Politically speaking, pity might be the right word to describe how we ought to respond to the plight of Christians living in Egypt and other Arab lands. That is the argument in Fouad Ajami’s Newsweek article concerning the plight of Christians in Egypt (“Who Will Protect Christian Arabs in Egypt?”). After recounting the glorious history of Egypt and the openness Christianity had to embracing Islam when Islam first arrived in Egypt, Ajami then offers a depressing look at what tolerance of Islam has gained for Egypt and for the Coptic Christians who once flourished there. The nadir of Christian-Muslim relations came when Muslims in Egypt attacked a New Year’s worship service that killed and injured dozens of Coptic Christians. Pitiful indeed.
Perhaps more pitiful has been the retreat of Christian nations from the courage that once helped these (and other) Christians in an Arab land to have the hope of freedom to worship. Ajami recounts an earlier time when the U.S. and other freedom-loving nations would have gone to great lengths to protect Christian worshipers in Muslim lands, but those days appear to have disappeared, like the runway and airport disappears behind a departing flight.
One may think this is progress. After all, a plane taking off is in fact heading somewhere as it leaves the airport in the distance. Ajami says otherwise: “As the dream of modernity in Egypt has faded, there has settled upon that crowded land a deep sense of disillusion—and bigotry.” Ajami explains,
“In times past, Western gunboats and envoys and the educational and religious missions of Western powers had concerned themselves with the fate of the Christians of the East. Consulates in the Levant provided a shield for local Christians. Jerusalem was dubbed a kingdom of the consuls. But the world has been remade, and the Christians of the East have to fend for themselves.”
The times have indeed changed, but not for the better. Progress has been made, but in the wrong direction. Who is to blame for the bathos of Egyptian progress? In Ajami’s words, “The radical Islamists, and the multitudes that wink at them.”
Ajami’s article is sober and accurate, not sensationalistic. He is right about the cause and right on the mark concerning the present plight of Coptic Christians. You may recall that their plight was the subject of the Pope’s sermon of encouragement—which subsequently led Muslim dialogue with the Vatican to cease. So, radical Muslims will be more emboldened to bomb other worship services with a sense of security that Muslim leaders won’t allow the Pope (or any Christian leader) to bring up the subject. And the current administration in the U.S. will give a wink and a nod in the name of tolerance (of Islam). Ajami has painted the scene all too well.
But Ajami’s piece lacks one significant note to complete its arrangement harmoniously. He needs (as the Pope tried to provide) a theological perspective of hope. From a theological perspective, these Christians are blessed. They are presently suffering, to be sure. But Jesus talked about what happens to the “non-sufferers” and how much better they are who remain faithful to him even while being persecuted. Lazarus, you recall, went on to recline in the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man entered Hell (Luke 16:19-31). These Christians in Egypt are persecuted, but surely (like the Apostle Paul) they know they have not been abandoned (2 Corinthians 6:3-10).
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” says Jesus. In other words, there is an answer to the question raised in Ajami’s title, “Who Will Protect Christian Arabs in Egypt?”
For more on Christian Arabs in Egypt, see here.