Egyptian Christians faring better under Al-Sisi, but remain under threat of attacks and persecution

A young girl looks out over the Cairo skyline on December 16, 2016, in Cairo, Egypt.
A young girl looks out over the Cairo skyline on December 16, 2016, in Cairo, Egypt. | Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Experts on the persecution of Egyptian Christians report that although life under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is better for Christians than past presidents, such as Mohamed Morsi or Hosni Mubarak, believers continue to face persecution and violence at the hands of radical Muslims who evade arrest and prosecution.  

When mobs of radical Muslims attack Christians, none of them get arrested, said Coptic Christian leader Samuel Tadros. Instead, the victims of violence are arrested by police.

“Not a single person has been convicted or spent time in jail for attacking Christians,” said Tadros, who was among the experts who spoke at a Zoom conference on Friday hosted by In Defense of Christians, an advocacy group for Middle Eastern Christians.

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“They will execute ISIS who are enemies of the state for attacking Christians, but not violence by Muslims. When it comes to mob attacks we have had a complete failure by government, not of impunity but encouragement," he stressed. 

Recently, a radical Muslim mob burned houses and stripped an elderly Christian woman naked and drug her through the streets. Egypt’s courts acquitted the men who led the mob. 

Even though such incidents are common, Egypt’s present government under al-Sisi has a better record of protecting Christians than former president Hosni Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood, Tadros said.

Al-Sisi’s government presents a strange mixture of public support and private indifference to Christians, speakers at the conference said. Al-Sisi, a Muslim, has attended Christmas services at a Coptic cathedral, signed new legislation that registered churches with the government and built a Coptic Christian cathedral with government money.

But these deeds aren’t the whole picture. Al-Sisi’s church registration program has made it challenging for churches to get licenses approved and difficult for Christians to build new churches.

“These are modest advancements but still important to recognize," said Nadine Maenza, who was appointed by President Donald Trump to the Commission for International Religious Freedom in May 2018 and elected vice-chair in June 2019. "Egyptian bureaucracy is infamous for moving slowly, but [the church program has accepted] only a third of applicants. Church registration is still substantially different and far less proportional than mosques in the country.”

Even al-Sisi’s cathedral is not really a Coptic cathedral, said Tadros. It’s in an inconvenient location and doesn’t have a Coptic name, 

“It’s in the desert, not where you can worship,” he said. “We, as Copts, name our cathedrals after saints. It’s a telling thing that even the name of the cathedral was chosen by the Egyptian president.”

Kurt Werthmuller, a supervisory policy analyst for USCIRF with a particular emphasis on religious freedom in Egypt, Iraq, and the Levant, brought up al-Sisi's detention of Christian rights activist Ramy Kamel in 2019. 

“He’s been theoretically not imprisoned but in pre-trial detention. The charges that are levied against him include colluding with a terror organization to spread false information, said Werthmuller. “He has spent most of that year in solitary confinement. We’ve heard that the last couple of months his health has been deteriorating.”

Werthmuller said Egypt should be doing better on religious freedom. Coptic Christians shouldn’t have to accept mob violence against them as a normal part of life, he added.

“Egypt is a country with tremendous potential. Its people are amazing, it has resources. We shouldn’t take ‘this is the best we’re going to get’ as enough,” Werthmuller said.

Egypt is ranked No. 16 on Christian persecution watchdog group Open Doors USA's 2021 list of countries where it's most difficult to live openly as a Christian. 

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