Egypt, Libya, and Gaza
In these three settings, Christians face violence at the hands of Muslim militants. Especially in Egypt and Libya, this violence has increased as a result of the “Arab Uprisings” of 2011.
Various sources estimate that Christians make up between 5 and 10 percent of Egypt’s population. These Christians, 90 percent of whom are Coptic Orthodox, have experienced violence at the hands of Muslim militant groups and discrimination at the hands of the government and the surrounding population for many decades. For instance, the government has sharply restricted the building and repair of churches. After the Arab Uprisings of early 2011, assaults on Christians increased, including killings, the destruction of churches, kidnappings, and anti-Christian rhetoric in the media. The Morsi regime enabled this violence further, both in its rhetoric and in its security policies, and failed to protect Christians. After Morsi’s fall in July 2013, his militant supporters unleashed attacks on Christians, including one episode in which they assaulted sixty-four Christian places of worship within twelve hours. Since General Sisi took power in June 2014, he has made far greater efforts to protect Christians, though violence against them has continued. He has, for instance, provided armed guards for Coptic Christians to worship, safe from Muslim Brotherhood attacks.
In Libya, Christians make up between 3 percent and 5 percent of the population and are mostly migrant workers from outside the country. While Christians generally enjoyed freedom from heavy discrimination and a decent level of liberty to worship and practice under the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, Christians’ security disappeared when this dictator fell and Libya was beset with lawlessness. Militias and tribal groups were empowered, including Muslim groups like Ansar al Shariah, al-Nusra, the Islamic State, and the Muslim Brotherhood. At their hands, Christians suffered assaults on churches, violence against clergy, abductions, and numerous other forms of violence. It was on a beach in Libya that the twenty-one Christians were beheaded.
The Christian community in Gaza dates back to the fourth century, but according to a March 2014 estimate, the community today has only about 1,300 people. That number has been decreasing due to both a low birth rate and emigration. In Gaza, an uprising in 2011 was quelled, giving rise to the influence of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Christians in Gaza are squeezed on one side by an Israeli economic blockade and on the other by Islamist vigilante groups and the Islamist government of Hamas, under which they suffer discrimination.
Christians in all three of these countries have adopted survival strategies in the face of repression. Under the Morsi regime in Egypt, tens of thousands of Copts (disproportionately wealthier ones) fled the country.
Since Morsi’s fall, President Sisi has offered protection for Copts and has received Coptic Pope Tawadros’s support in return. Copts have avoided taking up arms to defend themselves or seeking outside alliances, instead emphasizing their patriotism in order to protect their churches and their communities from attack.
As anarchy took hold in Libya, many Copts and other Christians at first tried to avoid abductions while remaining in the country, often living like fugitives. Eventually, a mass exodus ensued, with more than 200,000 Christians leaving Libya between 2011 and 2015, it is estimated.
The Christian community in Gaza, which Israel has cut off from the outside world, has sought dialogue with Muslim leaders and has stressed its support for the Palestinian cause. Christians look to schools as a base for resisting pressure to adopt Islam.
Although survival strategies dominate the region, confrontational responses can also be seen, especially in Egypt, whose Christian population is the largest in the Middle East. After 2011, Copts undertook marches and vigils to protest their maltreatment and joined in the protests that overthrew Morsi in 2013. In Egypt as in Gaza, Christian women have resisted pressure to wear the veil.