The tear gas was blinding that night in Maspero. It burns the eyes and slows the ability to react. People ran, aimlessly and horrified, but they had nowhere to go. Armored military vehicles veered uncontrollably into crowded streets. Gunfire crackled from overpasses and showered the roadways. And, peaceful protestors dropped to the ground – swept and crushed beneath the tires of tanks or by a bullet to the head or chest.
“The area turned to darkness. All of a sudden there was shooting and people were running,” said Mary Ibrahim Daniel, a Christian activist who had marched with thousands of other Egyptians from Shubra to Maspero in Cairo on October 9, 2011. “The guy next to me fell from a bullet to the neck. My sister and I were almost hit by a tank. People were screaming. We could hardly see because of the tear gas. The street was covered with blood. Many were dying, but we couldn’t help them or else we would die too.”
Near Mary, but not within sight, stood her brother, Mina. He was a known activist in Egypt and attended many demonstrations, but he had never witnessed anything like this before. However, Mina would see little of the violence that unfolded that night—he was among the first killed.
“After I got shot and went to the hospital I saw Mina on the floor at the morgue,” Wagih Yacoub, a Coptic human rights activist, told ICC. “I was just with him a few hours ago, laughing and talking. And then I just saw him lying there… I don’t know what to say. He was my friend.”
Mina was shot and instantly killed by a bullet to the chest, according to a medical examination. He was only one of 26 Christians killed that evening which protestors dubbed “Bloody Sunday.” The initially peaceful demonstration denouncing the destruction of a church by a Muslim mob a week earlier was met by the worst violence in Egypt since President Mubarak’s ouster from power in February 2011.
One year later, the victims’ families are still waiting for justice. “Only three soldiers, who have been charged with ‘involuntary manslaughter’ and sentenced to just two and three years in jail, have been held responsible for the events,” Ahram Online reported. As is often the case in Egypt, violence targeting Christians usually goes unpunished.
“They were among my best friends and life is difficult without them,” Hani, a Christian engineering student, told Gulf News. “Deepening my grief is that the actual killers have not been punished for brutally attacking peaceful demonstrators.”
Many Muslims in Egypt and throughout the Middle East will always remember 2011 as the year that long-standing dictators were deposed and greater political rights and free speech were realized. For Christians, however, the year fondly labeled as the ‘Arab Spring’ has brought only hardship. Religious freedom was far from the minds of most revolutionaries and Christians now find they are the targets of widespread and merciless violence.
In all, more than 80 Christians were killed in 2011 as a result of religious-based violence in Egypt which, according to reports, has prompted more than a hundred thousand Christians to seek immigration to western countries. Christians fear that persecution will only increase as well-organized Islamist movements capitalize on newly-gained political freedoms.
Some church leaders, however, refuse to lose hope. “We are passing through a dark tunnel of violence, feeling grief of death and injustice…” Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Church told World Magazine from Cairo. “Trying to bring forgiveness and justice together is a big struggle, but we are committed to the love that never fails. We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed.”
“Let Allah be avenged on the polytheist apostate!”
“Allah: empower your religion, make it victorious against the polytheists!”
“Allah, defeat the infidels at the hands of the Muslims!”
Those were the prayers just before the beheading of a Christian convert from Islam in a video released on June 4. The calls to “avenge Allah” that preceded the execution—which reportedly took place in Tunisia—have become commonplace for many Middle Eastern Christians. Radical Islam has quickly spread throughout the region following the ousting of long-standing dictators in the Muslim world’s so-called ‘Arab Spring.’
In Egypt, for example, a leaflet titled, “An Urgent and Important Notice,” was distributed by jihadist organizations on August 14 calling for Muslims to “kill or physically attack the enemies of the religion of Allah—the Christians in all of Egypt’s provinces, the slaves of the Cross, Allah’s curse upon them…” The letter went on to promise a reward to anyone who helps “achieve Allah’s rights against his enemies.”
