After Morsi, injustice persists for Egypt’s Copts
“To all Muslims, thank you for your support in these times of grief”. That is the message hanging beneath a large banner depicting the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III opposite my cousin’s apartment in Rod al-Farag, an area of Cairo’s populated Shubra district. It is neither a quintessential spiritual saying, nor brief biblical quote – as you would expect – but a message directed at the Muslim residents of the area. The message and other expressions of Coptic-Islamic harmony spread following the death of the Coptic leader Shenouda in late March 2012.
In a tribute to the deceased Pope, a senior cleric said “it is because of him that we have national unity with our Muslim brothers.” The words recollected the efforts Shenouda had made to foster interfaith ties in the country. One such effort was to prevent the Copts from visiting Jerusalem, “except with our brothers the Muslims, following its liberation.” Shenouda’s support of a Muslim cause is a testament to his outreach.
Sadly at the time of his passing, violence against Egypt’s Christians was again on the rise. The unity among Muslims and Christians against Hosni Mubarak had proven to be transitory too.
During the months after Mubarak’s downfall, the volatile political situation exacerbated the suffering of the Christian minority. After the bombing of Alexandria’s Qediseen Church in 2011, occurring days before the protests against Mubarak started, similar attacks continued under Field Marshal Tantawi (and later under Morsi and Mansour). The violence peaked in the days following the dispersion of two pro-Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo on August 14th, where more than 40 churches (and many more houses and shops) were torched. As in case of the bombing of the Qediseen church, most of the ravaged churches and battered families still wait for meaningful reparation.
The attacks covered by the media are but the tip of the iceberg. In undocumented cases, Copts have faced forced expulsions, child abductions, rape, drive by shootings, murder and other crimes. These acts against the Christian minority are widespread. They are more common in rural areas of the country. The failure of the state to bring justice to victims is often justified by “a lack of evidence.” The effect of the government’s inaction is to permit these horrendous acts by default and also to deny the Copts the protection owed to them as a human right. There has been long-standing criticism of the judicial bias against the Copts and the impunity their antagonists enjoy. The country’s leaders have so far failed to adequately provide solutions to the problem. There have been allegations that during the Maspero Massacre 28 Christians and Muslim supporters were killed by military forces while protesting against the demolition of a church. Further, 31 of the demonstrators faced trials in military courts.
In other procedures, Christians have been forced to renounce their right to justice, and accept the result of so-called “reconciliation sessions”, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has found. During these informal meetings, local officers and religious leaders gather, forcing the victim(s) to “reconcile” with the offender(s) in the presence of local media. Among the procedure’s critics is Bishop Makarios of Minya, an area in Upper-Egypt infamous for its sectarian violence. The traditional hearings “fail in dealing with the root of the problem… hands are shaken before the media, greetings and smiles are exchanged, while hearts remained filled with hate” he said talking to al Monitor.
A new republic?
When voted in during early December 2013, Egypt’s amended constitution showed little progress. While the revised document enhanced the power of those who ousted Morsi, Egypt’s religious minorities saw only minor advancements. A provision for the “absolute freedom of belief” was introduced, but only pertains to the three monotheistic beliefs and excludes followers of the Shia Muslim tradition. Copts who were promised that “all barriers to building churches” would be eliminated were disappointed when a final decision on that enactment was yet again delayed.
Article 235 of the new Constitution mandates that in its first term after enactment, the House of Representatives make legislative provision for the regulation of Church construction and renovation. The purpose of the article is to “guarantee the freedom to practice religious rituals for Christians.” Since 1952, Copts have struggled to obtain the needed warrant to build, renovate, or even patch up a church’s toilet without authorization, which is the responsibility of the country’s president.
Senior officials, including President Adly Mansour, have paid lip service to the Coptic issue. Other officials include former interim Premier Hezam Beblawy, and presidential candidate Abdul Fatah al-Sisi. They have meanwhile met with the Coptic Pope Tawadros, a strong supporter of the July 3rd military takeover. However, it remains to be seen what real progress will take place in a post-Sisi Egypt. For now, the impunity, and sectarian violence are likely to persist throughout the country.
If Egypt’s new rulers support real change, they must start by disclosing the correct size of Egypt’s Christian population. This disclosure has so far been refused by the government, which maintains an inaccurate claim that there are only 6 million Copts. Following a true account of the population, the Copts will be able to pursue their interests in public institutions with a democratic force that reflects their proportion of the population.
There is a responsibility for the Copts also. That is to channel their desires and grievances through conventional party politics. A strong Coptic voice in the House of Representatives will ring clearer than conversations in front of cameras with Pope Tawadros. In time, political representation should replace the Coptic Pope as the voice of the Copts in political affairs, and contribute to a more pluralist Egypt.
This article was edited by Angus Willoughby, Editor, EgyptianStreets.com. An earlier version of this article was published on the International Policy Digest