Perhaps the situation in Egypt will resolve itself peacefully. Or perhaps we’ll see a long stretch of public unrest before the nation finally stumbles its way into a new form of stable government.
But there’s one easy prediction to make: Whatever happens, Egypt’s Coptic Christians are going to be hurt, unless the United States makes a major diplomatic effort to help them.
About 10 percent of the Egyptian population (and declining, down more than half over the past century), these people have suffered discrimination under 30 years of rule by the now-embattled President Hosni Mubarak. And they’ve seen that discrimination ratcheted up into open persecution during the current unrest, which began with a car bomb in Alexandria killing 21 at a Coptic church on Jan. 1 and continued through the massacre of 11 Christians in the village of Sharona on Jan. 30.
So why should they expect improvement from a new government? Particularly one in which the radical Muslim Brotherhood is certain to play a major role? The Copts are under the screw, and somehow, every time modern Egyptian history makes a turn, it ends up biting down harder on the nation’s religious minorities.
Of course, Egypt’s Christians are hardly alone in their suffering. Here’s a headline from 2010: “Catholic Bishop Stabbed to Death in Turkey.” And here’s another: “Islamist hard-liners in Indonesia target Christians.” And another: “Iraqi Christians mourn after church siege kills 58.” The Christmas season saw 48 killed in Muslim attacks in Nigeria. On Christmas Day, Iran opened its campaign against conversions by arresting dozens of evangelicals. Bombs left on the doorsteps of Christian homes in Iraq killed two and injured 14 on Dec. 30.
On and on the list goes. The single most dangerous thing in the world to be, right now, is a Christian in a Muslim country.
It wasn’t always so. Relations among religious groups were never easy, but in the long years after the spread of Islam in the 8th century, large pockets of Christians — Copts and Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Syriac — managed to survive.
The 20th century was less kind. The genocide of a million Armenian Christians by the Turks from 1895 through 1918 signaled the beginning of an era in which Muslim-majority nations would prove increasingly incapable of tolerating non-Muslim minorities.
The 21st century looks much the same. For a decade now, Western nations have done little to help. Up to 1.4 million of Iraq’s Christians have fled since the war began in 2003, and without some kind of aid, there will be no native Christian population — none, not a single practicing Christian community — left in the Islamic countries of the Middle East by 2050.
Not that the news is all bad. The voting in Sudan last month overwhelmingly favored secession by the oppressed populations in the oil-rich south. Assuming all goes as planned, the Christian-majority nation of Southern Sudan will be created this July.
More African than Arab, Southern Sudan might not provide much assistance to minorities in the Middle East. But its existence teaches the lesson that commitment from the United States actually works. In the 1980s and 1990s, a broad political coalition forced the Bush and Clinton administrations to treat Sudan as a rogue state for its oppression of minorities. The 2011 independence of Southern Sudan is a fruit of that effort — proof that, though it might take decades, international pressure can succeed.
Unfortunately, in the years since, American foreign policy has been little concerned with religious persecution. George W. Bush, for example, refused to insist on a non-Islamic constitution for Iraq. And Barack Obama has systematically watered down U.S. diplomacy: Where we once demanded “freedom of religion,” a public liberty, we now speak only of “freedom of worship,” a lesser and private right.
A willful blindness
This American abdication has produced only more oppression — and it’s accelerating at a horrifying rate. Nearly every day since Christmas, Christians have been murderously attacked for the simple fact of being Christians.
Our willful blindness is shameful, and our inactivity is wrong. The United States must preface every diplomatic exchange with an Islamic country by demanding religious liberty and a halt to persecution. And we need to do it now — while there are still a few Christians left to defend in their ancient homelands.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.