Coptic Christians fight for place in Egypt’s political scene


Father Alfons Marzou shuffles across a complex that is home to sisters for the Catholic Missionaries of Charity, whose nuns provide medical care and food to impoverished children living amid heaps of garbage.



“Look around,” Marzou says, motioning to the filthy streets outside the walls where families live among refuse for resale in what is known as Garbage City.

Little has improved for these people in the year since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Marzou says, “The situation is bad in so many ways.”

Here, more than 60,000 Christians known as the Zabaleen, or Cairo’s “garbage people,” collect, separate, sell or reuse the city’s trash. Following the uprising against Mubarak, the prospect of change was encouraging; now disappointment and uncertainty prevail in this hillside slum.

“We call them the ‘cleaners’ of Cairo,” says Father Samaan Ibrahim, who heads the Coptic Christian church here.

‘We want peace’

The Zabaleen have lived for decades in this dirt and red brick town at the foothills of Cairo’s Mokattam hill. Christians, who make up roughly 10% of Egypt’s more than 80 million people, say life has gotten more dangerous since Mubarak’s fall and that police have been ineffective in preventing attacks.

Theresa Moros smiles when she speaks of her four children.

“My kids won’t leave me alone,” Moros says. “They take turns keeping watch.”

But she stiffens while talking of mothers who are afraid to let their daughters walk to school. Last week, an unknown group of “thugs” set fire to a paper factory. State security makes few arrests, Moros says.

Unidentified criminals are creating conflict throughout Cairo, affecting all Egyptians, analysts say.

“There is no rule and order, and this is particularly harming the smaller groups in society, and that’s certainly harming Christians,” says Cornelis Hulsman, editor in chief of the Arab-West Report, a website that promotes cultural awareness between Arab and Western communities.

Muslim-Christian tensions have festered for years but the strains are growing in post-revolution Egypt as violence in general rises. Among the worst violence were clashes between security forces and mostly Christian protesters in October that left at least 24 people dead.

“During the days of Mubarak, there was wealth, security,” says Nawar Mounir, selling beans from his cart pulled by a donkey. “We want peace, and we want to be able to feed our children.”

Pope’s death leaves void

People worry even more following the death in March of Coptic Pope Shenouda III, whose face is on posters across Garbage City. The religious and political leader had a strong relationship with the highest authorities in Egypt that afforded the community some political sway, analysts say.

Copts are facing the opening weeks of the constitutional drafting process without a leader to give them voice, says Emma Hayward in a report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Many Copts fear the constitution will marginalize religious minorities.

“Given his political role, not having a pope is a really large problem,” Hayward says. “They need someone who can negotiate on their behalf.”

The committee that will draft Egypt’s new constitution is dominated by Islamists, which include members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party and al-Nour, a party that calls for a state directed by Islamic law. A court this week suspended the work of the committee; the ruling is being appealed.

The drafting of the constitution “represents a huge political opportunity” for Copts to press for equal rights, Hayward says. But the Coptic Orthodox Church and other groups withdrew from the process in protest of Islamist dominance.

Pope Shenouda spent a decade pushing for reform, and although some changes were proposed, they were forgotten in the turmoil ignited by the revolution. Elections held this year gave the Muslim Brotherhood a majority in the parliament.

“What seats are left for them to take?” says Rashad Rizik, an elderly Egyptian in Garbage City. “Next they will take the chairs from my home.”

Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of the Egyptian newspaper Watany, says Copts can influence the government but in the past relied too much on the relationship between the pope and Mubarak to do so.

“Things are ripe to be reshaped in the right direction,” he says. “A good percentage of Copts have stepped forward to join political parties and are satisfied to be represented by themselves.”

Even so, challenges remain. Christians require special approval from the state to build or even repair a church. The government has punished non-Muslims for allegedly proselytizing, and Muslims are forbidden to convert to Christianity.

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., says the U.S. must stake a stand for the Copts and all minorities. He wants the $1.4 billion in annual U.S. foreign aid to Egypt be conditional on respect for human rights, religious freedom and movement toward democracy. “I personally worry that the Middle East is being emptied of Christians,” he said.

Some Christians are optimistic. “We’re not worried,” says Adl Said, adding that politics “has never been a main concern” of the workers of Garbage City.

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