“The drive towards proselytism must be arrested once and for all in order to strengthen the churches of the East by a systematic avoidance of separating their sons from their ancient professions” Aziz Atiya, History of Eastern Christianity, 1967
The US recognition of all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel came exactly one century after the Balfour declaration and serves as a historic book end to it. Many applauded the decision, seeing it as a fulfillment of a decades-long Israeli wish and perhaps nothing more than a recognition of the reality of the situation, although reality is remade every day by the powerful. Others were puzzled by the timing of it and the lack of concrete gains from what is purely a symbolic move. There is one way to view the decision that renders it perfectly comprehensible. Its timing and language are designed to make the upcoming tour of the region by Vice President Mike Pence a victory lap. Mr Pence is the highest elected official representing the wing of Christian Evangelism called “Christian Zionism”. Many Eastern Christians view Christian Zionism as a heterodox sect of Protestant Christianity that places its faith in the fulfillment of prophecies and revelations through the material and historic realization of specific signs and events. Chief among these are the return of the Jews to their ancestral home and their complete control over Jerusalem and the lands around it.
The reaction to the decision among Eastern Christians has been largely negative. The Christians of Palestine, a fraction of their size a century ago, disapproved of the move. Others in the Levant voiced similar disapproval in the midst of an existential crisis arising from the advent of Islamic supremacist movements. In Egypt, home of the largest group of Eastern Christians, the reaction was muted but also negative. Egypt sports a sizable Evangelical community, but the vast majority of Christians are Coptic Orthodox. The patriarch of the Copts, Pope Tawadros II, canceled a meeting with Mr. Pence who had proclaimed that he will advocate on behalf of the Copts during his stopover in Cairo. As always during times of trouble (and these are troubled times) the Copts place their faith in the inscrutable hand of God over the proclaimed power of men. Many Copts and non-Copts criticized the Pope’s decision. The criticism fell into two broad categories; that the Pope was catering to the Egyptian state and the popular passions, or that he was intellectually captured by the “nationalist discourse” common in Egypt. In short, that the refusal to meet Pence reflected either fear or foolishness. Both arguments fail on closer examination.
We should be careful to attribute fear to those who kept the faith for centuries against great odds. But more importantly the argument is internally inconsistent. When Copts face death rather than give up their faith, and when their kin forgive the attackers, they are judged as paragons of Christian virtue and courage. When they refuse to accept a hasty decision by a bumbling American administration, they are accused of cowardice. You can’t have it both ways.
The argument against “foolishness” requires more subtlety. Many Christian Zionists insist that support for Israel is part and parcel of support for Eastern Christians, since those who come for the Jews will eventually come for the Christians. This is true; the Islamic supremacists have a habit of mentioning “Saturday” and “Sunday” people in sequence. But this argument conflates and confuses different things. It conflates secular Zionism (a laudable idea) with religious Zionism (a potentially dangerous one). It conflates the affairs of state (capitals and embassies) with the culture of the people (attachment to land and religion). The intellectual roots of Christian Zionism hark back to the Protestant rediscovery of the Old Testament and the Jewish roots of Christianity. It is perhaps why many Christian Zionists have found an affinity for “the Copts” as a generalization. The Coptic Church, along with its Ethiopian sibling, is the most Jewish of churches, as it had never abandoned many ideas that Protestants rediscovered centuries later. There is an apocryphal tale popular among Copts. One version of it runs as follows. An American Evangelist arrives in 1850s Egypt to tell a humble Coptic priest that he brings news of Jesus Christ. The priest responds with “when did you make his acquaintance? We first met him more than 1800 years ago when he visited as a new born in his mother’s arms”. The sly tale warns against the dangers of Western “Christian-splaining”.
Another variance of the “foolishness” argument insists that Copts are in no shape to refuse assistance from any quarter, and that Pence’s remonstrations to the Egyptian state should have been honored with an audience with the patriarch. This argument stems from a Western habit of wishing that the Eastern Christian should fulfill the rule of a vassal rather than a brother. The largest Christian denominations, such as the Catholic and main Protestants, have long abandoned this notion, but it persists in the American bible belt. In any case, any principled argument for freedom of conscience should include the freedom to disagree with political decisions. This is especially true for those with a track record of impulsive actions that proved harmful to many Eastern Christians (cue the Iraq sanctions and invasion).
