The Disaster at an Egyptian Church Is a Symptom of Systemic Persecution—and a Country in Decline

August 22, 2022 | Samuel Tadros
About the author: Samuel Tadros is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a distinguished visiting fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Hoover Institution.

Although Egypt’s Coptic Christians have been subject to numerous violent attacks by Islamist groups in recent years, it remains unclear whether the recent fire at a church outside Cairo was the result of arson or merely an accident. Samuel Tadros argues, however, that the conflagration—which left 41 dead, including eighteen children—was in either case a consequence of discriminatory legislation, and of Egypt’s disfunction more broadly.

Since 1938, the Egyptian regime had controlled the building of churches in the country through a set of laws and regulations that after a long process required the personal approval of Egypt’s ruler not just for every new church building but even for renovations, building bathrooms, or even repainting of old churches. During Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, Copts were lucky if they received ten new permits per year for both new churches and renovations.

Faced with this grim reality, Copts resorted to the only way possible for them to have places of worship; they built churches illegally. . . . The buildings never had any safety measures and would never get any zoning approval from any regulatory authority, but they were the only option Copts had.

The reality is that the fire and deaths is the perfect illustration not just of the Coptic tragedy but of Egypt’s as a whole. One could start with the fact that firefighters arrived . . . an hour and a half late, despite their station being close by, and blame their slow response for the deaths, but in truth firefighters in Egypt have very little equipment or training to deal with such events.

The . . . collapse of Egypt’s fortunes since 1952 has been mirrored among its Copts. The country that once led the Middle East in modernization is today dependent on foreign handouts for its survival. The Cairo of literary giants and glamorous movies that were read and watched by every Arabic speaker in the Middle East hardly produces anything of cultural significance today. It is a country from which over a million Copts have migrated pursuing economic opportunities and religious freedom in the West. Or perhaps it is the reverse. A country that has been kicking out its minorities—from the Jews, Italians, and Greeks in the 1950s to the Copts today—is simply bound to decline and to meet repeated tragedy.

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