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Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

You expect an organisation like Aid to the Church in Need to document the persecution of Christians in the Middle East – which it does assiduously. See their News Section for various updates, e.g. the ethnic cleansing of Christians in the Syrian city of Homs, which has created a forced exodus of over 50,000 people to the surrounding towns and villages; e.g. fears voiced by ACN-UK Director Neville Kyrke-Smith that ‘the Arab Spring is threatening to turn into a disaster for Christians in the Middle East – and Western indifference is making the problem worse’.

So it is reassuring, at least a tiny bit, that there seems to have been a gradual increase in reporting on this tragedy and its implications in the mainstream media.

I cut out an article from January’s Prospect, by Rachel Aspden, writing about post-revolutionary Egypt.

For the last three decades the Copts have had a stable, if not cordial, accommodation with the Mubarak regime. In late January [last year], Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic church, appealed to anti-Mubarak protesters to return home—before quickly expressing his support for the revolution two weeks later, after the president had departed. “We suffered discrimination under Mubarak, but at least we knew he would protect us and the rest of the country from Islamic fundamentalists,” says Samia [a 70 year old Egyptian Coptic Christian]. Now the old certainties have been shattered.

Since the military council, known as Scaf, took power in February, the Copts’ situation has worsened. Attacks on churches and congregations in Cairo and Upper Egypt were followed by the killing of 27 protesters, mostly Christian, by security forces at Maspero, Cairo in October. Like many Copts, Samia now believes the army has a clandestine power-sharing deal with the Muslim Brotherhood—and is willing to sacrifice the rights of minorities to secure it.

In the small flat where she lives alone, Samia worries about the future. On her bedside table, silver-framed photos of her daughter Nisreen sit next to a picture of the pope and an icon of the Virgin Mary. After Samia’s husband died 15 years ago, Nisreen emigrated to the United States. Samia joined her for eight years. “But the homesickness became too much and I had to return,” she says. “Many of my Christian friends here are securing foreign passports now. I have a green card, but I’ve decided I will live and die here.” Although many lack the will or means to emigrate, the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights estimates that 93,000 Copts have left Egypt since March [last year].

And last week there was a long article by Douglas Davis in the Spectator about how more generally Arab Christians are being driven out of their homelands. He gives some of the shocking statistics.

[Look at] the dwindling Arab Christian minorities in the region who believed their arabness would trump their Christianity — the Copts and Chaldeans, the Maronites and Melkites, the Latin Rite Catholics and Protestants, the Armenians, Syriac Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East and others. They have paid a high price for hanging on. Christian Arabs constituted 20 per cent of the region’s population a century ago; today, they represent about 5 per cent, and falling.The remnant of the 2,000-year-old Christian population is being decanted from the Arab world.

Take Iraq, whose liberty was won at the cost of thousands of soldiers from the Christian West. When the Americans invaded in 2003, about 1.4 million Christian Arabs called Iraq their home. Since then, some 70 churches have been burned and about 1,000 Christians killed in Baghdad alone. Three quarters of the community have fled, leading the Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, the Revd Jean Benjamin Sleiman, to lament ‘the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East’.

Across the border, a war-within-a-war is raging in Syria. While Homs has been besieged by the army of Bashar al-Assad over the past two months, Islamist fanatics from the ranks of the rebels found time to root out the city’s 50,000 Christians and force them to flee. The Christians of Homs, having abandoned their homes and their belongings, are now sheltering in mountain villages about 30 miles from the city. They are unlikely to return.

The Catholic News Agency reports that Syria’s Christian community has suffered terrorist attacks in other cities, too. Last month, a car bomb exploded in the Christian quarter of Aleppo, close to the Franciscan-run Church of St Bonaventure. ‘The people we are helping are very afraid,’ said Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, who is overseeing a Catholic aid programme. ‘The Christians don’t know what their future will hold.’