The entire episode highlights a growing concern that the persecution of Eastern Christians is often a useful cudgel in political arguments. Recent events, especially with the Copts, have provided unforgettable and searing images. There is the image of 21 men kneeling at a beach and silently praying moments before their execution. There is the image of a small altar boy smiling happily in his vestments moments before a suicide bomber doomed him. It would dishonor the victims’ memories if these images are turned into fodder for political agitprop by those eager for conflict that would leave many more victims behind battle lines. Atiya’s description of the church, of which he proclaimed himself a member, “ Coptic Church … had chosen the solitude of its own primitiveness, its peculiar spiritualism, and the rough road of its so-called Monophysitism” remains remarkably accurate today, even as its seemingly modern sons and daughters spread out throughout the world, including the West. They would proudly appropriate the moniker he gave them, as “primitive Christians”, meaning that their faith is rooted in the people who kept a “historic steadfastness toward the faith of their forefathers”, while never aligning with worldly power and often existing in opposition to it. Many Protestant Evangelicals have not grasped that essential part of it. In their fervor to achieve secular power, legislative, judicial and executive, American Evangelicals, for example, are the antithesis of the Copts. Earlier this year a delegation of Evangelicals, including representative of Christian Zionism, met with President Sisi of Egypt, who enjoys the support of Pope Tawadros, and praised him widely. For its part, the Coptic Church avoided the meeting. These are some of the historic reasons why we should not rush to judge the Pope’s refusal to meet with Mr. Pence as a political or cultural capitulation to the popular rage or fear of the Egyptian state.
— Maged Atiya
All generalizations are suspect. But as such things go, this one is reasonably accurate. Concern about the suffering of Eastern Christians at the hands of Muslim extremists is more prevalent among the West’s political right, while concern about the less dangerous, but no less odious, bigotry toward Muslims in the West is taken up more vigorously by the political left. How this came to be is worthy of a book-long study, and mostly because to speak of the effect of “culture” is now taboo on the left. But the manifestations should be cause for alarm.
What used to be called “the Christian West”, a term now in disfavor, has not always been kind to its eastern coreligionists. But recently there has been a major change in these attitudes, in opposite and polarizing directions. The Russian Church, with its long and rather dangerous association with secular power, seems attractive to many white supremacists. Some are even converting from mainline and Evangelical Protestantism to Eastern rites. This blogger has warned about such Russification publicly, and privately even more vehemently. Putin’s cynical display of crocodile tears about the decline of “Western morality” serves as a magnet for such groups. On the opposite end of the spectrum, so-called intersectional warriors, are making hay with faux Muslim identities. A woman, of any skin complexion or ethnicity, who dons a Hijab is suddenly a “woman of color”, whatever that means. This is a dangerous polarization for all involved. Painting political polarization with a religious tint ends badly, especially for those in the numerical minority. It is silly, and wrong, to allocate blame equally on all sides. It is far more productive to urge change mostly where it is possible and realistic to expect it.
There is nothing to say to white supremacists. They are beyond the pale. One can only urge Eastern Christians to reject false friends and not join them outside the limits of tolerance and common humanity. More is expected from Western liberals. Their eagerness to end denigration of Islam and Muslims in their countries is commendable, although at times it finds them in uncomfortable embrace of suspect company, especially when coupled with superficial understanding of Muslim-Christian relations in majority-Muslim countries. The statement “America is a White nation” is hateful and inaccurate. Yet it is not uncommon to hear the even less statistically and historically accurate “Egypt is a Muslim country” without anyone batting an eye. Dog-whistle extensions of that statement are even more prevalent. Consider the now fashionable promotion of “illiberal democracy” by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings institute. In Egypt of the 1930s and 1940s Communists were disproportionately Jewish, while Christians were over-represented among liberals. The congenitally antisemitic and anti-Copt Muslim Brotherhood attacked “heathen Communists and dissolute Liberals” with vehemence, arguing that such views should be anathema to all Muslims. It is surprising to see such discourse repackaged for polite company as insisting that “illiberal democracy” is acceptable for Muslims. Panels on tolerance in the Middle East often include a combination of Islamists and Western or Muslim seculars with no representation of Eastern Christians who are most affected by intolerance. The liberal West is disappearing Eastern Christians, and is largely uncomfortable in the presence of their testimony, in many cases literally martyrdom, and their fervent devotions. They smell too much of incense, perhaps.
