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The Christians of Egypt, Part II

The Middle East has always been a terrible place for minorities, but lately it has become even worse. After living all over the region for thousands of years, the rise of Nazism marked the beginning of the end of Middle Eastern Jewish communities almost everywhere. Sunni Muslims are miserable in countries governed by Shias, and vice versa. The Kurds have been kicked around everywhere. Smaller minorities like the Druze, Alawites, and Berbers live in a constant state of dread. Thousands of Iraqi and Palestinian Christians have been driven into exile in the last few years alone.

I don’t know how much trouble Egypt’s Christians will have now that “spring” has arrived, but sectarian clashes are rising. Many fear Islamic rule may be coming, a tyranny worse than the last.

Recently I spoke with Ramez Atallah, a Protestant and the head of the Bible Society of Egypt, about the difficulties he and his community face. My colleague Armin Rosen joined me. This is the second of two parts. If you missed Part One, you can read it here.

Ramez Atallah: I was impressed by what the revolutionaries accomplished on the 25th of January. It took incredible courage to stand up to an authoritarian government. I take my hat off. I am amazed.

I am less impressed by what followed. I am less impressed by letting Muslim Brotherhood members out of prison so quickly and the rise of the Salafists. The Muslim Brotherhood should have been let out gradually, much more carefully, in a more controlled way. A road map should have been drawn up and the Brotherhood only let out if they support it. Instead they have a piece of the agenda and we have pandemonium.

The big struggle here is not between Christians and Muslims, but between Muslims and Muslims. I saw a Muslim woman on TV just yesterday who said to the Muslim Brotherhood, “I am a Muslim, and you are Muslims, but the difference between me and you is like night and day. There is no way you can convince me to support you. As a full human being, I cannot accept it. I want to be free.”

Saad Eddin Ibrahim gave a speech and was more diplomatic. He said, “of course we support the Muslim Brotherhood as long as they agree to certain conditions.” And those conditions are things they can never agree to.

I need you to please understand that Muslims hate it when the West speaks up for Christians. They absolutely despise it and we become the victims.

MJT: What do they expect us to do?

Ramez Atallah: They don’t want you to speak about it. They think Christians have a special place. They don’t know that Christians have problems. The average Muslim has no idea because thirty two percent of private wealth in Egypt is in the hand of Christians, but we’re only ten percent of the population.

MJT: So the average Muslim here doesn’t understand what the West is complaining about?

Ramez Atallah: They don’t. They’re not seeing this as a human rights issue, they’re seeing it as a sectarian issue. It’s like a racial thing for them. The Salafists recently told Christians if they want America to stand up for them they should go to America. They want Egyptians Christians to be supported and protected by an Egyptian system, not by foreigners, so we suffer when the West stands up for our rights. It doesn’t help.

It helped a bit when Mubarak was president because he was one man. He could be pressured. He might resent it, but he could make decisions and eventually he could be talked into it. Now we get blamed when the West supports us. We’re called traitors. They now say we belong to the West.

I would much rather the West talk about human rights than Christian rights. Look carefully at the situation in Egypt. Look at whose rights are going to get squashed if we get an Islamic government. The majority I feel sorry for are my Muslim neighbors. They are decent middle class people. They are educated, they go to the mosque, they pray, but they welcome us, they are very kind. There is no Christian-Muslim divide between us. But if we get an Islamic government, the state will be saying, “Islam is the way.” That’s the Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan.

One of the dreams of the revolution was for Christian and Muslim unity. We had signs with the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent together. People would hold up the Bible and the Koran at the same time. These people are genuine. They’re like my neighbors. I live in a typical building. There are fifty five apartments. Five of the families are Christian and the rest are Muslims. We have excellent relations with each other. Excellent. I live with middle class and upper-middle class Muslims. These are the kinds of people who went to Tahrir Square.

Young people don’t discriminate between Muslims and Christians. They play together, they work together. So there is a genuine sense that we are one, an honest sense. These people are the ones who get upset when Americans talk about Christians being persecuted here. It’s this group of Muslims that gets most offended.

MJT: Not the Muslim Brotherhood?

