“It is like a horrible nightmare. We watch on TV and see our people being run over by tanks,” said Mary Wassef, 66, who took a bus with friends from her church in northern New Jersey. “This is my church and my homeland. But now they want to force all Christians to convert or leave. If you hang a cross in your car, they pull you out and smash you to pieces.”
Christians in Egypt are a deeply rooted minority of about 10 million in a largely Muslim society of 81 million. Long-simmering tensions between the two groups have escalated since January, when a popular uprising in Cairo led to the fall of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak but left the country in a state of political turmoil.
Many Christians in the Egyptian American diaspora of about half a million, scattered across a dozen states, have expressed concern that radical Islamist groups are seeking to dominate the post-revolutionary scene and to turn Egypt into a Sunni theocracy. Some placards at the rally Wednesday warned of an “Islamic jihad” against Christians.
The demonstrators also expressed fear that the Egyptian army, a longtime bulwark of Mubarak’s power, is becoming a repressive force against Christians. Many held up bloody photos of crushed torsos and limbs, which they said had been deliberately run over by tanks Oct. 9. Hundreds chanted “shame on the army” and called for the ouster of its national commander, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.
“We Christians have faced Islamic oppression for 1,400 years, but now it is getting much more ugly,” said Ghada Nasr, 35, a small business owner from Newark, Del., whose parents live in Egypt. “The army should be protecting people, not crushing them. Our religion is peaceful, but it is time for us to act.”
Traditionally, leaders of the Coptic church in Egypt have tried to avoid provoking Egyptian authorities. The rally Wednesday was peaceful, and protesters interspersed chants for justice with hymns calling for God’s mercy in Arabic, English and ancient Coptic. Organizers said the presence of numerous senior Coptic priests — several gray-bearded, one in a wheelchair — had the blessing of their orthodox pope in Cairo.
“We need an Egyptian Martin Luther King to lead our people to freedom,” said George Ibrahim, 66, a retired civil engineer who emigrated from Egypt in the 1940s and lives in Ashburn. Unlike Copts in Egypt, who have long been ostracized, many of those who came to the United States are well established, successful professionals. In the greater Washington area, many work for the federal government.
A major demand of the demonstrators was that the Obama administration, which has continued the long U.S. alliance with Egypt and provides it with hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid each year, pressure Cairo by conditioning further assistance to improvements in human rights and religious freedom.
“If we are calling them an ally, then we should not be paying with U.S. taxpayers’ money for bullets and weapons that are being used to oppress Christians,” said Michael Ruzek, 30, a medical doctor from New Jersey who attended the rally. Protesters placed a row of black wooden coffins along the sidewalk in front of the White House.
An advocacy group called Coptic Solidarity, which helped organize the rally, also called for an impartial investigation into the Oct. 9 violence, prosecution of official perpetrators, and full enactment of a bill that Congress passed in July that would create a U.S. envoy to the Middle East for religious minorities.
The circumstances of the Oct. 9 clashes in Cairo, in which Christian and Muslim protesters were involved in hours of battles with police and troops, remain confused. The day after the incident, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that President Obama was “deeply concerned” about the violence and “believes that the rights of minorities, including Copts, must be respected,” but he stopped short of blaming the government and called for “restraint on all sides.”