When the Arab world was in a state of war with Israel, Egypt signed a peace treaty with the fledgling nation. When Islamic extremism began to take root in Egypt several decades ago, the state fought back against the terrorists within its borders. And Egypt's 6 million to 11 million Copts-the oldest and largest community of Christians in the Middle East-have been relatively accepted in their homeland compared to their brothers and sisters in neighboring countries.
But a recent wave of state-sponsored persecution of Christians calls into question Egypt's current course and the growing influence of the most radical elements of Muslim society.
Members of Egypt's State Security Investigations (SSI) arrested Christian activists Adel Fawzy and Peter Ezzat on Aug. 8, accusing the men of charges that include insulting Islam, jeopardizing state security, and preaching Christianity.
Both men work for the Middle East Christian Association (MECA), a Canadian-based human-rights group created to promote Christian equality in the Middle East. Just one day prior to their arrest, Ezzat and another MECA member were investigating the death of a Coptic worker from Cairo who was reportedly thrown off his balcony after refusing to pay police officers extortion money. The MECA employees took pictures of the crime scene and filmed statements from family and friends who witnessed the death of Nasser Sediq Gadallah, apparently inciting the rage of SSI officials who wanted to report the death as a suicide.
Fawzy and Ezzat were arrested the next day while State Security members ransacked Fawzy's apartment, confiscating computers, pamphlets, and copies of the MECA book Persecuted, which documents cases of Christian suffering under the watch of government officials.
"What you have is a very subjective process going on with state security that can subjectively choose which organizations and which individuals to persecute, and that's what is going on here," said Christian Solidarity International representative Keith Roderick. "They're going after these guys because they want to shut down this organization."
The two men were taken to Lazoghly Square-notable for its torture-and kept in relative solitude. According to Roderick, they were able to meet with their lawyers once during the weekend following their arrests. The lawyers reported that 61-year-old Fawzy-the government's primary target-had been denied food, water, and necessary medicine for at least a day and a half and could be facing a prison sentence of 5 to 15 years.
A separate high-profile case involving a Christian convert could also be a precipitating factor in the arrests. When Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy went to court to change his religion on his national ID card from Muslim to Christian, his case monopolized media headlines across Egypt and sparked heated debate over Islam's response to apostasy.
Most Christian converts either flee the country or go into hiding (making the actual number of Christians in Egypt difficult to determine) to avoid retribution from family members and Islamist groups. Hegazy became a Christian nine years ago but only recently petitioned for the legal change, stating two primary reasons: He wants to pave the way for other Christian converts, and he wants his unborn child eventually to have a Christian ID card (religious identity on state ID cards is based on the father's legal identity), a Christian name, and a church wedding. Hegazy is suing the state for refusing to accept his application.
Although one of Egypt's highest clerics, the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, publicized his moderate-leaning views on the debate-apostates should receive their punishment in eternity, not during this lifetime-others voiced their ardent disapproval. Legally, there is no law in Egypt prohibiting conversion from Islam to Christianity, but widespread Islamic jurisprudence concludes that converting from Islam is punishable by death. Although Egypt has never executed a Christian on those grounds, legal rulings and public opinion are rarely in a convert's favor.
"[The Hegazy case] shows the dangerous degree of radicalization the Egyptian population has reached. It is a breeding ground for radical Islam, ideologists, and suicide bombers. The innocent people must be saved from this time bomb," United Copts of Great Britain Chairman Ibrahim Habib, who is himself a Coptic Egyptian, told WORLD.
Hegazy and his wife have received several death threats and recently went into hiding. His first lawyer quit the case, and his new lawyer is proceeding cautiously, skeptical about their chances of a positive outcome.
Hegazy remains determined: "I know there are fatwas to shed my blood, but I will not give up and I will not leave the country," he said from his hideout on Aug. 9. Fawzy was involved in an internet chat group with Hegazy before his arrest and has been accused of aiding in Hegazy's conversion.
Both local and international human-rights groups are beginning to document and publicize Egypt's alarming turn toward extremism. The Freedom House gave Egypt civil-liberties and political-rights ratings of fours and fives (with seven representing the worst possible rating) in the late 1970s and 1980s. From 1991 onward Egypt's ratings have been primarily sixes.
Egypt's once-vibrant Jewish community has dwindled over the decades into virtual nonexistence, and now Egypt's Coptic community-a blanket term that includes Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestants in the faith-are bearing the brunt of the nation's Islamist rulings. "The justice system has failed to make major prosecutions of any of the culprits who have victimized Coptic minorities in the past years, and oftentimes those who commit crimes against Copts are not brought to justice," Roderick said.
Habib says this latest wave of Christian persecution is worsening each day and is part of a larger effort by Islamists to claim Egypt as their own: "You walk the streets of Cairo and you see people who are covered in Islamic dress-totally different from the secular Egypt we knew 40 to 50 years ago. The attitude of the people now is fundamentally Wahabi Islamic. They believe that apostates must be killed in accordance with Islamic Shariah law," Habib said. "The Copts have no future because of this persecution. Ten percent have already emigrated." Saudi Arabia, he adds, has been a major source of this extremism, preying on Egypt's poor.
A report by Amnesty International this year criticizes Egypt's practice of illegal detention and claims the nation has become an international center for torture. The report states that close to "18,000 people continue to be held without charge or trial under orders issued by the Interior Ministry."
"It's a real shame to a country that's supposed to be a member of the United Nations and a signatory of the Charter of Human Rights," Habib said. He says Egypt needs to remove religious affiliation from ID cards and separate state and religion.
Roderick says the United States needs to exert more politic pressure on Egypt to enact necessary changes in its justice system. "There should be some more scrutiny involved in terms of our assistance to Egypt as an ally and the question of whether a real friend is truly accountable for preserving the civil rights of their minorities," Roderick said.
Much is at stake for Copts in the coming months. MECA's Egypt branch recently sued President Hosni Mubarak and several other government officials for failing to compensate the Coptic victims of the al-Kosheh Muslim riots in 2000 that killed 21 Christians. The ruling is expected on Sept. 6.
Now Fawzy and Ezzat await a decision on their own fate as well. "We just continue to pray that their lawyers will be a good advocate for them and that their case will be considered justly," Roderick said.