CAIRO, Egypt — On Thursday, the US State Department released its annual report on the protection of human rights around the world, and at least judging by its treatment of Egypt, American Secretary of State John Kerry could benefit from some face time with a Christian named Nabil Soliman.
Soliman, 54, is basically a modern-day Job in terms of the misfortune he’s endured, and the omission of his story and others like it from the State Department account is both puzzling and alarming.
After a mob burned his home in a small Upper Egyptian town called Nazlet el-Badraman in November 2013, Soliman and his wife Sabah, along with their six children, fled to a poor neighborhood of southeastern Cairo called Zahra. They survive in a run-down apartment that costs $65 a month, and can’t really afford even that since he’s out of work.
To call their new home “spartan” is a serious understatement. There’s no heating or cooling, so the choice generally boils down to closing the windows and being suffocated by heat, or opening them and being swarmed by the flies that proliferate in the area due to open sewage and garbage in the streets.
Soliman also is one of roughly 10 million Egyptians infected with hepatitis C, and depends upon two sons selling second-hand clothes to pay for his medication.
As if that weren’t enough, Soliman faces a trumped-up murder charge related to the killing of a thug who wasn’t even in the same town as Soliman at the time. The family of the dead man has acknowledged the charge to be bogus, allowing Soliman to be released on $250 bail after 80 days behind bars, yet in theory he could still be forced to stand trial.
Eventually, Soliman said, he and his family were given an ultimatum.
“They told me to leave and not come back, and that they’d kill me if I did,” he said.
The explanation for these calamities is chillingly simple: Soliman and his family are part of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and thus convenient targets for the rage of Islamic radicals.
“I lost my job, my home, everything I owned,” Soliman said in a June 25 interview. “I have no pension, so the 24 years I worked are just gone.”
Despite the transition in Egypt to a new government led by former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power vowing to protect minorities and reject terrorism, a Cairo-based human rights expert named Ishak Ibrahim says that such assaults on Christians are actually on the rise.
Examples certainly aren’t hard to find.
There’s Nadi Mohani Makar, 59, who was a prosperous merchant in a mid-sized town called Dalga when a mob burst into his home, shot his wife in the leg, set the house ablaze, and dragged him off for a beating. He was held by local police for 15 days, allegedly as a precautionary measure, and then informed that he was no longer welcome in town.
Makar has never received compensation for the $260,000 in merchandise he says he lost, and no one’s been charged for the shooting of his wife.
Also from Dalga is Saqer Iskander Toos, 35, whose father was killed in August 2014 in another spasm of anti-Christian violence. Muslim friends helped Toos and his brother escape, then buried the father since his sons weren’t allowed to return. In a final humiliation, a mob later dug up the father’s corpse and paraded it through the streets.
Toos and his brother took video images of the macabre scene to the police, identifying 14 people involved in the assault on their father. Only three or four were arrested, they said, who sent word to Toos they’ll pay him to drop the charges — and, if he doesn’t go along, they’ll come after him.
Toos and his brother now survive on meager incomes in Cairo, desperately pursuing justice, playing their video on cheap cell phones to anyone who will watch.
You wouldn’t know any of this, however, from reading the section on Egypt in the State Department report.
The document cites only one instance of a Christian suffering discrimination, involving a man charged under anti-blasphemy laws for “liking” a Facebook page critical of Islam. Yet Christians are the largest and most embattled minority in Egypt, forming 10 percent of a population of 83 million, and any account of the human rights situation that fails to feature their hardships is seriously incomplete.
In general, religion is undervalued throughout the State Department report. It lists seven categories of human rights problems, treating religious freedom as a mere sub-heading under “respect for civil liberties.”
Granted, the State Department is correct to be concerned about all threats to personal freedoms and civil rights. Granted, too, a special American focus on Christians might simply make things worse, feeding suspicions that the Western powers are leading a 21st century crusade against other faiths.
In fairness, the report does give prominence to anti-Christian persecution in a few other nations, including threats from ISIS in Iraq.
Still, if the suffering of Egyptian victims such as Soliman, Makar, and the Toos brothers isn’t worthy of serious American concern — especially since it comes in a country that’s the second-largest recipient of US military and economic aid in the world — then it’s hard to know what such an outrage might look like.
Egypt’s famed “garbage people” illustrate Christian hardships
Probably no group better symbolizes the challenges facing Egypt’s Christian minority than the Zabbaleen, Cairo’s legendary “garbage people” — an overwhelmingly Christian underclass of 50,000 to 70,000 people who collect and recycle the city’s gargantuan mounds of refuse, using pick-up trucks and donkey-drawn carts.
Moving through the Zabbaleen’s traditional neighborhood at the foot of the Mokattam hills on Cairo’s eastern edge, one can still see the division of labor that’s evolved over the decades: Men dropping off sky-high bundles of reuse in front of family dwellings, while women and children flit around doing the sorting.
Of late, the Zabbaleen have been romanticized in Green circles due to their remarkable ability to recycle 80 percent of the trash they pick up, as opposed to Western firms that normally have a rate around 20 to 25 percent.
They’re a success story in another sense, too.
Having arrived in Cairo in the 1930s and 1940s when their livelihood as subsistence farmers in Upper Egypt began to die out, the Zabbaleen originally occupied the lowest rung of city’s socio-economic ladder, forced to live cheek-by-jowl both with the garbage they collected and the pigs they bred to consume organic refuse.
