One of the first points a political scientist, historian, economist or sociologist with an area studies specialisation will make is that not all the countries, or context, within their area are the same. While there are certainly characteristics that link the various countries of a particular region – such as language, religion, cultural practices, economic relations, political alliances and of course geography – there is sufficient diversity to begin to explore the ways that communities and nations are differentiated within that region. Certainly this is true in the Middle East, where the countries of the region are indeed linked through culture, language, geography and historical developments – including the advent and eventual predominance of Islam (in most cases), the role of the Ottoman Empire and implications of its breakup, the involvement of the European powers after the First World War, and the interest of the United States, especially in the last half century. At the same time, the current contexts of Christians throughout the region are sufficiently different that an exploration of these divergences is necessary. So, first, it is too facile to think of the Christian communities of the Middle East as homogenous, regionally or confessionally. Second, while the title of this book implies a singular conflict, there are various points of tension that should be explored in relation to the situation of Christians in the countries of the Middle East. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most prominent, each Middle Eastern Christian community experiences degrees of conflict, and their agency therefore varies. In this chapter I will focus on the cases of Egypt, Iraq and Israel-Palestine. From the constant coverage of the peaceful demonstrations in Egypt starting 25 January 2011, the world became quite familiar with Tahrir (Liberation) Square in central Cairo. It is the home of the Egyptian Museum, the Arab League building, the original campus of the American University of Cairo, and several hotels, as well as small businesses and residences. On the southern side of Tahrir Square in Cairo is a large and imposing edifice that spans the entire end of the square and is at least thirteen stories tall. The Mugamma’ building is a sandy colour, and curved on the Tahrir side, straight on the back, as it runs along Shaikh Rihan Street. It is full of government offices and employees dealing with all kinds of bureaucracy, including visa renewals, citizenship issues, police and
fire administration offices, tax offices and many others. It is constantly filled with people needing signatures on documents, moving from one office to another to accomplish the complicated task of closing a particular file or completing a form or application process. It is a symbol of massive government bureaucracy, and embodies the centrality of government in daily life. There is a legend that, one day, President Nasser was riding on a parade through the city, and as his car was passing through Tahrir square he noticed a prominent church building in clear sight on the southern edge of the square. According to the story, Nasser’s response was to order the construction of the Mugamma’ building, effectively removing the church from the landscape of Egypt’s main square. The church, located behind the Mugamma’ building, is the largest Protestant church in Egypt, in size and attendance, the Qasr ad-Doubara Evangelical, or Presbyterian, Church. I cannot confirm the veracity of the story of Nasser’s reaction or possible construction order, but the symbolic presence of the building thus reaches beyond the bureaucratic dimension. For some, it may reflect the government’s efforts to marginalise, or minimise, the visible Christian presence in Egypt; for others, more optimistically, it can represent the efforts of the government to protect and shield Christians from other, more odious currents in Egyptian political and social life. In either case, the question of the role of Christians in the modern Middle East is embedded in this image. Many commentators, if asked to address the future of Egypt’s political trajectory before the events that began with demonstrations in January 2011, might have begun with a profile of the entrenched rule of President Hosni Mubarak, the helpful role his government played with respect to the US war on terror, and the threat of political or militant Islam to that stability. The debate in the pages of most newspapers on the North American side of the Atlantic had been limited to the topic of a regime known to engage in unsavoury methods to maintain its control on power. The Muslim Brotherhood would always be mentioned as the most organised opposition force in Egyptian political and social life, even though it has been banned as a political actor. Such a focus on the question of the Muslim Brotherhood’s potential role in the ‘new’ Egypt remains front and centre. The relationship between the previous regime and the Muslim Brotherhood was one characterised by public animosity and private tolerance, as the Brotherhood was viewed by the regime as tame, compared to other more militant and radical Islamic groups and organisations. Publicly, though, the regime managed effectively to promote the idea among moderate Egyptians, and especially the Christian community, that if full democracy was implemented, radical Islam would emerge victorious, and that government and society would be dominated by an Islamic flavour and, perhaps, law. The demonstrations in Tahrir and throughout the country have, to some extent, belied that claim, but the sectarian relationship in Egypt is, of course, more complicated than that. The two parallel chains of events – revolution and transition on the one hand, and sectarian tension on the other – in Egypt in 2011 illustrate this complexity, and the internal nature of conflict in the country. The Christian community in Egypt is large by regional standards. Of the overall population of Egypt, estimated at over eighty million, the Christian
community makes up between 8 and 12 per cent, putting it around eight million. Even though religious affiliation is listed on Egyptian identity cards, there is still no definitive statistic of the number of Christians in Egypt. The Churches’ estimates of numbers tend to err on the higher end of the range, while government and others have an interest in downplaying the total number of Egyptian Christians, with political implications at work. No matter the exact number, the Egyptian community represents more than half of the Christians of the Middle East. It is an overwhelmingly Coptic Orthodox community, but there are upwards of 300,000 Protestants and some have estimated more than one million Catholic Christians in Egypt as well, although the number is probably much closer to 150,000-200,000.1 The main issues for Christians in Egypt have to do with civil and political rights. Starting with the treatment of the Christian history of Egypt in school textbooks, these issues extend all the way to debate over whether a Christian can run as a candidate for president. In the last few years, a few noticeable changes have taken place in favour of Egyptian Christians, including the designation of Coptic Christmas as a national holiday and the decision to delegate the process of approval for church construction and repair from the office of the president to the office of the provincial governor. Regarding the church construction and repair issue, some have argued that while it may become bureaucratically easier for a decision to be made faster, provincial governors may have a stronger antiChristian bias than the president, so the decision actually may not have been helpful. Two parallel storylines since the beginning of 2011 exemplify the underlying issues contributing to tensions in Egypt. On the one hand, the predominantly peaceful demonstrations resulted from the lack of economic opportunity and of political expression in Egypt. Basic issues of unemployment, underemployment and wages, especially for young adults, rose to the fore. Political inclusion and participation, which had been lacking in any meaningful way, was also a central demand. Neither of these demands – the economic and the political, nor the demonstrations themselves – was sectarian in nature. In fact, the opposite is true – sectarian cooperation has been exemplified during the demonstrations with Muslims protecting Christians while they prayed in Tahrir Square, and vice versa. The demonstrations were not organised by the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other explicitly religious organisation. Even though the Brotherhood decided to participate, only later becoming part of the opposition movement, it did not come with a unified position, as intra-Brotherhood debates continue. As for the Christian communities, they have been variously participatory. The Coptic Orthodox Church leadership, in the early phases of the demonstrations, voiced its support for the Mubarak regime, while the Coptic Youth Organisation was actively involved in the anti-regime demonstrations, illustrating a generational division in the Church, and reflecting a broader generational divide in the broader Egyptian society. It was only after 11 February, when Mubarak’s resignation had been announced, that Pope Shenouda III issued a statement in which the Church:
salute[ed] the honourable youth of Egypt, the Youth of January 25, who led Egypt in a strong, white revolution, and sacrificed for this cause, precious blood, the blood of the nation’s martyrs, who have been glorified by the Egyptian leadership and Armed Forces, as well as the entire population.