Washington, D.C. August 15 (ICC) – Though fearful that Egypt’s revolution may enable an Islamist-based party to take power, Coptic Christians are still not convinced they made a mistake in participating in protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak and opened the door for free elections. In contrast, Christians in Syria have a much different outlook, hesitant to join revolutionaries set on deposing President Bashar al-Assad. The differing approaches can only be understood by comparing the measure of religious freedom experienced by Christians in the respective countries.
Copts endured thirty years of injustice under Mubarak’s discriminatory laws which outlawed conversions from Islam, regulated church construction, and often acquitted criminals who initiated attacks against Christian communities. Such discrimination and numerous attacks committed against the Coptic Church, like the New Year’s Eve bombing outside a church in Alexandria that killed twenty-three worshippers, persuaded Copts to mobilize demonstrations nearly a month before Egypt’s revolution had even begun.
Following the New Year’s Eve bombing, Copts were concerned about their security, ignoring the possibility that their demands for a free society may allow an even more repressive regime to take control. Taking part in demonstrations and demanding greater freedoms, which now may result in the election of an Islamist-based government, was a risk they were willing to make.
“We have suffered a lot as Christians,” said Coptic activist Wagih Yacoub. “We’ve seen churches being bombed, innocent people being killed, girls being kidnapped, and the increase of Islamism. What else were we to do but to demand our rights?”
“As Christians, we need to support the approach of a democratic secular state,” Magdi Khalil, Director of the Middle East Freedom Forum, told ICC. “This means equal rights… it means religious freedom. We wanted Mubarak to leave immediately to begin a secular constitution that will protect our freedoms.”
Syrian Christians also want a secular state, but they prefer reforms to be made under President Assad rather than an elected government which they fear would be Islamist-based and thus disrupt the delicate balance of equality that has made Syria a model state for religious freedom in the Middle East.
“We want to improve life and rights in Syria under this president, but we do not want terrorism,” a Syrian church leader who asked to remain anonymous told ICC. “What Christians are asking for is the realization that when changes are happening, it should happen not under certain agendas or for certain people, but for the people of Syria in a peaceful way under the current government.”
Ruled by the secular and socialist Ba’athist party, Syria grants Christians a higher degree of freedom than Christians experience in other Muslim countries. In spite of reports that Assad’s regime has killed some 2,000 protestors since the revolution began, many Syrian Christians say they feel protected under Assad. As Syrian Christians observe the mass exodus of Christians fleeing the Middle East, they believe their religious identity will also be threatened by an Islamist-based government.
“Look at what happened in Egypt and Iraq,” the church leader continued. “Christians want to peacefully go out and ask for certain changes, but Islamist groups are sneaking in with their goal, which is not to make changes for the betterment of Syria, but to take over the country with their agenda. Christians will be the first to pay if this happens.”
Despite opposing reactions to the revolution, Syrian and Egyptian Christians share a common fear –Islamists will be detrimental to their existence. “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.”
Wagih Yacoub, when asked if he would regret participating in the revolution that may lead to a Muslim Brotherhood takeover, thought carefully and responded, “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…We would go backwards 1,400 years.”