Christian Minorities Under Attack In The Middle East

A bomb that ripped through a Coptic Church in Egypt during a recent New Year's Eve mass, killed at least 21 people. And a few months earlier, 50 people died in an attack on a Baghdad Catholic Church. The violence has prompted Pope Benedict to call on governments to better protect their Christian minorities. In this week's "Faith Matters" conversation, host Michel Martin speaks with Professor John Esposito, a renown expert on Islamic societies, about the apparent rise in attacks on Middle East Christians.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of spirituality and faith. Today, we're going to talk about why relations between two of the world's leading faith groups sometimes turn violent.

(Soundbite of screaming)

MARTIN: That is the sound of a New Year's Eve mass and church bombing in Alexandria, Egypt, which killed at least 21 people and injured nearly 100 more. That attack was one of a number on Christian minorities in Islamic countries, including a siege last year on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad that left at least 50 people dead. The violence has prompted Pope Benedict to call on governments worldwide to better protect their Christian minorities and allow them to practice their faith freely.

We wanted to know more about this so we've called on John Esposito. He is the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He is the author of more than 40 books and monographs and he's a professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic Studies. He's also the author most recently of the book, "The Future of Islam." Thank you so much for joining us.

Professor JOHN ESPOSITO (Religion and International Affairs and Islamic Studies, Georgetown University): Delighted.

MARTIN: Who are the Coptic Christians of Egypt?

Prof. ESPOSITO: Coptic Christians of Egypt constitute about 10 percent of the population. This is an ancient Christian church. It predates the coming of Islam, for example, to Egypt. So it is an indigenous church and it has very, obviously very strong roots in Egypt. You have significant numbers of Copts now living in North America, in the United States and Canada.

MARTIN: The attack that we just talked about, the one in Egypt that got so much attention, is that part of a larger pattern? Do you think it's an isolated example which was sparked by sort of the particular politics of the particular region?

Prof. ESPOSITO: I think it is the particular politics of the region. Although, you know, you will see this, for example, there'll be statements that will come out, let's say from extremists in Iraq that will point towards the situation in Egypt. But if you actually look at the history of Egypt in recent times, there have been problems. Historically, relations between Copts and Muslims in society has been quite good. But in recent decades, extremists have targeted Copts and on the other hand, the government has failed to respond to the desire of Egypt's Christian Copts for equality of citizenship, really, in terms of the ability to build churches, to repair churches, not to be discriminated against, et cetera.

MARTIN: What did spark that particular bombing? Do we know? I mean, I thought there were some rumors about Muslim women being held against their will by Copts. Was that the underlying event that triggered it, to your knowledge?

Prof. ESPOSITO: One of the issues was that apparently two Coptic women had converted to Islam. Then it gets a little vague or fuzzy or - but then apparently they were somehow brought back in by the Coptic community. One of them was taken off to a monastery, I guess for rehabilitation. And so there was a to do then about some who said, well, look, you know, if you want to convert one way, why then is it wrong if some women want to convert?

Now, there were others who said the reason that they converted was it made it easier for them to divorce their husbands. But in any case, it's the kind of thing that extremists in Alexandria could take advantage of.

MARTIN: And what the Egyptian government's response and what was the broader response from the, you know, sort of broader Egyptian community to that bombing?

Prof. ESPOSITO: Well, I think it's very interesting because, in fact, what you see is that this kind of activity is rejected by society in general. There was a broad rejection of this among major Muslim religious leaders spoke out, intellectuals, civil society leaders. The government, of course, spoke out, although the government handled things ineffectually.

For example, when civil society leaders wanted to have an organized response to this nationwide, the government wouldn't allow it. And that's why it actually took to the streets. And so you had that kind of - with the Internet, et cetera, a mobilization of Muslims who then turned up outside Coptic churches on Christmas Eve, which occurs for the Copts around January 6th. And had a vigil and offered themselves, as it were, as human shields against anyone who would attack churches. So that does indicate the positive side in terms of where the majority of society is coming from.

MARTIN: Now, obviously, you know, Iraq is a different country and there are all kinds of things going on there as well. But what about that Syrian Catholic church attack - that siege on that church in Baghdad? It's been reported that a group affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq took responsibility and issued a statement saying all Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the mujahedeen.

You know, al-Qaida is, of course, a worldwide, you know, organization now and people could debate, you know, how it's actually, whether it's lead or led or whether these are just sort of splinter groups operating under their umbrella. But does that indicate that there is a worldwide, at least, initiative by al-Qaida to target Christians?

Prof. ESPOSITO: I don't really think so. I think rhetorically, yes. I mean al-Qaida is always struggling for ways to divide in order to then, you know, win their goal. The so-called al-Qaida in Iraq is really a self-declared, you know, affiliate of al-Qaida. It's not as if, as far as we could tell, it's not as if there's an al-Qaida central that actually set it up. But it is affiliated with it.

And, but the interesting thing here is, yes, they play off religion to legitimate what they did, but, in fact, they do it for very deep and serious political reasons because it's also why they attack other Muslims. You know, their agenda is to cause instability in society, to divide groups, to stampede groups and therefore to discredit and undermine the current government. And for them to do the kind of attack that they did, obviously it terrorizes Christians, it drives Christians out. It divides, but it also gets them a lot of regional and international publicity, as it were.

And part of that publicity is not simply the Muslim-Christian, if you will, conflict. Part of that publicity is to say, look, Iraq still isn't a safe place. It's still an unstable place. There's significant opposition to the current government. The current government can't even protect its Christian population. So there's a lot of political spin to what they're doing, although it's clearly legitimated by them in the name of what they see as religious differences.

MARTIN: What do you believe motivated the pope's decision to call upon governments and majority Muslim nations to protect Christians? And how was that call received?

Prof. ESPOSITO: I think the pope, you know, was clearly motivated by the Coptic situation, the Iraqi situation you talked about. Also, you know, there have been other situations in Pakistan, the use of the blasphemy law against Christians. In terms of the response, the response has been, you know, mixed and part of that is that on the one hand, it's not that there aren't people and majorities of people who are within countries who are upset at what happened.

But, for example, within Egypt, I think that some within Egypt, that, in fact, al-Assar(ph) kind of ended its Muslim-Christian dialogue over this incident because the feeling was that the pope was intervening in an Egyptian situation. And that is within the purview of popes. And they speak out on behalf of the Christian community and that's his perfect right.

MARTIN: John Esposito is the founding director for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. His most recent book is called "The Future of Islam." Professor Esposito, we thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. ESPOSITO: Great. Have a good day.

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