Conference raises concerns over lingering discrimination against Copts

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“Copts feel they are even worse off after the revolution, although they were hopeful it would bring equality. Some took the wheel of the revolution so that Christians are sidelined from the political scene,” said Naguib Gebrail, lawyer and director of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations (EUHRO) at a conference on Sunday.

Gebrail condemned the deliberate, crude and public attack on Egypt’s Copts since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak and the continued discrimination they still face in society, speaking at a conference organized by EUHRO under the title “Copts: Partners in the Nation but …”

The event, which started with the Egyptian national anthem, had on its panel Refaat al-Saeed, president of the leftist Tagammu Party, journalist Osama Saraya, Sherif Doss, the head of Egypt’s Copts Association, Amna Nosseir, professor of Islamic Shari’a at Al-Azhar University, and Safwat al-Baiady, the head of Egypt’s Evangelical community.

“We have to stop disguising the reality behind fake names like ‘national unity’ and ‘sectarian strife’ and believe that Egypt has religious discrimination,” said Saeed.

Twenty-seven lives have been claimed in sectarian clashes since Mubarak stepped down in February, with three churches attacked and destroyed; there have been deadly clashes between Muslim and Christian residents in several neighborhoods; in one incident, a Christian man’s ear was cut off and his car and house set on fire.

Saeed accused the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) of being biased towards the Muslim Brotherhood, starting with appointing an Islamist former judge to head the committee that drafted the constitutional amendments and a Muslim Brotherhood lawyer as a member in the same committee. SCAF favoritism, according to Saeed, undermines the civil state and Christians’ rights of citizenship.

Nosseir, however, put the blame on the religious institutions for deepening the divide between Muslims and Christians, who make up around 10 percent of Egypt’s population, according to official statistics, accusing the Coptic Church of suffering from a “disease.”

“The Coptic Church in Egypt didn’t let Christians merge with their Muslim fellow citizens, but on the contrary, it intensified the polarization, formed an institution inside an institution and encouraged their isolation,” said Nosseir.

The Islamic Shari’a professor also accused the ultra-conservative Islamist Salafis for the sectarian strife, calling them the “Tatars of this era” and urging them to “stay away of the country and let it live peacefully, as it has always done.”

A month ago, the government presented a draft of the Equality Law, which is now pending approval from the SCAF. The draft is an amendment to Article 161 (b) of the penal code, which stipulates punishments for anyone who carries out any action that causes discrimination against individuals or a certain community based on sex, race, language, or religion, and which might lead to unequal opportunity or social inequality. Punishments include detention or a fine, with a minimum of LE13,000 and a maximum of LE15,000

The amendment, if it is passed, would increase the punishment to at least three months in detention and a fine of between LE50,000 and LE100,000 if the perpetrator is a public employee.

However, legal analysts have criticized the draft law, deeming it insufficient to eradicate discrimination due to its ambiguity in defining acts of discrimination and its relatively weak level of punishment.

Sameh Fawzy, writer and rights activist, said: “In most cases, it is very hard to prove that an act of discrimination has taken place, because it could be done under a legal cover.”

The same concern is shared by Gebrail, who emphasized the importance of adding to the law a clear definition of discrimination, its manifestations and the means by which it can be proven to have taken place. According to Gebrail, before the new Equality Law was drafted, the EUHRO proposed a 17-article anti-discrimination law and presented it to the cabinet, but their proposal was ignored.

Fawzy explained that discrimination in Egypt takes many forms besides religion, such as discrimination against women, the disabled and people from the lower social classes, especially when it comes to job opportunities, although “education and meritocracy should be the basis of climbing the social ladder.”

The rights activist believes that one solution could be “positive discrimination,” which might include measures such as setting quotas for the minimum percentage of people from minorities employed in a workplace, for example.

“Positive discrimination can be applied until the society gets acquainted by it and it becomes the norm over time,” said Fawzy.

Another criticism of the Equality Law is that the punishments proposed don’t act as an effective deterrent.

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