Ramez Atallah: Not the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood expects it. But these people don’t expect it. They say, “we treat our neighbors well. Why do you Christians have to go and get these Americans to support you? Aren’t we good enough?” It feels like a breach of trust to them.

MJT: But you aren’t doing it. We are.

Ramez Atallah: They think we’re crying to mommy or that we want daddy to beat up the kid who’s beating us up. They don’t believe you’re doing it on your own initiative. They think you do it because we complain, that we squeal and the Americans squeeze.

MJT: We see stories all the time in the Western media about how Christians have a hard time building churches here. How do you expect Americans to respond to that? The American sense of fairness and justice is offended by it.

Ramez Atallah: The harassment we got as Christians from the Mubarak government was not religious harassment, but political harassment. And it’s much easier to deal with political harassment than religious harassment.

The Muslim policemen who came to stop the building of a church were not necessarily concerned about Christians building a church. They were trying to enforce secular Egyptian law. Some may have been fanatical, but for the most part they were understanding people. They’d say, “look guys, you aren’t supposed to build a church. You have to get a permit and go through the law before it gets done.” They were told to do this. Some of them were fanatics, but the majority weren’t.

If we get a Muslim Brotherhood government, the officials who come to us will be religiously oriented, not politically oriented.

MJT: Right.

Ramez Atallah: They will have a vested interest in making sure churches do not get built. There is no way they will help us cut corners to get around the law. The previous policemen might say, “if you give me a bit of money, there are ways to get around this sort of thing.” We weren’t afraid of these guys. Some of them were educated in Christian schools and have been treated in our hospitals.

Mubarak was appeasing the right-wing Muslim fear of Christian expansion. My fear is that the new regime, if it’s an Islamic regime, will be merciless in its religious orientation and won’t allow us even to breathe. They will find a way to close my book shop. They won’t allow me to put billboards on the highway anymore. They won’t allow me to put ads in the newspapers. They will accuse me of proselytizing. With the Mubarak regime I was fine because I was running a private business sselling Bibles rather than proselytizing.

I’m worried the Muslim Brotherhood will be more restrictive. That doesn’t mean they’re going to come and burn down my church, but they will be much more restrictive. Islam in an Arabic-speaking country is very different from Islam in a non-Arabic country.

MJT: It most certainly is. How do you explain that?

Ramez Atallah: Like I told you before, Islam is very close to people’s identity, like your gender is for you. This is most true in Arabic countries because Islam is Arabic. They are intertwined. The language and the religion are intertwined. Arabic is the only language in the world that has been frozen for 1400 years.

If you ask any child here what his hardest subject is in school, invariably he will say Arabic. You as a Westerner may scratch your head and wonder how Arabic can be the hardest subject in school in an Arab country, but it’s because the language we speak and read in Egypt is so different from classical Arabic.

MJT: Classical Arabic is like Latin for us.

Ramez Atallah: Exactly. And how many kids did you know who liked Latin in school?

MJT: None. We don’t even study it any more.

Ramez Atallah: And it’s only a written language now. That’s exactly what kids are doing when they study Arabic. We have this old language that is very far from what we read and speak every day. It is imposed on us. There is this mystique about it, that we have to know it and live it. Arabs are more closely aligned to Islam because their language, their culture, and their faith are all one.

But I always say the Christians of Egypt aren’t persecuted. We’re discriminated against. We’re second-class citizens.

MJT: Yes, you are.

Ramez Atallah: “Persecuted” is too strong a word. The richest man in Egypt wouldn’t be Christian if we were persecuted. That wouldn’t make sense. We couldn’t control so much of the wealth in this country if we were persecuted. Wealthy Christians have to overcome incredible obstacles to get where they are, so they’re geniuses. In America they would be trillionaires rather than billionaires.

The story of how Christians became wealthy is very ironic. We weren’t allowed to be in politics or in government or hold many important positions in medicine, dentistry, and so on. So we went into business instead where there is more money. One guy started a pharmacy, another guy started a clothing business, and so on. A third guy sold some cars, a fourth guy started a mechanical shop. Forty years later, that clothing store has become the biggest store in Egypt. The little pharmacy has become the biggest pharmaceutical production company in the country. When Sadat opened the door to capitalism, they were ready and they expanded their businesses. They stayed out of government and expanded their businesses.

