Made to Feel Inferior: A Christian Family on Ordinary Life in Egypt

The hands of husband and wife, otherwise unidentified in the article

From my recent article for Aid to the Church in Need:

Life is not easy for Christians in Egypt, and the strain is taking its toll. Beyond the reports of churches burned and homes attacked, there is also a more subtle hardship affecting ordinary families. While not universal, mistreatment and discrimination are unfortunately all too common.

“Every day we leave our house, not knowing what will happen,” says Girgis, an Egyptian Catholic who preferred not to use his real name.

His wife, however, has the irritating stories:

“The other day, I was climbing into the (public transportation) van with my two children as usual,” Maria tells her story, “and I called out the name of my neighborhood just to confirm. But the driver said he wasn’t going there, so I got out to ride in the correct one.”

“But then a Muslim woman came on board and asked for the same neighborhood, and the driver let her in, taking the last place. I was outraged and complained, but the man replied, ‘I’m free to let in who I like and force out who I like.’”

Within the past year, similar incidents happened half a dozen times. It is not a daily occurrence, but it leaves a painful wound, especially when repeated with such regularity.

The wife gives other examples, and the following is her testimony from the conclusion:

“I try to be a Christian,” she said. “I try to be kind, but I also try to show the person this behavior is not appropriate.”

It often makes little difference. In fact, witnesses to her mistreatment usually downplay what happens, telling her it’s ok, or not to worry about it.

She does have good relations with Muslims in her apartment building; she even freely tutored a neighbor’s child in French, without charging the family. Yet, as a family, they have few if any real Muslim friends, the couple affirms.

Girgis views the situation of Egypt’s Christians as follows: “There are two types of persecution: Physical, when you are threatened with death, and mental, which is worse.”

“If you are killed, it’s over. But if you are subject to mistreatment it may drive you to kill yourself. We are made to feel inferior. This is the persecution that is present in Egypt.”

In saying so, Girgis made clear to me that the burning of churches and attacks on families are not best understood as persecution, but as the result of political and social struggles. Rather, it is the incessant needling as described in the interview they see as the persecution Egyptian Copts generally face.

I am happy to tell their story, for I have heard many similar complaints from others. It reveals a slice of life that is true.

My only concern is that their story be received as the only truth. I have heard other Copts tell me of generally warm relations with Muslims, and of friendships that are real and genuine. Within the article I hope this sentiment is expressed.

The reality is a mix, and the deep Coptic frustration with the sectarianism of many of Egypt – even if it doesn’t touch them personally – is worthy to convey. But somewhat paradoxically, it is very difficult to get sense of this sectarianism as an outsider. Within the Coptic community it sometimes feels like groupthink; within the Muslim community it is often denied completely.

Of course, there is no one community for either religion. One Muslim I know heads an NGO for combating religious discrimination. Another I know, from the same neighborhood as the wife in the article, told me he sees Coptic women everywhere and they get on just fine.

Some Copts may suffer a setback at work and attribute it to anti-Christian bias. And while some Muslims at least rhetorically, if not worse, make Christians feel inferior, many others are likely just ignorant of what others suffer.

The partial solution is to tell each others stories.

Alas, I made several attempts to conclude this post with a practical result of what comes next – and failed. It is strange; I am glad to convey this family’s struggle, and yet feel conflicted at the same time. I don’t want such an example to be used to misrepresent Egypt, even while this example does represent Egypt. Just not entirely. But what can an article convey? Go read a book! Or better, an encyclopedia. Perhaps you can enroll in a Middle Eastern Studies masters program instead.

But that is my burden. It is my job to help tell Egypt’s story correctly, and to do so within the criteria of each publisher. I trust that if you read this blog consistently you trust my effort to give the big picture. But in any individual article, published in any individual source – the work stands alone to be judged. Or rather, to judge Egypt. Please click here to read the whole article at Aid to the Church in Need, and judge accordingly.

And as for solutions? What comes next? I trust the telling of stories is helpful, but how?

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