The Difficult Struggle of Christians in the Orient

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Difficult Struggle of Christians in the Orient

Der Spiegel

January 13, 2011

Just moments after the new year began, a bomb outside a church in Alexandria killed 21 Coptic Christians. A week later, a Pakistani governor was murdered for standing by a Christian convict. The two cases dramatically illustrate the worsening plight of Christians in the Orient. By SPIEGEL Staff


Khalil Hamada Street is 20 meters (66 feet) wide. On one side stands the Coptic "Church of the Two Saints"; on the other side is a mosque. The church was built first, but the mosque followed just a few years later. And when the Christians constructed a new annex, the Muslims followed suit. Over time, the minaret has grown significantly higher than the church's steeple. The mosque fills up five times a day after the muezzin makes his call to prayer; the church's bells only ring twice a week.

"Heaven and earth are filled with heavenly peace," the church's members sang on New Year's Eve. That was also the last thing Mariam Fakri heard as she exited the church with her sister Martina, her mother and her aunt. They were among the first to do so. After having spent the whole day cooking, they wanted to get home to break their fast with a celebratory meal. Miriam was 21 years old, and she was planning on getting engaged in a few days. In addition to her university studies, she also taught Sunday school to youths at her church. She was happy and easygoing, and she had many Muslim friends. Before heading off to church, she had written on her Facebook page: "2010 is over. I enjoyed experiencing this year. I have so many wishes. Please, God, stand by my side and help them come true."

Then the explosion struck. Mariam died on Khalil Hamada Street under an image of St. Mark the Apostle holding a little church in his hand. The screws, screw nuts and ball bearings that had been packed into the bomb also tore into the other three women. The only member of the family to survive was Mariam's father, who had been standing behind them. The next day, he had to identify his daughter. Her body was so horribly burnt he could hardly recognize her.

Soon thereafter, the four women were buried at the St. Mina Monastery along with 17 other victims, where they would soon be joined by two others. The monastery is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) outside Alexandria. Although it's a special honor to be buried there, it was also one final indignity: For security reasons, the authorities had reportedly insisted that the burial be held outside the city. Thus, even in death, the Coptic Christian Mariam Fakri had to show respect for a state that had failed to protect her.

A Murderer's Smile
Egypt is not the only Islamic country that lets its minorities and those who come to their aid fend for themselves.

Three days after the attack in Alexandria, roughly 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to the east, an elegantly dressed man emerged from a coffee house in Islamabad. After having met up with a friend, Salman Taseer, the 66-year-old Muslim governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, was on his way home to his villa in the northeastern part of Pakistan's capital city.

But before Taseer could climb into his car, a burly man emerged from the group of his bodyguards, pulled out a gun and started shooting at the governor. When his fellow bodyguards -- who initially stood there doing nothing -- finally overpowered him, he merely stretched out his chin and smiled.

There, on the ground in front of Gloria Jean's Café, lay a man shot more than 20 times, a man who had taken on some powerful opponents: bigotry, incitement and militant Islamism. Like Mariam, he too had posted a new year's message online. "I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing," he wrote on his Twitter page. And a few days later, he added: "Peace prosperity & happiness for new year ... i'm full of optimism."

The fear spread by Taseer's enemies pursued him even after death. When his family wanted to bury him on the following day in observance of Muslim customs, even the state-appointed prayer leader refused to utter even the first verse of the Muslim funeral rites. A preacher from Taseer's party eventually volunteered to fulfill the duty. And his supposed friend, the president of Pakistan, didn't come to the burial -- for security reasons.

A Bloody Reality
As little as the death in Islamabad and the massacre in Alexandria have in common, there is one thing that binds them. They make it clear that, at the beginning of the first decade after the 9/11 terror attacks, the "clash of civilizations" -- used by Western political scientists as a theoretical paradigm -- has become a bloody reality for Christians in the Orient. Islam is the majority religion in eight of the top 10 countries where Christians are persecuted, according to the "World Watch List" compiled annually be the Christian organization Open Doors. In seven of those countries, the situation deteriorated for Christians in 2010.

