Alarmed by scant attention paid to the hardships endured by the 7.5 million Christians in the Middle East, journalist Klaus Wivel traveled to Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories on a quest to learn more about their fate. He found an oppressed minority, constantly under threat of death and humiliation, increasingly desperate in the face of rising Islamic extremism and without hope that their situation will improve, or that anyone will come to their aid. Wivel spoke with priests whose churches have been burned, citizens who feel like strangers in their own countries, and entire communities whose only hope for survival may be fleeing into exile. With the increase of religious violence in the past few years, this book is a prescient and unsettling account of a severely beleaguered religious group living, so it seems, on borrowed time. Wivel asks, Why have we not done more to protect these people?
Excerpt from The Last Supper
I arrive in Cairo in the autumn of 2012, just as Egypt is experiencing its worst crisis since the revolution less than two years earlier earlier. A few days before my arrival, the Muslim Brotherhood leader then serving as the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, granted himself unlimited powers, nullifying all judicial oversight of his actions. He explained that he wanted to defend the revolution and ensure that his proposed constitutional changes would be enacted. Angry demonstrators called him “Morsilini.” They gathered by the tens of thousands in Tahrir Square, located in the heart of the Middle East’s most populous city.
The day after my arrival in Cairo, I walk over Qasr al-Nil Bridge toward the square with a young female Christian journalist and the Western journalist and cameraman she works for as a fixer and interpreter; in other words, she translates and keeps young thugs from smashing the Westerners’ equipment.
There aren’t many people here; small groups of boys mill around, and tear gas from a confrontation with the police several hours earlier still stings our noses. Rocks and burned-out cars dot the streets. This section of central Cairo is in chaos. The four of us head for a side street beside the bridge leading to a grassy mound and low wall; the Western journalist and cameraman walk on ahead in search of rioting to film.
As soon as she and I reach the side street, a group of thirty or forty young teenagers force us up against a wall. For months there has been talk about these mobs of increasingly-younger Egyptians who skip school and vandalize the area around the square, intent on fighting with the police and harassing passersby. Several women have been raped on the square and in the side streets; yesterday three girls were stripped naked by three hundred of these teenagers.
Our backs are literally and figuratively against the wall; we can only try to talk our way out of this situation. The group doesn’t seem to have a leader. Many of them have tied scarves around their mouths, and their eyes are red from tear gas. They look confused, filthy, their teeth are bad, they are nervous and skittish from the adrenaline rush of clashing with the police and lack of sleep. They discuss whether to smash the cameraman’s equipment—he is further down the street. Some of the boys begin fondling the woman.
She keeps her cool, smiles and convinces them that the journalists are on their side, that it would be stupid to ruin their gear. I stand there wishing for a tunnel to open and transport us to safety on the opposite side of the Nile. The boys joke a bit, make a few threats, are friendly and curious one second and aggressive the next. We sense that they could go amok at any moment.
It takes a while, but we manage to partially separate ourselves from them and reach Tahrir Square, where an elderly doctor tries to help us shake the boys. He apologizes for their behavior. They follow us around for forty-five minutes, until finally we duck into a coffee shop.
From our table we can see the tents out in the square, where men—there are almost no women—walk around aimlessly. The tall buildings surrounding the square look empty, the balconies are filled with satellite dishes and TV cameras. The entire square seems to be a self-sustaining system of demonstrators, homeless louts, and broadcast journalists, all of them feeding off one another. And this week, when the battle concerning the constitution suddenly becomes grim, when demonstrators from the opposition and Brotherhood camps storm each other and people die, the entire food chain is once more up and running.
The journalist, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me that although she looks like most Egyptian women, she stands out there on the square as a Christian partly because she doesn’t wear a veil. For that reason, she is a potential victim. It’s becoming increasingly less common to see a woman with uncovered hair, especially further out from Cairo’s center—or here, in the middle of it all.
“All my friends talk about leaving,” she says. The episode with the young boys has shaken her up, even though she has been in similar situations before. As far as sexual harassment is concerned, Egypt is one of the worst places in the world, and Tahrir Square, where women were at the forefront of protests against the regime, has long been the scene of many such encounters, including some carried out by the authorities.
Soldiers conducted “virginity tests” on women during the revolution in the winter of 2011, to document how unmarried young people were sleeping with each other on the square. Hundreds of women were pawed at, groped, debased, raped, and beaten up, with no protection from men in or out of uniform.
