Eyes on Egypt: Why the Ongoing Persecution of Coptic Christians Warrants Our Attention

By 21Wilberforce Associate Emma Hodges

Violent attacks, arbitrary detentions, and a growing culture of impunity for crimes committed against the Coptic community in Egypt should raise international consternation—yet the persecution continues with few consequences.

Recognizing an unbroken succession of Patriarchs since Saint Mark himself, the Coptic Church has remained a vibrant presence in Egypt since its founding. In the third century, Saint Anthony of Egypt became the father of Christian monasticism through his dedication to ascetic living. After his death, his followers established the Monastery of Saint Anthony—the first Christian monastery in history—in an oasis deep within the Red Sea Mountains. Hundreds of pilgrims still visit this site daily, and it has become the first of numerous Coptic monasteries in Egypt.

The rich history of the Coptic Church is evident even in its name. The word Copt is derived from the European pronunciation of the Arabic term qibt, which comes from the Greek name for Egypt, Aigyptos. The Greek based this word off of Hwt-ka-ptah, the name of an ancient Egyptian temple dedicated to the deity Ptah in Memphis, one of Egypt’s oldest and most important cities. This intricate interweaving of culture is also evident in the Coptic language, which originated from a blend of Egyptian words and Greek script.

The Coptic community’s history is riddled with persecution. In the 7th century, Alexandria fell to Arab invaders and tensions between the growing Muslim population and the indigenous Christian population were ignited. In recent decades—especially since Egypt’s overthrow of its monarchy in 1952—these tensions have been exacerbated by rising levels of Arab nationalism. And after the Revolution of 2011 in which the Presidency of Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, sectarian violence has reached a fever pitch. Coptic individuals have been targeted and murdered in public. Homes and churches have been burned. Mass shootings and suicide bombings have killed hundreds, if not thousands (the number is difficult to estimate due to inconsistent reporting by authorities).

The Egyptian government has done little to prevent or investigate these extremist attacks. In fact, the government itself has instigated discrimination and violence against its Coptic minority.

On October 9, 2011, an estimated 10,000 Copts gathered outside of the Maspero state television building in Cairo to peacefully protest a growing culture of impunity for crimes against their community. They were protesting the burning of the Saint George Coptic Church in upper Egypt which Egyptian authorities had failed to investigate, making it the fourth uninvestigated church burning that year. Authorities responded by firing tear gas and live ammunition into the gathering, then driving armored military vehicles through the crowd. At least two dozen were killed and over three hundred injured. One of the survivors of this night (which came to be known as the Maspero Massacre) was Ramy Kamel, a young Coptic man.

Kamel founded the Maspero Youth Union, a vocal and organized group advocating for Coptic rights. He became a prominent voice and a primary source of information for NGOs and individuals working to improve religious freedom in Egypt. And recently he was named one of the decade’s Most Influential Figures in Egyptian Politics by EgyptianStreets.com.

President al-Sisi has identified himself as an ally of the Copts since he was sworn in, but Kamel’s documentation of the ongoing mistreatment of Coptic Christians is at odds with the President’s public messaging. Mina Abdelmalak, a friend of Ramy’s, shared that Kamel had been receiving threats from State Security Police and Islamic extremists alike by the beginning of 2019.

On November 5, 2019, Kamel was unofficially summoned to the National Security Agency in Abassia, Cairo. Upon arriving, he was arrested and transferred to the security apparatus in Nasr City, another district in the city of Cairo, where he was taken to an underground room and tortured. His life and the lives of his sisters were threatened; he was beaten with batons and psychologically tormented; empty guns were aimed and “fired” at his forehead. According to his lawyers, he was explicitly told to stop reporting about Coptic issues in Egypt (especially church burnings) and questioned about the sources of his recent posts on social media. The officers released him after two and a half hours.

Eighteen days later on November 23, Kamel was arrested around 1:45 in the morning at his home in Warrak, Giza, which he shared with his mother and four sisters. Egyptian security forces (three plain clothes officers and at least eight armed special forces officers) broke down his door, inspected his entire house, confiscated his laptop, phone, camera, national ID card, and personal papers, and took him to an undisclosed location—all without a warrant.

Kamel was arrested under the same charges as other advocates, such as labor activist Khalil Rizk. The charges levied against him (“disturbing the public peace through the misuse of social media and spreading false news” and “joining and financing a terrorist group”) were thinly veiled excuses for persecution.

Kamel was scheduled to participate in a United Nations Forum on Minority Issues titled “Education, Language and the Human Rights of Minorities” on November 28. It’s likely that his arrest was intended to suppress his continued exposure of the violations of Coptic rights by the Egyptian government. Kamel’s absence from the forum was noted. Cairo-based attorney Makarios Lahzy condemned the arrest and said, “Ramy Kamel has been the voice of the weakest, most marginalized group in our society, especially in Upper Egypt.”

Immediately after Kamel’s arrest, a flurry of statements calling for his release were published. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights, the US-based Coptic Solidarity, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom, and the International Federation for Human Rights are among some of the organizations who vocally condemned Egypt’s treatment of Kamel, and Amnesty International and Open Doors listed Kamel’s case in their reports on Egypt’s human rights record.

But despite this abundant international attention, Ramy Kamel has remained imprisoned since November 23, 2019.

“We’re very concerned about his mental health,” said Lindsay Griffin, the Director of Development & Advocacy at Coptic Solidarity. “He’s been held in solitary confinement since he was arrested.”

Not only has Kamel been held in solitary confinement for a year, but he’s been denied the typical provisions required by law for those in his situation: an hour of exercise every morning and every evening, literature for reading, the ability to write and receive correspondence, and daily check-ups from doctors.

From March to mid-August 2020, Kamel was in a blackout due to COVID-19; no lawyer or family member could reach him. When his sister was finally able to visit him in August (with a supervisor in the room writing down everything they said), he’d lost a third of his weight and had been suffering frequent asthma attacks. His asthma is particularly concerning considering the fact that multiple prisoners have already died of COVID-19.

“It’s not just that it’s difficult being in prison—we’re very concerned for his life,” Griffin said.

Even under regular criminal circumstances Kamel’s treatment would be unacceptable, but the abuse is especially reprehensible considering his innocence. However, it would be naive to consider Kamel’s case an isolated incident. The arbitrary arrest and inhumane detention of this prominent activist is merely the latest injustice in a long history of marginalization and discrimination against the Coptic people—and it is this pattern of mistreatment that is driving Coptic Christians out of their ancestral homeland.

“Persecution in Egypt has made the Copts a global community through emigration,” Mina Abdelmalak, friend of Ramy Kamel, wrote in an April 2020 article. “The Copts are leaving Egypt because the conditions at home are intolerable. Discrimination is institutionalized. At this point, we are flourishing everywhere but our homeland.”