INTERVIEW WITH MOUNIR BISHAY: THE CHRISTIAN-MUSLIM FAULT LINES IN EGYPT AND THE MIDDLE EAST
“The Obama administration’s new found love affair with the Muslim Brotherhood is astounding, to say the least. It has to be based on false perceptions and deceitful promises made by an organization that historically has been stained by the blood of innocent Egyptians, including Coptic Christians. Regardless of what the Muslim Brotherhood says, America, to them, will continue to represent an infidel country that must be conquered and converted to Islam.” – Mounir Bishay
By Georgiana Constantin
Christians in Egypt are facing hardships not only in practicing their religion, but also in living normal, peaceful lives. This has unfortunately been the case for centuries.
News abounds with the tragic stories Copts live every day. And it appears that this region is going to keep offering the media sorrowful and terrible accounts to report on, as there doesn’t seem to be any hope of change, while the Obama administration remains virtually silent.
The Middle East has historically been a place of religious turmoil; however, the struggles which Christians are faced with there seem to go against everything the 21st century is trying to accomplish in terms of civil society. And the scale of oppression has only gone up with the advent of the Arab Spring.
Torched churches and businesses, murder, rape, violence, hatred – this is what Christians in Egypt have come to know as normality.
To all of this, many Western nations appear to remain silent and public outrage seems to be directed in other, more “noteworthy” areas.
In an exclusive interview with SFPPR News & Analysis, Mounir Bishay, President of the Christian Copts of California, offers a much needed and insightful perspective on the situation of the Christian Copts in Egypt.
Q- We hear a lot about the plight of Christians in the Middle East today. Do you believe there is a conscious war being waged against Christianity? If so, by whom?
A- Yes, I do. And the war has been going on since the Arab invasion of these countries in the 7th century. Egypt, for example, was invaded by `Amr ibn al-`As in year 641 AD. Since the Muslim conquest, the Coptic Christians of Egypt have been subjected to various forms of persecution. The level of persecution varies in severity depending on the Muslim ruler. At first there was a measure of tolerance. Later, that changed into severe persecution, when Christians were forced to embrace Islam or pay a special tax called “Jizia,” or protection tax. This is in accordance with the Quran: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that which hath been forbidden by Allah, and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, (Christians and Jews) until they pay the jizia with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.” Quran 9:29.
Christians, then, were forced to abide by a humiliating agreement called “the Pact of Omar,” with provisions forbidding the building of monasteries, convents or monks’ cells in Christian cities or in Muslim neighborhoods. And, if any of these fall into ruin, they shall not repair them. These restrictions have eased over time, but they never completely disappeared. Evidence of the enmity of the Islamic invaders towards Christian heritage is their attempt to erase it from existence. The Coptic language was outlawed except in church liturgy, and Coptic history has been completely eliminated from Egyptian memory.
The Coptic language is different from the Aramaic language, although Aramaic was the language that Jesus spoke in his adult life; Coptic was the language he spoke as a child during his visit to Egypt. The Coptic language descended from ancient Egyptian language and was written mostly in Greek alphabet. Today, Coptic language and history are recognized and taught in universities around the world but not in its homeland.
In modern times persecution of Christians assumes another dimension. Now, many of the problems facing Christians do not only come from the State but also from the Muslim co-citizens who are embracing a fanatical fundamentalist view of Islam. Those are often referred to as advocates of political Islam, who are trying to seize power in their respective countries, as a first step towards turning their countries into pure Islamic States, by cleansing them of the presence of native Christian citizens.
Q- Who are the Copts of Egypt?
A- A simple definition is that the “Copts” are the Christians of Egypt. Copts are the original inhabitants of the land of Egypt who trace their roots to ancient Pharos. The word “Copt” is derived from the Greek word “Ai-gypt-os” meaning Egypt. The middle part of the word “gypt,” was later pronounced as “Copt” and used to mean Egyptian. To this day, Christians in Upper Egypt call themselves “Gypt,” as they pronounce it by their local southern accent. After the Islamic invasion of Egypt in 641 AD, some Copts embraced Islam and excluded themselves from using the name and integrated with the Arabs. The word “Copts” continued to be used exclusively by Christians to mean Christians of Egypt. Copts comprise approximately 15 percent of Egypt’s population of 90 million; two million Copts live in countries outside of Egypt.
Q- Would you say the Coptic Christians of Egypt are facing religious persecution?
A- Absolutely. Copts have been subjected to all kinds of discrimination and persecution from their government. In addition, they face increasing attacks on their persons, homes, businesses and churches from their Muslim co-citizens. These attacks are rapidly increasing in an alarming way. A study by the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo put major attacks on Copts during the years 1972-2003 at 240. Recently, attacks on Copts have escalated even more. During the first 10 months after the January 25, 2011 revolution, six major attacks on Copts took place throughout Egypt.