Not surprising, attacks on the Christian community followed soon after. In the Upper Egypt town of Sohag, four Christian shops were set ablaze and dozens of Christians were severely beaten just days after the leaflets were distributed.
Similar threats are now surfacing in Syria where entire cities have been emptied of Christians while Sunni jihadists, who were fighting alongside al-Qaeda against U.S. forces in Iraq, are returning to fight the regime at home.
“We have experience now fighting the Americans, and more experience now with the Syrian revolution,” said Abu Thuha, an al-Qaeda operative. “Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine.”
In a recently released video on YouTube, masked men that claim to belong to the Free Syrian Army hold AK-47s in front of two al-Qaeda flags. “We are now forming suicide cells to make jihad in the name of Allah,” said a speaker in the video. The video is the latest bit of evidence suggesting that al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists are hijacking the Syrian revolution and quickly gaining control of the country.
According to Agenzia Fides, the official Vatican news agency, Syria’s Salafis—who follow the radical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam found in Saudi Arabia—is another group carrying out “brief executions” against Christian “infidels” while initiating a “sectarian war.” These Christians are given a choice to either join the opposition or face “harassment, discrimination, [and] violence.
The surmounting threats and routine killings of Christians have persuaded hundreds of thousands of Christians to flee the region. Christians in Syria and Egypt often express their fears by referencing the decline of Christianity in Iraq, where about 50 percent of Iraq’s 1.4 million Christians have fled the country amidst nearly a decade of church bombings, kidnappings, and sectarian murder. Will the faithful in other Middle Eastern countries join Iraq’s mass exodus of Christians? Now, more than ever before, Christians in the Middle East are seeking the prayers and support of the international church during this period of great suffering and uncertainty.
Difficult times are still ahead for Christians in Egypt. Just last week, Egypt’s highest court dissolved the country’s newly-elected Parliament to give more power to the military council. Days later, the Muslim Brotherhood declared victory in Egypt’s presidential elections. But, on Sunday evening, just as the elections were ending, the military announced a constitutional declaration that expands their power over a civilian government and grants them authority to draft a new constitution.
What does this all mean? Some speculate that an Islamist takeover was so dangerous for the country that the military had to step in—willing to risk civil war—rather than to remain passive and turn over power. Others believe that the military is simply trying to regain control by staging a potential military coup. More than likely, both reasons are true, but at stake are the very ideals that brought hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to the streets to protest authoritarian rule in Egypt’s revolution.
Bottom line: If the military were to regain power than it would be as if the revolution never happened. Some 2,000 people who were killed during the protests may have died for nothing. This scenario, however, is what many Christians are hoping for.
“Christians are happy, because they were afraid the Muslim Brotherhood was taking over,” said Athanasious Williams, a Coptic Christian human rights lawyer in Cairo. “But now they feel that there might be a better chance for a secular government.”
Islamists who have gained power since the revolution have done nothing for Christians. Instead, Christians have seen their churches burned and destroyed and many of their fellow brethren suffer from severe persecution or killed. Some recent reports from Egypt said that 200,000 Christians left or are waiting to leave Egypt due to the threats they receive on a daily basis.
But, is a military takeover worth the risk to safeguard the Christian community? Remember that a similar situation occurred in Algeria when the army staged a coup just before elections to stop the Islamic Salvation Front from gaining victory in 1991. The result: 150,000-200,000 people were killed in a decade-long civil war. Like in Algeria, Egypt’s Islamists will not back down quietly, considering that more than 50 percent of Egyptians voted for them. While Egypt will probably not break out in civil war, it is a risk the military appears to be willing to take.
Egypt needs our prayers more than ever before. Anything can happen as Islamists and the military fight for power. Like Iraq and Syria, Christians will inevitably be caught in the middle and attacks against the church will continue to increase.
“The situation is difficult in these days,” an Egyptian ministry partner recently told ICC. “Please pray for the coming days and the stabilization for our people.”
The only hope that remains, and that should remain, is in God’s provision. “We firmly believe in God’s protection in his people,” said Rev. Joseph Boules, a priest at St. Mary & St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church. “We have that hope that we are in the hands of God.”
