In the Palestinian territories, a particularly ominous line has been known to appear in graffiti: “After Saturday comes Sunday.” Ascribed to Islamic fundamentalists, the phrase is taken to mean that once the Jews are out of the way, the Christians are next.
As developments unfold in Egypt post-Tahrir Square, many observers widely recognize that, for Coptic Christians, Sunday has painfully arrived. But many fail to realize that it was Saturday just a few generations ago.
In the eve of the Second World War, there were more than 60,000 Jews in Egypt. By the 1970’s, this figure had collapsed to a few thousand. Today, only a handful remains as caretakers of an extraordinary Jewish legacy in Egypt, stretching from Moses of the Torah to Moses Maimonides.
As happened elsewhere in the Arab world, an escalating stream of incitement and persecution brought Jewish history to an inglorious end in Egypt. The full emergence of Arab nationalism coincided with the establishment of the state of Israel. The resulting victims were Egypt’s Jews, who became a target for riots and bombings that killed dozens. Hundreds were arrested on accusations of “Zionist activity”, and 20,000 fled the country within a few short years.
Of those who chose to stay, the 1956 Sinai War was to be another marker on the road to extinction. Burning with hatred for Israel, Nasser expelled 35,000 Egyptian Jews, confiscating property and nationalizing more than 1,000 Jewish-owned businesses. The dwindling community faced arrest and torture in the wake of the Six Day War – the humiliation of the Egyptian Army passed on to the country’s few remaining Jews.
By this point, Cairo had become a world leader in anti-Jewish incitement. In 1965, it published a pamphlet for distribution across the continent, entitled “Israel, the Enemy of Africa”, featuring excerpts from the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As historian Bernard Lewis has noted: “In President Nasser’s day, the main source of such propaganda was Egypt.”
But that was Saturday, and today is Sunday. With the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists stepping in to fill the post-Mubarak power vacuum, extremists are becoming increasingly bold in expressing hostility to their Christian neighbours. In the wake of church burnings, Christians took to the streets in October to demonstrate against the government’s stark indifference. In response, the Army crushed the protest – literally, with armoured personnel carriers – killing dozens in the process. Video footage was aired by Western media outlets for Christians around the world to see just how terrifying events have turned for Egypt’s 8 million Copts. In all, since the beginning of 2011, violence has claimed the lives of more than 100 Christians.
There is a strong case to be made that the persecution of Christians in Egypt and elsewhere (including Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan, and North Korea) should become the equivalent of the “Free Soviet Jewry” movement for the current generation of Christians – with the support of Jews, Muslims, and people of all faiths. As the graffiti warns us, there’s an all-too-familiar pattern here. Sunday will unfold just as Saturday.
The question now isn’t one of predictions but prescriptions: What are we going to do about this?
Steve McDonald is Associate Director of Communications for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of The Prince Arthur Herald.
Want to respond to this article? Send a letter to the Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org).