If the Christians of Iraq and Syria are being ‘persuaded’ to leave by Islamic extremists who bomb their churches and murder their priests, so, too, are the Copts, who have lived in Egypt since the days of the pharaohs, well before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

Last year, some 200,000 Coptic Christians — such Christians once made up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million population — fled their homes after being subjected to killing, beatings and church-burnings in Alexandria, Luxor and Cairo. On New Year’s Day last year, 21 Copts were slaughtered in their church in Alexandria; a further 27 died in clashes with police in Cairo.

This week, the Coptic Orthodox Church announced that it was withdrawing from talks on a new Egyptian constitution because Islamist domination of the process has made its participation ‘pointless’. The haemorrhage continues. There are no such problems in the Gulf, of course, where Christians, virtually all ‘guest workers’, have no chance of becoming citizens. The Saudis have gone one step further to preserve their ethnic purity: churches and Christian worship, in line with the opinion of Sheikh Abdullah, have been outlawed (the small, isolated community of Syriacs are forced to live as ‘catacomb Christians’ and worship in secret).

Earlier this year, the Saudis demonstrated once again they mean business when they deported 35 Ethiopian Christians, mostly women, for ‘illicit mingling’. Their crime was to attend a prayer service at a private home in Jeddah. Before being deported, Human Rights Watch reported, the women were strip-searched by religious police and the men beaten up to chants of ‘unbeliever’.

When I visited the then-mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, about 30 years ago, he happily boasted that about three quarters of the population of his town, the birthplace of Christianity, was Christian. Today, after a reign of terror which included land theft, intimidation and beatings by recently arrived Islamic extremists, the figure is estimated to be down to 10 per cent. The Christians of Bethlehem, under pressure from the new Muslim majority, are quietly finding new homes wherever émigrés are permitted safer havens.

Bethlehem is a microcosm of a phenomenon that is evident throughout the Palestinian territories. Against a drumbeat of harassment, which has included calls by Muslim extremists to slaughter their Christian neighbours, half of the Palestinian Christians of Gaza have fled their homes since the Hamas putsch in 2007. In the West Bank, Christians, who once accounted for 15 per cent of the population, are now down to less than 2 per cent.

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There has been a lot of comment about the role of Facebook and other social media in publicising and facilitating the uprisings in the Arab world and beyond. Lawrence Pintak writes about the indispensable role played by Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite TV channel.

As darkness fell on Tahrir Square the night of Feb. 1, a giant makeshift TV screen broadcast Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the Egyptian uprising to the enthusiastic crowd. The channel would later transmit Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s speech, in which he announced that he would not stand for reelection but would stay in office for the remainder of his term; below the screen, the protesters chanted their displeasure at what they viewed as this insufficient concession.

It was a moment that spoke volumes about the unique link between the Qatar-based channel, the uprising in Egypt, and the Tunisian revolution that was its inspiration.

It also underscored the new reality facing Arab regimes: They no longer control the message.

Since Jan. 28, Al Jazeera has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Mubarak regime, which knocked it off the government-controlled Nilesat satellite, shut its bureau, seized its transmission equipment, and arrested some of its staff.

But over the weekend, at least 10 other satellite broadcasters in the region began replacing their own programming with Al Jazeera’s feed, foiling the Egyptian regime’s efforts to prevent its citizens from watching the channel that has become its chief nemesis.

“We have been working round the clock to make sure we are broadcasting on alternative frequencies,” Al Jazeera said in a statement on its website. “Clearly there are powers that do not want our important images pushing for democracy and reform to be seen by the public.”

And therein lies the reason Al Jazeera has emerged as such a central player in the drama now unfolding in the region. Unlike the bland, state-owned Egyptian station, or its more conservative, Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera has captured the hopes of the crowds gathering on the streets of Cairo.

“The genius of Arab satellite TV,” Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, once told me, “is that it [has] captured a deep-seated common existential pain called Arab sensibility and turned it into a picture narrative that speaks to something very deep in the Arab psyche.”

Put another way: There is no chance that the world would be watching these extraordinary events play out in Egypt if Egyptians had not watched the Tunisian revolution play out in their living rooms and coffee shops on Al Jazeera.

