Egypt’s Coptic Christians are the largest group of Christians in the Middle East, and the largest group of Non-Muslims in general. But despite their wide berth and the historically important status of their community, the Copts in Egypt live troubled lives in regards to safety, security, and religious freedom.
The Islamic State has made clear its desire to destroy Christian communities – it already systematically wiped out northern Sinai of its Christian population. If President Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil, Egyptian leadership, and the international community remain slow to act in protecting Copts from Islamic extremism, the results would be catastrophic for the Middle East as a whole, fundamentally destabilizing the region for years to come.
Coptic Christians make up between 10% and 15% of Egypt’s 90 million-strong population, and are equal to the Islamic majority under Egyptian law; both former President Mohamed Morsi and al-Sisi have had regular dialogue endorsing the Coptic population, with Morsi calling them ‘just as Egyptian as I am’ and al-Sisi striking a close bond with Pope Tawadros, leader of the Coptic Christians.
But despite equal status under Egyptian law, Copts are regularly regarded as second-class citizens, even in official channels. Copts are disparaged in state-sponsored media, government-sanctioned textbooks, government-funded mosques, access to government careers, and in the administration of justice.
Tensions between the Coptic minority and Islamic majority have always been high, but in the past decade, political strife, regime change, and the rise of extremist groups have exacerbated confrontations, leading Egypt’s culture of discrimination to one of violence. In 2013, Copts witnessed all-time low for their community, when mobs attacked their churches, property, and homes. While the situation for Coptic Christians in Egypt has improved since then, Egypt remains a country where sectarian tensions perpetually simmer close to the boiling point. Human rights in general are abysmal, and life for Christians has never been comfortable or free of danger.
Within the last decade, another threat has been posed to the Copts in Egypt: Islamic State militants, who have targeted Egypt’s Christian population intently in recent years, and vow to exterminate their population from Egypt and the world.
Failure to protect the Copts also threatens to erode national support for President al-Sisi, whom Coptic leaders strongly backed in his 2013 military coup d’état which deposed former president Morsi, possibly opening up avenues for the re-emergence of more Islamic fundamentalist political entities similar to the Muslim Brotherhood.
With U.S. relations with Egypt already growing increasingly unstable since Morsi’s deposition, the possibility of second major political upheaval combined with a major humanitarian and subsequent refugee crisis threatens to further diminish the United State’s ability to work diplomatically to facilitate peace and encourage North African and Middle Eastern democracy. The international community and Egypt both should turn their gaze towards this crisis, lest they reap the consequences of inaction for decades to come, both as a refugee crisis and a matter of international security.