On Thursday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the recently opened Coptic Cathedral of the Nativity, not far from Cairo. "It is a very special thing to have this in the heart of the Middle East, this enormous cathedral where people can come worship in Egypt," he told the press. "It's a land of religious freedom and opportunity. It's remarkable." But many Coptic Christians feel the new house of worship means little given the persecution they face.
Copts make up only about 10% of the Muslim-majority country. But they trace their church back to the visit of the Apostle Mark, the first pope of Alexandria, to Egypt in the year 50. These Christians have faced tough times for nearly 2,000 years, but their recent history is especially disheartening.
On Jan. 1, 2011, Islamists bombed a Coptic church in Alexandria, killing 23 and injuring 97. Nermien Riad, executive director of the nonprofit Coptic Orphans, tells me the attack was a catalyst. She says the bombing, which inspired countless Copts to take to the streets, was one of many factors that sparked the larger protests against Egypt's government that year. Dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, but the persecution of Copts has grown worse.
The most visible threat has been the rise of Islamic State and other Islamist groups. ISIS released a video on Feb. 15, 2015, showing the beheading of 20 Egyptian Copts and a man from Ghana. "This was iconic because until then, we had only read about saints being martyred, but much of the world had never really seen martyrdom," Ms. Riad explains. "The Libyan martyrs taught a lot of the world about who the Copts were for the first time."
Ms. Riad, whose organization provides educational and childhood-development programs to Egypt's fatherless and vulnerable children, says she has noticed a change in recent years. While many orphans' parents had died from car accidents or disease, an increasing number were becoming martyrs of the Christian faith. Among those the group works with are the children of the 2015 martyrs.
Other recent examples: In 2017, two Coptic churches were bombed during Palm Sunday processions. In November 2018, Islamic militants opened fire on two buses carrying Coptic Christians on a pilgrimage to an ancient monastery in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 14. Such large-scale acts of terror get the most coverage. Less appreciated is the social and institutional persecution Copts face daily.
Samuel Tadros, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, says Copts are blocked from nearly all important government positions: "Copts are excluded from Egypt's intelligence service and state security, their percentage in the armed services and police force is capped at 1%, and they are similarly discriminated against in the foreign service, judiciary, education sector and government-owned public sector." It's no surprise, then, that the government hasn't effectively responded to Copts' pleas for better representation and prosecution of those who persecute their community.
Ms. Riad says neighbors are often doing the persecuting. Coptic homes are burned down. Some children change their names from conspicuously Christian ones such as George so they can play on private or national soccer teams. Coptic women face near-daily public harassment. "It doesn't take ISIS to kill, and it could just be your neighbor because you're Christian," Ms. Riad says.
A 2016 law, implemented by Abdel Fattah Al Sisi's government, allows for the legalization of existing churches and the creation of new ones. The implementation of the law is another story. Mr. Tadros notes that the government has approved less than 17% of 3,730 requests submitted by the three major Christian groups--Coptic Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical Protestant. The law has instead fueled sectarian violence within Egypt.
Egyptians have rioted and protested against approved churches. In 2016, after Copts in the village of Manshiet El-Naghamish applied to build a church, locals organized and attacked the Christians. Egyptians looted and burned Coptic properties and assaulted Copts. This was only one attack in a string of many, which are often incited before a church is even built.
By all means, the U.S. should celebrate progress on religious freedom wherever it occurs. A new cathedral is nice. Yet it doesn't mean much when the people who worship there are treated as inferior as soon as they step outside its doors.