If you don’t know the history of the channel, Pintak fills in the gaps here:

Change was Al Jazeera’s raison d’être from the day 15 years ago when the upstart ruler of the tiny emirate of Qatar founded the channel, which he called Al Jazeera (“The Peninsula,” named for the tiny thumb of desert that comprised his Gulf fiefdom). He hired a bunch of out-of-work Arab journalists who had lost their jobs with the BBC and gave them a mandate: Make his rival autocrats uncomfortable — and boost his political juice throughout the region in the process…

That is not to say the Arab media is a monolith or that Al Jazeera is without its critics in the Arab world. Just as Fox and MSNBC attract partisans in the United States, Arabs turn to Al Jazeera, its Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya or various other channels, depending on their politics. Many claim Al Jazeera supports the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, a notion bolstered by its recent WikiLeaks-style release of secret documents from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which has undermined the Palestinian Authority. And there has long been a perception that the Qatar-based channel is anti-Mubarak. Whether that is a good or bad thing lies in the eye of the beholder.

Among many other things, it shows you the continued significance of television, even in an age of digital communication and social media. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at the English language 24-hour news channel here. I’m not clued-up enough to know where it sits in terms of politics, bias, etc; but it certainly gives you a different perspective from the usual UK channels.

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This story, from Andrew McLaughlin, illustrates both the political power of the internet to discomfort governments, and the enduring power of governments to shut down the internet when it suits them.

As recently as a week ago, Egypt‘s internet was extraordinary in the Arab world for its freedom. For more than a decade, the regime has adhered to a hands-off policy, leaving unblocked everything from rumours about President Hosni Mubarak’s health to videos of police beatings. Unlike most of its regional neighbours and other authoritarian regimes, Egypt’s government never built or required sophisticated technical infrastructures of censorship. (Of course, the country has hardly been a paradise of free expression: the state security forces have vigorously suppressed dissent through surveillance, arbitrary detentions and relentless intimidation of writers and editors.)

Partly as a result of its liberal policies, Egypt became a hub for internet and mobile network investment, home to a thriving and competitive communications sector that pioneered free dial-up services, achieved impressive rates of access and use, and offered speedy wireless and broadband networks at relatively low prices. Indeed, Egypt is today one of the major crossing points for the underwater fibre-optic cables that interconnect the regions of the globe.

But last Thursday, the Mubarak regime shattered a decade’s worth of accomplishment by issuing the order to shut down the mobile networks and internet links. Since the internet age dawned in the early 90s, no widely connected country had disconnected itself entirely. The starkness and suddenness of Egypt’s reversal – from unrestricted to unreachable – marks one of the many tragedies of the Mubarak regime’s brutal and hamfisted response to last week’s emergence of citizen protests.

The internet cutoff shows how the details of infrastructure matter. Despite having no large-scale or centralised censorship apparatus, Egypt was still able to shut down its communications in a matter of minutes. This was possible because Egypt permitted only three wireless carriers to operate, and required all internet service providers (ISPs) to funnel their traffic through a handful of international links. Confronted with mass demonstrations and fearful about a populace able to organise itself, the government had to order fewer than a dozen companies to shut down their networks and disconnect their routers from the global internet.

The blackout has proved increasingly ineffective. A handful of networks have remained connected, including one independent ISP, the country’s academic and research network, and a few major banks, businesses and government institutions. Whether these reflect deliberate defiance, privileged connections, or tactical exceptions –one might imagine, for example, that members of Mubarak’s family and inner circle would want to have Internet access to move money, buy tickets, or make hotel reservations abroad — is as yet unknown.

Moreover, innovative Egyptians are finding ways to overcome the block. They are relaying information by voice, exploiting small and unnoticed openings in the digital firewall, and dusting off old modems to tap foreign dial-up services.

For democracies, one lesson here is clear: diversity and complexity in our network architectures is a very good thing. Likewise, enforcement of public policies such as network neutrality – the principle that access providers should not be permitted to control what their customers can do online – are important to prevent networks from installing tools and capabilities that could be abused in moments of crisis. For dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, however, the lesson will be quite the opposite.

