Egypt’s Arab Spring is leading to a mass exodus of its Coptic Christian community, with Canada a preferred destination – we’ve received about a sixth of the 100,000 who have fled Egypt in the past six months amid persecution by Islamic fundamentalists.
If history repeats itself, those numbers could become much larger – Egypt has 10 million to 18 million Copts and other Christians, the largest remaining Christian population in the Middle East by far. Should their persecution continue, the great majority could well flee in what would amount to one of history’s greatest forced emigrations.
Egypt’s Arab Spring is unfolding exactly as Copts feared. Hosni Mubarak, though seen as an unvarnished dictator in the West, was a protector to the Copts. He not only allowed them previously denied religious freedoms – everything from the right to repair their churches to live broadcasts of Easter services – but he also punished Islamists who persecuted them.
In the wave of unrest unleashed by the Arab Spring, that protection is now gone. Flagrant Copt-killing began with a church bombing during a New Year’s Eve mass that left more than 20 dead and dozens wounded, followed by another deadly attack during the Coptic Christmas on Jan. 7.
Islamists have been ratcheting up their incitement against Copts, calling them infidels and accusing them of being Western spies and traitors who are stockpiling arms in plots to secede from the country. This week, more than 20 Copts were killed in clashes with the army during a demonstration over an attack on a church.
As a result of their growing vulnerability, Christians are sorrowfully abandoning their homeland of almost 2,000 years. (Before the Arab invasion of the 7th century, Egypt was majority Christian.) “Copts are not emigrating abroad voluntarily, they are coerced into that by threats and intimidation,” said Naguib Gabriel, director of the Cairo-based Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations. “If emigration of Christians, who constitute nearly 16 per cent of the Egyptian population, continues at the present rate, it may reach 250,000 by the end of 2011 and, within 10 years, a third of the Coptic population of Egypt would be gone.”
This decline would follow the pattern of religious cleansing that characterizes much of the Middle East, which, in the 20th century, retained sizable Christian minorities in many countries and, in Lebanon, a majority. Lebanon’s Christian majority is now reduced to about a third of its population, Syria’s 33 per cent is now down to 10 per cent, Turkey’s 15 per cent is down to 1 per cent, Iran’s is at 0.4 per cent, and Gaza’s is at 0.2 per cent.
The loss of Egypt’s Copts would obviously be a personal tragedy for the millions who’d be uprooted, but also a tragedy for those Egyptians remaining behind. The Copts form much of Egypt’s professional and business class, and the loss of their expertise could cripple the country’s already faltering economy. The only good to come would be found in the countries to which this talented community is emigrating – chiefly Canada, the United States and various European countries.
Lawrence Solomon is a founder of Probe International, a Toronto-based think tank.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated that a national referendum in March 2011 strengthened Islamic law in Egypt. The status of Islam and Islamic law in the Egyptian Constitution has not changed since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the former president. This version has been corrected.