Where is Obama’s red line in Egypt?

Currently, in Egypt, once a place of refuge, a great exodus is taking place. Christians are not geographically concentrated in one area that could become a safe zone. The only option is to leave, putting an end to 2,000 years of Christianity in Egypt. The Wall Street Journal


By Georgiana Constantin | September 10, 2013

Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians have become targets of violent persecution caught in the Sunni vs. Shiia conflict that has itself raged in the Middle East for fifteen hundred years over who is the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed.

In the aftermath of President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in Cairo by the military on July 3, Christian shops have been marked with red graffiti just before being attacked, a reminder of the infamous time in biblical history when the Israelites had to mark their doors with the blood of lambs in order to be spared the wrath of God manifested through the Angel of Death. This time, Christian doors are marked in this way as a sign of condemnation and vengeance. Right before it was burned down, the Saint Virgin Mary Church in the Al Nazla village located in Upper Egypt had written upon its walls, “The religion of God is Islam.”

Christians in Egypt have coexisted with Muslims for generations. They account for approximately 10% of its 84 million people and Coptics (9%) are, in terms of sheer numbers, the largest Christian group in the Middle East and North Africa region. Before Islam’s reign, the Coptic Church ruled over Egypt, dating back to Roman times, and claimed the Apostle Mark as its founder. Ever since the Arab Spring began in 2011, religious minorities in general, and Christians specifically, have been targeted by Muslim extremists in Arab nations, while President Obama has neglected their plight.

The proxy conflict in Egypt is undoubtedly gaining momentum as tensions grow stronger between outside powers battling for the opportunity to shape the country’s future. Prince Saud al-Faisal announced that Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states would be willing to replace any cutbacks in Western aid to Egypt. His statement came as a response to the subtle hints by the EU and U.S., since aid cuts might be viewed as a way to punish the military for defying the West. Meanwhile, the United States seems to be in a state of denial, which the Washington Times describes as an “unwillingness to address the very real issue of Christian persecution in the Middle East.”

Separately, the Washington Times reports that “Islamist mobs have torched schools and businesses owned by Christians, looted churches and even paraded captive nuns through the streets of a city south of Cairo in a display of rage unseen in Egypt’s recent history.” The Washington Post reports that “more than 60 churches have been attacked or vandalized, with many set ablaze,” while the police never answered the calls for help.

The village of Bani Ahmed in Sharkia province saw in early August a very destructive display of discrimination triggered by a squabble between a Christian delighted by Morsi’s ouster and a Muslim supporter of the former president. The argument ended with hundreds of Muslims from neighboring villages attacking the homes of Christians and a church. “The Christians tried to protect their houses, but in the end, more than 43 houses were burned down and robbed,” Deutsche Welle reported. In order to agitate the people against the Copts, Muslims “give their supporters the impression that the Copts worked hand-in-hand with the military to overthrow Muslim Brother Morsi in order to end Islamic rule.”

International and local human rights observers are worried. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies has expressed concern about the increasing sectarian violence in the region. They claim that the “negligence of the institutions of the state to provide the necessary protection to Christian citizens” and the constant incitement of Muslims to act against Christians is unacceptable. The Institute has called for Islamist groups to reject violence and stop all forms of hateful speech. Also, they recommend state intervention, to put an end to impunity in cases of violence, and, to carry out urgent impartial investigations into the sectarian violence.

Things seem to be getting out of hand though, despite all the efforts made by human rights defenders to draw attention to the situation. An example of the scale and complexity this conflict has reached is the fact that Muslim Brotherhood figures have apparently been using mainstream and social media in order to spread an anti-minority and, especially, an anti-Christian message to the Arab world. They have been shown to try to distract the West through media messages in the English language that seemed to paint a more moderate picture of the organization and its scope than their Arab language messages proclaim, which condoned discrimination and incited violence.

Currently, in Egypt, once a place of refuge, a great exodus is taking place, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Christians “are not geographically concentrated in one area that could become a safe zone. The only option is to leave, putting an end to 2,000 years of Christianity in Egypt.” However, those who are leaving are generally the ones with money, English language skills and other such advantages. The poor are usually left behind more likely to become victims of systemic sectarian violence in the midst of the ongoing Sunni-Shiia conflict.

President Obama has failed to address the problem directly or even make mention of the fact that the majority of the people being persecuted in the region are Christians. He apparently prefers to address the issue in such a way that it could be looked upon as simply “minority discrimination,” never mentioning which group represents the majority of Egypt’s Coptic-Shiia minority. USA Today states that recent administrations have had “little or nothing to say about persecuted Christians at the hands of Muslims.” The news outlet poses the question of whether or not the government fears “angering” Islamists and concludes that “[w]atching the upheaval in Egypt, it’s difficult to see how they could become any angrier.”

Obama, who in 2012 said Syria’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” has now doubled back and claimed it was not he who made that statement originally but the international community. And even though Obama’s ‘red line’ in Syria is hard to pin down, it is non-existent in Egypt, when it comes to the ethnic cleansing of Christians. How is it that he is unwilling to speak of one yet go to war over another?

As ethnic cleansing surfaces once more, we might expect the civilized world, after having vowed “never again” so many times, to take a stand, and actually prove to have meant it. In the end, historically, Christians do seem to have a few favors to call in, don’t they?


Georgiana Constantin is a Romanian law school graduate who has studied European, international and Romanian law. She recently completed her thesis on the UN and global governance at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest. Ms. Constantin, who is based in Romania, is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.