It's not just the pope, bishops and patriarchs who are making more urgent calls than ever for these Christians to be protected. A growing number of politicians -- ranging from US President Barack Obama to Volker Kauder, the parliamentary floor leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats -- are intensifying their warnings. "We are already past the stage where we can merely express our dismay or our sadness," complained recently appointed French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. She has demanded a coordinated European Union plan to protect Christians in the Middle East. The issue is to be placed on the agenda for an EU foreign ministers meeting scheduled for January 31.

Mere appeals, however, will not suffice. The situation is much direr than it was even a few months ago. The recent attacks in Egypt and Pakistan have both served as examples of just how weak the regimes in the Islamic world are. They may have anchored the protection of religious minorities in their constitutions, but they long ago lost the power to protect Christians and other minorities. Even the elites who want to do so have lost the power to make it happen.

A Solemn Vow
"You are free," intoned Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in a 1947 speech he delivered at the constitutional convention. "You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed…" It was a vision of religious tolerance; it was a solemn vow.

When the new state drew up its penal code, it kept four sections which the British colonial masters had composed for India in 1860. They are still in force today. These sections penalize the defilement of sacred places, the interruption of religious gatherings, the desecration of cemeteries and intentionally insulting religious sentiments with up to 10 years in prison.

Between 1947 and 1986, there were only five convictions based on these sections. But in the 1980s Islamist Pakistani President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, the general who had assumed his position after a military coup, strengthened the laws. He made it illegal to show disrespect to the Koran and to denigrate the Prophet Muhammad. The four sections devoted to protecting all religions were replaced with two new sections on blasphemy -- focused entirely on Islam. One section carried a penalty of lifetime imprisonment; the other death. The West did nothing. As long as the Soviet army, the communist rival, remained next door in Afghanistan, the Americans had no problem with an Islamic dictator in Pakistan.

Abuse of the law began immediately. For someone to be convicted of blasphemy, it sufficed to have a "trustworthy" Muslim testify in front of a Muslim judge that the alleged violation of the law took place -- without even having to say the exact words used in the insult. Even if Pakistan has yet to carry out a single death sentence for blasphemy, over the years, roughly a thousand Pakistanis have been charged with violating the two new sections of the penal code. Just last November, an illiterate Christian peasant woman named Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy for allegedly having denigrated the Prophet Muhammad during a fight with a neighbor.

Making Every Muslim Proud
It was against this verdict and these blasphemy sections that Salman Taseer, the liberal governor of Punjab, turned this winter. He invoked the name of Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father; he visited the woman who had been sentenced to death in jail; and, online, he made fun of the mullahs who hated him for doing so. On his Twitter page, Taseer wrote that one of his rivals had "transplanted hair" while another one had "a mouldy wig." It would turn out to be his own death sentence.

The fact that his killer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, a fanatic known to the police, managed to secure a position on Taseer's security detail shows just how isolated Pakistan's secular elite has become -- and just how dangerous Jihadism has become. After the murder, when Qadri was brought before a judge for a preliminary hearing, lawyers showered him with rose petals and offered to defend him free of charge. An association of 500 religious scholars -- including many who had previously been regarded as moderate -- praised the killer and warned others from attending Taseer's burial, saying: "Whoever supports an evildoer is an evildoer himself. What Qadri has done makes every Muslim proud."

Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan's leading intellectual, who attended the ceremony despite the warning, complained to CNN: "Apart from the killer, nobody's been arrested. There doesn't seem to be any crackdown, and it seems the government is backing off from doing anything." It is a situation which makes Pakistan's liberals worry because, while extremism continues to spread, the country's economic, political and social problems are continuing to pile up. "We have a very, very severe polarization in the country," Rashid said.
Niccolo and Donkey
Extremist Fringe Groups
Rami Khouri, a respected Christian Arab commentator from Lebanon, drew the same conclusion after the bomb attack in Alexandria. "The brutal attacks against Christians in Iraq and Egypt reflect the work of a small minority of fanatical criminals, and do not represent the views of the Muslim majority in the Arab world," Khouri wrote shortly after the bombing. "Yet they do fall into a wider pattern of a trend of de-pluralization, and steady polarization and compartmentalization, of Arab society, whether the populations in question are Christians, Kurds, Palestinians, Assyrians, Shiites, Sunnis or other distinct groups that increasingly live amongst their own rather than co-exist in mixed communities." He added that, in the Arab world, three generations had failed to establish stable, integrated states and, more than anything, to "stop the devastation" wrought by extremist fringe groups.

