Over the weekend, I was rereading Elie Wiesel’s classic account of the oppression of Soviet Jews in the 1960’s. It was called The Jews of Silence. And I was thinking about the oppressive and abusive conditions under which the Coptic Christians in Egypt are forced to live. The more I read of this book, the more parallels I saw between the two communities of historically oppressed religious minorities.
Both communities have been subjected to systematic religious repression at the hands of a dominant religious majority for hundreds of years. Russian Jews have been persecuted by the Russian Orthodox Church since the 1600’s, and Coptic Christians have endured various degrees of oppression under Islamic rule in Egypt for 1,400 years. Both groups have been subjected to periodic campaigns which attempt to convert them to the religion of the dominant majority, Russian Orthodox Christianity in Russia and Islam in Egypt. Both communities have emigrated in large numbers to the West to escape oppressive conditions in their homelands, with 2 million Russian Jews emigrating to the U.S. in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s alone. Similarly, 4 million Coptic Christians have left Egypt since the 1950’s, representing 1/3 of their community.
Both communities have lived for generations with an all-pervasive sense of fear, rejection, and persecution. Chapter 2 of Wiesel’s book is entitled Fear. He writes of Soviet Jews on page 10,”What are they afraid of? I don’t know. Perhaps, afraid to ask, neither do they. I wasn’t afraid to ask, but I never got an answer…I cannot say, then, whether their fear is justified, but I know for a fact that it exists, and that its depths are greater than I had imagined possible.” Similarly, while being forced to watch the Islamists burning the Adventist Chapel in Assiyut where he grew up, Maikel Nabil described a feeling of all-pervasive sorrow and fear about the future of his community in Egypt.
Discrimination is a fact of life for both communities. Wiesel writes of Soviet Jews,”For a Jew to progress far enough in his profession to replace a non-Jew in his position is almost unheard of. More than feeling insecure, they feel unwanted. It is as simiple as that. From all sides, they are made to believe that Russia can get along quite nicely without them; in fact that Russia without them would be a better place. And the ugly truth is that the authorities do nothing to contradict this impression ” (page 70). Coptic Christians were blocked from the top positions in politics and the military after 1952. And the Egyptian military which attacked them in the Maspero massacre in October 2011 and which allows the Islamists to attack them with impunity will not protect them.
In addition, Soviet Jews and Coptic Christians both live with the fear of being forgotten by the outside world. Wiesel wrote of Soviet Jews,”Justly or unjustly, they think that we (Israel and Western Jews) have forgotten; they think that we have ignored or abandoned them, that somehow we are all too busy and pre-occupied to be interested in their fate (page 53). Maikel Nabil articulates a similar fear that the outside world will forget the Coptic Christians. He writes,”Western countries and Israel have lots of security interests with the Egyptian army, and wouldn’t risk it even for 8 million Christians. If Ben-Gurion didn’t do anything for Egypt’s Jews, who would do anything for its Christians?” The sense of abandonment and isolation adds to their despair and their fear as they feel that their persecutors can act with impunity against them.
Maikel Nabil articulates the fear that his community will face genocide through either mass expulsion or even extermination. He draws parallels between the uncertain fate of the Coptic Christians in Egypt and the fate of the Egyptian Jews and the European Jews during the Holocaust. He fears that having expelled the Egyptian Jews and confiscated their property, Egypt will inflict the same injustice upon the Coptic Christians. He is also haunted by fears that the Egyptian Copts could even be facing outright extermination with no ability to escape at some point.
The moral urgency of the Coptic Christian situation demands immediate Western action. The military’s defeat of the Islamists does not necessarily promise a more secure future for the Coptic Christian community, sadly. And so the West must break the pattern of chronic inaction, indifference, and non-intervention in the face of impending danger to ethnic and religious minorities. The West must offer asylum to the Coptic Christian community effective immediately and hold both the military and the Islamists accountable for stopping their persecution of the Coptic Christians.
The Obama Administration’s decision to cut military aid to Egypt offers an ideal opportunity to raise this issue with the military. The restoration of aid to the military must be made contingent upon several conditions such as:
1. keeping the peace treaty with Israel
2. respecting fundamental human rights
3. making an immediate transition toward democracy
4. but also upon protecting the Coptic Christian minority’s rights.
The Egyptian military should be informed that its right to receive future aid will be contingent upon meeting all of these conditions, with an emphasis upon respecting the Coptic Christians.