By Samuel Tadros
Review by Michael J. Totten
Wall Street Journal August 12, 2013
For hundreds of years, Copts made up roughly 15% of Egypt’s population. Since the Arab Spring, more than 100,000 have left.
The Middle East is tough on minorities. After millennia of Jewish presence throughout the Arab and Persian lands, almost every country in the region—save for Israel, of course, was emptied of Jews in the last century.
Today it’s the Middle East’s Christians who are streaming out. In Lebanon, Christians made up a slight majority a couple of decades ago, but today they’re down to barely a third of the population. Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled sectarian fighting in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and they’re a minority now in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem — the birthplace of Jesus. But the most dramatic Christian exodus is out of Egypt. Since the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the rise of Islamists and mob attacks have driven more than 100,000 Christian Copts out of the country.
Samuel Tadros’s book, “Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity,” is a scholarly yet riveting account of this tragedy. The author takes us on a grim tour through the modern history of Egypt, chronicling the rise and fall of its Coptic minority, the country’s largest Christian community. Along the way, Mr. Tadros offers a trenchant analysis of Egypt’s struggle, and that of the Copts, to overcome backwardness and obscurantism.
The Copts are indigenous inhabitants of the Nile delta, children of its ancient Pharaonic civilization. They have been Christians for as long as Christianity has existed. (Egypt is part of the greater Holy Land, and St. Mark, one of the disciples of Jesus, spread the gospel there and founded the Church of Alexandria, which today belongs to the Copts.) The Copts have their own Eastern Orthodox rite, their own pope and for hundreds of years they’ve made up roughly 15% of Egypt’s population.
Mr. Tadros, an Egyptian Copt who immigrated to the U.S. in 2009, makes it clear that the story of Egypt’s Christians isn’t one of relentless abuse. Copts have received both good and bad treatment at the hands of the region’s succession of reigning powers. But mostly it’s been bad. They were persecuted by the Roman and Byzantine empires long before the Islamic conquest in A.D. 639, after which they were cast as second-class citizens subject to additional regulations and taxes. Isolation from Christendom and survival in the face of adversity are etched into their soul. “Coptic history has been an endless story of decline and despair,” Mr. Tadros writes, “but it has also been a story of survival.”
A respite came when, after centuries of Mamluk rule (under Ottoman suzerainty), Egypt’s Albanian governor, Muhammad Ali, rebelled against the Porte in 1805. Ali’s rule was kinder to Copts than anything that had preceded it. In 1863 came the relatively enlightened rule of Ali’s grandson, Khedive Ismail, during which the Copts flourished. Ismail appointed Coptic judges to Egyptian courts and awarded them political rights and representation in government.
Britain invaded, reluctantly, when in 1882 a nationalist uprising threatened European interests, including the then newly built Suez Canal. British occupation would last 40 years, during which time London resolved that Egypt had to be governed by Muslims. Thus Lord Cromer, the head of its occupation, appointed only Muslims to the highest positions. “A policy favoring Muslims,” Mr. Tadros writes, “would ensure the country’s tranquility,” since London “viewed Muslims as fanatics and had little faith in their tolerance should the British appoint Copts to higher positions.” In 1911, more than a thousand Copts convened a conference in Asyut in central Egypt and drew up a list of demands. They wanted Sundays off work, anti-discrimination laws in the public sector, minority representation in government, equal access to education. All were denied.
Things took a turn for the worse when Gamal Abdel Nasser and his self-styled Free Officers seized power in 1952. Nasser declared Egypt an Arab country for the first time in its history, evicted Europeans, nationalized property and industry, and hitched Egypt to the Soviet Union. Nasser wasn’t overtly bigoted against Christians. Even so, the Copts paid the heaviest price for his socialist policies. Confiscated land was disproportionately Christian, for instance, and almost all of it was redistributed to Muslims.
His successor, Anwar Sadat, junked socialism, aligned Cairo with Washington and signed a peace treaty with Israel, but he also sicked the Muslim Brotherhood—the Islamist organization founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928—on his leftist opposition. Sadat unwittingly unleashed an Islamist insurgency that triggered a wave of Christian immigration to the U.S. and Europe in the 1970s, and the Islamists have remained intermittently off their leash ever since. Where Egypt finds itself now, wedged between the theocrats of the Brotherhood and the secular authoritarians of the military, can be traced back to that fateful decision.
The author has no brief for Egypt’s next ruler, Hosni Mubarak. The former president was, after all, the civilian face of a military regime that maltreated everyone. Yet there’s no getting around the fact that Christians have fared even worse since Mr. Mubarak’s removal, and not only because Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime was both sectarian and theocratic. The army, Mr. Morsi’s main opponent, also committed acts of mass violence against Copts in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. In October 2011, for instance, soldiers opened fire on Copts protesting the demolition of a church in upper Egypt, killing 23 and wounding more than 200.
Most worrisome is the dramatic upswing in anti-Christian violence by average Muslims who have often known their victims as neighbors their entire lives. Churches have been burned; Christians have been expelled from villages; and Copts have been imprisoned on charges of blaspheming Islam.
Mr. Tadros’s conclusion is bleak: After two millennia, the Copts, like the Jews before them, are stampeding to the exits. “The feeling of sadness and distress,” Mr. Tadros writes, “is impossible to overcome as I watch the faces of the new immigrants in my church in Virginia. A church that has withstood diverse and tremendous challenges is now threatened in its very existence.”
Mr. Totten, a contributing editor of World Affairs and City Journal, is the author of four books, including “The Road to Fatima Gate.”