The most severe of these attacks have been carried out by Al-Qaida in Iraq. For years, the Sunni terrorist group has tried to drive a wedge and foment civil war between peoples of different faiths in the Middle East -- and not only in Iraq. For the last several months, it has been threatening Egypt's Copts and other Christians in the region.

Incited by the rhetoric the American government used when it first launched its "war on terror," the terrorists portray the Christians of the Orient as being allied with the "crusaders" in a global conspiracy against Islam. Last week, they released an audiotape repeating one of their long-standing claims: that Egyptian Copts imprison in their monasteries Christian women who have converted to Islam. "When you make your churches prisons," the narrator says, "we will turn them into graves for you."

The strategy is at once both simple and insidious. Unlike the Shiites in Iraq, for example, Christians in the Islamic world do not have strong militias, a fact which makes them particularly vulnerable. For al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack on Taseer, success will mean having ignited a conflict that threatens not only the Christians, but also entire governments. Indeed, there are several countries that could fall victim to this fate: Iraq, which has seen 2,000 of its Christians murdered in recent years as well as hundreds of thousands of them flee the country; Syria, where 3 million Christians have so far lived unmolested; Lebanon; Jordan; and even the Gulf states, which are home to millions of Christian immigrant workers, primarily from Asia. First among them, however, is Egypt, whose roughly 7 million Copts make it the Middle Eastern country with the largest Christian population.

'The Government Has Failed'
Mohammed Awad is a well-known Muslim intellectual based in Alexandria who maintains an office in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a bold new concrete-and-glass structure in the city's old harbor area. The real target of the recent attack was the secular state rather than the Copts, he says.

"In the 1990s, they attacked tourists and liberal Muslim reformers, and now it's the Copts," Awad says. But, he adds, the principle is the same: Any loss by the state is a gain for the fundamentalists.
"The government has failed," he says, "when it comes to democracy, human rights, providing housing or providing services. The health-care system doesn't work, and hygienic conditions are abysmal. Despite all its power and might, Egypt has still not succeeded in meeting the basic needs of its citizens."

Now, he continues, after 30 years in power, Hosni Mubarak finds himself unable to protect his own citizens. "This is not a conflict between Muslims and Christians," Awad concludes. "This is between the state and the fundamentalists."

Girgis al-Makar, a 33-year-old Copt who prefers to go by a pseudonym, disagrees. "Egypt has a long history of persecuting the Christians," he says, adding that it the Copt community wasn't named the "Church of the Martyrs" by accident. Al-Makar can still recall his grade-school years, when he was insulted by the other children and given poorer grades despite competitive performance. He eventually went on to study Egyptology, Islamic archaeology and history, which included a six-year stay in Heidelberg, Germany. But he still couldn't get a job in Alexandria. "As a Christian, I didn't have any connections," he says. In fact, when he was applying for jobs, one of the people to turn him down was Mohammed Awad. These days, the highly educated Egyptologist makes a living teaching German.

In the wake of the attack, al-Makar didn't expect any apologies. But he was hoping to maybe see some sign of grief or hear a few sympathetic words. But at work, no one even mentioned the attack to him. He was appalled by the silence.

A Mosque Next Door
The Copts make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt's population. But there are almost 95,000 mosques in the country compared to only 2,000 churches. Religion Minister Mahmoud Hamdy Zakzouk, an advocate of the secular state, says: "Soon, a law will enter into force to regulate the construction of churches, as well. That will help the Copts." At the moment, al-Makar complains, it takes years for Copts to get the permits they need to build a church. "And when they finally do," he adds, "the Muslims are compensated by being allowed to build a mosque next door."

