“Security; it is like a fist. All is controlled, but not all is monitored.” Such is a sentence whispered repeatedly throughout Egypt’s Christian communities, ICC reports.
The past 11 months have proven abnormally quiet for Egyptian Christians, especially when compared to the bloody violence of previous years. Mob attacks against Christian homes, bombings against churches, community-based violence against Christians—this used to be the norm in Egypt. But this year, something is different.
Many Egyptian Christians are acutely aware of the contradictions when assessing their religious freedom environment. Positive surface level changes exist, but degrading free speech conditions make it all the more difficult to vocalize the deeper challenges facing the Christian community. The risk is felt everywhere.
“We cannot speak. Egyptians, we have no free speech,” repeatedly warned a church elder. Still, the apprehension felt by many Christians as they watch these changes unfold is cautiously whispered throughout their communities.
“The police exist all of the time in the streets to prevent protests and masses of people to ban building churches,” observed a Christian community leader in Upper Egypt. “These kinds of actions prove how the state has become more stable, and stronger.”
The state’s presence is indeed everywhere. Even in places less volatile than Upper Egypt, such as Cairo, a strong security presence is felt across the streets. The phrase “all is controlled, but not all is monitored” is repeated like a warning: take care, do not give the state an excuse to monitor.
For Christians, the feelings behind this warning are mixed. For example, since the mobs are controlled, new churches are built; but the churches are also monitored. The same security forces which exist to protect the churches from attacks are also tracking who enters the churches. For some Christians, such as those at risk of a blasphemy or apostasy charge, entering a monitored church is risky.
Nevertheless, there is in some ways a sigh of relief from many of Egypt’s Christians.
“The situation of Christians is better right now,” said one young believer. “I notice that the number of incidents decreased; these days I do not notice any attacks on churches.”
“The national security was allowing for the extremists to attack the churches and Christians before,” added Melad, an elderly Christian. “But now the security doesn’t. It seeks stability and to avoid the pressure, so the situation is a little bit better.”
But improving church security, however, is just one aspect of religious freedom. Melad is quick to point out that the broader situation is just as negative as previous years. He explained, “For me, 2019 and 2018 are the same. There are no improvements of the Christians’ situation.
The Islamic teachings did not end. So the persecution action turned from attacking churches and Christian buildings to (attacking) Christian individuals. Just like the kidnapping of the Christian girls and stress on them to convert to Islam.” Others also share Melad’s perspective. Maher, a 32-year-old living in a village subordinate to Minya City, expressed.
“My village is very calm and quiet. There is no chaos! The situation of Christians improved. Now, the government is always building and renewing the churches. Also, President al-Sisi, when he decided to establish the new capital, he built a big cathedral there. It is beside the mosque right now.”
“But on the other side, the persecution continues in the form of bothering the Christian women and girls by extremist Muslims who still want to say we are here and exist in the streets, because of their way of wearing clothes,” he continued.
“In 2019, it’s clear that the number of persecution incidents decreased,” added another Upper Egyptian. “But the persecution turned into hurting the Christian individuals. Like the incidents of cutting the Christian women’s hair, these kinds of incidents occur on the subway train… But this individual’s action indicates that there is hatred in the hearts of many Muslims regarding Christians.”
In the context of Egypt, security is a strange illusion. Communities are controlled, the state is strong, but what can Christians say has really improved over this past year?
“President Sisi is held to be a champion of religious freedom,” wrote Egyptian analyst Sam Tadros in a recent op-ed. “But is any of that actually true?”
“The plight of Copts in Egypt is not limited to church building or the lack of equality… The government is always happy to try Islamists, its sworn enemies, but it has shown no interest in punishing regular Egyptians for pogroms that have terrified Copts and which have included dozens of murders.”
“If Sisi is already receiving praise from Western journalists for his great religious freedom record, why should he do anything to actually protect Copts?” he asked.
Other Egyptians present a different perspective.
“Does the pressure lay on the president of the country or the different departments of the country? Like the judges and the law enforcement who interfere in letting justice takes its way. It is a long inheritance of hate and wrong religion teaching.”
Despite the differing political perspectives of Egyptian Christians, three beliefs are held in common: The Egyptian state is very strong and restrictive, persecution looks different this year, and the deep rooted prejudices against Christians remain. It begs the question: is there improved religious freedom in Egypt, or is it becoming harder to see and speak of persecution?