“I always said, ‘The Copts will be the firewood of this revolution,’” Mina Rezkalla*, a recent Cairo law school graduate—and an Egyptian Copt—tells me.
His prediction has proven only too valid. Two of his good friends, Michael Mossad and Ahman Wahbia, were among the 27 Christian Copts murdered during the melee apparently caused by Egypt’s military in last week’s demonstration. These were no accidental deaths, no—to borrow that most cynical of military euphemisms—collateral damage. Live ammunition was fired into the crowds: that’s how one of Rezkalla’s friends died. Military vehicles rolled over young demonstrators: that’s how the other friend was killed. Nor, the 23-year-old Rezkalla suspects, will the killings end with that particular incident.
“I see a new massacre in Egypt coming for Copts,” he says. “It’s going to be huge. The hate in Egypt has always translated into action. It was that way for the Jews in Egypt. It is that way for the Copts.”
Copts now represent 10 percent of the Egyptian population, around 10-15 million people in other words, but back in the 4th century, Christianity was the majority religion in Egypt: it was these early Christians, for instance, who created monasticism. By 641 AD, however, with the invasion of Islamic rulers, the fortunes of the original Christian inhabitants of Egypt changed drastically; persecution became de rigueur, a tradition that continues to this day. A decade ago, Muslim mobs torched a new Coptic church, along with 35 Christian homes. That same year, a young Coptic girl was kidnapped: her parents had made the mistake of providing shelter to a Muslim convert to Christianity.
When Rezkalla predicts a massacre of Christians, it might be prudent to put some stock into his words. There have been a number of indicators that might presage such a claim. In 2006, 12 Copts were wounded, and one stabbed to death, in churches near Alexandria: one of the assailants, armed with two swords, kept screaming “Unbelievers! Unbelievers!” No one tried to stop him. Just last year, reports of even more massive assaults against Egyptian Copts began surfacing: a band of 3,000 Muslims destroyed homes, shops, and cars in the city of Marsa Matrouh, while 400 terrified Christian residents locked themselves in a church. Somehow or other, whenever such mob outrages erupt in Egypt, and they are not infrequent, police invariably arrive at the scene of the crime too late to stop the carnage, or to arrest the leaders.
“Give a date—any date in history—and I’ll give you an attack,” Rezkalla says mournfully. He does not believe the so-called Arab Spring will reverse the ugly course of national history. He thinks it will exacerbate it.
“I call it an Arab Winter,” he says. “What do we have to be optimistic about? Any time anything bad happens, we blame it on Israel, or we blame it on Jews. Now they blame it on Copts. We don’t have a liberal elite. We have elite anti-Semitism. We have elite anti-Copts.”
It may sound like the best course of action for many Copts right now would be to leave Egypt altogether, right now in fact, but don’t count on the likelihood. Where would they go? What country would accept them? Copts are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable: they live among Muslims, cheek by jowl, and are preyed upon by their neighbors. Unlike Lebanese Christians, they have no largely Christian neighborhoods. There is, in other words, no safety zone. There is no exit.
“They are the loneliest minority,” says Rezkalla. “Everyone is scared. Everyone is expecting more attacks.”
Everyone is firewood.
*Editor's Note: Mina Rezkalla is now interning in the US Congress while participating in a two-month, World Affairs-sponsored fellowship in Washington, DC. Mina is one of twelve fellows, seven from Egypt and five from Tunisia. There are three Christian Copts among the group of fellows.