Fear marks Coptic Christians' Christmas

BOSTON — The violence unfolding in Egypt since the New Year’s Eve bombing of a Coptic Christian church that killed 23 people and wounded more than 100 may seem unfathomable and far away.

Islamic militants fueled by a hateful and warped theology of Al Qaeda are targeting a Christian minority in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere, imperiling a living presence of Christianity in the Middle East that stretches back to the very origins of the faith in Bethlehem.

These Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrate Christmas this evening at a midnight service which honors the birth of Jesus on the Orthodox calendar, which pre-dates the Western Christian calendar.

It’s traditionally a night for a quiet church vigil and a big celebration with lots of family and lots of delicious Egyptian recipes for lamb and rolled grape leaves and rice pudding.

But this Christmas is gripped with fear for Copts. They’re demanding police protection at Coptic churches not only in Egypt, but all over the world, including Europe, Australia and right here in the United States, where Egyptians have settled in immigrant communities as part of a steady, but rising, exodus in recent years of hundreds of thousands of Christians from the Middle East.

So while this conflict may seem far away and just one more confusing chapter of Middle East violence, it is closer to home than most people here realize. It’s close to home because it’s an issue that should concern people of all faiths anywhere. It is physically close to home for Westerners because Egyptian Christians have a sizeable presence all over the world in places like Massachusetts, Florida, New York, New Jersey and in Australia, Canada and many other countries.

For my own family, the Egyptian Coptic presence is as close to home as our local pizza shop where the Abrahim family has been making delicious cheese and pepperoni pies for as long as we can remember in our small, country town in Massachusetts. They emigrated from Cairo and are American citizens. They are also neighbors and friends. So when we went to see them Wednesday to wish them a merry Christmas, we were sad to see them so consumed with fear.

“It will be hard to celebrate the joy of Christmas at a time like this,” said Mary Abrahim, 44, who along with her husband owns the Bolton House of Pizza in Bolton, Mass.

In the pizza shop, on one wall hangs a framed Coptic icon of Mother Mary holding the baby Jesus on “The Flight Into Egypt,” which is the Biblical story of the Holy Family fleeing King Herod by traveling along the Nile. There’s also a smaller picture of their beloved Coptic Pope Shenouda, who heads the Coptic church which tradition holds was founded by St. Mark the Evangelist in the 1st Century A.D., taped to the cash register.

Mary Abrahim was juggling incessant phone calls for pizza deliveries, which were mixed in with cell phone calls from Alexandria and Cairo from friends and relatives talking about funeral arrangements for those killed in the attack.

The phones just kept ringing with a surreal mix of the mundane (“A large with peppers and onions? OK … Twenty minutes.”) to the horrifying (Speaking in Arabic: “Oh my God! When is the funeral for them?” Covering the receiver she tells me in English of a whole family of Copts who were visiting Alexandria from Australia who were killed).

Farid Nagashe, 31, who emigrated from Alexandria six years ago and had to leave behind his wife and their daughter, was holding a phone to his ear as he opened the hot ovens and used the long wooden paddle to slide another pizza into its blasting heat. He winced from the heat while speaking in Arabic and then gesturing with despair. His wife and daughter were OK, but he had just learned he lost two cousins.

Mary and Farid were worried about whether their church in Natick, Mass., St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, would have a police detail for the Christmas service as they said the church has received bomb threats. There were reports that numerous Coptic churches in Egypt and around the Middle East were also receiving threats.

The civil unrest in the wake of the attacks is serious in Egypt. The small, but vocal, Christian minority has reacted in anger to what they see as the weak and ineffective response of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government.

These expressions of anger are occurring against a backdrop of mounting discrimination and intimidation against Egypt's Coptic Christians. In the past year alone, hundreds of Christians have been killed or wounded in attacks.

It’s a dramatic spate of violence directed against minority Christians, but it is a tension point that has a history that is at least two decades long and that runs in parallel with the rise of the Islamic militant groups in Egypt that Mubarak has brutally, and some might argue effectively, suppressed.

Since he came to power after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamic militant members of the Egyptian Islamic militant groups, Mubarak has always been about survival. Politically. And literally.