After a long march from Shubra, Viviane Magdi and her fiancé Michael Mosad finally reached their destination at the State TV building in Maspero in downtown Cairo where a mass crowd of demonstrators had gathered. Upon arrival, however, the protest that Michael and Viviane had joined took an unexpected turn.
“The protest was wonderful at first,” Viviane told the BBC through a translator. “We felt united. There were Muslims and Christians. People were chanting and marching together… But when we reached Maspero the atmosphere had changed.”
Above the chants for freedom and the end to military rule, the couple could hear screams and the crackle of gun fire rising from among the demonstrators into the evening air.
Although nervous about the apparent violence that had broken out in what started as a peaceful demonstration, Michael refused to return home. Viviane, resolving to stay near her fiancé no matter what happened, remained faithfully beside him while the cries for help and gun shots amplified around her.
A moment later, a military vehicle veered into the crowded street at a speed fast enough to bring imminent danger to anyone standing in its path. The truck swiveled on and off the sidewalk, reversed, and went forward again. Demonstrators scrambled and tripped over one another, uncertain where the vehicle would turn next.
“He was holding my hand. He saw somebody get hurt and he tried to help him, but he couldn’t. ‘Don’t let me go, stay with me, don’t be scared,’ he told me… Then suddenly, I felt myself pushed away,” Viviane remembers.
Looking behind her, she saw Michael swept under the truck and crushed beneath its tires. His skull was fractured and his legs were left dangling visibly from his body as the truck sped off.
“His body was in the middle of the wheels. His legs were torn. His head hit the pavement, breaking his skull,” The Associated Press reported Viviane as saying.
Soldiers following swiftly behind the vehicle started beating Michael’s unconscious body. “I begged them to leave him,” Viviane said. “He was not breathing.”
One soldier turned on Viviane, who stood watching nearby.
“A soldier with a red cap came, shouting, cursing and hitting me with a stick then tried to beat him up. I threw my body on him (her fiancé)… and the soldier said to me: ‘You infidel, why are you here?’”
Finally, a lone soldier intervened, loaded Michael’s body on a truck, and drove him and Viviane to a Coptic hospital. Michael, however, was already dead. Laid beside three other corpses at the morgue, Viviane clasped her fiancé’s lifeless hand and would not let go. Lost in despair, she wailed, “I will not leave you!”
A photo taken of her and the testimony she gave to the Egyptian press circulated throughout the country and Viviane soon emerged as the unforgettable face of the October 9 massacre.
Michael was one of 26 Christians killed on the evening protestors quickly dubbed, ‘Bloody Sunday.’ An initially peaceful demonstration demanding justice for the destruction of a church by an Islamist mob in Aswan a week earlier was met by the worst violence Egyptians have seen since President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February.
Violence against Christians in Egypt has grown continually worse. Well over seventy have been killed this year alone. Although the future for Christians appears bleak, many refuse to lose hope.
“I feel I am still with [Michael],” Viviane reflected. “I’m glad I’m alive because I’m able to do him justice… There must be a reason I’m still alive… Michael’s blood is still on my hand. We must do him justice by creating a better Egypt.”
More shocking than the stench of waste decaying in Manshiyat Nasr’s midday heat is the astonishing sight of women and children intently digging through it. Separating papers and plastics from used toiletries, decomposing food and everything else imaginable in a household’s trash is a messy business, but it provides the only livelihood available to Cairo’s poorest Christian families.
More than 50,000 garbage-area dwellers, many of whom are children only five or six years old, do the city’s dirty work. Thousands of these families live in Manshiyat Nasr and the neighboring slum, peculiarly called ‘the City of the Dead,’ and have been all but ostracized by the rest of Egyptian society. Apartments are damp and overcrowded, sewage frequently overflows onto the streets, and homes are often without water or electricity. The indigent living conditions have led to disease and illness, especially among the slum’s children.
