Daniel Williams is the author of “Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East.”
Attacks on the Coptic Christian community in Egypt have become a common event. On Palm Sunday, St. George’s Church in the Nile Delta town of Tanta and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria were hit by bombs, killing at least 45 people. The Islamic State branch in Egypt, which reportedly claimed responsibility for the bombings, issued a video in February called “Kill All Idolaters” that promised to “liberate” Cairo of Christians.
Does anyone care? No one darkened lights atop the Empire State Building to mourn the victims of Sunday’s attacks. The Eiffel Tower remains gaily lit at night. No marches of solidarity are expected across the United States and Europe, as there are when major terrorist attacks happen in their cities.
The hostility toward Christian communities comes from intolerant notions of non-Sunni Islamic sects promoted by followers of two ultraconservative branches: Salafism and Wahhabism. In Egypt, the Salafi following has been growing for years, with a disastrous impact on the country’s Coptic Christian community. Under the long reign of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, pogroms were periodically launched against Coptic Christians and their churches. The government routinely played down these assaults as isolated incidents.
On New Year’s Day 2011, a bomb set outside the Church of Saints Mark and Peter in Alexandria killed 23 people. After the fall of Mubarak in February 2011, mobs unleashed violence on Copts across the country by burning churches, including two in Cairo, and attacking Christian communities big and small.
In 2013, after current Egyptian strongman Abdel Fatah al-Sissi overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the elected president and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood blamed Copts and waves of rioters attacked Christians from the Mediterranean coast to the far south. Last December, a bomb smuggled into Cairo’s Church of St. Peter and St. Paul killed at least 25 worshipers.
But besides the terrible human cost, the attacks in Egypt bear a special look. They highlight a painful truth: that Islamic State ideology is particularly aimed at Christians. Its goal is not to rid the region of evil foreigners — the indigenous Christian communities trace their origins in the Middle East back 2,000 years. Rather, it has a millennial goal to rid Islam of influences that, in the view of radicals who share Islamic State ideas, weaken Islam. The Christian presence is one of them.
The notion of cleansing Islam by removing minorities has gestated for a long time. Back in the 1950s, an Egyptian named Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood member, demanded that Christians effectively be driven underground and made invisible, without the right to worship openly. Al-Qaeda ideologue Ali al-Aliyani later updated the restrictions by insisting that Christians were engaged in degenerate activities — “interest [on loans], fornication and other things” — that fundamentally weaken Islam and undermine its greatness.
His further prescription: “O Allah, destroy the Jews, the Christians, and the polytheists, and whoever has befriended them or helped them in any way against your servants the believers.”
To further stack the deck against Christians and justify killing civilians, the Islamic State takes pains to conflate Christians with its close enemies: the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the government of Egypt.
Taken together, Christians in the Middle East’s three largest countries, and incidentally, the birthplace of organized Christianity, are under chronic threat. The aim is a kind of religious cleansing and attack on general tolerance in the region. To fight it, the end to the numerous wars ongoing in the Middle East is paramount — all have unleashed demonic intolerance and hatred.
In places where Christians have a “well-founded fear of persecution,” they should be offered political asylum, as indicated by U.S. and international law. Such consideration certainly applies to Christians who were driven out of Mosul and who have been languishing in refugee camps in Kurdistan for 2½ years.
This is not a plea for special treatment for Christians, but a call that is well within the bounds of customary treatment for communities under systematic threat. President Barack Obama was wrong to suggest that doing anything for Middle East Christians was somehow special treatment for a religion, and President Trump is wrong to suggest that such concern would somehow exclude Muslims, also based on religion.
Last year, the State Department said Christians as well as Yazidis, a small religious grouping, face genocide in both Iraq and Syria. Nothing was done for either, devaluing the notion that genocide should be prevented.
In the longer run, persistent intolerance in the teachings of Wahhabi and Salafi versions of Islam should be debated and denounced as a danger, not only to religious minorities in the Middle East but also to most Muslims. While Christians are a target, other Sunni branches of Islam, not to mention Shiites, are in the firing line of the Islamic State. Most victims of the Islamic State have been Muslims.
Finally, states of emergency, such as the one Sissi just declared, or brutal repression in the style of Syria’s Assad, do nothing to overcome extremist ideology. Only a clear statement of equal citizenship and civil rights for all can restore the traditions of tolerance that Egypt, Iraq and Syria once had.