Religious tolerance far from guaranteed in Egypt

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Despite a long history of living side-by-side, tensions are rising between Egypt’s Christian Coptic community and ultra-conservative Muslims.

 

 

At the Coptic museum in Cairo, evidence of Egypt’s storied diversity is on full display. Veiled female art students are hunched over sketchbooks, laboring at drawings of a limestone frieze from an ancient church. In the museum gift shop, icons of Christian saints share shelf space with miniature replicas of the pyramids and Pharaonic idols that predate Christianity by centuries.

Sarwat Malak, who runs the gift shop, says he’s heard about growing tensions between ultraconservative Muslims and Egypt’s Christian minority, but he’s not worried.

“Christians touch Jesus, not fear any man,” Malak says, his point clear, despite his spotty English.

In the months after the Egyptian revolution, Copts are concerned about a pattern of attacks on Christians and their property, which they call a grim reminder that despite the country’s celebrated mix of religious and cultural customs, tolerance is never guaranteed.

Youssef Sidhom is the editor-in-chief of a weekly Christian newspaper called Watani. He is a trim, serious man, who took over the paper from his father and proudly notes that Watani has Arabic, English and French sections, and publishes a monthly edition in Braillefor blind readers.

Sidhom, like many Egyptians, is proud of the country’s long history in which Muslims and Christians lived side-by-side, weathering periods of peace and turmoil. But he says that life is becoming more difficult for Christians following the revolution.

“Christians do really feel concerned about their security and safety,” Sidhom says. “Every day you can expect something to happen and many things happen. Maybe not on a vast scale, but things having the nature of atrocities against Christians remain.”
In October, Coptic Christians and their Muslim supporters staged a peaceful rally in front of Egypt’s state television building in Cairo to protest the burning of a church in southern Egypt. Twenty-seven people were killed when the group was set upon by the Egyptian military. The incident, now widely known as the Maspero massacre, gave rise to fears that both the military and radical Muslims are targeting Egypt’s Christians.

Radical roots
Many Egyptians have been taken aback by the emergence of a deep vein of social and religious conservatism that appeared after the revolution, and which is embodied by Salafis, the adherents of a school of Islamic thought that urges a strict interpretation of the Koran. Before the revolution, Salafis comprised a tiny, silent minority. Many Egyptians had never heard of them. Hosni Mubarak kept a tight grip on Islamist groups, jailing their leaders and forcing their members underground.

Salafis won 24 percent of the seats in democratic elections for Egypt’s powerful lower house of parliament, stunning even the savviest political observers. Their success, along with that of the less conservative, but more fearsomely organized Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood has led some Christians to suggest that Egypt’s revolution was a setback for minority populations.
Twenty-three-year-old John Hanna, a Copt who marched with the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, exhales heavily and hedges a bit when asked if the revolution has failed.

“That’s a hard question,” he says. “We were trying to get rid of the dictatorship as a whole. I will never regret trying to do something right, because if it had actually worked, we would have been a much, much better place.”

Constitutional crisis
Hanna and Sidhom, like most Copts, are quick to note that they have a great respect for Islam and for moderate Muslims. Their moderate and liberal Muslim compatriots are similarly distressed by what they view as a craven power grab by Islamist political parties who now form a majority in parliament.

Those fears are perhaps best illustrated by the fierce debate that is now raging over the creation of Egypt’s new constitution, which is to be written by a 100-member committee. Many Egyptians hoped the document would be the cornerstone of a new nation, guaranteeing rights and freedoms that would have been unthinkable under the strongmen who ruled Egypt for decades. But when the parliament chose the members of that committee, only a handful were Christians, women or liberals. The Coptic church pulled its members from the constitutional assembly, calling it “pointless.”

“When these Copts and women and liberals are pulling out of the constitution that’s being written, they are taking out the credibility of the process of writing it,” says John Hanna, who is sensitive to concerns that leaving the constitutional assembly is seen by some as tantamount to giving up on the political process in Egypt altogether.

And the move seems to have worked. On April 10, a Cairo administrative court blocked the constitutional assembly from continuing its work. It is unclear on what legal grounds the court’s decision rests, and there is certain to be an appeal. But the court’s explanation for the suspension is notable. The members of the assembly, the court said, failed to reflect Egypt’s political and social diversity.

 

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