IN THE 27 governorates across Egypt, not one governor is Coptic, yet Coptic Christians make up more than 10 per cent of the population. Despite the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak, laws against the building of new churches are yet to be overturned and avenues of proper legal redress are effectively closed to Copts.However, in response to the recent bloody clashes between Copts and Muslims, interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has signalled renewed efforts to calm religious tensions.
Makram Khamel, a 28-year-old Copt, experienced the attacks first hand when an angry mob of 500 Salafi Muslims attacked St Mary’s Coptic Church in Cairo last month. He thought he would be beaten to death.
Advertisement: Story continues below “I stayed to defend the church,” Mr Khamel told The Age, recalling the riots on May 8 that saw 15 people killed and about 250 wounded.
After the inside of the church was ravaged by fire, Mr Khamel said work began the next day to restore it. “We didn’t rest for a day, only when the church was repaired, would the community be healed.” The riots were the latest in a series of violent attacks on Egypt’s eight million Coptic Christians since the start of the year that have left nearly 60 people dead, ostensibly triggered by a love affair between a Muslim woman and a Christian man.
In the most serious attack, a suicide bomber killed 23 people and wounded 100 in an attack in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve.
Last Wednesday, Mr Sharaf led a line-up of cabinet ministers, local governors and Muslim clerics at a reconsecration of St Mary’s as part of an attempt to ease fears of persecution among Copts.
According to Father Matthias Elias, the leader of the congregation for more than 30 years, the re-consecration was a crucial opportunity for reconciliation with Egypt in the process of drafting a new constitution.
Outside the church, hundreds of Muslim onlookers gathered to show their support for their Christian neighbours. “We all want to live together, we have lived together for many decades,” said Ashraf Aziz, 55, who owns a mini-market near the church.
“We are not against anyone,” Manal Abdul Salam, 33, a local pharmacist, said. “All Christians are welcome in Egypt, the people who cause these troubles – it is a very small number. This does not represent the true feelings of people who have lived peacefully for very long.”
But Coptic human rights lawyer Naguib Gibrael says not nearly enough is being done to protect Egypt’s Copts in the wake of the January revolution. “There is no question that the revolution has changed things for the worse for Christians,” said Dr Gibrael from his office in the Cairo suburb of Shobra, the centre of a large Coptic community.