One of the bloodiest days in Coptic history was August 14th, 2013, after the Egyptian government disbursed the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square protest. Muslim mobs subsequently went on a rampage destroying 82 churches across Egypt, including a historic church that goes back to the 5th century. Also, five Christian schools and seven church-related buildings were demolished. Approximately 190 homes, businesses, hotels, and pharmacies belonging to Copts were also destroyed, causing multiple deaths and injuries. Whole Christian villages have been attacked, while inhabitants were forced to flee their homes and resettle elsewhere. Hundreds of underage Coptic girls have been abducted and forced to convert to Islam. Many Christians are being kidnapped and held for huge ransom.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution, but Muslims who want to convert to Christianity are often imprisoned and tortured, while Christians are coerced and receive incentives to convert to Islam. Some Egyptian colleges limit the enrollment quota for Coptic students to 1 or 2 percent. Many high ranking jobs are out of reach to Copts, who are rarely able to be elected to Parliament, while the government appoints a few Copts loyal to them rather than to the Coptic people. Construction of churches is a big problem. They require approval of the regional governor for repairing as little as a small plumbing problem, and approval of the president for building a new church.
Attackers of Copts are usually set free by courts for lack of evidence or given very light sentences, which do not deter others from committing more attacks. The list of attacks is too long to include here, which pushed many Copts to leave their country seeking safe haven someplace else. Since March 2013, nearly 100,000 Copts fled Egypt mostly to come to America.
Q- What role has the Muslim Brotherhood played in the persecution of the Egyptian Copts?
A- The Muslim Brotherhood came to power recently and lasted just a year before they were ousted by public demand. During that year, the Brotherhood divided Egyptians into Muslim and Christian. Their practices often incited Muslims to attack Copts by claiming that the Copts are behind the troubles facing the country. During their rule, President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood treated the Copts as if they didn’t exist. For example, he was absent from the enthronement of the Coptic Pope, and for the first time, the Coptic Cathedral along with the Pope’s residence were attacked by Muslim mobs. During Morsi’s rule many Coptic people faced false accusations of insulting Islam and received harsh sentences. On the other hand, a Salafi Muslim, who tore and burned the Bible in front of thousands and threatened to urinate on it next time, is still free.
In the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood, put Copts on their hit list, when they acted upon a fatwa (religious sanction) from Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as “The Blind Sheikh,” an Egyptian Muslim leader associated with the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, clearly a precursor to the 9/11 attacks. He is currently serving a life sentence in the U.S. At the time, he said it was permissible to rob Coptic jewelers and use the money to finance terrorist attacks to topple the government of Egypt and destroy Coptic churches.
Q- I have read your press releases appealing to the hearts and minds of several U.S. Senators and President Obama. Have you managed to get their attention?
A- We received encouraging messages from some members of the Congress. But, the Obama administration has been mostly silent on the plight of Copts, other than offering lip service from time to time. In statements made by the president and the secretary of state, they claim that they stand for social justice for all Egyptians, including minorities.
Q- You have appealed to the Western media. What has been their response?
A- The secular media in the West generally have very little sympathy for the plight of Christians in the Middle East or that of the Coptic Christians of Egypt. However, the Christian media has been very supportive. We have been invited to appear on Christian programs, including several radio talk shows. We participated in prayer programs over the air on behalf of our people.
Q- As a Coptic leader based in the United States, what do you believe the West can do to help Christians facing persecution in the Middle East?
A- The West can do a lot to help the Coptic people and other Christians in the Middle East. The United States has great leverage over Egypt. It provides Egypt with one and a half billion dollars that goes mostly to buying American military equipment. The U.S. also trains Egyptian army personnel on the use of the equipment. The U.S. is the main broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation. But, instead of using its leverage to promote justice and safety for all Egyptians, including the Christian minority, we have seen just the opposite. The Obama administration decided to cut part of the U.S. aid to Egypt to pressure the Egyptian Government to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, a violent organization that is behind most of Coptic problems. The Obama administration’s new found love affair with the Muslim Brotherhood is astounding, to say the least. It has to be based on false perceptions and deceitful promises made by an organization that historically has been stained by the blood of innocent Egyptians, including Coptic Christians. Regardless of what the Muslim Brotherhood says, America, to them, will continue to represent an infidel country that must be conquered and converted to Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood simply cannot be trusted. Ask us, we lived with them, we know them.
As time passes, the situation of this ancient civilization seems to come with no promise of change. Regardless of religious or political views, it should be quite obvious to all that the Copts of Egypt and Christians throughout the Middle East are faced with struggles which no one should have to face in this or any other century that claims to be a bearer of civilization, progress and modernity. In the end, even as an objective observer with no personal emotional implication, one must ask oneself the inevitable question: “Why is this state of affairs allowed to go on?”
Georgiana Constantin is a law school graduate who has studied European, International and Romanian law. Her thesis on the UN and global governance was completed at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest. She is currently a Masters candidate for International and European Law at the Nicolae Titulescu University in Bucharest. Ms. Constantin, who is based in Romania, is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.