Opinion

Under Pressure, Egypt's Suffering Christians Reluctantly Reject VP Pence as a Savior

'Where are you guys? Muslim students are noticing you aren’t joining in': How Trump's Jerusalem move put Egypt's Christians, already under jihadist attack, on the defensive about their loyalties, while VP Pence, 'champion' of Christians, won't be meeting them

Egyptian Coptic Christians hold a blood-spattered depiction of Jesus inside Alexandria's Saints Church after 21 worshippers were killed in a suicide bombing there. Many Copts feel betrayed by a government they say hasn't done enough to keep them safe. Jan. 2, 2011
AP Photo/Ben Curtis

CAIRO - U.S. President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem embassy announcement  has not only upended his relationship with the Sisi administration in Cairo and confounded the advance team's plans for the scheduled, postponed and rescheduled visit to Israel and Egypt by Vice President Pence, it’s also laid bare increasing divergences here over theological and political views about Jews and Israel within Egypt’s ten million-strong Coptic community.

It took two full days for Coptic leader, Pope Tawadros II, to follow his Muslim colleague Ahmed el-Tayeb, Al Azhar’s Grand Imam, and publicly cancel his audience with Mr. Pence.

The statement issued by the church contrasted with that of the highest authority in Sunni Islam in Egypt ("How can I sit with those who gave what they do not own to those who are undeserving?") in that it reflected more sadness than anger.

Protesters carry a poster of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu during an anti-Trump anti-Israel protest at the Cairo Lawyers Syndicate, Egypt December 10, 2017
REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

"The Coptic Orthodox Church apologizes to Vice President Mike Pence for the necessity of canceling his scheduled meeting with Pope Tawadros," said church spokesman Father Bolis Halim. "Now is not a suitable time for such an audience because of the hurt feelings of millions of people in Egypt and the region."

The Coptic traditional hierarchy had initially thought the apparent alignment between the Trump and Sisi administrations would continue to bolster the Egyptian leader’s advancement of a more inclusive "new religious discourse" and advance their rights both as individual Christians and as a religious community.

Indeed, there was satisfaction with new laws passed in Egypt permitting new church construction, and the guaranteed right to holiday leave for civil servants  on Christian pilgrimages, just like that enjoyed by Muslims making the haj to Mecca. 

Vice President Pence's visit to Egypt was supposed to offer explicit American backing for Christians suffering in the Mideast, not least in Egypt, and to raise the issue's international profile.

But the American decision has thrown Christians back on the defensive.

They now need to prove their pan-Arabism and their full identification with the dominant Egyptian narrative, and Christian leaders were therefore under pressure to denounce, in chorus with Muslim leaders, the United States’ unabashed endorsement of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.

And that, for the most part, is what has happened.

Establishment figures like Karim Kamal of the pro-Sisi group, the Union of Copts for the Homeland, echoed the official Egyptian narrative that the embassy decision was an affront to all Arabs and a boost to extremists across the Middle East. Nader Souhi of the Coptic Christian Youth Movement went as far as to say that Trump’s validation of Israeli claims "could trigger a Third World War."

Samir Ghattas, a prominent Coptic member of the Egyptian parliament with long standing ties to the PLO, sounded a conspiratorial note.

Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, center, surrounded by clergymen and bodyguards, arrives to the funeral of Archbishop Anba Abraham, in Jerusalem's Old City, November 28, 2015.
AFP

"We are now facing a U.S. president who can be overthrown at any time," Ghattas explained to viewers of the popular Sada Al-Balad television station. "The only solution that Trump has to stabilize his country is to win the support of the Zionist lobby, which has waged war against his administration since he took office."

Few Coptic leaders in Egypt acknowledge the role of fellow Christians – U.S. evangelicals - in the formulation of Trump’s policy. There are only a handful of evangelical churches in Egypt and even in those congregations, few  believers espouse the outright "dispensationalism" - the belief in the necessity of a  nation-state of Israel for Christ to return, adopted by many in the American evangelical community, and a key lobbying force for the decision.

An American evangelical delegation, including the president’s informal advisor Pastor  Johnnie Moore, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and former U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, met with President Abdel Fatah el Sisi just last month.

Coffins arriving for the funeral of those killed in a Palm Sunday church attack in Alexandria, Egypt, April 10, 2017.
Samer Abdallah/AP

But the relationship between Copts and the Egyptian state, and between Copts and Israel, is far more fraught than for their U.S. coreligionists.

An  undertow of Coptic disaffiliation with traditional Egyptian nationalist tropes caused by two years of jihadist attacks on their churches and informed by a renewed encounter with Jerusalem - that more and more Christians here are experiencing as pilgrims to the Holy City and, as a corollary, to exposure to Israel - indicate that the historically close Egyptian Christians attachment to the  Palestinian narrative is showing signs of stress.

Last Sunday, the predominantly Sunni organizers of the Days of Rage, demonstrations held at Ain Shams University in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis to protest Trump's Jerusalem embassy decision, sent out a series of frantic text messages to their Coptic friends.

A prayer service at St. Anthony’s church in Jerusalem, April 13, 2017.
Judy Maltz

Lackluster Coptic Christian participation in the first on campus protests disturbed the liberal organizers, who wanted maximum turn-out for the first demonstrations allowed by President Sisi since his 2013 ascension to power.

"Where are you guys? Muslim students are noticing you aren’t joining in," read one of the messages in a WhatsApp group with many activist subscribers. "We’re worried people are getting the wrong impression."

But that pressure hasn't silenced Ramy Kamil, the 32-year-old leader of the Christian Maspero Youth Foundation, founded after the 2011 massacre of 27 Coptic activists protesting the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt, brought on a social media storm by publicly asserting Jerusalem is the rightfully capital of Israel.

"Since when was Jerusalem Arab? Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Every Copt knows it," Kamil posted on his Facebook page, which has more than 2000 followers. 

"Anything we [Copts] say to the contrary is a fake courtesy and a result of the majority [Muslims] blackmailing the minority [Christians]. And you if don’t profess the Arabism of "Al-Quds" and instead call the city "Jerusalem", you are accused of being a client of Israel."

Bloodstains on pews inside the St. George Church after a suicide bombing on Palm Sunday in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, Egypt, on April 9, 2017. Over 40 people were killed in two attacks on churches on the same day
AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty

Kamil has a firebrand reputation, but he is considered a community leader who gets things done, evidenced recently by him successfully organizing a series of regular meetings between Coptic youth and Pope Tawadros, aimed at moving the hierarchy more in the direction of advocating equal citizenship and away from the traditionalist drive for "toleration" of Christians as a minority in Muslim Egypt.

Kamil told me he understands why the Coptic pope felt he needed to cancel the scheduled audience with Mr. Pence, but he would have liked to meet the American vice president himself to explain how the United States could better advance the rights and security of Christians in the Middle East.

"The U.S. should help liberals, and stress to governments that the public attitude towards minorities need to change," Kamil said. "So far only the Muslim Brotherhood has benefited by the American policy of supporting dictators."

That, though, is not a message it appears VP Pence will get to hear first-hand on his whirlwind stop in Cairo this week, even though the latest iteration of his trip highlights that one of his key aims is to work "cooperatively to defeat radicalism" – a radicalism for which Egyptian Christians are key targets.

Jacob Wirtschafter, former deputy bureau chief for ABC News in Jerusalem, regularly reports from Cairo for USA Today, The Washington Times, and the Abu Dhabi daily, The National. Twitter: @levantreporter