“My parents took me to these slums when I was a child to show me how fortunate I was,” my guide told me as we walked past kids digging face down in a dumpster, their feet dangling in the air.
Education is not highly valued in the community and children are often discouraged by their parents from attending school. Without the extra hands at home, a family may earn less than an average daily income equal to two U.S. dollars, which places them below the world’s poverty line. By not sending their children to school, however, families feed the cycle of poverty that has already poisoned the community.
“Unless you give these kids a chance at something better, they too will collect garbage,” said an ICC partner who oversees a number of Christian kindergartens in the area. “To be very poor is to have no decisions. We offer these kids the opportunity to make a decision.”
When visiting a classroom, I watched as children recited Psalms and their ABC’s in both Arabic and English. Flies swarmed the room and nestled on the children’s faces, but it was only I who noticed; the children had grown accustomed to the flies.
Outside the classroom, a teacher scrubbed a girl’s feet and washed her face, an act of servitude and love. “This is the only place children can wash,” the teacher said. “Many diseases are spread through cuts in the feet when sorting through trash. We must keep them clean and treat their diseases. Christ tells us that the greatest leader must also be the greatest servant.”
Christian children born in Egypt’s garbage slums are sadly among the country’s greatest victims of persecution. Before they were born, their parents were ostracized for their Christian faith. Government policies discriminating against them for their beliefs prevented them from being educated and pushed many of them to accept demeaning jobs, like trash collecting, as the only means to provide for their families. Children grow up vulnerable to diseases, many without a fighting chance of survival or to make something more of their lives.
After four trips to Egypt, countless meetings with local churches and ministries, and hours of research, ICC has finally found a solution. In partnership with local churches, ICC is sending children to school. The education offered builds both the academic foundation needed for the child to attend public school and the spiritual foundation needed so the child can discern between their faith and the Islamic ideology that will be taught to them in public schools. Staff and teachers all are Christians, a contrast to government schools where teachers are Muslim and use the Quran in classes.
“After kindergarten, these kids will go to a state school and be forced to memorize the Quran,” said an ICC partner working with the children. “We want them to have a personal relationship with Christ first.”
“By the time they get to a government school they are exceptional students. They are honest and they have values,” he continued.
Sama’an Nazmi, a Coptic Christian from the garbage slums of Manshier Nasr, jumped up off the couch and sprinted out the door upon hearing gunfire and screams in the streets outside. Coptic youth had been staging a protest, causing enough racket that village priests urged them to stop before they attracted the attention of radical mobs who may use violence to forcefully halt the demonstration. The protestors – agitated over a church that had been burned to the ground by Islamists days earlier in a nearby village – refused to back down.
Villagers knew the protests were getting out of hand once the military arrived. Still, they could not convince their sons to come home. Instead, families gathered together, locked their doors, held hands, and prayed. When gunfire was heard, no one was surprised. In fact, many, like Sama’an, had been expecting it and were waiting to respond, knowing that help would be needed.
“Don’t go!” Sama’an’s mother shouted after him as he fled out the door. “I’m not afraid,” Sama’an replied on the run. “I need to protect my church and family.”
“We didn’t want to see him go,” Sama’an’s mother told ICC. “But he wanted to help those who were injured.”
Bullets still flying, Sama’an hurriedly searched for the injured and offered whatever assistance he could give.
Sama’an’s efforts were short lived, however. His wife, Rasha (not real name), had followed closely behind him before stopping at the top of the hill where she could see the upcoming events unfold. “I saw Sama’an helping an injured youth to his feet,” Rasha explained through a translator. “And then Sama’an dropped to the ground.”
A shrill scream pierced the village. Rasha tried to go to her husband, but her legs locked and she fell desperately to her knees. Crawling toward him and toward the battle that pressed on, villagers had to grab her to hold her back.
“I couldn’t get to him,” she lamented. “But when he fell, I knew he was dead. I knew there was nothing I could do.”
“They take our children, our money, our power. They take everything,” Sama’an’s mother continued. “What do they want from us?”
