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Christians in the Muslim World

A glance at the life of Egyptian Copts, one year after the Nag Hammadi massacre

Egyptian Christians on the whole, and the Copts in particular, who are the most numerous, find themselves caught between two fires: the Egyptian government and the Fundamentalist movements.

 

 

About the former, one cannot, strictly speaking, say that the Christians are being persecuted; yet discriminations exist, as well as patent intolerance. In the last few years some important recognitions have been obtained: an upgrade of the Coptic Christmas (7th January) to the rank of national holiday, the appointment of a Coptic governor (that of Qena) and of two ministers members of the National Party. But it is also true that in Egypt there are no Coptic university rectors, faculty deans or security corps officers. Such partiality fuels fanaticism, particularly in the administrative organs and in state bureaucracy when it comes to legislation. For instance, on the occasion of the 2005 elections, the government had promised a unified bill on the places of worship but this bill has not been passed yet.

 

 

It is well known that the building of churches in Egypt follows a particularly complicated procedure, as it depends on the so-called «Hamayouni Decree» promulgated under the Ottoman Empire and still in force. Besides, a brain-washed bureaucracy does everything to hinder the construction of a church, which forces Christians to somehow circumvent the law to be able to build one. In the 2005 electoral competition, Christians had also been promised their own statute book to regulate their status -- but that had come to nothing. The Egyptian government, however, did take action on the occasion of a juridical crisis half-way through 2010, when they tried to force the Orthodox Coptic Church to apply the decision of a civil court by authorizing a second marriage which this Church refused as contrary to her own doctrine.

 

 

By order of the President of the Republic, the government had to institute a juridical cooperation board of representatives of all the Churches of Egypt in order to devise a bill on the marital status of Christians. This is the third bill, counting from a 1979 version that was never approved. A promise was made to take the project to parliamentary debate, which will be the outcome of the next elections. In any case, there will be the question of whether the project will be approved even if the Muslim Brothers conquer a great number of seats.

 

Another question is the freedom of worship. The Christians of Egypt, in fact, enjoy freedom of worship in the sense that they are free to pray and celebrate rituals in churches. Besides, television broadcasts mass at Christmas and Easter celebrated by Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church and other Churches. Religious freedom, however, is not fully guaranteed. For instance, if a Muslim man wishes to convert to Christianity, beside the difficulties he would encounter in his relationship with Islamic society, he will be unable to record his conversion in the official documents and in his /her identity card, hence he will be unable to marry, except with a Muslim woman, and will educate his children in the Islamic faith.

 

The converted are, effectively, condemned to live their faith in secret, or else to migrate to a Country where this freedom is recognized.

 

There is no lack of other examples of intolerance on the media. This used to happen in Sheik Sharawi’s speeches who launched his anti-Christian attacks from the national television, affirming that the Gospel had been manipulated. Along the same lines we find Sheik Khalid Al-Jundi, on the Al-Azhari television network.

 

A communiqué published on 12 September accuses the Coptic Church of arrogance and insolence, and invites Muslims to boycott a particular list of commercial businesses owned by Christians. We must not forget the terrorist attacks that struck Egypt till the end of the 1990’s, notoriously including the murder, in 1981, of President Sadat.

 

 

If terrorism has been hemmed in by the Egyptian security forces, some acts of violence against the Copts have taken place regardlessly: in Koshah in the 1990’s about 50 Copts were massacred and the perpetrators were released by the Court. We also remember the events of 7 January 2010, the day of the Coptic Christmas, when three notorious criminals opened fire on the faithful as they left the Nag Hammadi church in High Egypt, killing seven people and wounding another twenty. Eleven months later the murderers had not yet undergone regular trial, and the government had in the meantime spread the rumour that the main culprit was affected by mental disorder. Everyone knew he was a criminal, though one protected by a Member of Parliament and the National Party then in power.

 

 

The second challenge is constituted by all terrorist organizations calling themselves Jihadist, as well as by some extremists formerly belonging to the Muslim Brothers. The Muslim Brothers have displayed some form of solidarity with Christians ever since the time of their founder, Hassan al- Banna, who in 1927 regarded Christians as co-citizens whose faith was based on a Book revealed by God. The Muslim Brothers turn their anger against the government who has consigned the Country to the Americans and signed the Camp David Accords with the Zionists. According to Mohamed Seif El Dawla, nephew of Hassan al-Banna, Egypt has been divided into two: the Muslim zone and the Christian zone. Besides, the Muslim Brothers accuse Muslim leaders to have abandoned religion, and do not consider them genuine believers.

 

 

They designate themselves by the slogan they continually chant: « Islam is the solution», as an alternative to corrupt régimes, as they say. They say the Islamic political current is honest, powerful, well organized, dedicated to patriotism and the people’s service, able to face up to the hatred of tyrannical usurpers and alien to all personal interests. Despite all this, the Muslim Brothers categorically reject the idea that a Christian may exert power of any kind over a Muslim and explicitly refuse the possibility that a Christian may become President, Prime Minister or a general. Their old leader has publicly declared: « If the Copts are unhappy, they can leave the Country, they can emigrate. ». Yet, between the Orthodox Coptic Church and the Muslim Brothers there exists a form of official relationship, manifested in the visits made by the latter’s leader, on several occasions, to Pope Shenouda III. The Muslim Brothers have disseminated a (late) declaration to firmly condemn the hateful crime perpetrated in the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Baghdad, by affirming that this crime was contrary to Islamic Law.

 

 

In this tension-laden atmosphere, what can Christians do? Many Copts and other Christians have fled the country, not only because of religious discrimination but also for post-revolution social, economic and cultural reasons.

 

In time, the Coptic diaspora has become an instrument of pressure in favour of the Coptic Pope and the Coptic community in Egypt. A Coptic lobby has in fact formed in the US and Europe, with the support of human rights organizations, in order to exerting pressure on the Egyptian government so that Christians may obtain some recognitions. The government has sometimes answered positively to such pressures, even though slowly and cautiously. Pope Shenouda has also instituted dioceses, churches and monasteries in most of the western areas, and these too exert a pressurizing role, besides offering pastoral service. The diaspora Copts also maintain a number of satellite televisions attacking Islam with violence and its Prophet in answer to extremist television stations attacking Christianity. It must also be said that Pope Shenouda assumes political positions: last year he announced that the Egyptian Copts would vote again for President Mubarak in the 2011 elections, just as they had done back in 2005. Since the Coptic people usually obey Pope Shenouda, the government has thus ensured the majority of Coptic votes. Consequently, the Egyptian government tried to give some satisfaction to the Copts in view of the November 2010 legislative elections.

 

 

The National Party has decided to add to its list ten more Coptic candidates, compared with 2005 (the party’s candidates are more than 250). The Coptic Orthodox Church has consolidated in the territory thanks to the Sunday schools, the education of the clergy, the deepening of faith, the service offered to the faithful both in Egypt and abroad. However, it needs to open up to Egyptian society and to the other Churches and Christian communities. We hope to see the day when the Orthodox Church will establish links with the other Churches and Christian communities just as with moderate Muslims, for the good of Egypt and that of the Church.

 

 

Fr Rafiq Greiche

 

Director of the Press Office of the Catholic Church in Egypt

 

 

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