Apocalyptic Egypt

Once a hack, always a hack: I am writing every day on a variety of “issues,” many the same with which I wrestled as a newspaper pundit, in the job I retired from last summer. And yet, for months now, I do not recall touching on the Middle East, even in passing. It is not that I haven’t been following the news.  It is not that I have run out of “angles.” Rather it is a form of acedia: an exhaustion with “Islamism” and what appears to be its unalterable course.

It has made me wonder if there were anti-Appeasement journalists in the 1930s, who simply shut up about Hitler, because they were sick of repeating themselves, and nothing they wrote would make any difference. I had this impression glancing in old files of the British newspaper, The Yorkshire Post. It was in the day quite remarkable for its Churchillian forecast of the cost of Appeasement. But towards the beginning of the War itself, it seemed to fall silent. What was left to say?

For some years after 9/11, my voice was frequently employed on events in the Middle East. There were at first few writers with much background on the region; and with Afghan and Iraqi wars looming, I had remarkable freedom to expound views untypical of the “Main Stream Media.”

I’d had luck before that. The remarkable then-editor of the Ottawa Citizen had sent me on an extended tour of Israel and Egypt in 1998. In Egypt, my principal assignment was to look into the persecution of Coptic Christians. That such an assignment would even occur to the editor of a metropolitan daily newspaper was remarkable enough. More, he actually thought it important.

Reading the latest installment of George Marlin’s excellent work on “The Persecuted Church,” Wednesday, I am reminded how badly I flubbed that task.

For sure, I did a lot of digging through Egypt’s Coptic community, interviewed various members of the church hierarchy, came away with many vivid impressions. I spoke with every Egyptian “human rights advocate” I could find, inquired into the veracity of atrocity reports, listened patiently to such as the Sheikh of Al-Azhar (Islamic Egypts equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury).

Lots of platitudes: about “brotherly love” between the followers of Egypts “two religions.” Did I know that the Coptic Pope and the Sheikh even went golfing together? “Incidental” massacres of Christians in Egyptian villages of the Delta and far South were always earnestly condemned.

At this end, I had read diligently what I could find from standard sources. In Congress at the time, there was a small “Coptic lobby” trying to call attention to persecutions in Egypt, and to get the U.S. government to do something about it. From their literature, and field reports by American Evangelicals who had made themselves interested, I’d set out with plenty of “factoids,” at least.

Inside the Coptic cave church at Manshiyat Naser (Garbage City)

And truth to tell, I had a hugely good time. My socks were bowled off by the positive reality I encountered in Egypt: by the presence of a faith among the Copts that made me think of the very first century after Christ.

From an old clipping, I see that I told a colleague, “There is the feeling that the Saints of the Church, the angels, even Mother Mary and Christ Himself are lurking around the corner.” My longer reports, from neighborhoods like the “Garbage City” that Christian street-sweepers occupied in outer suburban Cairo – where they had carved, e.g., four cathedrals into the stone cliffs at the edge of the Eastern Desert – were intended to convey my exhilaration in witnessing true Christian faith.

The statuary I saw being freshly carved, in subtle defiance of Islamic iconoclasm, was especially arresting. It was “primitive” peasant stuff, but the figures were pulsating with a life that recalled the earliest Christian art. In a desert monastery, I was likewise filled with amazement, at how this remnant from Egypts Christian past had withstood the centuries since the Islamic conquest, mostly cut off from the Catholic civilization their missionary ancestors had once seeded in Ireland and Europe.

Yet thirteen years before the “Arab Spring,” I could feel in my bowels that the end was near; that the apocalypse of Egyptian Christendom was coming. And curiously enough, I sensed this, too, in many of the more articulate Copts I spoke with: that there was something different in kind, in spirit, about the Islamist threat, now even coming from within the Mubarak government, which nominally protected them.

Over the centuries there had been persecution enough, and occasional pogroms; there had been constant pressure on Christians to convert to Islam, by which a nation still probably majority Christian at the time of the first Crusades gradually became overwhelmingly Muslim. Yet all this had been mostly against a background of “live and let live.” Now, perceptibly, the ground rules were changing. “Islamism” wasnt “Islam” any more.

Almost to a man and woman, the Copts I spoke with begged me not to write about persecution, and for Gods sake to do nothing that would encourage their self-appointed “friends” in Washington to make another scene. This would, I was told again and again, make things so much worse for them.

Largely, I complied, denying myself the opportunity as a journalist to “break a few stories.” Today, I feel guilt for having been so cautious on their behalf; yet had I not been, I would be carrying the much worse guilt of having blood on my hands. For I couldnt have written clearly without exposing sources who would quite certainly have suffered reprisals.

Here is my nightmare. It is that, had I been sent by a similarly astute editor to investigate the persecution of Jews in 1930s Germany, I would have confronted the same situation. I would have been begged, by the Jews themselves, not to make things worse for them.


David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.