Mursi faces challenge to bring Egypt's Copts on side

Coptic Christians celebrate Easter Coptic Christians make up a sizeable minority in Egypt

One of the toughest challenges that will face Egypt's new President, Mohammed Mursi, will be relations with the country's Coptic Christian community.

In the presidential run-off election, Copts, who make up about 10% of the population, voted overwhelmingly for Mr Mursi's rival, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, motivated by concerns about having an Islamist as head of state.

Since being declared the winner, Mr Mursi has tried to allay their fears, promising equal treatment for all Egyptians. However, it will be his actions and not his words that Copts will be keeping a close eye on.

Vulnerable

Under former President Hosni Mubarak, Copts complained of discrimination.

Many attended the mass rallies in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the focus of the uprising, and there were much was made of the apparent unity between Christians and Muslims.

However, in the months that followed, Copts began to be worried by the increasingly vocal and frequent calls from Islamists for the application of Islamic law, or Sharia, in Egypt. Ultraconservative Salafist parties even made it the central part of their parliamentary election platforms.

A taxi with a Mursi poster on its body drives past a Coptic church in Cairo Most Copts voted for Mohammed Mursi's rival in the presidential election run-off, Ahmed Shafiq

And when the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, under the leadership of Mr Mursi, and the Salafist Nour party unexpectedly won 70% of the seats in the now-dissolved People's Assembly, trouncing Egypt's liberal and secular parties, Copts felt particularly vulnerable.

Mona Makram Obaid, a political science professor, summed up many Copts' fears in an article published by the newspaper al-Masri al-Yawm on Tuesday.

Ms Obaid wrote that Copts started to worry after the emergence of what she claimed were statements from the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies about matters such as jizya - a tax that early Islamic rulers demanded from their non-Muslim subjects - and the "rejection of the idea of nominating a Copt for the presidency".

"Relations between the two sides got even worse because of the difference in the stance of a group which was wronged before the revolution but broke its promises when it became a majority."

The Brotherhood's promise to introduce the "principle of citizenship and end all forms of discrimination" had not materialised, she added.

"Copts did not feel that there was seriousness in implementing these promises in the shape of legislation when the Muslim Brotherhood majority controlled the legislative branch of power.

"The majority continued with the habits of the former regime, in terms of intimidation, marginalisation and exclusion, which took place in the parliament and the constituent assembly [drafting the new permanent constitution]. Copts were also denied nominations for various key political roles after the revolution."

Assurances

Such concerns encouraged Copts to support Mr Shafiq in the presidential run-off, which served only to upset Islamists, particularly conservative groups such as Gamaa Islamiya, who were deeply opposed to a man they considered a "feloul", or "regime remnant".

Start Quote

I think what happened may push the Coptic Church to put at its head a hardline pope”

End Quote Mustafa al-Fiqi Political thinker

But in his first televised address after being declared president-elect, Mr Mursi was keen to reassure Copts that their right to freedom of religion would be protected.

Mursi also met a number of Christian leaders, who congratulated him on his win.

He told the acting head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Bishop Bakhomious, and an accompanying delegation that Egyptians were all "equal".

A spokesman also said a Copt would also be appointed one of Mr Mursi's vice-presidents.

The new president's promises are likely to be put to the test very soon, for example when Copts request permission to build new churches or have their own law of "personal status", which covers matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

Mr Mursi's vow to name a Coptic vice-president will be judged by the powers he or she is given.

For instance, the deputy chairman of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Rafiq Habib, is a Copt, but for many Egyptians he seems to be solely a symbolic figure.

Mr Habib rarely appears at any public party activities, and after Mr Mursi resigned as chairman of the FJP following his election victory, the party's other deputy chairman, Issam al-Aryan, was asked to take charge of the party's affairs.

New pope

The new president is likely to need to fulfil his promises to the Coptic community, as its fate was the subject of intense international attention even under the non-Islamist Mubarak regime.

Mohammed Mursi meets Christian leaders in Cairo (27 June 2012) Mr Mursi has met Christian leaders, and promised to appoint a Christian as vice-president

Now that an Islamist is in the driving seat, any incident that leads to claims of religious discrimination or persecution is likely to find sympathetic ears.

In this context also, the way in which Mr Mursi deals with Copts may be relevant when a new Coptic pope is elected in two or three months' time.

Political thinker Mustafa al-Fiqi said recently in a television interview: "I think what happened may push the Coptic Church to put at its head a hardline pope."

Imad Jad, a Coptic political analyst, concurred.

"I think the behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood and the behaviour of Mr Mursi in the coming two months will be reflected in the pattern of the voting," he said.

"If there is a push towards a religious state and a hardline approach... I think the time will be for a hardline pope... [who] could be confrontational as well."

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad. For more reports from BBC Monitoring, click here.

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