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While the attention of many concerned Americans has been drawn to the prosecution in Egypt of the employees of four U.S.-based civil society organizations, the proceedings in a different Egyptian courtroom that went entirely unnoticed here may bear far more profound consequences for the future of freedom in that country and the whole Middle East. According to a report in Compass Direct News which monitors treatment of Christians worldwide, the Reverend Makarious Bolous of Aswan was sentenced on March 4 to six months in prison for allowing a renovation of his church to reach a height eight feet beyond what was specified in approved architectural drawings. In themselves, both the crime and the punishment might seem strange to Americans, but moreover the violation is moot since Rev. Bolous’s church was burned to the ground in September by hate-filled Muslim neighbors egged on by local imams. To date, Rev. Bolous is the only one to be punished for the entire episode. Neither the arsonists nor those who incited them have been charged. The story of the Aswan church is momentous because it lies at the heart of a series of events with dire implications for Egypt’s future. At the time of the burning, the governor of Aswan condoned it and other assaults on local Christians whom he blamed for provoking the attacks. Rev. Bolous and his flock are of the Coptic faith, the predominant Christian denomination in Egypt, to which about ten percent of Egyptians belong. Although second-class citizens, enduring formal and informal discrimination, Copts traditionally have secured tolerance by acquiescing to their lower status. But the uprising of 2011 emboldened a group of young Cairene Copts to form, despite the uneasiness of their elders, a kind of civil rights organization. It is called the Maspero Youth Union, named for one of the revolution’s key events that took place at Maspero, the site of the headquarters of state television. In October, infuriated by the Aswan church burning, and even more by the governor’s blame-the-victim response, this group organized a march from Shobra, a heavily Christian neighborhood of Cairo, to Maspero, demanding the ouster of the governor of Aswan as well as an end to certain discriminatory practices, especially constraints on building churches. As they marched through Muslim neighborhoods they were stoned. Then, when they reached Maspero, the army turned on them, killing 27 and injuring countless others. Some were shot and others were deliberately run over by armored vehicles. State television broadcast a report that soldiers had been killed, which proved wholly false; and it appealed to Muslim citizens to come to the street to defend the army from the Copts. This event convinced many Copts that they have no place in the new Egypt, and thousands have already left while many more who have the means are securing their escape routes. As Samuel Tadros, the brilliant young Copt who leads an organization of Egyptian liberals, wrote, “the Copts can only wonder today whether, after 2,000 years, the time has come for them to pack their belongings and leave, as Egypt looks less hospitable to them than ever.” The fate of Arab Christians is clouded not only in Egypt. By most estimates, the majority of the million-plus Assyrians and other Christians living in Iraq before the American invasion have fled. The Christian community of Lebanon is shrinking. And Christians in Syria have held back from joining the popular rebellion against the detested Assad regime for fear it will end in an Islamist takeover that could threaten their place in that country’s polyglot society. Through the region, writes Habib Malik, a Lebanese academic whose father helped Eleanor Roosevelt pen the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Christians fear that once the dust of the Arab Spring settles, Islamist radicalism could sweep away in its path all the well-meaning, liberal-minded, pro-democracy leaders within the opposition movements.” It will take years before the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” reach some kind of clear outcome. They carry the seed of a freer future for peoples who have known little but despotism. But revolutions often disappoint and leave things worse rather than better, as for example the Russian, Chinese and Iranian revolutions of the last century. Will the Arab Spring leave the Middle East a more humane place than before? There is not likely to be a more illuminating barometer than the fate of the region’s besieged Christians. This post was written by Joshua Muravchik, a Human Freedom Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.
Joshua Muravchik is the author of nine books, including The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East (2009), Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (2001), and Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny (1991). He has published more than 400 articles on politics and international affairs. Muravchik is an adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an adjunct professor at the Institute for World Politics. He is also a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies.
Muravchik serves on the editorial boards of World Affairs, Journal of Democracy, and Journal of International Security Affairs. He formerly served as a member of the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion, the Commission on Broadcasting to the People’s Republic of China, and the Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Previously he was a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.