Due to the milieu in which I work, I have been informed that the Copts of Egypt as a people have been nominated by a qualified nominator in the United States for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. This is a peculiar and unique nomination, as this is the first time a group of people have been nominated for the award.
Now, I acknowledge that the nomination may be viewed as controversial and unmerited by some, and there is a chance the nomination will not amount to a prize. However, we should look at this nomination as an acknowledgment of the pain, persecution, and ultimately centuries-long perseverance of a people symbolic of all those who have similarly suffered and persevered.
Growing up, I was instilled with the idea that my existence came at a price. That my ability to wake up (often begrudgingly), put on my “Sunday best” and attend a liturgy infused with our ancient language along with the language of our conquerors and the language of our adopted homes, was paid for. And that price tag was not cheap.
Yes, we have all been taught, it seems from time immemorial, that our Church was built upon the blood of the saints and the blood of our ancestors. We learned that Saint Mark was dragged through the streets of Alexandria for professing the faith, that Saint Demiana gave up riches and status as a young beautiful heiress to follow a Christ-centered life which ultimately resulted in her death, and that St. Abanoub at the age of twelve preferred to hold onto the heavenly crowns rather than denounce Christ in the face of persecution by Diocletian. And for those of us who have visited the Motherland, who can forget the contraptions many of the saints were tortured by?
We listened to these accounts sometimes in awe, sometimes with reverence, but most times passively, thinking to ourselves that those were different times, where most people were limited in knowledge and compassion. They did not have the Judeo-Christian constructs of international human rights, after all. However, as I write this article, the most recent headlines read “Bodies of 21 Coptic Christians Beheaded by ISIS to be Returned Home” and as I read through these news stories I once again become painfully aware of that price tag.
Making up approximately 10% of Egypt’s population and an overwhelming majority of Christians in the Middle East, the persecution of Coptic Christians on the sole basis of their faith and the story of their peaceful survival through the ages remains a widely underreported crisis of present time.
Although I would like to have to reach far back into history for accounts of such persecution, I need not go too far as during the past decade alone, the Copts of Egypt have suffered horrific violence. The so-called ‘Islamic State’ has vowed to annihilate all 10 million Copts, designating them “its favorite prey.” Yet the Copts, both spiritual leaders and common citizens alike, have steadfastly refused the path of violence. A message of love and forgiveness is intertwined with the collective pain felt every time another attack on a Copt is reported.
The targets and victims of mass killings, church bombings and general institutional exclusion from public life, Copts remain a paramount example of peaceful coexistence. In seeking to secure their rights by the democratic means available and refusing paths of conflict or violence, they have marched in the tradition of other recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela.
A prime example of their extraordinary commitment to peaceful resolution is that of the Maspero Massacre of 2011, known as the most notorious attack against Copts at the time. As a result of a peaceful protest of the arbitrary destruction of a church in Upper Egypt, the protesters, predominantly Copts, became the unique and sole target of state violence including army tanks chasing them down and running protesters over. In the face of this bloodbath, the Copts did not retaliate, take up arms or call for any kind of violent attack. Their stance unwavering even in the face of the mass burnings of 52 Coptic Orthodox churches by fellow Egyptians, their very neighbors, in 2013. I am wary of categorizing the part played by the Copts in these events as being a merely reactionary one, as this would imply a lack of will or principle. In truth, the response of the Copts of Egypt is a testament to their conscious commitment to their faith, their belief in peace and the value of human life as well as their resilience in the face of adversity.
As a community whose very identity is challenged on a daily basis, who often feels washed out by nationalist rhetoric and the refusal of the acknowledgment of their minority or indigenous status, the recognition of a Nobel Peace Prize for actively choosing peace and civic engagement over violence and vengeance would be received as testament that the international community recognizes such collective suffering, that these people do not go unnoticed and that their agency is not denied.
Yes, it is possible to make the argument that as the minority, the persecuted, the victim, what can we do other than kneel on bended knee and pray for liberation? But this is not a passive acceptance of a disadvantaged existence, this is an active choice to meet hate with hope, ignorance with intrepidity and violence with a valor so unassuming, it echoes throughout the world.
Sara Salama is the Legal Advisor at Coptic Orphans in Washington D.C. Canadian born and raised, Sara has lived in the Middle East and Europe until she moved to the United States to complete her LL.M International Human Rights Law at Duke Law. She is an avid advocate of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and enjoys discovering the world through new languages. In her free time you can find her binge-watching tele-novellas and learning Spanish.