“So don’t ask why Christian Egyptians leave the country,” she says. “Ask why they stay. My parents want to stay, even though they shouldn’t. You have to understand how difficult it is to leave the country and city you’ve grown up in, and start all over a new place, in a new country, where you can’t speak the language and don’t know the culture. Everything you’ve learned is useless, and no one respects you. Only young people can handle that type of radical change.”
We leave the square, and before we part she says, “Be merciful to the Copts, Mr. Klaus.”
I’m filled with conflicting emotions as I drive back over Qasr al-Nil Bridge, away from Tahrir Square and the female journalist. What she and I went through is commonplace, hardly worth noting, yet as it happened I was acutely aware that the boys could do anything they wanted to her, and I was powerless to stop them.
Egypt, like Gaza, is a type of closed society for which we lack precise terminology. The Cold War has given us an understanding of the totalitarian mentality, but Egypt can’t be called totalitarian; the regime doesn’t claim the same type of control over citizens as existed in former East bloc countries. The Egyptian authorities allow a vaguely controlled chaos, a freedom arising from lawlessness, street law that is given free rein, where only coincidence dictates who is punished and who is not.
I haven’t really been interested in Twitter before arriving in Egypt, but I discover quickly that it’s essential if you want to follow what is happening here. Hundreds of bloggers exhibit a courage and broad-mindedness that puts the ordinary opinion makers to shame. A new language has given some people a voice for the first time in their lives, and now they are shouting—screaming—at gruesome Islamists and weak sycophants. Twitter warriors can say what they want as long as they don’t offend the military and religion.
Just as in Gaza, I sense in many Christians here the same anxiety that stems from the inability to point to specific persecutors who wield power. The zealots come from below, from the street, and not necessarily from Islamists. The young teenagers harassing women were against the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime has no monopoly on violence; attacks come from the most unexpected places. Christians don’t even know where the authorities stand. Often they have to protect themselves from the police and the army, instead of being protected by them.
I’m also confused about my journalistic project. The stories I hear from Christians seem to blend into those of many other minorities, including the non-religious, and it seems meaningless to separate the one from the other. But Christians are emblematic of what every Egyptian minority is going through. And almost every Christian here I talk to longs to leave. Because I’m investigating why Christians are emigrating and not only if they are being persecuted, it’s clear that the reasons often mirror those of countless Muslims, who also feel an urgent need to get away from a land where they are suffocating.
The revolt is reflected in Maikel Nabil Sanad, who at age twenty-seven is one of the most famous voices from the revolution of 2011—a moment that now seems ancient history. The identity of the people for whom a regime has no place says much about a country. Stigmatized people, to use a well-known Christian term.
There’s no place here for Nabil. That’s why I meet him in a small office on Old Square in Copenhagen on a gray, late autumn day a few weeks before leaving for Egypt; Amnesty International has invited him here.
Nabil is sharp-witted, young, comfortable with the media, and disrespectful of all authority, which is why he was the first blogger after President Mubarak’s fall to land behind bars for “insulting the military.” On March 8, 2011, he wrote on his blog that the military, which claimed to be protecting the demonstrators, was never on their side.
“The revolution has removed a dictator, but not a dictatorship,” he said, one of the first to make this claim. He presented documents and made accusations against the military and security services for being behind a number of assaults on demonstrators, which resulted in hundreds of deaths.
On April 10, 2011, he was sentenced to three years in prison, after which he was thrown into a dark cell and tortured. He began a hunger strike, which led to an international campaign for his release. He was granted amnesty in January 2012, and today he lives in Germany, where he studies political science at Erfurt University.
Nabil is Christian, or rather, “of Christian descent.” “Only three religions are recognized in Egypt, and you must have one of them written in your passport. Mine has Christian in it, even though I’m an atheist. I can’t change it—or at least, only to Islam.” Atheism is forbidden in Egypt; it can lead to a prison sentence. In Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the Maldives, Mauritania, and Iran, the sentence can be death. Only in Muslim countries do governments penalize godlessness in this way.
Nabil is a conglomeration of many of the minorities to which the Arab Spring has given equal amounts of hope and bitterness: Christian, atheist, blogger, demonstrator, anti-militarist, peace activist, open enemy of the regime. To all of that can be added that he doesn’t share the hatred of Israel typical for the Middle East. He is an inversion of everything that is taking place in his country. He has Einstein-like hair, unruly and wavy, and on that autumn day he wears a burgundy-colored sweatshirt, the hood of which droops over a beige down vest. There is something of the Sunday’s child about him, an awareness of who he is and what he’s struggling for, as he nonchalantly sprawls out on the sofa.