Over time, however, they did the job so well that some began to rise into the Egyptian middle class, and today many Zabbaleen choose to live in their original neighborhood not out of desperation, but loyalty to the community. The children and grandchildren of those original migrants have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and all sorts of other professionals.
Yet no one would suggest they have it easy, because the Zabbaleen face steep hardships for reasons both cultural and religious.
This week, for instance, a 33-year-old assistant pharmacist named Ayman Samwel was awakened at 3 a.m. when police burst into his home.
When Samwel’s wife cried out, he told Crux, the police slapped her into submission. They proceeded to drag him through the streets to a local station house, beating him along the way with fists and batons and shouting abuse — including, he said, a colloquial insult in Arabic that translates roughly as, “[Expletive] your Christianity!”
The police also ripped a St. Nicholas medal from around his neck, Samwel said, containing a half-gram of gold.
In a Friday interview, Samwel displayed his wounds to reporters, including lacerations to his fingers, arms, back, and feet — partly sustained, he said, when he was forced to stand naked and blindfolded in the station for more than four hours as police continued to beat and stomp him at will.
Samwel said he suffers from problems with his blood pressure, and at one stage asked for a glass of water. He said the response was, “No, we’d really prefer for you to die.”
The arrest was linked to an incident one month ago, when a Cairo police officer named Muhamad Magali was called to the neighborhood to settle a quarrel between two families. Witnesses say the quarrel was already settled by that time, but Magali nonetheless fired three shots into the air to try to disperse a small crowd, with one of those bullets killing a pregnant woman and mother of two.
According to witnesses, the enraged crowd began to beat Magali until a local Coptic priest showed up to rescue him. Later, Magali accused eight people of being part of the crowd that attacked him — not, those eight men claim, because they’re actually guilty, but because they come from prominent Zabbaleen families.
The idea, according to Maged Adel, the lawyer representing the accused men, is to intimidate the Zabbaleen into recanting their testimony about the officer firing his gun and killing the woman.
Since the Zabbaleen have not backed down after a month, according to Adel, the arrest of Samwel is part of an effort to turn up the heat, which also includes routine raids and harassment of other members of the community.
“A special police unit now comes every day harassing people, arresting anybody they want, and taking them to the station from 3 p.m. to midnight, claiming they’re checking their background information,” Adel said.
“It’s a form of collective punishment,” he said. “Yesterday they dragged away a man who was 59 and his four sons. They beat them in their home, took them to the police station, and continued beating them for no reason.”
The Rev. Botros Roshdy, a Coptic priest who ministers among the Zabbaleen, minces no words about why he believes such incidents are routine: “All this is because we’re Christians,” he said.
Far from better days after the fall of a Muslim Brotherhood government in July 2013, Botros says that today things are “ten times worse” in Egypt than they were, for instance, under former ruler Hosni Mubarak just a few years ago.
“We thought the police would start a new era with the people,” he said, “but it hasn’t happened.”
Ibrahim, the human rights expert, echoes that impression. He identifies five broad categories of threats faced by Christians in Egypt:
- Physical assaults on churches and other Christian properties
- Difficulties in obtaining permits to build or repair churches
- Kidnappings for ransom
- Selective enforcement of anti-blasphemy laws
- Forced displacements, especially from rural villages
Only the first, Ibrahim said, has improved under Sisi. Statistically speaking, he said, incidents in other categories are actually on the rise.
Further spikes in violence could be on the near-term horizon. Last month, an Egyptian court sentenced Morsi to death for his alleged involvement in a prison break, and just two weeks ago the sentence was confirmed.
Mina Thabet, another human rights observer with the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, believes that if those sentences are actually carried out, it could spark another wave of anti-Christian rage.
Despite the threats, Egypt’s Copts are a remarkably resilient lot. Virtually all of them sport tattoos of black crosses on their wrists as a symbol of identity, often getting the distinctive image at the same time as their baptism.
The Zabbaleen in particular appear determined not to be cowed. Their famed “Cave Church” carved into the Mokattam hills — formally known as the Church of St. Samaan al-Kharaz, or Simon the Tanner — has a seating capacity of 20,000, making it reportedly the largest Christian church anywhere in the Middle East.
In the streets of their neighborhood, almost every building sports a poster of a Coptic Pope (often it’s a depiction of Pope Kyrillos VI, who reigned from 1959 to 1971, and who has a reputation as a miracle-worker), or the Virgin Mary. Immediately upon entering the area, a large hand-painted sign proclaims, “Jesus Loves You!”
The Zabbaleen also have a remarkable way of taking punches but staying in the fight.
Under Mubarak in 2009, for instance, the Egyptian government used a swine flu outbreak in Mexico as a pretext for ordering the killing of 300,000 pigs belonging to the Zabbaleen, which had a devastating impact on their economy. No other nation took such drastic measures, and most observers took the edict as an excuse to poke Egypt’s Christians in the eye.
Today, according to Michael Sami, another Zabbaleen pharmacist, “Our pigs are back.”
Sami said the pig population has not quite returned to pre-2009 levels, “but it’s going up all the time.”
Sami made it clear that as far as he’s concerned, his people aren’t going anywhere.
“They want for us to leave Egypt, but we won’t; this is our country,” Sami said, insisting that Christians are actually “the original people in this country.”
If the forces menacing the Zabbaleen want to leave, he said, “they can, but not us … we’ll die here.”