rights Watch in Egypt, said, “Among Coptic Christians, there has often been a sense of being minority under attack. But that sense has been heightened.”

She said that the attack in the fall of 2011 that killed 29 Coptic protesters in front of the government’s radio and television center, an area known as ‘Maspero,’ was particularly searing and intimidating.

“Maspero completely traumatized the Coptic community … There was a sense that they were under attack combined with feeling they were not protected by the law has created a climate of fear.”

A Western diplomat in Cairo interviewed by GlobalPost said, “The fear is very real and very palpable, worse than I have ever seen it. But it is a fear about what is coming rather than what is actually going on or might happen.”

The US international religious freedom report actually showed a decline in incidents in 2012 compared to some of the worst years in the mid 1990s, he said, but there was a documented increase in intolerance in places like Upper Egypt where in the aftermath of toppling Mubarak Islamists feel emboldened to assert their point of view and their authority.

Dr. Naguib Gibraiel, head of the Egyptian Human Rights Organization, said that the climate of fear has driven 100,000 Copts to emigrate from Egypt in the last year. He said 40 percent went to the US, 15 percent to Canada, 10 percent to Australia and the rest to Europe. When asked how he arrived at these precise figures, he explained that he went parish to parish counting but that he did not have solid data to back up his estimates. Instead, he offered the anecdotal evidence of his own family, saying of his four sons, only one remained in Egypt. One is in Canada, one in Los Angeles, and one in Australia. The one who stayed in Egypt is an engineer but hoping to emigrate to the US later this year.

“Our family is, sadly, very typical. We are losing our Coptic culture in Egypt,” he said.

And Gibraiel said that the diminishing influence was evident in politics as well. He said that of the country’s 508 parliamentarians, only two Copts were elected and six were appointed. Of the country’s 27 governors, none are Copts. Of the 34 ministers in the government, one is a Copt. No heads of government-run newspapers are Copts. They are effectively shut out from power, he says.

He added, “The Copts here fear for the lives, their property, their wives and their daughters. They see their churches burned, their daughters kidnapped. And of course those with money are quick to leave.”

Read parts one, two, and four of this series, about dwindling Christian communities in the Middle East.

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