The bomb attack is the low point in a long-running dispute. Since the 1970s, roughly 200 Copts have been killed, primarily in the south. Muslims have attacked Christian monasteries, villages and businesses, and monks have been kidnapped, tortured and forced to convert to Islam.

In recent days, the Copts have been holding daily protests, including a violent clash between demonstrators and police in Cairo on Wednesday. Earlier this month, Coptic protestors in front of St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo threw stones at a minister who paid a visit to Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of Egypt's Coptic church, to deliver his condolences. In the past, demonstration had tended to be held exclusively be Muslims -- Copts taking to the streets is new.

One issue particularly stokes the anger of Muslims: conversions to Christianity. A priest who claims to baptize new converts to Christianity on an almost daily basis, would prefer to not have his name printed. His parish is also on the hit list published by al-Qaida. Even so, on Christmas Day, there were only two police officers standing guard outside his church, and they conducted no searches.

'Pray for Those who Persecute You'
The priest, an elderly man with deep rings around his eyes, says he is not a missionary. He claims he only helps out when Muslims approach him with questions about Christianity. When these people are serious about wanting to accept his faith, he prepares them to be baptized.

Everything has to be kept secret: Bible-study classes, the baptism itself and the identity of the faithful. "Female converts continue to wear veils so as to not attract attention," the priest says.
Despite the secrecy, Egypt's intelligence agents know what he is up to. Periodically, they send him text messages just to let him know he's being watched.

The priest is not allowed to travel abroad, and the state views him as a national security risk. The intelligence service also occasionally sends fake potential converts his way. For that reason, he first tests those who come to him with questions about the Holy Trinity and the life of Jesus. "Once, a woman started making romantic advances," he recalls, "presumably so that the intelligence service would have something on me." On another occasion, a convert was arrested while trying to flee the country and forced to spy on the priest. "They gave him a pen with a hidden recording device," he says. "And then they manipulated the recordings so that it sounded like I had insulted Islam."
Indeed, he is convinced that they will put the recording to use one day and publicize its content when they feel the time is right.

The priest would prefer not to say how many Muslims have been converting to Christianity. In Egypt, as in many other predominantly Muslim countries, proselytism is illegal. But he will say that "it is so many that we have to keep a waiting list."

A Blood-Stained Sheet
Egypt is still not like Pakistan, though. Indeed, after the attack on the Copts, no one publicly celebrated and no lawyers were fighting for the chance to defend one of the culprits -- should any of them ever be located. Instead, the attack was strongly denounced -- by Egypt's president, by the sheik of Al-Azhar University, by the pre-eminent institution of religious thought in Sunni Islam, and even by the leader of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

Five days after the attack, when the faithful gathered once again in the "Church of the Two Saints" for the Coptic celebration of Christmas, it was attended by more than twice as many Christians as usual, with people crowding together in the inner courtyard. Ushers handed out white armbands bearing a passage from Matthew 5:44: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Above a wooden cross in the church hangs a blood-stained sheet. And someone has unfurled a poster showing Jesus and his apostles in heaven. Images of the bombing victims, including Mariam, have been superimposed on the heads of Jesus' disciples. "I am happy," says one member of the congregation. "Our martyrs are now with Jesus; they are doing fine."

Once again, the congregation sings. Once again, heaven and earth are filled with heavenly peace.
This time, everything remains calm. And as the Christians leave the church, there are a few dozen Muslims holding candles behind a chain of police officers -- quietly wishing the Copts a Merry Christmas.
Niccolo and Donkey
A white cloth smeared with blood on a cross a day after the deadly attack in Egypt. The Christian organization Open Doors says that the persecution of Christians is alive and well in the Muslim world, with Islam being the dominant religion in eight of the 10 most dangerous countries for Christians.

Coptic Christians have received support from their Muslim brethren in Egypt. Here, Christians and Muslims protest side by side to condemn the New Years Eve attack.

Christians need a homeland to escape this persecution. They should go back to the land of their origin, and establish a Christian state. They can make the city of Christ's crucifixion their capital.