Viewpoint: Egypt's Copts must not submit to grief

Egyptian Coptic Christians carry a cross and chant prayers during a candlelight protest in Cairo, 16 October 2011 Egyptian Christians have been mourning those killed earlier this month

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Earlier this month Egypt saw some of the worst religious violence in decades. Twenty-five people were killed in clashes between Egyptian security forces and mainly Coptic Christian demonstrators protesting against an attack on a church.

Here Yousef Sidhoum, editor of the Coptic newspaper al-Watani, argues that the situation for Egypt's Copts has worsened following the country's revolution, but that the Copts can still play a crucial role in building a liberal, civil state.

Since the start of Egypt's revolution on 25 January, the world has watched the country's attempts to transform itself from a dictatorship to a democracy with a considerable degree of admiration and respect.

To tell the truth, Egyptians of my age group - I am 62 years old - never imagined that their fellow citizens could successfully revolt against a corrupt regime backed by fierce security services and the military.

But our youth did it and proved that we had mistakenly underestimated their determination to change their harsh fate.

During the uprising, all Egyptians flocked to Tahrir Square calling for reforms to bring social justice, more jobs and the cancellation of forged parliamentary elections. Muslims and Christians were bound by the same challenges and aspirations.

Start Quote

Yousef Sidhoum

The Copts of Egypt cannot afford to fall into grief and desperation”

End Quote Yousef Sidhoum

In the square a strong, unprecedented bond of national solidarity was forged. This amazing bond moved the hearts and souls of Egyptians all over the country - little wonder, as previously it had been absent in daily life except when Egypt played in international football matches.

'Discriminatory tide'

As a Coptic Christian, deep down in my heart there lies a wound that does not heal. It has festered over more than three decades as the grievances of Egypt's Copts have mounted.

In the 1970s, our good-natured, amicable Egyptian character began to change. Copts started to feel that they were rejected, marginalised, and denied their full citizenship rights both by the state and their Muslim fellow citizens, merely because of their religious denomination.

A strong wave of fanatic, fundamentalist Islam invaded our country, a vicious, discriminatory tide that flooded state bodies, official establishments and educational institutions and affected Muslim clergy. It resulted in legislative inequalities and selective rules that had an Islamic flavour and meant Copts were treated as second-class citizens.

At the top of the list of Coptic complaints is the restriction on the right to build and maintain churches. The difficulties begin with acquiring a site and continue through the entire process.

National security police have the right to reject any application or suspend approvals for years without being held to account. A new church also requires a presidential decree, while repairs need a governor's approval. The same restrictions do not apply to mosques.

This sends a signal to Muslim fanatics that the state does not mind harassing Christians. It fuels negative sentiments and helps trigger attacks by mobs against existing or newly built churches.

These are often accompanied by general violence against Copts, looting and burning of their property and threats to their lives.

Local authorities often turn a deaf ear and blind eye to these authorities and do not enforce the rule of law.

Underrepresented

Another form of inequality Copts suffer from lies in the fact that far too few occupy chief executive jobs and high-ranking positions in all state bodies.

While Copts make up between 10 to 15% of the population, their share of such posts is estimated to be 3.5% or less.

Egypt's Copts

Egyptian Coptic men carry the coffin of a victim of deadly clashes, during a funeral at Abassaiya Cathedral in Cairo on October 10
  • Estimates of the number of Coptic Christians in Egypt range from 5.6m to 11m
  • Descended from ancient Egyptians; Coptic language is derived from ancient Egyptian
  • Split from Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics in 451AD in row over nature of Christ
  • On most issues doctrinally similar to Eastern Orthodox Church

Copts are actually banned from joining presidential administrative or security bodies, the national intelligence service and state security police.

They are underrepresented in the military, police, judiciary, the diplomatic corps, state banks and universities. In all electoral bodies - from local councils up to the parliament - there is a similar picture.

This situation has built up over the past 40 years and is linked to the political and economic domination of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

This allowed a small number of fragile opposition parties to create only an image of a multi-party system.

As the NDP refrained from nominating Copts on its candidate lists, their chances for political representation and participation were reduced to a drastic minimum.

Perhaps the most harmful of inequalities for the Copts and all Egyptians, has been the creeping Islamisation of our educational system.

This started with our history books, in which the six centuries when Egypt was a predominantly Coptic Christian country, prior to the introduction of Islam, were shrunk down to a shameful minimum. Eventually all curricula were affected.

Our children have been taught that Islam is superior to any other religion and the one and only source of ethics and morals.

Some teachers with extremist beliefs also fostered divisions among their pupils, spreading the idea that Christians are infidels. Such evil attitudes have created ignorance, mistrust and dangerous segregation among our young generation.

In many fields and activities in their own country, many Copts feel a bitter sense of estrangement, rejection and insecurity.

The extent to which they do so depends on many factors including geography and social background.

Unanswered questions

There are some Copts who have reacted to years of constant marginalisation and humiliation by withdrawing from Muslim company. They stick within their churches and Coptic company.

Those who have managed to keep amicable relations with Muslims - neighbours, classmates, workmates and friends - have a healthier outlook.

Nine months have now elapsed since Egypt's revolution ousted the president and still important questions lie unanswered.

Are the Copts in a better situation than before? And, can we emerge from this transitional period as a civil state for all Egyptians?

I believe the situation of Copts has worsened since the revolution.

This is because of the revival of political Islam and the eruption of violence inflicted upon them by the emerging Salafist Islamic groups coupled with a very worrying failure of the ruling regime to enforce the rule of law or to offer Copts protection.

Yet the Copts of Egypt cannot afford to fall into grief and desperation.

They must strive to be an integral part of the current transitional process by stepping into the political arena and joining liberal parties where they are now welcomed.

Along with moderate Muslims they can support the idea of a civil state for Egypt and keep fundamentalists at bay.

I remain confident that if Copts can meet this challenge, we will meet the promise of a new Egypt for all Egyptians, where democracy, equality and justice reign.

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