A Barometer of Religious Intolerance

There is no surer measure of Egypt's transforming identity over the last half century than its treatment of its Coptic Christian minority, which comprises about 10 percent of the country's 80 million citizens.

"Egypt resembles an iceberg," the late Coptic-Egyptian writer Louis Awad once wrote. "One-eighth is above sea level. Seven-eighths are submerged in the depths. One-eighth of our lives takes place in the light of the 20th century, seven-eighths in medieval darkness."

There is no surer measure of Egypt's transforming identity over the last half century than its treatment of its Coptic Christian minority, which comprises about 10 percent of the country's 80 million citizens. As Egypt becomes less Arab and more Islamic, removing itself ever farther from former president Gamal Abdel Nasser's brand of left-leaning secular nationalism (not to speak of the liberal cosmopolitanism that prevailed from the 1920s through the revolution of 1952), the latest signs from the banks of the Nile are anything but auspicious.

In November, a report by Christian Solidarity International and the Coptic Foundation for Human Rights documented 25 cases of alleged forced conversion to Islam. Last May, the Egyptian government pointlessly slaughtered thousands of pigs belonging to the Coptic Christian minority because of fears relating to the swine flu.

As recently as January 15, at least 20 leading bloggers and democracy activists were arrested and held for one day by Egyptian authorities, reportedly charged with "illegal assembling and causing unrest." The group of Coptic Christian and Muslim activists had traveled to the southern Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi to pay their condolences to the families of six Coptic teenage worshipers gunned down as they left midnight mass on January 7, Coptic Christmas. This is the same town where a priceless collection of 46 fourth-century treatises ("The Gnostic Gospels"), written in Coptic - an idiom descended directly from the language of the pharaohs - was discovered in an earthenware jar in 1945.

Such arrests are not unprecedented. Kareem Amer has been held in Borg El Arab prison since November 2006, charged among other crimes with "incitement to hate Muslims" for writing about Muslim-Christian tensions in Alexandria and criticizing President Hosni Mubarak on his blog.

Although Egypt's constitution provides for equal rights without regard to religion, discrimination against its Christian community - through both acts of omission and commission - persists. Even after the killings last month sparked widespread riots, the government declined to address the underlying tensions.

"The Egyptian authorities should be focusing on the causes of the tragic shooting of six Coptic Christians," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead, they're arresting activists whose efforts to express their condolences are an important step toward healing sectarian fractures."

Both the violence and the official response are part of a pattern of escalating tensions between Muslims and Copts, who are increasingly marginalized, persecuted and vilified as outsiders. Indeed, January's violence has decades of tragic precedents, reaching back to June 1981, when 22 Coptic citizens were burned inside their homes during riots in the village of El-Zawia El-Hamra.

And yet Egyptian authorities have consistently refused to act. In 1994, Egyptian sociologist and rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim proposed an international conference in Cairo on minorities in the Middle East. But his insistence on including the treatment of Egypt's Copts on the agenda raised such protests in the government-controlled press that the conference was forced to move to Limassol, Cyprus.

Although no community can claim to be more native or authentically "Egyptian" than the Copts, whose culture dates back to antiquity, in moments of crisis, it seems, the country's Muslims instinctively turn on the Copts - even when the crisis has little to do with that Arabic-speaking Christian community. In 1952, for example, demonstrators against the British occupation of the Canal Zone in Suez massacred a number of Copts. Just before the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, an ominous slogan could be heard in Cairo: "First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people."

Finally, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when news arrived in Cairo that Israeli forces had crossed the canal, a rumor ascribed the Egyptian forces' failure to the treachery of a Coptic officer. To this day, every so often, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition Islamist movement, seeks to bar Copts from senior army, police and government positions, on the grounds that they represent a fifth column. (The Brotherhood, which won 20 percent of the 454 parliamentary seats in the last election in 2005, has just chosen a new, hard-line leader, Mohammed Badie.)

The latest sectarian violence, then, has deep roots. Intolerance of non-Muslim minorities is the best barometer - though not the only one - of a society increasingly conscious of its Muslim identity and aspirations, as Egypt is today. The role of religion in the country's identity is still too fluid to permit us to know what shape those aspirations will take, but we can by all means forecast that Egypt's Islamic revival today will be Israel's dilemma tomorrow.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is a fellow at the Hudson Institute.