Egypt’s Coptic Christian community faces an uncertain future as widespread religiously motivated violence engulfs the country it has called home for centuries, one expert on the religious group said Thursday.
Pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters have targeted Coptic Christians since the Brotherhood’s leader and former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian military on July 3. At least 60 Christian churches, schools, homes, and businesses have been targeted in what one Coptic leader has called an attempt at "ethnic cleansing," according to reports.
That repression has propelled thousands of members of the Arab world’s largest Christian community to seek refuge outside Egypt’s borders. About a fifth of Coptic churches are now located in countries like the United States and Georgia.
Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, said during an event at the think tank that his Coptic congregation in Fairfax, Va., has swelled by about 1,500 in the weeks since Morsi’s removal.
"This is a challenge to the Coptic church that perhaps it is unprepared for," Tadros said.
"What does it mean to be a Copt if you no longer call Egypt home?"
Muslim Brotherhood-backed protesters have singled out Coptic Christians in a renewed bout of sectarian violence because of the religious group’s belief that the military and the state will better protect their rights, Tadros said.
Hundreds of Egyptian Copts protested in front of the White House and media organizations Thursday with signs that read, "We support the Egyptian Army," and "The Muslim Brotherhood never renounced terrorism," the Washington Free Beacon reported Thursday.
Tadros, author of the new book Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, argued that the conventional narrative of Egyptian history tends to minimize the contributions of Coptic Christians who were persecuted for centuries by the Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs.
The supposed "golden age" of liberalism in Egypt occurred in the early 20th century when Muslims and Christians lived in harmony and agreed to leave religion out of the public sphere, he said in reference to the traditional narrative.
However, Tadros noted that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the ultraconservative Salafi parties, and proto-fascist parties all emerged in the 1920s.
"Is it such a coincidence that in this liberal age in Egypt we got all these illiberal movements?" he said.
Coptic popes were the first to build schools for females and import the printing press, Tadros said. They also developed schools that educated four of Egypt’s prime ministers, he added.
The flight of Christians signals a major demographic shift for Egypt and other countries in the region, Tadros said.
"This loss of Christianity from the region will have implications," he said.
The adversity Coptic Christians experience is partially exacerbated by Islamist propaganda, Tadros said. Many of the country’s worst schools are located in the south of Egypt, where teachers indoctrinate students to disassociate from religious minorities.
That separation results in misunderstandings such as the Islamists’ assertion that Coptic priests wore black because they were mourning Islamist rule by the Brotherhood, Tadros said. When the Coptic pope was pictured wearing white robes at a recent ceremony, Islamists pointed to the pope’s dress as proof that Christians were reveling in the downfall of Morsi—unaware that the pope’s outfit accorded with standard ceremonial practice.
While Egyptians again turn to the state to strengthen services like education, Tadros said the Coptic Christians would continue to chart a familiar path both inside and outside Egypt.
"We’re going to see the twin stories," he said. "The decline, decay in communities, but also the revival in others."