It was the privilege of this blogger, upon first arrival in America, to read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, urged on him by a kind teacher who was a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, at a time when the Church’s teachings about African-Americans were coming under scrutiny. As with all great works of literature, it has multiple readings. But the most obvious one is how invisibility facilitates oppression. It is understandable how hateful groups in the Middle East seek to render Christians invisible. It is puzzling why such discourse of supremacy hoodwinks Western liberals.
— Maged Atiya
“Bonaparte, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the French Republic, in Africa and in Asia, to the rightful heirs of Palestine – the unique nation of the Jews, who have been deprived of the land of your fathers by thousands of years of lust for conquest and tyranny, which even so has never been able to destroy your name of your existence as a nation ……
Rightful heirs of Palestine!
My great nation, which does not trade in human beings or in countries, as did those who sold your fathers into slavery in other nations, herewith calls upon you, not to conquer your inheritance, but to receive only that which has already been conquered, so that you can remain there as ruler, under our guarantee, and will defend it against all foreigners”(1)
Or so went the declaration by the Corsican General, not yet 30 years of age, allegedly made in Jerusalem on Passover day 1799. Historians have never been able to confirm the authenticity of this claim. The original declaration in French was never found, and Napoleon was never in Jerusalem. On the other hand, many other substantiating documents exist, including discussions in the Directory. There is, most famously, a German translation smuggled to England just prior to WWII, as the Viennese rabbinical family that owned it was set to escape Hitler. That has been alleged to be a forgery. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a rumor in Egypt that a Jewish family owned a Hebrew copy signed by Napoleon himself. But the source of the rumor could have been many of the Nazi fugitives who lived in Egypt then. Yet a number of historians have concluded that something like this document could have easily been in Napoleon’s mind as he marched from Egypt to punish the ruler of Acre, Ahmed Pasha Al Jazzar (The Butcher). The bloody and cantankerous man had smuggled an Ottoman firman to Egypt a few months prior which caused the Cairo riots of October 1798. Ahmed Pasha was known to be partial to sectarian killings, having started his reign in the Levant by sealing Christians into the walls of Beirut. When the French approached his walls he rounded up all the Christians of Acre, killed them and tossed their bodies over the wall. His reasons were not entirely murderous. The Christians, Jews, Druze and Shi’a of the Levant were collaborating with Napoleon in his effort to topple the Ottoman Empire. There is plenty of documented evidence that the French General promised small independent Cantons to all the diverse religious groups of the region. Napoleon landed in Egypt with a clear dream. He would build a new oriental empire on the ashes of the Ottoman shambles. Egypt would be its vanguard, Islam its ideology, and the Levant pacified by subdivision into vassal states. “Little Europe” was too small for him. A century before the Ottoman demise, the Frenchman had in mind a “post-Ottoman” order. Napoleon’s vision was a less democratic version of the nascent United States. A constellation of states which would emerge independently from a French culture, but still owe more than a passing resemblance to it. His dreams of an oriental empire faded before the walls of Acre, and as his army swept back to Egypt, a multitude of Levantine Christian refugees joined it to escape the revenge of the Butcher. The scene of the “Shawam” escaping the chaos of their homeland to Egypt would be repeated many times in the next two centuries. By a cruel irony, the French army entered Egypt on June 5 1799, and upon this occasion and on this date the great General declared his loss a victory.
