The Coptic Kristallnacht

“Demonstrations against the Jews are to be expected throughout the Reich.” These words occur in a telegram sent by Reinhard Heydrich at 1.20am during Kristallnacht, “the Night of Broken Glass”, to the offices of the Nazi security forces. He gave orders that police were not to intervene in violence against Jews and their property except to protect non-Jews, or to prevent arson attacks on synagogues getting out of control. This and other documents give the lie to the Nazi claim that history’s most notorious pogrom was spontaneous. It was planned by Hitler, incited by Goebbels and executed by Himmler and his lieutenants. The lesson for posterity is that when mobs attack vulnerable minorities, we should be sceptical of official denials of responsibility.   

This month, as we commemorate the 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, Europe should acknowledge two grim facts: that the threat of terrorism and even genocide against the Jewish people is more severe than at any time since the Holocaust; and that Christians are now also suffering pogroms on a global scale. Intolerance of Jews and Christians has unfortunately been exacerbated in the new regimes that have come to power in the Arab spring.

Europe’s indifference to the continuing threat to Jews, both in Israel and the diaspora, is highlighted by Emanuele Ottolenghi this month. Politicians and the media continue to trumpet the narrative of freedom and democracy in the Arab world. But Europe is in denial about the forces that have recently been unleashed there. Daniel Gerbi, a Libyan Jew whose family had lived in exile in Rome since 1967, returned to Tripoli in order to reopen the Dar Bishi synagogue. This was one of the few synagogues to remain intact since Gaddafi’s expulsion of what was left of a Jewish minority that had lived there for 2,000 years and had survived fascist and Nazi occupation. Gerbi had assurances from the National Transitional Council, but these proved to be hollow. On the eve of Yom Kippur last month, anti-Semitic protests were orchestrated in Tripoli and Benghazi. With the connivance of the police, a large mob attacked Gerbi’s hotel. He was fortunate to escape with his life. For the foreseeable future, Jewish life in Libya will remain a remote memory. 

In Egypt, the unimpeded assault on the Israeli embassy was conclusive evidence that official anti-Semitism remains powerful. In the absence of Jews, the main focus for pogroms has been the eight million Coptic Christians. Some 90,000 Copts have fled Egypt since the fall of Mubarak last February. Churches all over Egypt have been targeted since the bloody New Year’s Eve massacre in Alexandria. The latest outbreak followed the siege of St George’s Church in El-Marinab, Upper Egypt, which ended in its destruction and the expulsion of its congregation. When Copts turned out to protest in Cairo, they were met by troops and paramilitary police acting in concert with bands of armed thugs, roaming the streets and dragging Christians out of cars and taxis, urged on by state TV presenters calling on “honourable Egyptians” to resist the Coptic “sons of dogs”. The death toll in the massacre that followed had reached 26 at the time of writing, mostly shot or run over by armoured cars driven into crowds. Hundreds were injured. October 9, 2011, may prove to have been the Coptic Kristallnacht.

The new Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf denied any responsibility; instead he blamed “hidden hands”. Such conspiracy theories have long been used by the authorities to stoke up hostility towards America and Israel. Since the military regime took power some 12,000 people have been arrested, forced to confess (often under torture) and convicted by courts martial, using draconian emergency powers. The scale of this repression dwarfs that of Mubarak, as Islamist influence grows. For Coptic Christians the future looks bleak. Iraq has lost nine-tenths of its 2.5 million Christians in ten years; the Copts, the largest remaining religious minority in the Middle East, look isolated and exposed.

Across the world, at least 100 million Christians live under persecution, three-quarters of all victims of bigotry. Many thousands are killed every year, mainly by state-sponsored violence; indeed, it is likely that more have died for their faith in the last century than in the previous 19 put together. Yet The Better Angels of Our Nature, a much-lauded new study of “The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes” by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, manages to overlook this persecution altogether. The churches too have been all but silent. Pope Benedict has been more outspoken than his predecessors, but Christian minorities are hostages.

For Christians in the West who care about their co-religionists in the East, it is excruciating to watch them endure the terrible fate that Jews have suffered (often at the hands of Christians) for so long. It may, however, be salutary. The cause of freedom of conscience is a noble one, in which Christians, Jews and secularists have a common interest. The Arab spring must not be allowed to degenerate into one huge pogrom from Tripoli to Tehran.

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