The West Should Offer Asylum to Egypt’s Copts
A heartbreaking story out of Egypt today, as a 1,600-year-old church is destroyed by rampaging mobs of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, angry at the Christian Coptic minority for its perceived opposition to the Brotherhood’s rule.
No one knows exactly when the Virgin Mary Church was built, but the fourth and fifth centuries are both possible options. In both cases, it was the time of the Byzantines. Egypt's Coptic Church -- to which this church in modern-day Delga belonged -- had refused to bow to imperial power and Rome's leadership over the nature of Christ. Constantinople was adamant it would force its will on the Copts. Two lines of popes claimed the Seat of Alexandria. One with imperial blessing sat in the open; the other, with his people's support, often hid, moving from one church to the other. Virgin Mary Church's altar outlasted the Byzantines. Arabs soon invaded in A.D. 641. Dynasties rose and fell, but the ancient building remained strong, a monument to its people's survival.
Virgin Mary Church was built underground, a shelter from the prying eye. At its entrance were two ancient Roman columns and an iron door. Inside were three sanctuaries with four altars. Roman columns were engraved in the walls. As in many Coptic churches, historical artifacts overlapped earlier ones. The most ancient drawing to survive into the 21st century: a depiction, on a stone near the entrance, of two deer and holy bread. Layers and layers of history, a testament not only to the place's ancient roots but also to its persistence. Like other Coptic churches, the ancient baptistery was on the western side, facing the altar in the east. Infants were symbolically transferred through baptism from the left to the right. The old icons were kept inside the church, the ancient manuscripts transferred to the Bishopric in modern times.
Once there were 23 other ancient churches next to it, all connected through secret passages. Only Virgin Mary Church remained. Decline and survival, loss and endurance, the twin faces of the story of the Copts who built it.
The Church of the Virgin Mary has now been destroyed, along with a couple of dozen others, in reprisal for the military crackdown.
I can’t pretend to know what we should do about Egypt, where all of President Barack Obama’s options seem bad. But one thing seems obvious to me: The U.S., along with other nations, should offer greater sanctuary to the Copts, who are clearly at risk as this drama plays out. This animus toward the large Coptic minority is not new -- a friend whose grandfather was a prominent Coptic cleric once told me that his grandfather was used to spending time in jail because Hosni Mubarak would lock up some notable Copts every time he sensed the Muslim majority was getting restless. But this seems to be one of the worst spates of church-burning in Egypt since the Middle Ages. There’s a real risk that the widespread attacks on the Copts' buildings will progress to widespread attacks on their people.
Egyptian refugees are already coming to the U.S. in greater numbers, many of them Copts joining existing communities in New York City and elsewhere. (U.S. immigration statistics don't include a breakdown by religious affiliation.) In 2012, the U.S. granted asylum -- a legal status conferred on qualified refugees who have made it to the U.S. -- to 2,882 Egyptians, up from 1,026 in 2011 and representing just under 10 percent of all asylees. (Egypt came in second, after China.) Increasing that number significantly would be a major undertaking, but could be done with expedited processing and the creation of special criteria, as has been done with other groups in the past. Doing so could provide a haven for many of the Copts who want to leave -- and send a strong signal to both the military and the Egyptian Brotherhood about what the world thinks of what is going on in their country.