Why Have Evangelical Leaders Betrayed Indigenous Christians in Egypt and Saudi Arabia?
Please note: This article is strictly my personal opinion and does not represent the views of my employer. There are many phases to having a career in international human rights. At the beginning, most of us become really attached and emotionally involved in every case. After a few years, we reach what some refer to as secondary trauma. When you spend all your time and focus on those who are suffering, advocates tend to take on that pain…which is made worse when you realize after years of work that very few individuals get a happy ending. I experienced this while in graduate school, working tirelessly for Christians in North Korea, and after a quick succession of trips to China, North Korea, and Egypt, which left me emotionally drained, discouraged, and physically ill. The next phase for me was focusing on efficacy in my work and remaining emotionally unattached, so that I could function without being an emotional mess. This phase has been the enduring one for me…until recently.
I’ve been on the verge of tears all day. I’ve put my heart and soul into advocating for individuals who are suffering horribly due to their faith. Despite the innumerable claims by Christian conservatives, the Trump administration has completely abandoned religious minorities in Egypt, my country of focus. The same is true of Saudi Arabia. Influential, Evangelical leaders from the US have visited and praised the leaders of these countries who are responsible for egregious violations of religious freedom and broader human rights…the worst crackdown on human rights in Egypt for at least 30 years. What deflates and angers me the most is that Evangelical leaders who claim to support religious freedom internationally have betrayed Christians in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while simultaneously portraying themselves as religious freedom defenders in the US…condemning and encouraging the violation of state laws limiting indoor worship services in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic…as if there is any comparison.
The selfishness and arrogance required for such betrayal is discouraging. Experiencing short-term restrictions on large gatherings during a global pandemic is not persecution. Yet, I receive emails and view social media posts from Evangelical leaders who have met with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, and praise their “progress” on religious freedom while simultaneously raising alarm bells about the curtailment of religious freedom in the US over temporary restrictions. There is NO comparison between the systematic discrimination and persecution Christians in Egypt experience on a daily basis, to what Christians experience in the US.
Evangelical leaders who decry “persecution” in the US have assumed the position to determine what amount of religious freedom is sufficient for Christians in other countries such as Egypt. While they would NEVER accept the conditions of second-class citizenship that Copts live under in Egypt, they give effusive interviews and praise about how good things are for Christians in Egypt. WHY DO THESE WHITE EVANGELICAL MEN THINK THEY HAVE THE RIGHT TO DETERMINE WHAT LEVEL OF RELIGIOIUS FREEDOM IS SUFFICIENT FOR CHRISTIANS IN EGYPT?
Let me explain with two recent examples.
Mrs. Thabet is a Coptic Christian grandmother in Egypt, who is in her 70’s. Copts are the indigenous Christians of Egypt who trace their faith to the Apostle Mark who was the first to bring the gospel to Egypt. Mrs. Thabet’s son was rumored to have had a romantic relationship with a Muslim woman in their village. Nothing was substantiated, but she and her husband were harassed and threatened by Muslim villagers based on these allegations about their son. They went to the police station to report the issue and were threatened and told to leave by the very police who were supposed to help them. Later that day, a mob of about 300 Muslims arrived at the Thabet’s house. They burned the homes of seven Coptic families as a part of collective punishment…despite having nothing to do with situation other than being Christians who lived in the same village.
Mrs. Thabet was stripped naked, beaten, spit upon, and dragged through the streets of her village to cries of “Allahu Akbar.” Despite video footage and ample witnesses, all of Mrs. Thabet’s attackers were just acquitted. She and her husband have not been able to return to their home since this incident which occurred on May 20, 2016. More than four years later, Mrs. Thabet has been left in utter humiliation, unable to return to her home, and knowing that all of her attackers have gone free…all because she is a Christian.
Ramy Kamel is a leading Coptic human rights activist. He was one of the few individuals reporting on human rights abuses against Copts who had not been imprisoned or forced to flee Egypt, when he also was imprisoned in November 2019. The charges against Ramy are completely unsubstantiated. He’s been held in solitary confinement for more than 1 year, denied medical treatment despite having repeated asthma attacks and being dangerously ill during the COVDI-19 pandemic which has reached Tora Prison. Ramy has lost about one-third of his weight and is in very poor mental and physical health, due to his imprisonment, which is contrary to Egyptian law.