Nabil is a new image of the Arab world, a new figure of opposition born from the Arab Spring. Later, as I follow him down the street to a restaurant in the middle of Copenhagen, he zips his vest up to his chin. The day is cold and gray. He is in strange surroundings in this foreign country, unwanted in his own. He doesn’t seem worried about whether he’ll ever be allowed to return to Egypt.
His role models are those who march to a different drummer, influential people who have weathered the storm, in particular the former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, whom he quoted as saying, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Clearly he’s a self-assured young man.
“If we were living in Oslo in 1940, watching the young dissident Willy Brandt, an exile from his country, watching him struggle against the Nazi army as it occupied Norway, not one of us would have predicted that he would one day be the leader of West Germany, play a role in German and European reconciliation and unity, and win the Nobel Peace Prize. The difference between Willy Brandt, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and us is that they believed they could make the future, that they could change things.”
Delusions of grandeur or idealism? Nabil sees himself in these heroes, and he is inspired by a man who is the godfather of all liberal Egyptians, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, one of the most prominent Egyptians of the first half of the twentieth century. Lutfi was the first president of Cairo University, and under his leadership Egyptian women earned a degree for the first time. He was also the director of the National Library of Egypt, and he introduced British philosopher John Stuart Mill’s advocacy of free speech and women’s rights to the Arab world.
Lutfi opposed Pan-Arabism, the nationalist idea of a union of Arab states promoted by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. He believed in Egypt as an independent country, separate from other Arab lands. This Renaissance man’s glory years coincided with Egypt’s era of freedom, from the mid-20s to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup in 1952. Back then, men like Lutfi could attain influential positions. And now his young admirer walks down a rainy street in Copenhagen, unable to return home without risking imprisonment. For saying things similar to what Lutfi spoke about.
Oddly enough, I have been warned against meeting with folks like Nabil by several well-meaning people familiar with the Middle East. I have been told that the reason I’m interviewing him, the reason Westerners seek out him and his collaborators (a very small minority, at most one percent, they say in admonishment), is because they speak English and have the same opinions as we do.
In a country where ninety-five percent of the population believes that Islam plays a major role in politics, it’s possible these people have a point. But sometimes the one percent is right, sometimes they can see clearer than the majority. Besides, I discover soon upon arriving in Cairo that this claim about Western sympathy is doubtful. The Western media doesn’t wholeheartedly support Nabil and his fellow revolutionaries. Opinion is split concerning the liberal opposition in Egypt; a surprising number of Westerners blame the unrest on the Tahrir Square demonstrators, calling them undemocratic because they won’t yield to majority support for a more Islamic society. The Muslim Brotherhood is often described as pragmatic and responsive. Liberal Egyptians feel betrayed by Western opinion; they accuse the West of setting different and much lower standards for Arab regimes than they ever would for their own governments. Mona Eltahawy, one of Egypt’s most prominent bloggers, is among those who call the phenomenon “a racism of lower expectations.”
Before meeting Nabil, I reprinted in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen a column he wrote about the trials and imprisonment of Egyptians for blasphemy. He points out two cases brought against Christian Egyptians. On September 12, 2012, a court in Sohag sentenced a Christian, Bishoy El-Bihery, to six years in prison for criticizing Islam and Morsi.
In September 2011, two Coptic Christian children, Nabil Nagy Rizk, 10, and Mina Nady Farag, 9, were arrested for insulting Islam. They were caught with several scraps of paper, on which there happened to be written a few verses from the Koran. The children were later released without a trial because of their age.
Others have been prosecuted for criticizing Islam. Egyptian Christians and other non-Sunni Muslims were subjected to this long before the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. Nabil himself has been charged; while he is in Denmark, a new case is brought against him for “insulting Islam.” Egyptian authorities demand that Germany extradite him to be tried in Egypt.
“What is happening in Egypt is the beginning of a new Inquisition,” he says. “The world is turning a deaf ear to this.” Perhaps because it won’t listen to the one percent.
“The word Copt is used incorrectly,” he says, when asked about the Copts’ situation. “Copt simply means Egyptian.”
The word comes from the Latin coptus, which stems from the Greek aiguptios, which is where we get Egyptian from. Coptic also refers to the Christian language, which more or less has been eradicated and replaced by Arabic. Very few people speak Coptic. In its original meaning, Copt was a term for all Egyptians, but during the past sixty years, the word has evolved to refer only to Christian Egyptians, Nabil says.
