The State Department keeps a list of eight “Countries of Particular Concern” where there are severe violations of religious freedom.
The countries on the list are the usual suspects – Burma, China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia among them – but what may surprise some is that there is growing pressure in Washington to add Egypt, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.
This is because the fall of President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year has prompted a surge in violence against the country’s Christian minority, the biggest Christian community in the Middle East, and the interim Egyptian government does not seem to be doing anything about it.
Even before Mubarak’s exit, sectarian tension was rising. The bombing of a church in Alexandria by Islamic extremists on New Year’s Day shocked the world, although when moderate Muslims and Christians joined together in solidarity for the Coptic Orthodox Christmas a few days later, it seemed that tolerance might prevail.
Since then, however, the situation has rapidly declined, and Mubarak’s flight from power on Jan. 25 has only made things worse.
Assaults on individual Copts have increased, some of them murderous, and so have attacks on Christian churches.
In the most recent troubles, three churches were burnt and 15 Christians killed in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba – the disturbances were provoked by rumors of a Muslim woman being forcibly converted to Christianity.
In the southern province of Qena, thousands of Islamists protested against the appointment of a Coptic Christian governor, even though his predecessor was also Christian.
One demonstrator complained: “A Copt won’t implement Islamic law.” Others chanted, “We will never be ruled by a Christian governor.”
What is most troubling is that much of the violence has been provoked by a previously hidden Islamist group known as the Salafists, hard-liners who draw their inspiration from fundamentalist Wahhabi teachings and who want to build a society modeled on the practices of the first three generations of Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad. (Salaf means “predecessor” or “forefather.”)
Many Egyptian Christians worried that the vacuum created by the fall of Mubarak would be filled by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest Islamic political grouping, established in 1928.
But as has happened in other uprisings in the Arab world, the demonstrators in the street are bypassing conventional opposition parties and inspiring new political movements, some of them with extremist agendas.
The collapse of the old order in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East will not lead to the creation of robust new political institutions overnight.
In a region where despotism has been the norm, and where millions of mostly young Arabs are alienated from their country’s political elites, this could take many years.
In the meantime, it is often the army which is the only force for stability.
Some observers venture that Egypt’s military leaders are quietly pleased that Islamist demonstrators are venting their anger on the Copts because this means the violence is not being directed at them.
Such myopia could undermine the very fabric of Egyptian society. The international community, and especially those countries such as the U.S. who supply Egypt with billions of dollars in aid, must take action soon – or things could get much worse.
Jeremy Moodey is chief executive of BibleLands, an interdenominational development charity that supports Christian social ministry in the lands of the Bible, including Egypt. This column first appeared in the Baptist Times and is used by permission.