My organization has done everything we can to create awareness and advocate for Ramy. I’ve organized two online campaigns for his release, published press releases, wrote and submitted a reprisals report to the UN demonstrating how he was imprisoned for cooperating with a UN Special Rapporteur, organized multiple joint letters to Congress and governmental leaders, and conducted extensive outreach to officials at the State Department, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and even meeting with the top official for these issues at the White House. Yet, Ramy is still in prison. According to the latest update from a couple days ago, he is in extremely poor health and we fear he may die in prison, like countless other innocents. And this is what brings me to tears.
Ramy was a key source for organizations and journalists reporting on the situation for Christians in Egypt. Despite all the positive rhetoric by the Trump administration on religious freedom, this administration has not issued a single public statement or push for Ramy’s release of which I’m aware. President Trump referred to el-Sisi as his favorite dictator. Secretary Pompeo gave a ridiculous speech in Cairo referencing Egypt’s non-existent improvements on religious freedom.
Joel Rosenberg, well-known author and speaker, gave a wildly inaccurate speech about the situation for Christians in Egypt at the 2nd Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, hosted by Secretary Pompeo. All familiar with the situation in Egypt, including those at the State Department, knew Rosenberg gave a fallacious presentation. To my knowledge, my organization was the only one that confronted him with his inaccuracies through individuals and in the media, on multiple occasions, and he has yet to acknowledge the fallacies he promoted at this high- level event. There were numerous other Christians who heard Rosenberg’s speech who, I believe, should have called him out. By ignoring his actions, Rosenberg served as a spokesperson for the Egyptian government, not for persecuted religious minorities in Egypt…and was given a high -profile platform to do so. Rosenberg’s arrogance and deception have served a purpose... promoting his own influence and career. Naïve American Evangelicals continue to support his “ministry,” while he props up dictators who persecute and kill. Consider his visit to Saudi Arabia after Jamal Khashoggi was murdered.
Pompeo and Rosenberg are not alone. Individuals such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Rev. Johnnie Moore were nominated to serve on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Both Perkins and Moore have abused their position as USCIRF Commissioners to travel “privately” with Rosenberg to Egypt. Yet, both have the formal titles of USCIRF Commissioner for the Egyptian government to take advantage and trumpet their public support of “progress” in Egypt. Sadly, it doesn’t take much to garner this unwarranted praise from the likes of Rosenberg, Perkins, and Moore. They attended the opening of a large cathedral (actually paid for by Copts despite the Egyptian government’s claims), that is located in the new administrative capital where the vast majority of Copts can’t travel, and which is rarely open…apparently just when foreign dignitaries visit. This shiny new cathedral opening was enough to wow the easily manipulated Evangelicals who have apparently forgotten the majority of poor Copts, many who live in remote villages without a single church. It is difficult for the elderly and young to travel to areas with churches, which means they can rarely attend. Throughout this entire time, Coptic churches have been burned, illegally closed, and prevented from receiving official permits. The hypocrisy and arrogance of Rosenberg, Perkins, and Moore is the very same behavior we see repeatedly in the Evangelical world wherein men support each other, even when they know what they are doing is wrong, because it’s a mutually beneficial club. My repeated critique is that individuals should research these issues and not just accept claims of progress and success. I work on these issues daily and have yet to see any substantial or credible evidence of progress in religious freedom for Christians in Egypt. But Evangelical leaders benefit if their supporters believe they are being successful in “ministry,” which seems to be all that matters to them. They keep fundraising and retain their jobs and their influence and continue to build their empires.
These individuals need to be held accountable for the damage they have done towards individuals and organizations promoting religious freedom and human rights in Egypt.
Why aren’t they speaking up for the least of these, applying pressure, and utilizing their special relationships to save Ramy and bring justice to Mrs. Thabet’s attackers? Because at the end of the day, they face no repercussions for their actions. They don’t face possible imprisonment, torture, loss of home or business. They waltz in for their meetings and waltz right back out, posting pictures, giving interviews, and patting themselves on their backs.
Moral of the story: people of faith need to do much more to educate themselves on issues, rather than blindly believe everything their religious leaders and religious media tell them. And if you know that religious leaders are behaving harmfully or inappropriately, don’t look away. Say something. Do something. You never know how far the repercussions of their behavior will go if left unchecked. ____________________________________________ Photo Credit: A Larry Ross Communications