He explains that a century ago only seven countries were regarded as Arab, all of them on the Arabian Peninsula. “Along with the rise of Arab nationalism, the concept of being an Arab is being linked to the Sunni Muslim majority that also exists in North African countries,” he says. “There’s an attempt to foster an ethnicity that doesn’t exist. The North African countries—Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco— they have nothing to do with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Gulf states. Egypt is regarded as Arab only because our dictatorship throughout the past decades has declared it to be. In that way, Egypt is becoming less and less Christian. Christians feel that Arabs have occupied our country.”
Maikel Nabil claims that the practice of using the word Copt to denote Christian Egyptians first began during the Cold War, but that’s not true. This has been going on for centuries. For example, I looked the word up in the 1900 edition of a renowned Danish encyclopedia, Salmonsens, and already at that time there was a clear distinction: “Egypt’s original Christians are called Copts, while the original Mohammedans are called Arabs.”
This distinction goes much farther back. Before Arabs conquered Egypt in the seventh century, they called the country dar al-Qibt, “home of the Copts.” Since then, Christian Egyptians have been considered Copts, even though ten percent of them belong to other Christian denominations. Many Copts hold the thinly-disguised view that Egypt is their country first and foremost. They were here before the Muslims. Also, they clearly are proud of being the oldest Christian community in the world. The Coptic Church considers Mark the Evangelist to be its first pope. In Coptic Egypt there exists a sense of being close to the source of Christian civilization.
They also have a long historical awareness of being oppressed. Christians were persecuted throughout the first centuries. The Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruled Egypt from 284-305, was especially cruel. Copts call that period Anno Martyrum, The Era of the Martyrs; their thirteen-month Coptic calendar, which is still being used today, began back then. Tens of thousands of Christians are thought to have been tortured and murdered under the rule of Diocletian. The murdering stopped when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 311.
Despite the switch to Christianity within the Roman Empire, Copts were still persecuted. The Byzantine Church broke away from the Coptic Church at the Council of Chalcedon, a city across the Bosporus from Constantinople, in 451. The purpose of the Council was to discuss monophysitism, the belief that Jesus had only a single, divine nature, that he was not both God and man. The Council rejected monophysitism, after which Coptic theology was considered heretical. The Western world shunned the Copts, while the Byzantine faith spread further east to Russia and south into the Middle East. This split affected the history of the world.
Because the Byzantine Empire included Egypt, the Copts were suppressed. During a period in the seventh century, the Coptic patriarch went into exile. Copts therefore received Muslims with open arms when they invaded the country in 641. They were regarded as liberators.
The persecutions didn’t stop, however. Copts discovered quickly that “they were shackled by a much weightier yoke than before,” as Salmonsen’s Encyclopedia puts it. Bloody attacks followed, and a religious head tax, jizya, was enacted, with Muslims exempted. I have heard jizya mentioned many times during my travels by Islamic extremists, but also by Christians, who fear that the new Islamic rulers will bring back the tax. The Danish encyclopedia also states that many Arabs most likely are “true Egyptians, who throughout the years have taken up Islam to better their circumstances.” This is another reason why the fear of converting to Islam is so entrenched among Christians.
The 100-year-old edition of Salmonsen’s Encyclopedia, written before an era of political correctness, doesn’t avoid tactless and not always flattering characterizations of national character. We are told that in contrast to Muslims, Copts are allowed to drink alcohol, and “not few of them avail themselves of this freedom more than prudence dictates.”
Maikel Nabil, one of the persecuted minority of our times, of course knew the distinction between Copts and Arabs is ancient, but his point was polemic. Nationalism and Islamism has in the past sixty years changed Egypt for the worse. There are schisms everywhere in this nation. It wasn’t always like this. In the first half of the twentieth century, the country had a reputation for liberalism. If you were persecuted in other countries, such as Armenians in Turkey, you came to Egypt. You were also allowed to change religions or to become atheist, he says. I’m not saying a pure form of tolerance existed, but back then Islam was different, milder. It wasn’t common to say that anyone changing religions should be killed.”
Saudi Arabian oil money is flooding the country today. Radical Salafists carry the Saudi flag at demonstrations, Nabil points out. The sectarian struggle has resurfaced because a particularly stringent form of Islam has become the official version of the religion. Nabil says that many Copts are leaving the country; as in the Palestinian Territories, this has been going on for decades. “Christians sense that their lives are in danger if they stay in Egypt,” he says. “Salafists are attacking churches. Everyone feels they can be victimized at some point.”