An Egyptian priest has explained that radical Muslims are trying to rid the Middle East entirely of Christians, who once comprised the largest religious group in the region.
“This is what the Muslim fundamentalists want,” the Egyptian Catholic spokesman Fr. Rafic Greische told Vatican Radio.
“They want the Christians to evacuate from the Middle East and leave. And this is what is happening every day.” He expressed frustration that governments throughout the region, not noted for their responsiveness to popular concerns, “do not take serious action to relieve or solve these problems.”
Egyptian Christians face significant public and private discrimination, including policies that make it nearly impossible for them to build churches. In November, a crowd demonstrating for their right to build a church in Giza clashed with police, who fired on unarmed protesters.
More than 150 people –including some children– remain in jail following that incident, in a country notorious for police brutality and other human rights abuses.
While Christians have difficulty even finding a place to worship in Egypt, some Egyptian Muslims manage to make their antipathy against the country's Christians well-known. Fr. Greische said groups of Muslims are known to “become violent and make demonstrations,” often burning pictures of the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church.
They're particularly offended, he noted, by “people who want to change their religion” – specifically, Muslims who want to become Christians, who can expect ostracism and may face death threats. Christians who dare to evangelize Egyptian Muslims can expect violent retribution if their work becomes known.
Even instances of Christians becoming Muslims can make these tensions turn explosive. In October, when suicide-attackers at Iraq's Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation killed almost 60 worshipers at a Sunday Mass in Baghdad, the Islamic State of Iraq group claimed it was an act of retaliation for two alleged female converts from Christianity to Islam, supposedly being held captive by Coptic Christians.
Iraqi experts at the time told CNA that they had no reason to believe the story. Fr. Greische noted that it might simply have been an instance of an ordinary domestic disagreement, being turned into a public libel against Coptic Christians in a climate of suspicion and hostility.
He suspected that the Oct. 31 attack in Baghdad, one of the deadliest acts of anti-Christian terrorism in years, was a response to the Synod for the Middle East that had concluded earlier in the month. That synod ultimately issued only light criticisms of Islamic regimes, and represented an exercise of the kind of religious liberty Islamic extremists disallow.
Fr. Greische said the Baghdad incident had given rise to a climate of fear among Christians throughout the region. “All the churches, we have police all around our churches,” he told Vatican Radio. “It’s as if we are in a fortress.”
It's made for a difficult Advent season. “Up to now, we don’t really feel Christmas in the joyful way,” he acknowledged. But within churches that may feel like fortresses, Egyptian Christians have a deeper source of security: “Jesus, who is with us (through) all these difficulties that we have.”