The treatment of Copts - Egypt's Christian minority - was described in 2010 as “akin to apartheid”. Several months after the ousting of President Mubarak sectarian violence is now escalating, and the Coptic community faces the threat of rising Islamism.
Discrimination against Copts is on the rise. Throughout Egypt there are reports of religiously motivated killings and the abduction of Coptic girls, who face rape and forcible conversion to Islam and marriages to Muslim men. Several Copts I talked to in Egypt believe that these atrocities are part of a secret campaign to end Christianity in the Middle East.
"It is not our fault we were born here"
Meanwhile, the Copts are being systematically excluded from the political system of Egypt. Out of 444 representatives, Egypt’s parliament has just two Copts. The government-subsidised media is openly anti-Christian. I heard recurring reports of discrimination in housing, while many colleges around the country limit the enrollment of Copts to a quota of 2%, although Christians make up 10 - 15% of the population. Copts are excluded from high-ranking jobs in the police, security agencies, politics and academia. 'Hajji', a young Copt from Cairo, told Think Africa Press that although he is well-educated he cannot find a job because of his religion, and although he uses a fake Muslim name his ID card reveals his beliefs. His community has suffered from violent attacks, which he believes have become worse since the 'revolution'. "I am afraid of the [Muslim] Brotherhood," he says. "If they come we need to leave the country. It is not our fault that we were born in this place."
Muslims who convert to Christianity face imprisonment and torture. I met one of these converts, who wanted to remain unnamed. He claims that he converted to Christianity after secretly reading the Bible without his parent’s knowledge. Now he is afraid of how they will react. He wants to leave the country because he is afraid for his security, and he assures me that there are thousands of young men in the country who convert to Christianity. These young crypto-Christians share their views and anxieties on the internet, but they cannot change their ID, which states their religion. Conversely, Christians who want to become Muslims are received with open arms by the authorities.
Copts have not prospered in Egypt’s modern history. Nasser’s pan-Arab policies undermined the Copts’ strong attachment to their Egyptian and non-Arab identity. Sadat, Nasser’s successor, sent the Patriarch of Alexandria, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, into internal exile. Mubarak has been accused by many of failing to protect the Christian minority. Current laws make it difficult for Copts to build Churches and official permission is required even to repair existing ones. Mixed marriages are not allowed. The Pew Research Center’s forum on religion found in 2009 that Mubarak's Egypt - alongside Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan - was amongst the 25 most populated countries with severe restrictions on freedom of religion.
The revolution and its discontents
Yet, although the majority of the Copts supported the revolution they have found themselves worse off than before. Violent attacks against them have increased, extremists have become more vocal, and the state is unwilling or unable to protect their lives and property. Dr Sherif Doss of the International Coptic Council told Think Africa Press that violence has increased after the revolution and that there is inefficient security in areas where Copts live. He blamed the violence on Salafis who appear to have used the revolution as an opportunity "to escalate their attacks and propaganda of hatred" against Christians. Dr Sherif stated that the government refuses to impose laws that would protect churches and refuse the civil rights of non-Muslims. “There is no law against discrimination," he said. "We have asked for such a law for more than 30 years now. After the revolution things have become even worse because we do not have the minimal security which we used to have."
On May 7, sectarian violence escalated as 12 people were killed in the poor suburb of Imbaba, in Cairo. The bloodshed started when rumours spread around the neighborhood that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam had been abducted, and was being kept in the Virgin Mary Church against her will. About 500 Salafis gathered at the church. Gunshots and an exchange of Molotov bombs followed, resulting in the burning of two churches. The next day I visited the area and I spoke with some Copts living there. They blamed the government for failing to bring justice to its Christian citizens. Local shopkeeper Theodoros said: “If the government had punished the perpetrators of violence before now we would not have this problem.”
The next day I had the opportunity to listen to Dr Naquib, the chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, talking to foreign and local journalists. He warned both Christians and Muslims to take action against what happened the previous day in Imbada, pointing to the ‘hatred propaganda’ on display in local media and on the internet against the Christians. The slogan ‘Punish the Christian/Unbeliever’ was commonly heard. Dr Naquib says that although the Copts had supported the revolution, they are currently turning against it. “We suffer from persecution and terrorism, but up to when?” He demands constitutional protection, and says international attention must focus on the problems of the Copts "before it is too late". The International Coptic Council demands the separation of religion and the state, and the abolishment of Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution which states that the religion of Egypt is Islam.
Who to blame?
Many people blame the increase in violence after the revolution on remaining elements of Mubarak's government, who are manipulating Salafi violence as a ploy to portray the revolution as destabilising. Others blame the general lawlessness in the country, and believe that after the upcoming elections order will be re-established by a civilian government. Another popular suspicion is that Saudi Arabia is backing Salafi groups in order to undermine the Egyptian revolution and the wider Arab spring - the dictators of the Arab world would be eager to see the Egyptian revolution fall prey to sectarianism and extremism. On the other hand, some see no conspiracy behind the violence, only old tensions. While interviewing a priest in the Mar Girgis area of Cairo, I am told there is a lot of hatred between the two religions in Egypt. "There is no respect for Christians here, the majority thinks we are pagans." But he claimed that Mubarak, like his predecessors, was able to enforce the law and protect them. Now that Mubarak is gone and many prisoners of the Muslim Brotherhood are free, Christians around Egypt are afraid for their lives and for the lives of their children. "If the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power we would be lucky if we manage to escape."
Egypt could have a chance for democracy if a civilian leader like El Baradei or Amr Mousa comes to power in the elections, scheduled for September. On the other hand, if the vacuum of power is filled with Islamic movements the Copts should demand international protection from the UN, the EU and the US. The international community should pay close attention to Egypt before it is too late. All moderate Egyptians should stand united against this new enemy. In the same way that Christians and Muslims united against Mubarak and his regime, they must unite against their new and even more dangerous enemies: sectarianism and extremism.