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The Christian minority in Egypt pays a heavy price as the police disperse two sit-ins for the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. More than 40 churches were torched; Bible society shops were set on fire; houses and businesses owned by Christians were burnt on Aug. 14. Here is an attempt to record the assaults against Christians in Egypt and here is a map that shows the geographical distributions of these incidents. To be sure the dispersal of the sit-ins was bloody; the number of deaths and injuries are horrific. But it is not Christians who are dispersing the sit-ins, so why take all the anger against this minority.
For a long time many Christians in Egypt chose to stay away from politics and lived in a closed bubble. Isolation from the public life was always perceived through a theological lens that the church is not of this world and should not make this world distract it from fulfilling mission. The mission here was understood in a very narrow sense that excluded social justice, freedom from oppression here and now. Theological discourse, preaching and even hymns reflected and deepened this sense of isolation and alienation. The chorus of one hymn read: “but I am not of this world; I belong to another home.” Whether because of real acts of sectarianism or discrimination against the Christian minority, or because of imagined fears that accumulated over the time, Christian Egyptians saw in isolation a safe harbor.
A major shift of attitude however took place since the 18 days of the 25th of January revolution. Many Christians joined in with Muslims seeking livelihood, freedom and justice. The demands of Egyptians — both Christians and Muslims — were not sectarian in nature, they were not concerned with a particular group of the people; rather, they were seeking the well-being of all citizens equally. The 18 days of the revolution were like the garden of Eden in terms of the peacefulness of the relations between Muslims and Christians. The barriers and dividing walls were torn down and newly energized hopes for a better Egypt gushed forth as Christians and Muslims worked together to undo a tyrant oppressive regime. Some Christians and some of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters and some of the salafists encountered each other for the first time during these 18 days. They had a chance to see each other in a new way; a new way that is different from what the Egyptian national security has portrayed one group for the other and vice versa.
This spirit did not stay for too long, however. Sectarianism and violence against Christians has imposed itself on the scene once and again during the transitional period led by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and during the year of presidential rule of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi. During his presidential campaign and during his year of rule, Morsi blamed the Mubarak regime for the negative image about Islamists in the Christian collective mind; instead, he promised to look after the Christian minority and treat them as partners and equal citizens. Since the ousting of Morsi and throughout the sit-in of the Muslim Brotherhood the discourse concerning Christians went completely the other direction. Speeches of hatred and threats over the past 45 days against Christians resulted in the destruction of many churches, homes, businesses, and orphanages in 12 hours. The Muslim brotherhood is betting on how Christian Egyptians will respond to these assaults; their hope is that Christians would respond violently and spread sectarian disorder.
Thus far, Christians in Egypt have exercised a great deal of self-control. Furthermore, theological ideas are being rediscovered to empower the people in times like this. In response to the burning of churches, Christians in Egypt appeal to the idea of the church as the body of Christ rather than the physical building. The Christian minority is able to find resources in the biblical and ecclesial traditions to respond to the current situation. A friend of mine on Facebook posted these verses from Acts 7: “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest?'” For many years, Christians struggled to get governmental permissions to build and maintain church buildings. Now they see these buildings as a tool rather than a goal in itself.
Another issue that emerged since the ousting of Morsi and the many assaults on Christians has to do with the idea of belonging to a country. Christian Egyptians who were marginalized and alienated from the public life for many years, are rediscovering what it means to be “Egyptians.”
This sense of belonging is rooted biblically in the biblical verse “blessed be my people Egypt” (Isa 19:25) and in the sacred visit of baby Jesus and the holy family to Egypt. For a long time Islamists in Egypt treated Christians as traitors who seek the west to support their rights as a minority. Ironically, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that sought the west to restore the power to their ousted president. Christian Egyptians on the other hand are so critical of the European and American interference in Egyptian internal matters. Rediscovering the sense of belonging to Egypt, Christians have become more politically active; the minority has learned that peace and justice in this world is an essential aspect of the mission of the church. It is this activism that bothers the fanatical supporters of Islam, who want to treat Christians as secondary citizens, who either should support political Islamists or be voiceless forever.
Western media is showing one aspect of the story; violence against the Muslim Brotherhood is by no means acceptable. Yet, it is time for the western media to show the other side of the coin. Muslim Brotherhood supporters are not as peaceful as they speak of themselves. My siblings and their families have been home horrified of going down the street only watching the smoke and the fire ascend from their local churches in their town in upper Egypt. Christians are paying a heavy price for being politically active. We mourn and grieve violence and sectarianism. We pray for peace and justice and stability in Egypt. We pray for the Christian community to continue to embody the love, patience and meekness of Christ. We pray for the future so that these acts of violence would not create forms of terrorism or oppression.