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Response from Michael D. Peabody

Discussion Question: Religious Undertones in Egyptian Protests?

Over the past decade, Egyptian Copts have fallen victim to increasing discrimination and persecution, most recently with the January 1 suicide church bombing that killed at least 21 people and injured dozens more. Do the current anti-government demonstrations in Cairo have religious undertones?

Ten years after the crucifixion of Jesus, St. Mark the Evangelist is said to have traveled to Egypt and founded the Church of Alexandria, the first Coptic congregation. The people of the city rejected Mark because of his efforts to get the people to abandon their Hellenistic gods, and in 68 AD tied a rope around his neck and dragged him through the city until he died.

Despite this setback, the Christian church in Egypt continued to grow in the shadow of persecution. Coptic years begin with the Julian year, 284 A.D. In One A.M., One Anno Martyrum, the Roman Emperor Diocletian began to violently torture and execute the Christian community in Egypt. Each passing year commemorates this history.

In Modern Egypt Coptic Christians, which are estimated to represent 10%-20% of the population have suffered intense persecution. For instance, the government has not recognized Muslim conversions to Christianity, and as a result the children of converts are required to attend Muslim schools. It is nearly impossible to build churches in Egypt, and Christians have been the targets of sectarian violence.

In April 2010, a bipartisan group of 17 members of the U.S. Congress expressed concern to the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Office about Coptic women who faced "physical and sexual violence, captivity ... exploitation in forced domestic servitude or commercial sexual exploitation, and financial benefit to the individuals who secure the forced conversion of the victim."

Since 1979, the the United States has supported Egypt's current government with $35 billion in military and economic aid because of fears that open democracy would lead to the takeover of the government by a radical religious regime similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan, which in turn would threaten to ignite the Middle East in open warfare against Israel. But this aid, which was instrumental in a cooling of open hostilities between Egypt and Israel, was given without condition, and not leveraged to alleviate concerns of human rights abuses within Egypt. Such conditions might have led Egypt to reject such aid altogether and resulted in a perpetuation of hostilities.

The current situation appears to be driven by protesters's concerns over economic insecurity even moreso than a religious dispute, although the society that is forged in these fires will have elements of economics, culture, and faith shaped by centuries of Egyptian history. It is impossible to predict what would happen in a post-Mubarak Egypt, or even that a whole-scale regime change is inevitable. But here are four possible scenarios:

If anti-Mubarak protesters lack the cash or infrastructure to sustain an attack on the administration, the majority may become exhausted and leave the struggle to another day.

In a second scenario, if the protesters are able to gain control of a significant portion of the nation's infrastructure and solidify around a common theme of anti-Christian religious revolution that resents the influence of "Christian" America, it could mean severe problems for the Coptic Christians.

In a third scenario, if the protesters are successful in taking down the government, but unsuccessful in forming a new one, Egypt could break down into tribalism and lead to vast regional instability that would threaten the viability of the Suez Canal and require international military intervention to secure the international commerce that flows through the canal between Europe and Asia.

Finally, the protesters, in a long-term gain, might be able to convince the existing government that the current form of government is unworkable and cooperate in order to to transition peacefully to a form of democracy that recognizes the human rights of all Egyptians. This is an opportunity to put an end to the history of religious persecution in Egypt.

Whatever scenario develops, it will be imperative to keep the lines of communication open, with all sides, and the Obama administration would do well to avoid an inference that it is taking sides in this dispute until the players and their goals are more clearly identified.

Even more importantly, we should remember to keep the Coptic Christian community, and indeed all the people of Egypt regardless of their religious affiliation, in our thoughts and prayers during this sensitive time.

Photo of Michael D. Peabody

Author: Michael D. Peabody

Michael D. Peabody is an attorney in Los Angeles, California. He has practiced in the fields of workers compensation and employment law, including workplace discrimination and wrongful termination. He is a frequent contributor to Liberty magazine and editsReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent website dedicated to celebrating liberty of conscience. Mr. Peabody is a favorite guest on Liberty’s weekly radio show, “Lifequest Liberty.”

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