Egyptian church leader answers questions about the persecution of Copts in Egypt
* An Egyptian church leader answers questions about the situation faced by the 10-12 million Christians in Egypt today
Q. Many people are surprised to learn that there is a Church in Egypt. How long have there been Christians in your country?
The Church in Egypt has existed for almost two thousand years, and throughout most of that time Christians have faced problems of many kinds.
Q. But some people say that Egyptian Christians do not face any difficulties or violence. They even quote some senior Egyptian church leaders to support these statements.
Many Egyptian church leaders are not able to make these problems public because they are afraid of what the secret police would do to them. They also know that the government is opposed to making the problems known and so they dare not speak freely and openly. Privately, speaking to those they trust, they will admit what is happening.
Q. We hear stories of Christian girls being kidnapped and raped. Can this really be true?
There are a growing number of attacks on Christian girls and young women. So many nowadays are being kidnapped and raped. The aim is to force them to convert to Islam and to humiliate the Christian community as a whole. Rape is being used as a weapon against Christians. Even the Arab media have begun discussing the issue, though they always say that each incident is the fault of the Christian.
I myself have met many of these girls and young women personally and I have heard them tell their stories. I know that it is true.
Q. What is the situation of Christians who have come from a Muslim background?
Converts from Islam have enormous problems. They often face threats and violence from their families.
The authorities find any pretext to arrest and torture them and put them in prison. Sometimes they are put in high-security psychiatric hospitals on the grounds that they must be crazy.
Anyone who changes from Christian to Muslim can get a new ID card with their new religion on it quickly and easily, but those who convert from Muslim to Christian can never get their ID card changed. They are officially considered Muslims for ever, which causes huge problems for them.
It is difficult for them to go to church, for female converts to marry a Christian man, to be buried as a Christian or to leave their property to Christian heirs. Anyone caught baptising a convert from Islam to Christianity would probably go to jail.
Q. What other kinds of harassment or persecution have you personally witnessed in Egypt?
The Egyptian newspapers publish many articles against Christianity, and against the Egyptian Church. They claim that the Christians are against Muslims, and that Christians have attacked the Qur'an or Muhammad, but they never have any evidence to back up these claims. No one in the Church leadership would be able to speak out against Islam, because they know they would be killed.
The newspapers spread false rumours to whip up hatred of Christians. For example, (On October 2005) there was severe anti-Christian rioting in Alexandria for many days. It all started because of an article in an Egyptian newspaper about a church showing a play which they called offensive to Islam.
At the same time another rumour circulated about a Christian woman kidnapping a Muslim girl and forcing her to convert to Christianity. This story was printed with no evidence at all, and a crowd of Muslims gathered outside the Christian woman's home to protest, the police came and arrested her and searched her house. They did not release her until the girl was found - she had been knocked unconscious in a car accident, and had been found and cared for by strangers.
On Egyptian television there are many programmes opposed to Christianity, condemning Christian beliefs, and saying that the Bible is not the true Bible. Even the soap operas can have an anti-Christian message.All this takes place with the apparent approval of the government. It causes great pain to the Christians, who are not usually given any opportunity to reply to the accusations.In employment, it is very hard for people who have a Christian name or a Christian identity card to get work.
If you look at the senior positions - the top doctors, highest government posts, or in the universities - you will find very few Christians even though we represent about 12% of the population. Another difficulty is that Christians need special permission from the President to build new churches, and this is very hard to obtain. This is not required for building new mosques. So there are many mosques but not nearly enough churches.
Q. But what about daily life for an ordinary Christian?
Let me tell you about a friend of mine who works for a government company.
Every day when he goes to work they ask him: when are you going to become a Muslim? They give him the worst conditions and threaten that if he does not convert to Islam he will be sacked and then he will not be able to support his family.
Every year they withhold promotion and the salary increase he is due. There used to be three Christians in a workforce numbering thousands at this company. Two have left because they could not endure the pressure any more. My friend is now the only one. Every day my friend lives with this, praying and crying out to God. How long will he last there? I don't know. He stays each day only by God's grace.One day I went for a walk with a Christian lady to buy food; but they refused to sell her any food, because she was wearing a cross around her neck. To see her tears, her crying, because she could not buy food was heart-breaking.
Church leaders are spat on as they walk down the street and have stones thrown at them. In Upper Egypt the poorest people are the Christians. A Muslim can come and take their land, or beat them up. No one hears their cry. If the police are called in, they will always say that the Christians are the ones in the wrong.Every day the Christians in Egypt carry their cross. There are so many stories like this - they would make you cry.
Q. Given that Egypt was a Christian country for some centuries before the advent of Islam, what do the Muslim majority today think about Egypt's Christian heritage?
This heritage is suppressed. In the schools, virtually all the history that is taught is Islamic history. Christianity gets just a couple of sentences for the whole of Egyptian history.
The whole school syllabus, from young children right through to university level, is Islamic, teaching about the Qur'an, and Muhammad, etc.The government always says that unity is important, and this is true. But you will only have unity between Christians and Muslims when we are all treated equally.
Q. Are there any interfaith dialogue initiatives?
There are a few Protestant leaders involved in talks with the Egyptian government and with Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which is the centre of worldwide Sunni Islam.
As a result, Al-Azhar, which is involved in sanctioning the persecution of Christians, gets great credibility as a body working for peace and tolerance.
Sadly, many Christians outside Eygpt now believe this and they do not realise the deceit that is being practised. So we do not trust those who engage in dialogue like this, Christians or Muslims.Also, some of the Christians involved in dialogue come from the UK and other Western countries; they seem unaware of what is going on in Egypt and they give financial help to the few Egyptian Christian leaders involved in dialogue.
We feel insulted that Westerners think they have to come and dialogue with Muslims on our behalf, when we have lived alongside Muslims for 1400 years. They are not helping the situation in Egypt and they do not represent the whole Church in Egypt.
Q. Can you give us any good news from the Egyptian Church?
Yes!! Here is the good news! The Christian Church has existed in Egypt for two millennia. It is called 'the church of martyrs', and we are sons and daughters of martyrs.
When the anti-Christian rioting was happening in Alexandria in October, the Christians there said to me, 'We are carrying our coffins with us, we are ready to be martyrs.' This is the secret of how we have survived - we pray and watch, by the grace of God. Among us is the one who cheats us, our Enemy, but God will deal with him in His time.
Until then we will focus on God. We are being punished because we are Christians. But we are looking for God's love and salvation and are ready to be martyred if it is God's will. However, the Church will never die, as the Bible has promised us.
You cannot kill love - you can only crucify it. And when you crucify love, it will rise again. This is the Christian faith.
* This interview was published in Barnabas Aid, January-February 2006
The Church in Egypt