Trump Shouldn’t Overlook Violence Against Christians | John L. Micek

It was most serene of all scenes: A choir singing hymns on a Palm Sunday morning. It could have been any church, anywhere in the world.

Then, the unimaginable.

The screen goes blank amid the sounds of explosions, as the beauty of that Sunday service is shattered by the unspeakable violence that tore through St. George’s Coptic church in Tanta, Egypt.

At another church, St. Mark’s in Alexandria, a suicide bomber, denied entrance, detonates himself outside the main gate. The Coptic pope was celebrating services inside.

When it was done, 44 people between the two sites were dead, and dozens more were injured.

In the wake of those savage and unspeakable attacks at these two Egyptian houses of worship, the gathering places for an ancient sect and the Middle East’s largest Christian community, much of the world was asking “Why?”

But for the Copts, who trace their roots to the Apostle Mark, they were the latest in an escalating cycle of violence that began with the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 — but, in truth, really goes back centuries.

In a pair of Tweets, President Donald Trump said he was “so sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt,” which the “U.S. strongly condemns.”

Trump added that he had confidence that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi “will handle [the] situation properly.”

The Tweets came just days after an apparent reset in American-Egyptian relations.

During an Oval Office meeting last week, Trump said he and el-Sisi “agreed on so many things.”

“I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi,” Trump said. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt.”

El-Sisi on Sunday declared a three-month state of emergency and promised a “long and painful” fight against the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the bombings, the BBC reported.

El-Sisi’s ISIS hard line is encouraging and the apparent reset in American and Egyptian relations is welcome.

But that doesn’t mean the United States should give El-Sisi a pat on the head and a cookie and send him on his way.

As a 2016 report by The Brookings Institution makes clear, el-Sisi has pretty much contented himself with leaving the plight of the Copts where it has stood since the reign of Anwar Sadat in the 1970s: With nearly non-existent political representation and with violence a fact of daily life.

Consider:

In 2011, a bomb at a Coptic church in Alexandria claimed the lives of 20 people and wounded nearly 100, CNN reported. Just a few months later 13 people were killed during a fracas between Christians and Muslims in Cairo.

Last December, 25 were killed and 50 more were wounded when a suicide bomber attacked a smaller church near St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo.

But perhaps the most indelible image (and not the direct fault of Egypt) in the eyes of most of the civilized world, was a 2015 video by ISIS that apparently showed the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya.

As the Brookings report notes, el-Sisi has based his claim to legitimacy on a pose of tolerance. He’s attended Christmas Eve services at Coptic churches, the first Egyptian president to do so.

The president, part of Egypt’s Sunni Muslim majority, won plaudits in 2015 for remarking that “It is important that the whole world watch us, the Egyptians…You noticed that I am not using another word than Egyptians…we are the Egyptians.”

But he has also failed to acknowledge “de facto” discrimination against Coptic Christians.

As of 2016, Egypt’s 596-member parliament had just 36 Christian members, two-thirds of whom were elected under the country’s first religious-based quota system.

And while El-Sisi’s “one Egypt” claim appears to suggest that he’s a president for all the nation’s citizens, the Brookings report also posits that “by refusing to acknowledge the differences between Christians and Muslims, he does not see Copts as a minority in need of protection and is therefore not willing to extend the necessary measures to proactively protect against or respond to attacks.”

Here, Trump and the United States can lead by moral example – by emphasizing the nation’s history of religious pluralism and tolerance.

Trump can also tie future American economic and humanitarian assistance to greater political representation for the Copts and – critically – by rolling out the welcome mat for refugees from all nations, regardless of their faith.

Trump thankfully appeared to pivot from his “America First” policy with last week’s cruise missile strike in Syria.

He can continue his education on the world beyond Manhattan Island by putting el-Sisi on notice that American support comes with strings attached.

An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at jmicek@pennlive.com.

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