There was another vision for the region, one rarely taken up by recent historians. It starts with an equally talented and remarkable, but lesser known, General Louis Desaix, Almost the same age as Napoleon, and possibly more original and daring. Desaix had all of Napoleon’s skill and energy, but little of his near mystical ambition and self-regard. He accompanied Napoleon on the expedition to Egypt, before dying in Italy in 1800. In late 1798 he set out from Cairo to chase one of the previous rulers of Egypt, Murad Bey, whom he had defeated at the battle of Imbaba. Desaix was to travel as far south as the first cataract, at the head of the first European army to do so since the Romans. The Mamlukes outnumbered and outgunned Desaix, and knew the country better. Yet he won every encounter with brilliant military tactics and the unswerving dedication and love of his troops. His feats of generalship remain little noted. It was during this campaign that he made the acquaintance of another remarkable man, Mu’allam Ya’qub. Ya’qub was Murad’s deputy and tax collector; not an unusual profession for a Copt at the time. Murad was “Sheik Al Hajj”, but it was Ya’qub who managed the complex task of organizing the caravans to Mecca, some from as far away as West Africa. It was Desaix who persuaded Ya’qub to switch sides, and he proved a great asset. He ran an intelligence network on the movements and location of the Mamluke armies. He sealed the Red Sea ports against the influx of warriors from Arabia, who flocked to the promise of killing infidels, but stayed to pillage Egyptians of all religions. Sometime between 1799 and 1801 Ya’qub cooked up a daring and wholly new idea; creating a nation-state out of Egypt, totally unconnected to any empire and lacking any affiliation to a larger Muslim or Arab identity. He formed a “Coptic Legion”, boarded a ship for Europe in 1801 to argue for an independant Egypt in the courts of Europe, but died soon after. His legion would distinguish itself in the Napoleonic wars and its descendants would continue to live in France to this day.
Ya’qub’s friend Desaix made three seminal contributions to Egypt, a country he seemed to like well-enough but without the hysterical passions of Napoleon. First he thinned the ranks of the Mamluke warlords and their militias, making it possible for Muhammad Ali to eradicate them a little more than a decade later. The credit for ridding Egypt of the vicious military caste that ruled over it for over 500 years and nearly brought total destruction on it, goes to both the French soldier and the Albanian Wali. Second, he brought forth a vision of governance unknown to Egyptians at the time. Napoleon enjoyed the title of “Al Sultan Al Kebir” (the Great Ruler), while the peasants of the countryside gave Desaix the title “Al Sultan Al ‘Adil” (The Just Ruler). Desaix’ vision of capable government and justice administered without regard to wealth or religion remains an elusive but inviting reality in today’s Egypt. Finally Desaix gave protection and support to many Savants, especially the artist Vivant Denon, who made the first reliable and extensive sketches of Egyptian antiquities. When he arrived back in Cairo in the heat of July 1799, the Savant could do little but speak of the greatness of what he saw and the fact that it preceded European civilization by centuries. In Denon and Ya’qub we detect the first stirrings of an Egyptian nationalism that held the nation to be an exceptional phenomenon, and the visible and indelible markings of religion and language as merely superficial aspects of a deeper essential self (2). That vision holds some promise but also a dark underbelly, and to this date it remains neither able to fulfill the promise nor capable of totally riding itself of its sense of injury and anger.
As the region remakes itself it is worth considering the lessons of more than two centuries ago, although we should gird ourselves for a likely disappointment.
— Maged Atiya
1- As collated by Paul Strathern in “Napoleon in Egypt”
2- Louis ‘Awad did much to revive Ya’qub’s reputation. Islamists are fond of pointing out his defense of the Coptic quarter of Cairo against the mob as evidence of his “sectarian agenda”.
