The violent persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt is becoming harder for the free world to ignore. This is true thanks to thousands of Copts who recently expressed their decades of frustration and anguish in street protests across the globe. One moving example took place in West Los Angeles, Calif., last month. With American flags in hand, over a thousand Copts peacefully demonstrated. One boy simply said, "It is very dangerous in Egypt that is why we need America to help us."
The protests were in response to a January 6 shooting that left six young Copts dead in Upper Egypt. The victims were gunned down outside the steps of their church while leaving a Christmas Eve service.
The date and location of the shooting are significant. Previously the Egyptian government has described sectarian violence within the country as family or village disputes. The latest atrocity further proves what anyone willing to connect the dots already knew: Copts are specific targets.
Copts are among the most ancient of Christian communities. They trace their roots back to the Gospel writer Mark who brought Christianity into Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century. Estimated to be about 10 percent of the population in Egypt, their long term survival in that country is in doubt. Their protection is also essential because they represent the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
Fox News deserves credit for raising awareness of Coptic persecution by airing the story of Maher and Dina El-Gowhary. The El-Gowahrys are a father and daughter who face numerous death threats because of their conversion from Islam and who are currently hiding inside Egypt. Islamic leaders have issued a fatwa against Maher, demanding the spilling of his blood. Dina even wrote a letter to President Barack Obama pleading for help.
Copts are not just terrorized with violence from growing Islamic extremism in Egypt; they face religious and economic marginalization by the government as well. The zabaleen (garbage collectors) communities are Christians who live in squalor, sorting trash daily in what can only be described as heartbreaking and horrific conditions. They epitomize the people Jesus spoke about in John 15:20: "Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you."
Christian girls face abduction, rape, and forced marriages with Muslim men. Law enforcement officials hardly respond to such cases, and when they do, they routinely dismiss the incidents as "domestic quarrels."
Magdid Khalil, a Coptic writer living in the United States, explains the motivation behind government collusion or indifference to the plight of the Copts. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he says, "turns a blind eye to what happens to the Coptic citizens of his country. This seems to be an attempt at appeasing the Islamists to strengthen his hold on power and pass it on to his son."
While almost every Copt would agree that the situation in Egypt is growing worse by the day, world attention to their plight is also gathering momentum. Some world and Christian leaders have taken notice and issued statements or sent letters to Mubarak's government. President Obama received over 4,000 letters from Copts in the United States and across the world asking him to address their suffering. More than 2,000 Copts also assembled in front of the White House on a wintry January 21st to emphasize the seriousness of their resolve.
In his State of the Union Address, President Obama said, "For America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity. Abroad, America's greatest source of strength has always been our ideals." Interestingly, the United States may be in the best position to help the Copts. Egypt receives close to $2 billion annually in American aid, placing it high on the list of beneficiaries of American largesse. The United States has never leveraged that assistance for protection of Copts. American ambassadors too have largely ignored their plight.
While the United States has exerted pressure for democratic reform in Egypt, little has changed. The current administration has an opportunity to pivot on Egypt, taking a moral stand with the persecuted, and sending a strong message to all religious minorities in the troubled region. One thing is certain: The continued suffering and witness of Copts will remind the free world that more must be done to protect religious liberty, the core freedom due to every human being.