Sama’an’s family lives off less than two dollars a day which is earned by collecting and recycling Cairo’s trash. With Sama’an’s death, the family lost their only provider. Sama’an’s father is also out of the picture, having been arrested a year earlier for owning a pig, which became illegal in Cairo after the swine epidemic of 2009. It will be another four years before he is released. The women and children are now left to fend for themselves.
Sipping tea with Sama’an’s family in their home, Rasha took a framed wedding photo from the wall and handed it to me. A beautiful bride and handsome groom, in love, posed confidently for the camera. I looked at the bride and hardly recognized her. Rasha’s face, though still young, had aged quickly over the past few months by the stress and hard labor that a poor widow must bear in Egypt. How could Rasha have known her life would turn out this way?
Still gazing at the photograph, Sama’an’s five-year-old son Hany and two-year-old daughter Mariam chased after baby chicks scurrying across the living room rug. Amongst the chirps and laughing children, Rasha broke down in tears. The group I was with came to her, prayed, and offered what little comfort we could. “What will she do now?” I asked myself. “How will she raise her children on her own?”
Today, ICC continues to seek a solution to these questions. Upon our visit, ICC was able to bless Rasha and eight other families who lost loved ones in the protests on March 8 with a gift to help their immediate financial needs. Now, ICC is developing a small business for Rasha and providing the support needed to ensure that her children will attend school. Lastly, we have connected these families with a local church that will visit them monthly and continue to ensure that there spiritual and physical needs are being cared for.
Please consider partnering with ICC by praying or sending a donation for families in Mokattam. If you would like to give a gift to improve the lives of our brothers and sisters in Egypt, please make a donation to our Hand of Hope Fund for the Middle East and include a note designating your gift for “Egypt.” You may also give by check or by calling us at 1-800-ICC-5441.
To learn more about families in Mokattam who lost loved ones on March 8 or about the garbage districts of Cairo, please visit ICC’s Out of Egypt blog or sign up for our newsletter to read a full article in our September edition.
On New Year’s Day, a bomb was detonated outside the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria as worshippers were leaving midnight mass. Twenty-three Christians were killed and at least ninety were wounded in the worst attack against the country’s Christians in recent memory. The explosion ripped through the crowd leaving the church’s entrance-way covered with blood, bodies and severed limbs (see video below).
Days after the bombing, Coptic Christians took to the streets in protests which some believe helped ignite the fervor of Egypt’s January 25 revolution. “This was the most powerful protest that Christian Copts ever held in recent history,” said a Coptic human rights activist. “It went three days and inspired the 25th youth movement. We wanted to end a life under dictatorship, and we were not alone in our aspirations.”
However, details on how the attack was carried out remained disputed. Immediately after the bombing, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that it was the work of the Army of Islam, an Al-Qaeda affiliated Palestinian network. Mubarak’s accusations ignited further Coptic frustration from those who believed that the attack was executed by Egyptians and that Mubarak was trying to avoid confrontation with internal Islamic terrorism targeting Christians.
Mubarak’s disregard was nothing new for Copts who had experienced considerable persecution the past year. Murders have been accompanied by anti-Christian propaganda in Egyptian media, acquittals of Muslim offenders who initiated anti-Christian attacks, the inability of Christians to build churches without special government authorization, and the lack of basic freedoms for Christian converts from Islam. Marginalized by the government, Christians were left helplessly exposed. It came as no surprise that Christian frustrations boiled over in January.
“We have suffered a lot as Christians,” said the same activist. “We’ve seen churches being bombed, innocent people being killed, girls being kidnapped, and the spread of Islamization against our will. We want to get rid of the dictatorship that we have been living under for over thirty years.”
The New Years Eve bombing led many Christians to participate in Egypt’s revolution to demand the end of oppression under Mubarak’s dictatorship and the beginning of religious freedom. However, there is grave concern among Egypt’s Christians that persecution could potentially increase if free elections give power to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“If the Muslim Brotherhood were to take over, it would not only be dangerous for the Christians in Egypt, but for the whole world,” said Magdi Khalil, Director of the Middle East Freedom Forum. “It means the entire Middle East will be an Islamic Middle East. Egypt is the key state. We must support the secular approach and rewrite the constitution to be a secular constitution.”