The policy makers of the Bush administration, secure in the wisdom lodged behind rimless glasses, argued that unless Saddam is brought to heel Al Qaeda will seek his protection. We now know the opposite to be true; the henchmen of Saddam have sought the protection of Al Qaeda and have become a significant part of the leadership of its bloody successor, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). While the US worked to endow Iraq with the laudable gifts of representative democracy and free markets, its opponents diligently pursued the task of starting a religious war. Al Qaeda, is at root wedded to a variant of Salafi Jihadi ideology, and therefore an implacable enemy of Shi’a Islam. In the empowerment of the Shi’a, it found a casus belli in Iraq. The US adventure there was meant to provide a shining example of how good governance can lift the fortunes of Arabs and Muslims and “drain the swamp of terrorism”. But Iraq was too far gone, a victim of its history of brutal coups and social fissures but mostly a casualty of the Iranian revolution. The revolutionary regime in Iran sought to export an eschatological revolution, thus firing the first shot in a broad religious war. Iraq was the first, and not the last, victim.
Even if one accepts the logic of creating an example of good governance in the region, one must question the choice of Iraq as the test bed. A far more hospitable place would have been Libya. Its dictator was as brutal as Saddam, but with less cunning and more insanity. It is further removed from Iran, and its religious makeup would have avoided the thorny issue of Shi’a empowerment, Sunni resentment, and the dodgy fact of having many of its potential leaders in bed with the likes of Hizboallah. If the spread of nuclear weapons was a factor, then certainly Libya was a more provable case. Instead, Saddam was attacked and Qaddafi offered a sweetheart deal.
But now, a dozen years after the invasion of Iraq, and with the Levant in a crucible of horrors, there is a chance for a makeover. Rarely does history offer great powers a chance not to make the same mistake twice. Libya is in chaos. Its chaos is empowering the worst elements to flood in. The number of its insurgents is small, and their nature is rag tag. This may seem to be a reason for inattention, but actually it is not. Actors such as ISIS are likely to see in Libya a low lying fruit. It has a long coastline close to Europe, it has oil, and it is close enough to Egypt, with many smuggling routes across a 1000 mile border, offering a tantalizing base of operation to destabilize the largest and most influential Arab country. The revolution against Qaddafi was likely supported from Qatar and Turkey, but NATO acted as tactical air power for actors it little understood. The resulting chaos offers a reprimand and a chance to redeem the original mistake.
If the original intervention was based on the legal theory of the “Right to Protect”, then that same theory demands further intervention. At risk then were the lives of rebels and the civilians under their control. At risk today are the lives of millions of Libyans, and potentially others in the surrounding countries. ISIS is a death cult, and it is hell-bent on extermination of Christians. The largest pool of native Christianity is next door in Egypt. The brutal execution, if proven, of 21 Copts in Libya and the accompanying document leaves no doubt as to the intentions of ISIS. Numbers make a chilling case. There are as many Copts in Egypt as there were Jews in Europe in 1933.
What is advocated here is an extension of the earlier intervention, via a small expeditionary force, mostly of European and other countries, to restore a functioning government to Libya, disarm all militias and eradicate any foreign fighters from the ISIS group. There are many reasons to think this will succeed. The ethnic and religious make up of Libya is such that a fair distribution of oil revenue (Libya has the same population and oil production as Norway) will keep them all happy and agreeable. A decent and mild man, King Idris, managed as much before. The proximity of Egypt and Algeria will mean that potential recruits to the insurgency will need to arrive by sea. Naval interdiction is something that the US excels at. Keeping the southern rim of the Mediterranean free of chaos used to be an American strategic objective. It ought to be again.
The benefits reach beyond what is purely good for Libya. Defeat of the Jihadis there will protect Egypt’s back ,allowing it to focus on defeating the Sinai branch of ISIS. Tunisia will no doubt rest better knowing that its Eastern neighbor is not in chaos, especially as it has become a major provider of fighters to Syria and potentially ISIS. A win in Libya might even encourage nations such as Mali and Nigeria to clamp down on their religious warriors.
But the major win in Libya is to hand ISIS a major defeat. The West has suffered its own brutal religious wars, and has come through them with an understanding that the only way out is to empower nation-states as agents of governance based on citizenship rights. The Christian West, which increasingly has a major Muslim minority, must reassert that principle in the Middle East. Syria may seem intractable, but Libya is not; and a solution there may radically alter the course of events elsewhere in the region.
