WASHINGTON -- Last Monday, a day before Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was scheduled to visit the White House, U.S. Rep. French Hill wrote to President Donald Trump, urging him to discuss the plight of Coptic Christians with his counterpart.
On Tuesday, Trump called the Republican from Little Rock and told him that he'd raised the topic as requested.
In an interview, Hill recounted Trump's summary of the discussions.
"They talked extensively about the challenges with the Copts in Egypt. President el-Sissi re-enforced his commitment to a plural society and protection for Christians -- both the Coptic Christians and other Christians in Egyptian society," Hill said. "I told the president that I appreciated him raising this important issue, that supporting human rights in our bilateral relationships is of fundamental importance to our country."
The Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian denomination in Egypt.
Its members have faced persecution, according to news reports. In 2015, 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by the Islamic State in Libya. In 2016, at least 29 Copts were killed in a church bombing in Egypt. In 2017, shortly before Easter, 45 Copts perished in two Egyptian church bombings. In May of that year, 28 Coptic pilgrims were slaughtered.
Last year, seven Copts were killed while traveling to a monastery.
During Hill's first term in office, he attended "a number of religious freedom presentations" that highlighted the threats facing religious minorities, he said.
Since then, he has spoken out repeatedly on behalf of Copts and also met with the denomination's leader, Pope Tawadros II.
In 2017, Hill introduced a bipartisan resolution "expressing concern over attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt."
In it, he urged the Egyptian government "to end the marginalization of Copts in Egyptian society and make a legal example of any perpetrator who persecutes Egyptian Christians."
El-Sissi has shown support for Copts and their religious freedom. He also attended a Christmas Mass, making him the first Egyptian president to do so, according to media reports.
A nonprofit group, In Defense of Christians, which advocates for religious freedom and tolerance in the Middle East, had urged Trump and others to continue to emphasize the importance of religious freedom.
Peter Burns, the group's government relations and policy associate, said he was "very encouraged" by reports of Trump's conversation with el-Sissi.
"The Egyptian government is ... very attentive to their public image in the United States," Burns said. "They are the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid. They don't want to jeopardize that relationship."
"Having President Trump raise this issue with President el-Sissi is incredibly important," Burns added.
In Defense of Christians has allies in the White House. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney spoke at the group's annual dinner in December.
The group also has advocates on Capitol Hill, including Hill, whom Burns called "a good friend and strong supporter of persecuted Christians in the Middle East."
Hill, a member of the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock, is said to be the first Catholic to represent Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District. Since his election in 2014, he has emphasized the importance of religious liberty.
In June, a group called Coptic Solidarity presented Hill with its 2018 Leadership Award, citing "his leadership in Congress in support of Coptic equality and religious freedom for all Egyptians."
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Print Headline: Hill spurs Trump's discourse on Copts