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The Limits of a Nail
Limits of a Nail

As demonstrations go, it wasn’t much, at least judging by the coverage it received in the Los Angeles Times: a blog post on its LA Now site.

An estimated 1,000 Coptic Christians gathered in West LA to protest the killings of their co-religionists in Egypt a few days earlier. As one protester told the Times, “there is no protection for Christians in Egypt . . . The Egyptian government isn’t doing anything for them. It’s happened too many times before and it will keep happening again and again.”

Substitute “no one” for “the Egyptian government” and he’s summed it up perfectly.

The killings that prompted the protests took place on the Coptic Christmas, January 7. A gunman opened fire on a crowd of worshipers leaving midnight mass in the ancient city of Nag Hamadi. Seven Copts were killed and at least another six were wounded.

According to the Egyptian government, the killings were in retaliation for the “alleged sexual assault of a Muslim girl by a Christian man in November.” That, of course, is in addition to the five days of looting and burning of Coptic homes and businesses immediately following the alleged assault.

As the protester noted, that violence and repression are part and parcel of the lives of Copts. In 2006, five Copts were stabbed, one fatally, while leaving Good Friday services in Alexandria. This was part of a larger assault at four different churches that left several Copts dead and at least seventeen wounded.

Last Spring, Egypt responded to the “swine flu” scare by ordering the slaughter of all its pigs – the only country to do so. Since Muslims don’t eat pork, the effect was to further impoverish the Coptic minority. As Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Muslim, put it “the Copts are victims of the flu without ever having been contaminated.”

That, as the saying goes, is a feature not a bug: many Arab intellectuals – Muslims and Christians – believe that the order was given to appease the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposes raising pigs on “Islamic soil.”

Then again, they’re not crazy about raising Christians there, either: seminaries, churches and Copt-owned businesses are burned and, more-than-occasionally, Copts are murdered. The response of the Egyptian government is, to put it charitably, less-than-vigorous. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: that same government discriminates against Copts in employment and places “severe restrictions” on the building and repair of their churches.

If the Egyptian government is indifferent to the fate of its Christian minority, folks outside Egypt are scarcely better. Take the media: in its reports on the Nag Hamadi killings and their aftermath, the Associated Press called the killings the product of “sectarian strains.” To say the Copts have “strained” relationships with the Muslim majority is like saying a nail has a strained relationship with a hammer.

This false equivalence permeated the AP story. The murders are called “a reminder of the government's chronic failure to address sectarian strains . . .” Copts are said to “fed up with their perceived second-class status . . .” (Emphasis mine) And the restrictions on the repair and construction of churches are characterized as “church construction disputes,” as if the stuff of suburban zoning commissions.

To read the AP story, you would think that the Copts are recent arrivals whose presence in historically-Muslims Egypt has created “religious tensions,” instead of people who lived in Egypt long before there was an Islam and whose ancestors helped define trinitarian Christianity.

To be fair, our leaders aren’t much better: in his 57-minute address at Cairo University, president Obama never uttered the word “Copts.” Before you get too satisfied, the same is true of his predecessor. Giving Egypt a pass on its treatment of its Christian minority is definitely a bipartisan endeavor.

Truth is, the treatment of Christian minorities has never figured prominently in American foreign policy. It’s difficult – no make that impossible – to believe that the consequences to Iraq’s Christian minority played any role in the decision to invade that country or in the planning (what little there was) for the aftermath. Thus, when the country (predictably) descended into chaos after the invasion, the one thing that, as Lawrence Kaplan wrote in the New Republic, Sunni, Shia, and Kurd, could agree on was “brutalizing their Christian neighbors.” Christians “routinely disappear[ed]from the sidewalks of Baghdad;” others were kidnapped and held for ransom. They were Iraq’s “victims of choice.”

To add injury to injury, while American efforts to rebuild Iraq took into account to competing Sunni, Shia and Kurdish demands into account, no such courtesies were extended to a community that – stop me if you’ve heard this before – has lived in Iraq since long before there was an Iraq or an Islam. (How long? They are sometimes called “Assyrians” and three weeks before the start of Lent, they observe the Baoutha d-Ninwaye, the “Feast of Nineveh,” three days of fasting and prayers.) .

It isn’t only the Middle East and it certainly isn’t only Republicans: Democrats are no more likely – arguably, they are less likely – to raise the issue of China’s treatment of its Christian minority. Just as Sunnis, Shiites, And Kurds agreed on the need to brutalize their Christian neighbors, most Democrats and Republicans agree that the treatment of Chinese Christians (or, indeed, Christians anywhere) shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with business – and by “interfere” I mean any sort of discouraging word.

Their tactful silence is assisted by the average American’s ignorance about and lack of interest in what happens outside of our borders. Vastly more of us can name the people who crashed the state dinner for the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, than the Prime Minister himself. We believe in American preeminence in global affairs while simultaneously not being interested in other countries and the people who inhabit them.

That brings me back to the Copts. After the Christmas attack, thousands of Copts clashed with Egyptian riot police. They chanted slogans (“Long live the Cross!” and “No to persecution!”), threw stones and destroyed vehicles. Their bishop told the Guardian that “this is a religious war, about how they can finish off the Christians in Egypt.”
While the violence is deplorable, it shouldn’t surprise anyone: they see themselves as targets; the government is, at best, indifferent to their plight; and the world doesn’t care. Little wonder some of them have become, as the AP put it, “radicalized.”

They’re not alone: in his new book, The Future Church, John L. Allen writes that Christians in African and Asia are more likely to “push back” when their non-Christian neighbors try to relegate them to second-class status. We see this in places like Nigeria and, to some extent, in the Indian state of Nagaland.

As Niels Bohr said, “prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” Still, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that this “pushing back” is going to increase. Christians in the global south have no reason to acquiesce to their oppression, especially since they have little, if any, stake in the current global distribution of power. If “pushing back” destabilizes things, well, that’s the point: for them, “stability” is overrated.

This “pushing back” is going to give governments, including ours, no end of agita. Serves them right: even a nail can only take so much.