— Maged Atiya
The early Ninth Century CE was a terrible time for Egyptians, a concluding time of a sequence of revolts. The Arab armies arrived in the middle of the Seventh Century, and Egypt became a province of the rising empire governed from the Levant. A hundred years later the center of the Islamic empire moved east, and the occupation was closer to the Persian invasion of more than a century earlier, rapacious and intolerant. Faith, and to a lesser extent money, moved the mostly Christian population of Egypt to revolt. In a series of encounters known as the “Bashmuric Revolts”, the overlords from Baghdad sent in central Asian mercenaries to put down the revolts with predicable violence; killing, enslavement and mass burning of Churches and Monasteries followed. By the middle of the Ninth Century the native Copts had given up all armed resistance. Never again would Copts resort to force to defend themselves, no matter how great the oppression. The scale of the physical damage would only be rivaled by the riots of the 14th Century, and 2013, in the wake of the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood President, Morsi.
Some of these events paint a fascinating miniature of the complex relationships between faiths and their histories in Egypt. One burnt Church, St Michael in old Fustat, was either bought or appropriated by a group of local Jews around 880 CE. It became the Ezra Synagogue, a center of Jewish life in Egypt for more than a thousand years thereafter. Rarely have Churches been forcibly changed to Synagogues; Ezra is an unusual specimen. The Synagogue contained a “Genizah”, or a store room for discarded documents carrying the name of God, and hence not candidates for destruction. The accumulated treasure paints a picture of Jewish life in Egypt and the region throughout the Crusades and Middle Ages. The Jews of Egypt were globalists. The community was in the hub of trade from Andalusia in the West to India in the East. Equally telling is the absence of Copts in these documents, for although Egypt remained mostly Christians for centuries afterward, the Christians of Egypt closed in on themselves, hemmed in by Muslim rulers and a West that regarded them as heretics. The Genizah records were “discovered” in the 1890s, and the events around that are telling of the varying fortunes of Jews and Copts for the next century.
In the beginning of the 19th Century Egypt began to attract new Jews and Christians. In the case of Jews, it was Ottoman and European Jews who came to work with Egypt’s modernization efforts. They arrived with substantial social capital, far above their impoverished Egyptian relatives. The removal of the Genizah records to Europe was the occasion for protests by Egyptian Jews, who resented the newcomers’ high handed ways. In time, however, Egyptian Jews became absorbed into the new elite, by both marriage and business. When the Jewish exodus from Egypt began in 1948, there was little difference between those whose roots ran back decades or centuries. All left together.
The fortunes of the Copts took a radically different road. The arrival of the British Church Missionary Society (CMS) had a largely positive impact on the Copts. But fifty years later, in the 1850s, came a new breed of missionaries, American Evangelicals. They viewed the Orthodox Copts as derelict Christians and sought to convert all of them to Protestantism. The Orthodox Church faced a threat as great as the Asian armies of centuries ago. It was entirely possible to imagine the Orthodox creed becoming an antique and vanishing vestige, as Copts saw the superior benefits of Protestant education and advancement. In fact, that did not happen. The Protestant threat became an occasion for reform, the vast majority of Egyptian Christians remained in the Orthodox creed, and the Church tied its fortunes closely to the rising Egyptian nationalism. It is not an exaggeration to state that Copts sacralize the land of Egypt as much as the Jews do the Holy Land. The Evangelical Christians became a part of native Egyptian Christianity rather than the other way around.
The establishment of Israel was the proximate cause for the departure of the Jews from Egypt, but the ultimate causes were both nativism and political Islam. The majority of Copts engaged in one and rejected the other, without noting the contradiction involved. It was left to another migration, that of Copts to North America and Australia, to highlight those contradictions. In an odd twist of fate, a term normally associated with Jews, “Diaspora”, is now contested among Copts. Some accept it, others reject it. Both positions freighted with historical and social consequences.
When it comes to faith, land and history, peoples invariably find themselves as threads in a wider weave. Hegemony and exceptionalism do little but rend the fabric.
— Maged Atiya