A group of Christian priests from a local Coptic church in Egypt were told to convert to Islam or face death, according to an Arabic news site.The incident, which comes in the midst of continued persecution and pressure on Egypt’s Christian community, took place this week in the town of Safaga, near the Red Sea, the El Balad site reported.
According to El Balad, the threats are from a new group in Egypt, Jihad al-Kufr, whose name translates to Jihad against non-believers or non-Muslims. The group targets non-Muslims, and reportedly pressures them to convert to Islam.
“It’s not the first time. This is happening every day,” said Adel Guindy, president of Coptic Solidarity and a member of Egypt’s Coptic community who travels between Paris and Cairo. “This one incident caught the attention of the news agencies, but there are worse things happening to the Christians every day in Egypt,” he said.
Christians have felt increasingly at risk since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, which resulted in the rise of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
“It has definitely worsened under the revolution. Once the worst part of the society surfaced — the Islamists — the Copts are paying a heavy price. The West doesn’t really feel our pain. It’s a war of attrition,” Guindy said.
Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and the most prominent religious minority in the region. Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people.
Egypt’s new constitution has come under scrutiny by many for including elements of Sharia, or Islamic law, while simultaneously legitimizing the marginalization of the country’s religious minorities by denying them legal protection. It also granted increased powers to Morsi, who self-declared sweeping powers in a Nov. 22 power grab that prompted heavy international criticism.
The new constitution was ratified after its second referendum in late December, winning more than 70 percent of the vote. Moderate Egyptians took to the streets to protest the rushed ratification, but the demonstrations were quickly quashed.
Some believe members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic extremists, emboldened by the constitution’s passage, have stepped up attacks against Egyptian Christians.
“There was a relative amount of freedom (for Christians) before Egypt’s revolution, and many were hoping for more freedoms, and now things are unfortunately much worse and much more difficult,” said Jason DeMars, founder of Present Truth Ministries, a Christian advocacy group that tracks religious persecution around the world.
“It’s what they’ve always wanted to do, but Mubarak held some of that back because of the support he got from the United States and other Western countries,” DeMars said. “People were paying attention, but now the extremists are seeing this as an opportunity to crack down on the community there.”
Extremists over the weekend set fire to a Christian Church in the Province of Fayoum, the second such assault against the town’s Coptic population in a month. The attackers ripped down the church’s cross and hurled rocks at church members, injuring four people including the priest, according to a report by Morning Star News.
There have also been several reported cases of rape and harassment of Coptic women. Two women in traditional Islamic headdress cut off the hair of two Christian women on the subway in Cairo in December, the Egypt Independent reported. It was the third such incident in two months.
And last week, an Egyptian court forced two Coptic Christian boys, ages 10 and 9, to face trial for “insulting the Koran,” according to reports. The boys were arrested after playing in a pile of trash, which authorities claimed included pages of the Koran.
Egypt’s Coptic Christian leader, Pope Tawadros II, spoke openly this month when he dismissed the new constitution as discriminatory.
“We are a part of the soil of this nation and an extension of the pharaohs and their age before Christ,” he told the Associated Press. “Yes, we are a minority in the numerical sense, but we are not a minority when it comes to value, history, interaction and love for our nation.”