Egypt’s Christians in new despair


FIVE weeks after the fall of the Egyptian regime, Ayman Anwar Mitri’s apartment was torched.  When he showed up to investigate, he was bundled inside by bearded Islamists.

Mitri is a member of the Christian Coptic minority that accounts for 10 percent of the country’s 83 million people.

The Islamists accused him of having rented the apartment – by then unoccupied – to loose Muslim women.

Inside the burned apartment, they beat him with the charred remains of his furniture, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Then, one of them produced a box cutter and performed what he considered an appropriate punishment under Islam – he amputated Mitri’s right ear.

“When they were beating me, they kept saying, ‘We won’t leave any Christians in this country,'” Mitri said in an interview two months after the March attack. Blood dripped through a plastic tube from his unhealed wound to a plastic container. “Here, there is a war against the Copts,” he said.

His attackers, who were never arrested or prosecuted, follow the ultra-fundamentalist Salafi strain of Islam that promotes an austere, Saudi-inspired worldview. Before Hosni Mubarak was toppled February 11, the Salafis mostly confined themselves to preaching. Since then, they have entered the political arena, drawing crowds and swaying government decisions. Salafi militants also blocked roads, burned churches and killed Copts.

The events raise questions about what kind of Egypt would emerge from the post-revolutionary chaos – and whether its revolution would adhere to the ideals of democracy and equality that inspired it. But the country’s military rulers and liberal forces might ultimately succeed at containing religious strife and limiting the Islamists’ political power.

Until recently, fears of an Islamist takeover in Egypt centered on the Muslim Brotherhood, a much better known organisation that is trying to project a new image of moderation. While many liberal Egyptians remain deeply suspicious of the Brothers’ true intentions, the Brotherhood now claims that it accepts Copts – the Middle East’s largest religious minority – in all government positions, with the possible exception of president.

By contrast, many Salafis believe it is forbidden by Islam for Christians to exercise political power over Muslims in any capacity. “If the Christian is efficient, he could be a deputy or an adviser,” prominent Salafi cleric Abdelmoneim Shehat said.

Unlike the Brothers, the Salafis long refused to participate in elections and dismissed democracy as un-Islamic – a view held by their spiritual guides in Saudi Arabia. Numbering in the millions around the Arab world, Salafis seek to emulate the ways of the “salaf,” the Prophet Muhammad’s seventh-century companions, and usually reject later theological, social and political innovations as heresy.

Osama bin Laden belonged to the jihadi current of Salafism that is trying to overthrow Arab regimes. Many other Salafis – including Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious establishment, and until recently, key Egyptian clerics – hold that obeying political rulers is mandatory in Islam.

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