Armin Rosen: Are Christians drafted into the military?

Ramez Atallah: Yes, but they won’t be if the Muslim Brotherhood takes over.

Armin Rosen: Do they have high ranks in the military, or are they discriminated against there, too?

Ramez Atallah: They are discriminated against.

MJT: How high up can they go?

Ramez Atallah: If a Christian becomes a general, they kindly figure out how to retire him.

MJT: It’s okay for a Christian to be a colonel?

Ramez Atallah: Sure. And a few of them are even promoted to generals, but they are quickly retired.

MJT: Why, exactly? The army isn’t Islamist, it’s a secular Arab Nationalist.

Ramez Atallah: Yes, but it’s still biased toward Muslims.

MJT: Even though they aren’t ideologically Muslims the way the Brotherhood is.

Ramez Atallah: They’re not liberal. And the Muslim Brotherhood has slowly been infiltrating the army like they’ve infiltrated the unions. They’ve worked at it for thirty years and they’ve been very careful to get where they are. They’ve been planning for this day for a long time. And unlike Nelson Mandela, when he came out of prison and forgave people who worked with the former government, the Brotherhood wants revenge.

MJT: Revenge against who, exactly?

Ramez Atallah: They have a lot of anger toward the previous regime. They’re not at all like Nelson Mandela. When he came out of prison, white people were packing up to leave, but he said, “we can’t run the country without you. Any of you who want to work with me, I’ll work with you.” We’ve had nothing like that experience here. There’s a spirit of vindictiveness and revenge in the Muslim Brotherhood.

One third of our newspaper space is dedicated to what will happen to Mubarak and his people. It’s a big waste.

Armin Rosen: We’ve heard there’s a certain amount of discontent among young Coptic Christians about the deal that was struck between the Coptic community and the Mubarak regime, where the church was close to the government. You also seem to support détente between Christians and whoever is in power, but correct me if that’s not what you believe.

Ramez Atallah: I’m reading the Book of Daniel now. He was the number two man in the Babylonian Empire under three kings. Joseph was the number two man in Egypt. Don’t tell me these people didn’t have to compromise. They were Jewish, but they didn’t fight for Jews. They stood for their people, but they were willing to serve pagan governments.

I think stomping your feet and saying “Muslims have to respect Christians” isn’t going to get us anywhere. It’s better to be involved in civil society. I think one of the best models are the Christians down in Tahrir Square. They aren’t taking Christian positions, they’re just down there, involved, and supporting the movement in general. And they aren’t vindictive.

There are many problems with the Coptic Church. To be a bishop, you have to be a monk and monks, by definition, are people who don’t meddle in the world. So why should it be surprising that the church doesn’t get involved in the world when its leaders are all monks? It’s just not in their mindset. So it’s not surprising that a monastic church would have difficulty with active involvement in the revolution or anything other than some kind of compromise with the existing government.

Pope Shenouda was extremely brave in standing against the government when things were done against Christians. Sadat banished him to a monastery in the desert and replaced him with five bishops. He wasn’t let out until 1985 after Mubarak came to power. So don’t tell me he wasn’t brave or that he didn’t stand up for the rights of Christians.

MJT: How close is Egypt’s Protestant community with the Orthodox Coptic community?

Ramez Atallah: They are bitter enemies.

MJT: Really? Why?

Ramez Atallah: We’re the only organization that serves all the churches. We walk in a minefield every day. Ours is the only non-Orthodox building the pope here ever dedicated.

The Orthodox Copts in Egypt are the most Biblical people in the world.

MJT: What do you mean by that, exactly?

Ramez Atallah: They love, memorize, and follow the Bible’s teaching more literally than anyone else. They’re fundamentalists. You won’t find another church in the world that is as Bible-centered in so many ways.

Armin Rosen: You’re the head of the Bible Society saying this.

Ramez Atallah: We wouldn’t have such a big business if the Coptic Church, which is our main customer, didn’t voraciously buy everything we produce. Bible societies in the West don’t know how to sell Bibles. Nobody wants one. Here they are hungry and asking for more.

