Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is it the Christians’ turn to be driven out of Egypt?

Coptic Church burns in Egypt

Most people know that Israel has a sizable Arab minority, about 20% of the population. But surprisingly few people know that about half of Israel’s Jews are of Middle Eastern background.

This dates back to the years following Israel’s War of Independence when the Arab world systematically drove out their Jewish population, a flood of 900,000 refugees, most of whom fled to Israel.

In Egypt, Jews had been in a precarious position since the 1930s when the Nazis started funding the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood launched anti-Jewish pogroms from 1942 onwards while the Egyptian government imposed increasingly harsh legal restrictions on Jews. By 1956 more than half the Jews of Egypt had fled.

Following Egypt’s defeat in its 1967 war against Israel, all Jewish men between 17 and 60 were thrown out of the country or arrested and tortured for years. Some 35,000 Jews escaped to Israel; another 43,000 fled to Brazil, France, the U.S. and Argentina.

They arrived in their new homes destitute, as the Egyptian government confiscated their assets. A few Egyptian Jewish families were wealthy and left behind some impressive properties. For example, the Canadian embassy in Cairo is housed in the stately former home of Ovadia Salem, director of the Chemla department store.

There have been Jews in Egypt for at least 2,600 years, probably for a thousand years longer than that. In the 1920s, there were still 80,000 Egyptian Jews. Today, Egypt’s Jewish community numbers less than 100.

Canadian embassy in Cairo, former residence of Ovadia Salem and his family

Egypt still has a sizable Christian community of 8 to 10 million Coptic Christians, or about  10% of the population. But that number is rapidly shrinking.

Copts have always been under threat and have faced discrimination and occasional violence. Since the overthrow of Mubarak, however, the number of attacks on Copts have greatly increased and became worse after the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government.

Islamists have targeted homes, shops and businesses owned by Copts and killed Coptic Christians outright. In 2011, 93,000 Copts fled in Egypt; since the election of President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood a year ago, at least another 100,000 Christians have fled. And still the level of violence against Egyptian Christians continues to mount.

In the past few days, Islamist have looted and razed  40 churches and attacked 26 others, in addition to numerous attacks on homes and businesses. Yesterday, Islamists paraded three Franciscan nuns through the streets of Cairo, as if they were prisoners of war. 

None of this is exactly a surprise. While issuing perfunctory condemnations of violence for the benefit of the foreign press, the Muslim Brotherhood has been explicitly threatening the Christian population.

Safwat Hegazy, a prominent Islamic scholar, and a leader of the current pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests, posted a video on YouTube before the army overthrew Morsi’s presidency, saying: 
A message to the church of Egypt, from an Egyptian Muslim: I tell the church — by Allah, and again, by Allah — if you conspire and unite with the remnants [the opposition] to bring Morsi down, that will be another matter…. our red line is the legitimacy of Dr. Muhammad Morsi. Whoever splashes water on it, we will splash blood on him.
After all, the Muslim Brotherhood can’t take on the army, but the Christians are defenceless. The police can’t help them (supposing they wanted to) as their own police stations are under attack. The army has pledged to rebuild the burnt churches, but the army cannot raise the dead. It can’t even prevent further attacks against Christians.

Why do the Islamists target Christians in the first place? Same reason the Islamists targeted Jews: they don’t fit with the Islamist vision of a Muslim Egypt.

The Christians do have advantages the Egyptian Jews didn’t. First, many Muslims don’t share the Brotherhood’s hatred of the Copts and some have even defended them against attacks. Second, the Egyptian government isn’t persecuting the Copts; they only have to fear mobs of Muslim Brotherhood terrorists.

On the other hand, Jews fleeing Egypt had Israel to flee to and the Israeli government to help them. Will any nation step up to help the Coptic Christians?

I don’t think so. I fear they’re on their own.

Algerian embassy in Cairo, formerly the home of Daniel Curiel from
Note: For an account of a few other notable properties left behind by the Jews of Egypt and for much more information on the Jews ethnically cleansed from Arab lands, see the Point of No Return blog here.

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