While Egypt and its Christians sit on the brim of uncertainty, Christians around the world ought to be careful in fully embracing revolutions that could lead to greater influence for radical Islam. Yet, who can blame Egyptian Christians for demanding the end of tyranny and hoping for a better future?
“We are seeking freedom, we are seeking democracy. No one can live without freedom. Freedom is life.”
As the 25 January Revolution carries on in Egypt, Christians are among the thousands of protesters demanding that President Hosni Mubarak stand down. Although uncertain who may rise to power if free elections take place in September, a long history of discrimination under Mubarak’s regime has compelled Christians to join the demonstrations. In doing so, Christians have chosen to walk a precarious path which will either open the door for a secular government or for an Islamic state.
Coptic Christians were the first Egyptians to organize protests in 2011 when thousands took part in demonstrations following the Alexandria church bombing on New Year’s Eve that killed twenty-four worshipers (see photo at right). Some believe that the boldness of the Coptic protests helped ignite the fervor of today’s revolution. “This was the most powerful protest that Christian Copts ever held in recent history,” said a Coptic human rights activist. “It went three days and inspired the 25th youth movement. We wanted to end a life under dictatorship, and we were not alone in our aspirations.”
Coptic frustration was again triggered just days after the early-January demonstrations when Mubarak publicly blamed the Army of Islam, an Al-Qaeda linked Palestinian network, for the church bombing. Copts believed that the attack was carried out by Egyptians and that Mubarak’s accusation was to avoid addressing internal Islamic terrorism targeting Christians.
Mubarak’s disregard was nothing new for Copts who had experienced considerable persecution in 2010. Murders were accompanied by anti-Christian propaganda in Egyptian media, acquittals of Muslim offenders who initiated anti-Christian attacks, the inability of Christians to build churches without special government authorization, and the lack of basic freedoms for Christian converts from Islam. Marginalized by the government, Christians are left helplessly exposed. It came as no surprise that Christian frustrations boiled over in January.
“We have suffered a lot as Christians,” said the same Coptic activist. “We’ve seen churches being bombed, innocent people being killed, girls being kidnapped, and the increase of Islamism. We want to get rid of the dictatorship that we have been living under for over thirty years.”
“As Christians, we need to support the approach of a democratic secular state,” said Magdi Khalil, Director of the Middle East Freedom Forum. “This means equal rights… it means religious freedom. We want Mubarak to leave immediately to begin a secular constitution that will protect our freedoms.”
While Christians hope for greater freedom, there is a palpable fear that demonstrations will lead to a power vacuum and possible takeover by the only organized, moneyed, and financed opposition: the Muslim Brotherhood. When we asked the human rights activist if he would regret participating in the revolution if it lead to a Muslim Brotherhood takeover, he thought carefully. “I don’t know some Christians would. I don’t think I will personally because all I can do is hope for a better future for my country. I would die for it. And I think there are a lot of Christians who would die for this cause as well. I keep praying that they will not come to power. If the Brotherhood took over power, it would turn Egypt into the Taliban. It would be another Afghanistan. We would go backwards 1,400 years.”
“If the Muslim Brotherhood were to take over, it would not only be dangerous for the Christians in Egypt, but for the whole world,” said Magdi Khalil. “It means the entire Middle East will be an Islamic Middle East. Egypt is the key state (in the Middle East). We must support the secular approach and rewrite the constitution to be a secular constitution.”
While the demonstrations began as a youth movement, we predict the Muslim Brotherhood will hijack the revolution and call it their own. Idealistic in nature, revolutions often showcase the law of unintended consequences. Yet many Christians believe that now – and only now – is their chance at a better life. For Christians to let this opportunity slip away may mean giving up their only hope for religious freedom.
“We are seeking freedom, we are seeking democracy. No one can live without freedom. Freedom is life.”