Copts and Protestants don’t hate each other. It’s not personal. The problem is that the Orthodox church here believes it’s the only true church. They say non-Orthodox can’t take communion with them. But they are very kind people, I work closely with them, and I admire the church, really I do. We wouldn’t be here if it were not for them.

MJT: You don’t seem terribly concerned about being a second-class citizen in this country.

Ramez Atallah: I accept that I’m a second-class citizen. Many Christians don’t, but I do.

My grandfather was one of the wealthiest men in this country. He was the fourth wealthiest person. His property was nationalized by the Nasser regime. The government took everything he owned. I was the only son in the family. He had three daughters, and I am the son of his eldest daughter. Everything he lost would have been my inheritance. He had five or six big businesses.

When I was young I was taken in by the vision of Nasser, but then his men took my grandfather’s property. It wasn’t socialism. They divvied it up amongst themselves. They weren’t socialists, they were opportunists.

I escaped Egypt with nothing and started from zero in Canada. My father was a leading dentist and he had to leave. He was harassed. I had every reason to be bitter about Egypt, but I came back as a Christian to serve my people without bitterness.

I don’t think it’s possible for me to be a first-class citizen. I’m a realist, okay? So my world view is very different from those Christians who expect to have the same rights as Muslims. Expecting the impossible will only make you frustrated your whole life. Working within the restrictions the way these billionaires do works much better than fighting the government.

Daniel knew when to compromise and when not to compromise. As Christians we need to know what is important and what isn’t important. It’s not a big deal for me to be a second-class citizen. There are more important things for me within Egypt. Maybe you as an idealistic American feel differently.

MJT: Yes. I’m having a hard time with some of what you’re saying. I understand where you’re coming from and it makes logical sense, but I wouldn’t tolerate living as a second-class citizen anywhere.

Ramez Atallah: I’m an Evangelical Christian. I’d be a second-class citizen in both the U.S. and Canada.

MJT: No, you wouldn’t.

Ramez Atallah: There is a disdain. We get humiliated in schools and universities. There is a sense in the U.S. that Evangelicals are culturally dominant, but we’re a hated group.

MJT: But the government doesn’t discriminate against you. You’re talking about only certain segments in American society. There’s a huge difference.

Ramez Atallah: I was in Quebec, which is very anti-religious. But wherever you go you have the state interfering. Whether you have religion in schools or not is a big issue in America. Some people say fight it, others say don’t fight it. I’m just as much against teaching creationism as I am against teaching evolution. I don’t think either should be forced on kids.

My point is that I don’t think true freedom exists anywhere in the world. And I, as a Christian in Egypt, have had a very pleasant thirty years since I came back. I haven’t felt very restricted even when working closely with government officials. I am publishing, promoting, and selling the Bible in Egypt. I distribute millions of Bibles every year. I honestly feel that I can manage within the restrictions.

MJT: Maybe that has been true so far, but the restrictions on you as a second-class citizen could get worse at any moment.

Ramez Atallah: They could get a lot worse.

MJT: And then you wouldn’t say anymore than you’re okay being a second-class citizen.

Ramez Atallah: But the people who are going to get the brunt of it are my Muslim friends. They will suffer more. My wife will not be forced to wear a veil by the Muslim Brotherhood. By the Salafists maybe, but not the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Brotherhood would force my wife to wear a veil if we were Muslims. My Muslim friends’ wives will be forced to wear veils while mine won’t. There will be discrimination against Muslims by Muslims.

If Muslim liberals and free-thinking Muslims can have freedom, Christians will automatically have breathing space.

MJT: Yes. That, I get.

Ramez Atallah: My point is, what will the government listen to more? Will America get a better result by pressing for freedom for Christians or freedom for Muslims? If you pressure Egypt only for Christian rights, Muslims here will say, “if they’re your people, take them with you.” But if Americans care about my Muslim friend’s wife, the Muslims will be tongue-tied. They won’t know how to argue with you about that.

Armin Rosen: Do you think things can possibly get better for Christians in Egypt?

Ramez Atallah: If liberal Muslims get what they want, it will be better for us. That’s the dream of the revolution. Your real focus should be on those people. Because if they get their freedom, we will get even more freedom. But if they don’t get freedom, we’re goners.

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Originally posted at PJ Media.

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