Among all the minorities in the Muslim Middle East, Christians have perhaps had the roughest decade. In Iraq, they became easy targets after 2003 in the Sunni-Shiite conflict. In Syria, since the Arab Spring began in 2011, they have been caught in the middle of a civil war driven in part by friction between Islamic groups. But in Egypt, the Copts and other Christians, who number in the millions, have lately suffered particular violence at the hands of angry Muslim militants.
The anger erupted in July after the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Islamists held the Coptic Christians, who are about 10 percent of the population, partly responsible. Dozens of churches have been looted or burned with many Copts killed. Even a Christian orphanage was destroyed. Hundreds of Copts have since fled Egypt.
Those who stayed have asked for better police protection and more foreign attention to their plight. They deserve both. But in the midst of this violence and fear, Christians of different faiths have also responded in ways that give hope to all Egyptians that their country can form an inclusive and pluralistic democracy based on equality.
Rather than meet violence with violence, Coptic Christians have found solace and hope in prayer, restraint, and in forgiving those who attacked them.
“According to our faith, we should expect hardships on account of our being Christian. We should accept this calmly; we should forgive those who wrong us and pray for them,” said Anba Macarius, the Coptic bishop of Minya, to the Watani Weekly Newspaper. His province has been the scene of the most recent and some of the worst violence.
When Minya’s orphanage was destroyed, the Christians running it left behind a message on the wall: “You meant to hurt us, but we forgive you. God is love. Everything works out for good.”
Such behavior has not gone unnoticed by the majority moderate Muslims in Egypt. Many have often protected their Christian neighbors and fed, sheltered, or clothed them during times of persecution. These friendly Muslims have often surrounded a church under attack.
Such mutual respect between different faiths can be the basis for ensuring freedom in Egypt as it tries once again to write a constitution and hold elections in hopes of fulfilling the dreams of the 2011 protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that ousted Hosni Mubarak.
At the same time, the violent attacks against Christians must not go unpunished. “Our peace and forgiveness do not mean that the crimes are all right, or that the criminals should not be brought to justice,” said Bishop Macarius. Egypt’s security forces must step up their protection of the Christian community whose roots go back to AD 42.
“Not by bloodshed will the country prosper, and not by the lack of security,” said Anba Raphael, secretary of the Coptic church’s synod, to Al-Ahram Weekly. “A message to Copts: Stick to our faith, our ethics and our love, and we will not compromise on the ethics of the Gospel.”