He’s become a master at blaming outsiders for the problems boiling within his own country, critics say. On two occasions when I have had a chance to speak directly with Mubarak in the wake of serious news events, he has both times blamed “foreign fingers.” He used that precise phrase when I interviewed him about the slaughter of more than 50 Western tourists at Luxor in 1997 by Islamic militants. He used the exact same phrase again when I asked about the mounting violence against Christians in Egypt on New Year’s Day in 2000. I was there back then researching a book on the Christians of the Middle East and their vanishing presence in the land where the faith began.

It’s a long story. One hundred years ago, Christians represented as much as 20 percent of the Middle East and, due to economic factors, migration patterns and the conflicts that have torn apart so much of the Middle East, their numbers have dwindled to less than 5 percent.

Coptic Christians in Egypt were a steady 10 percent of the population 20 years ago, or about 4 million people. Today they are still about 4 million Copts, but now they represent less than 5 percent of the population, according to the few demographic studies that have been done.

The presence of Christians is also diminishing in the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. In Iraq the exodus is particularly precipitous, with nearly half the Iraqi Christian population, an estimated 500,000 people, according to some estimates, fleeing the country since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. The siege by Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic militants of a church in Baghdad in October that resulted in 57 deaths has reportedly turned the steady migration to a panicked push outside the U.S. Embassy by the Christians  seeking asylum.

Back in 2000, Egyptian Christians had suffered a spate of church attacks by Islamic militants from the group Gama Islamiya, which was a precursor to one of the Egyptian streams of Islamic fundamentalism that would form the pan-Islamic river of Al Qaeda.

The situation back then was that a sleepy Upper Egypt town called Sohag had seen a local Christian “framed,” as the human rights lawyers working on his behalf put it, for the murder of two other Christians in Sohag. The Christian side of town was convinced that five Muslim men had killed the two Christians in a dispute over cards that had erupted into a violent tangle that suddenly became cast as a religious conflict. Two Christians were found shot dead along the banks of the Nile. The theory was that the Christian man who stood accused — and was later convicted — was being framed by Egypt’s notoriously corrupt judicial system so that Mubarak could avoid taking heat from America about more attacks on the Christian minority.

Back then there was a similar scale of rioting and Egyptian police came in with a brutal response, arresting 1,200 people and allegedly torturing scores of Christian men. I was there then in Upper Egypt and saw the story with my own eyes as well as the bruises and welts on the Christian victims of police brutality. It was all long before Sept. 11, 2001, before the so-called “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam had so much popular currency.

And now here is Mubarak using the same kind of dismissive tone and even the precise phrase of “foreign fingers” again, blaming the bombing of the Coptic Church in Alexandria on foreign fighters from Al Qaeda.

Well, the truth is that the fault of the government in failing to protect the Christian minority in Egypt lies not with “foreign fingers,” but squarely in the hands of Mubarak himself. There’s a long simmering tension there and one that, most human rights workers in Egypt believe, Mubarak has tried to sweep under the rug for too long.

Anthony Shenouda, who is no relation to the Coptic pope but who is an Egyptian-American scholar and an author on this subject, said Mubarak’s refusal to deal with this problem is “very dangerous” and it has caused a friction that he said “will not end any time soon.”

For Mary Abrahim, the pizza shop owner in Massachusetts, the story of what happened in Alexandria is much closer to home: “Our families and all Christians back home live with more fear than ever. … And that fear is here, too,” she said.

“We are afraid because there are so many warnings that Al Qaeda wants to attack Coptic Christians everywhere,” said Abrahim, interrupting the interview every few minutes to juggle still more calls from Egyptian relatives in crisis and more pizza orders from a demanding clientele that didn’t seem aware that it was Christmas Eve for this hard-working family.

“America should know this and America should help protect the Christians of the Middle East,” she said. “The government in Egypt doesn’t care. So why don’t the leaders in Washington say something about this? Why doesn’t America say something?”

Charles M. Sennott, Executive Editor of GlobalPost, is the author of “The Body and The Blood: The Holy Land’s Christians at the Turn of a New Millennium.”