On Monday, December 12, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi walked alongside the Coptic Pope Tawadros (Theodore) II at the funeral procession for victims of the bombing that had killed at least twenty-five people at the chapel of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo the day before. At the funeral, Sisi announced that the government had identified the suicide bomber, a twenty-two-year-old named Mahmoud Shafik Mostafa, and arrested four other people—three men and one woman—in connection with the attack. He also had strong words of condemnation: “Those who commit acts such as this do not belong to Egypt at all, even if they are on its land.”
This series of events was strangely similar to what had taken place almost six years ago in another Egyptian city. In the early morning of January 1, 2011, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the midst of a large crowd of worshippers who were leaving al-Qiddissin Church in Alexandria. Twenty-three people died. Soon thereafter, President Hosni Mubarak appeared on state television to condemn the attack: “The blood of their martyrs in Alexandria mixed to tell us all that all Egypt is the target and that blind terrorism does not differentiate between a Copt and a Muslim.”
Much has changed in Egypt since 2011. Mubarak is no longer in office. He was ousted by a peaceful popular uprising a little over a month after the Alexandria attack. Mohamed Morsi—the Muslim Brotherhood–backed candidate who became the first democratically elected president of Egypt in 2012—has come and gone. He was ousted by a coup d’état led by Sisi in 2013. Sisi is still in power, having won an “election” (with 97 percent of the vote), and he has aggressively opposed his rivals, notably the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet with all of these developments, one thing has not changed: Attacks against Christians have continued.
In April 2013, a funeral procession of Christians (who were mourning four deaths from an earlier clash) was attacked outside of St. Mark’s Cathedral, the very site of the December 2016 bombing. In July 2016, a mob in a village near Minya in the south of Egypt attacked a Christian neighborhood and burned houses after rumors spread that Christians planned to turn a kindergarten into a church. This attack followed a similar one, over a similar rumor, in a second southern village the week before. In May 2016, a mob stripped an elderly Christian woman naked and paraded her through the streets of a village near Minya after rumors spread that her son had a relationship with a Muslim woman. Numerous cases have been reported in recent years of Christian girls’ being abducted and forced to marry their Muslim captors and convert to Islam. Many more examples could be cited, but the point should be clear: Attacks against Christians are a regular occurrence in Egypt. Only the most dramatic attacks—such as the recent bombing—make news in the West.
If these attacks have continued despite changes in ruler and regime, then they must be more than reactions to particular political circumstances. They should be understood as the most violent manifestations of deeply held views among some segments of the Muslim community about the place of Christians in an Islamic society. According to these views, Christians might be tolerated, they might practice their religion (unless they are converts from Islam), but they are nevertheless to be submissive to the Islamic order of things. Christians may not preach their religion to Muslims or insult Islam in any way. Muslims may not convert to Christianity (apostasy is punishable by death). Muslim men may marry Christian women, but Christian men may not marry Muslim women (lest a Christian man be in a position of authority over his Muslim wife and raise their children as Christians). Christians—according to an ancient code known as the “Conditions of Umar”—have no right to build new churches, or even to rebuild old churches.
Not all of these restrictions are found in the Qurʾān or even in the Islamic traditions (hadith) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. (The “Conditions of Umar” are attributed to an early Muslim ruler.) Most of these restrictions have been developed by Islamic jurisprudence through the centuries. Nevertheless, they are often appealed to by religious leaders whose vision for the world entails the idea of Islam’s dominance: “Let Islam triumph!” (al-nasr l-il-Islam!), as the slogan goes.
The Under Caesar’s Sword project at Notre Dame, dedicated to documenting the response of Christians to persecution, has shown that anti-Christian bigotry is not only an Egyptian problem. Christians in Pakistan, for example, have suffered repeatedly from vigilante violence connected to Pakistan’s system of blasphemy laws. The extent to which these laws have popular backing was evident earlier this year when tens of thousands of Pakistanis attended the funeral of a man, Mumtaz Qadri, who had been executed for the murder of a Muslim critic of those laws. The abduction of Christian (and Hindu) girls, and their forced conversion to Islam, is widespread in Pakistan. Once these girls are converted to Islam there is no return to their Christian religion, or possibility of escaping from their marriages and marrying a Christian man. Major attacks against Christians—such as that in September, when fourteen Christians were killed by a mob—have also taken place in Pakistan.
None of this means, however, that Islam is necessarily anti-Christian, or that such attacks will always take place in Islamic societies. It is telling, for example, that almost no such attacks have taken place in majority Shi'ite Iran against the Christian minority there. What, then, distinguishes Egypt and Pakistan from Iran?
The most obvious answer is Saudi Arabia. The influence of Saudi Arabia extends throughout the Sunni Islamic world, through the building of mosques, the training of imams, and the broadcasting of religious television programs. That influence is felt in a special way, however, in countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, which send hundreds of thousands of workers to Saudi Arabia (a 2010 study estimated that 900,000 workers from each country reside in Saudi Arabia). Some of these workers return home having embraced the Saudi, Wahhabi vision of Islam, according to which non-Muslims have few rights. Saudi Arabia is a country that has no churches, forbids Bibles, and prosecutes Christians for gathering together in peaceful prayer. It is a country that uses morality police to compel Muslims and non-Muslims alike to stop working during Islamic prayer times and to abide by Islamic codes of dress.
It is thus no surprise that, through the influence of Saudi Arabia, countries such as Egypt and Pakistan are increasingly hostile to their Christian minorities. The surprise is that the United States has demonstrated so little concern about this influence. In January 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the United States has “as strong a friendship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as we have ever had.” If the United States is serious about the rights of religious minorities in the Islamic world, it might begin by asking its friend to rethink its disregard for such rights. As long as Saudi Arabia remains in its Wahhabi ways, Christians in Egypt will continue to suffer, and the words of their president will be of little comfort.
Gabriel Said Reynolds is a professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame.
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