The Iraqi crisis has revealed the diversity of opinions among Copts on how to support their brothers in faith
By Yosra El Gendi
Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city, has become devoid of Christians after more than 100,000 fled the city and nearby Plains of Nineveh. IS(IS) issued a statement that was broadcasted in mosques and throughout various media outlets, which presented Christians in the area with three options: convert to Islam, pay a jizyah (poll tax), or leave their homes and villages with only the clothes on their backs and few belongings, money or even medicine.
In Egypt, this news was not taken lightly by the Coptic communities. Representatives of the Coptic Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches met with President Abdul Fattah El Sisi to discuss the issue of the persecution of Christians in Mosul by ISIS. El Sisi, however, decided to focus on Egypt, telling them that “Egypt had an ISIS, and extremist thought dangerous for the state is also present in Egypt.” He added that “some still have such extremist ideas.”
Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Ishaq said that the representatives of the churches stressed to him that Egypt must take the initiative to combat extremist thought in Iraq.
This discussion uncovers a contention pertaining to how Egypt should deal with the ISIS attacks against Christians in Iraq. While El Sisi is focusing on an Egypt-first approach in dealing with the Iraqi situation, trying to limit the Egyptian role in that respect, Coptic institutions and movements are requesting intervention to save Iraqi Christians. On the one hand, the representatives of the Coptic Churches were mostly focused towards increasing Egypt’s role. On the other hand, the majority of Coptic youth movements and human rights groups called for collective international action in Iraq to stop the bloodshed and injustices against fellow Christians in Iraq.
Coptic Churches’ Position
Fr. Bulos Halim, spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church, presented the church’s stance with an official statement saying, “The Coptic Orthodox Church denounces strongly the eviction and the displacement of the Christian sons of Iraq in Mosul and the violence and injustice that they are subjected to. This is the first time that this happens in the history of Iraq. We pray for them and for a unified Iraq that treats all its sons equally regardless of their religion.” Later, the Coptic Orthodox Cultural Center opened a bank account to receive donations to assist the Mosul’s Christian Community. Yet, the Coptic Orthodox Church statements seem to be the least interventionist in its approach.
The Catholic Church organized a prayer for Christians in Iraq, held in Saint Fatima Church in Heliopolis. Further, Fr. Rafiq Greisch, spokesman of the Catholic Church, said that the Christians of Syria suffered last year, but the churches were unable to help them due to the circumstances of the country. He stressed the need to contribute and donate to alleviate the suffering of the displaced Christians of Iraq. He stated that Apostle Paul collected donations from the Church of the Philippians to support the Church in Jerusalem. He added that prayer and fasting are the weapon of the faithful.
Rev. Safwat al- Bayadi, head of the Evangelical Community Council, was more outspoken. He stated, before meeting with the president, that Egypt headed by El Sisi will have a great role in combating ISIS. He called upon El Sisi to have Egypt receive those who were ejected from their houses based on their religious identity. He added, “as Egypt has done previously with the Sudanese brethren, we must welcome the Christian Iraqi brethren.”
Despite their differences, the three Churches decided to organize collective humanitarian convoys on August 18 for the Iraqi Christians. They also opened a bank account for donations for the Iraqi Christians.
Coptic Coalitions and Human Rights Groups
While the three main churches highlighted the “Egypt needs to intervene” approach, Coptic movements have highlighted the need for an international intervention, often without mentioning a role for Egypt. The Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organization headed by lawyer Naguib Gobrail, organized a conference to support the Christians of Iraq. Gobrail stated that the United States has only recently acted because ISIS has come close to its bases in Iraq, also alleging that the US earlier supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The lawyer criticized the absence of UN and Security Council (UNSC) intervention and the Arab silence.
The Middle East Freedom Forum, Egyptian Democratic Solidarity Organization and International Coptic Solidarity called for a protest in front of the Embassy of the Vatican. The protesters held up placards with the letter ‘nun’ in Arabic in solidarity with the Christians whose houses are being marked. According to Usama Eid, one of the organizers of the protest, a letter was handed to the embassy requesting that Pope Francis save Iraqi Christians and call upon the UN Security Council to hold an extraordinary meeting to discuss what the Iraqi Christians are facing due to ISIS’ attacks.
Members of the Maspero Youth Union organized a protest in front of the United Nations Information Center (UNIC). They later held a meeting with the deputy head and presented a memo requesting that the UN protect the Christians in Iraq. The memo called for the UNSC to hold an urgent meeting to take measures against the war crimes and crimes against humanity by ISIS, in accordance with Chapter 7 of the UN charter as well as refer them to the International Criminal Court.
While Egyptian Christians feel a sense of solidarity and even go as far as to compare their situation last year to Iraqi Christians today, Copts are using different ways and discourses to support Iraqi Christians. The churches, in particular, maintain a discourse that call on the Egyptian people and government to take action to support Iraq. Coptic movements, however, demand a serious international intervention to stop the bloodshed, but seldomly demanded anything from the government. As the Iraqi crisis continues, the positions the Copts take will influence how the Egyptian state responds to the Iraqi crisis.
Yosra El Gendi is a researcher at Arab West Report, an electronic magazine and database founded in 1997 to foster understanding between people of different cultures and convictions. She has an MA in Comparative Politics from the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and an MSC in Development Studies from Lund University, Sweden.
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