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After posting about the horrific attack on Christian worshippers in Egypt, I was deeply moved to read this account by Yasmine El-Rashidi of thousands of Muslims coming in solidarity to the Coptic churches on Christmas night to offer their bodies as human ‘shields’ to protect the Christian communities.

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular Muslim televangelist and preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

In the days following the brutal attack on Saints Church in Alexandria, which left 21 dead on New Year’s eve, solidarity between Muslims and Copts has seen an unprecedented peak. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent – the symbol of an “Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one.

The attack has rocked a nation that is no stranger to acts of terror, against all of Muslims, Copts and Jews. In January of last year, on the eve of Coptic Christmas, a drive-by shooting in the southern town of Nag Hammadi killed eight Copts as they were leaving Church following mass. In 2004 and 2005, bombings in the Red Sea resorts of Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh claimed over 100 lives, and in the late 90’s, Islamic militants executed a series of bombings and massacres that left dozens dead.

[Thanks to Catherine for the link.]

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Another horrific terrorist attack on Christian worshippers yesterday morning, this time in Egypt [report from David Batty]:

At least 21 people have been killed and more than 70 injured in Egypt in a suspected suicide bombing outside a church in Alexandria as worshippers left a new year service.

It was initially thought a car bomb had caused the explosion just after midnight at the Coptic orthodox al-Qidiseen church. But the interior ministry suggested a foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible.

Christians make up about 10% of Egypt’s population of 79 million.

Security around churches has been stepped up in recent months with the authorities banning cars from parking directly outside them, after an al-Qaida-linked group in Iraq threatened the Egyptian church in November.

I happened to read a piece by John Allen yesterday about the true extent of persecution of Christians around the world, as documented by Aid to the Church in Need.

Aid to the Church in Need, a German-based Catholic aid agency, produces a widely trusted annual report on global threats to religious freedom. It estimates that somewhere between 75 percent and 85 percent of all acts of religious persecution are directed against Christians. In a report to the European Parliament last month, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said that while Muslims and Jews face significant persecution, “Christians faced some sort of harassment in two-thirds of all countries,” or 133 states. [My italics]

Those statistics are fleshed out by headlines almost every day.

This Christmas season alone, scores of Catholic Masses were cancelled in Iraq due to threats from extremist groups. Since the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq has lost two-thirds of what was once among the largest Christian populations in the Middle East. In China, a new crackdown on the church is in full swing, as the government has orchestrated elections for a rump bishops’ conference and an assembly of Catholics calculated to preserve state control. Some clergy were herded into those elections virtually at gunpoint.

In Vietnam, a Catholic bishop was banned from celebrating Christmas Mass in the country’s mountain region, reportedly because of his success in converting the Montagnards, a cluster of ethnic groups often stigmatized and seen as potential threats by other Vietnamese. In the Philippines, Muslim extremists attacked a Catholic chapel on the island of Jolo on Christmas Day. It was merely the latest assault on Jolo, where a bomb exploded inside the local cathedral in July 2009, killing six and wounding forty. In Nigeria, fighting between Christians and Muslims in the northern city of Jos over the Christmas period has reportedly left at least 80 people dead.

Christianophobia is on the rise for a whole cocktail of reasons. Part of it is simple math: There are 2.3 billion Christians in the world, the largest following of any religion, so in terms of raw numbers there are simply more Christians to oppress. That’s especially true as Christianity’s center of gravity shifts to the developing world, where democracy and the rule of law are sometimes conspicuous by their absence.

Because of the historical association between Christianity and the West, Christians are often convenient targets for individuals and groups expressing anti-Western rage. In some cases, too, the logic is exquisitely local. In India, a disproportionate share of Christian converts come from the “untouchable” Dalit community, so it’s often difficult to disentangle specifically Christian persecution from older caste prejudice. (A similar point could be made about the Montagnards in Vietnam).

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