Egypt’s Christians fear more violence; many flee

Cairo, Egypt - Egypt’s 8 million Christians face an uncertain, if not bleak, future in the aftermath of a massacre of Coptic Christian protesters and a series of attacks on churches, Middle East analysts say.

Sectarian tensions, which have simmered for decades, have exploded since the February revolution that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

The most recent incident occurred Oct. 9, when security forces violently broke up a predominantly Christian protest in Cairo’s Maspero district, killing 27. The demonstrators had been protesting a mob attack on a church in southern Egypt that had occurred days earlier.

Kurt Werthmuller, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, said the massacre was not “an isolated event” but a continuation of violence against Copts, adding that the government’s response has been “at best careless, but at worst, on occasion, complicit.”

Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has pledged to investigate the “Maspero Massacre,” though some of the military rulers have accused the protesters of provoking the violence.

On Wednesday in Washington, hundreds of Coptic Christians rallied outside the White House to bring attention to the plight of their brethren in Egypt.

An ancient society, Coptic Christians make up nearly 10 percent of Egypt’s population. But many are concerned that Egypt’s current climate carries echoes of Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when a spate of anti-Christian attacks sparked an exodus.

A report released last month by an Egyptian nongovernmental organization estimated that 93,000 Christians already had fled the country since March, a figure some are predicting could top 200,000 by the end of year.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Copts face “a pretty tenuous situation” exacerbated by the Mubarak regime’s efforts to drive a wedge between Egyptian Muslims and Christians.

“After three decades of manipulating sectarian tensions for their own political purposes, it’s now very, very easy to whip up anti-Christian sentiment,” said Mr. Cook, author of “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.”

With upcoming parliamentary elections expected to bestow power on Islamist forces that Mr. Mubarak long suppressed, many think the situation could deteriorate.

“The risk is that Islamist parties will gain substantial influence, and political debates ultimately will become debates about the proper interpretation of Shariah [Islamic law], and that’s a conversation in which the Copts won’t have any part,” said the Washington Institute for Near Ear Policy’s Eric Trager, an expert on Egyptian political parties.

Egyptians are scheduled to elect a new parliament later this year and in January, with presidential elections tentatively slated to follow in March.