The challenge for Egypt’s Copts

Cairo is witnessing a backlash from the Christian community after tensions recently spilled over into deadly violence.

Sectarian clashes recently erupted outside St Mark's Cathedral in Cairo during a funeral procession [AFP]

Clashes between Muslims and Christian Copts in Egypt over the past few weeks have left 10 people dead, bringing decades-old sectarian tension back to the forefront in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Violence broke out April 6 after Coptic children allegedly drew crosses on the wall of an Islamic institute in Khosoos, north of Cairo, leaving four Copts and a Muslim dead. A funeral held for Coptic victims at St Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Pope in Cairo, likewise descended into violence after unknown assailants attacked the procession, leading to more deaths in the deadliest sectarian incident since President Mohammed Morsi was elected in June 2012.

The attack on the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral – a major site for Egypt’s Christian population – has resulted in a backlash from the community.

Coptic parliamentarians criticised the government and police for failing to protect the iconic church. Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Church, told local media that Morsi’s handling of the crisis suffered from “negligence and poor assessment of events”, and that the attack “crossed all the red lines”, an unusual move for the church – which has generally shied away from criticising the head of state. 

Observers say the incidents expose the Copts’ growing unease with the rise of Muslim political groups, and their concern for their community’s security and future in Egypt.

Decades-old problem

Since the revolution, relations between Muslims and Christians have been tested. The deadliest incident, in October 2011, began after security forces cracked down on Coptic protests near the state TV building, leaving more than 20 dead, mostly Christians.

The good part is there is agreement over rejecting the rule of Morsi, his government and regime. This agreement is overshadowing sectarian tension.

by Noha Al Zeiny, judge

Observers note that Copts – who make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people – have suffered from social and political marginalisation since the 1952 revolution that toppled Egypt’s monarchy.

By using religion as a political ideology since the 1970s, the government allowed the rise of Muslim political religious groups, some of which threatened and used violence against Copts.

“The Coptic people lived inside the walls of the church. We felt oppressed and humiliated because, with instructions from the church, we could not criticise any policy adopted by the regime. Freedom of expression was restricted inside the church,” said Antwan Adel, spokesman of the Masperso Youth Union, an ad hoc coalition of Coptic youth activists.

Early attempts to resolve issues between the communities after the revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 were formalised by the creation of the National Justice Committee (NJC), a body Egypt’s transitional government hoped would organise a government response to religious tension. However, it became defunct after many of its members resigned, complaining about a lack of interest showed by senior government officials.

Saif Al Deen Abdel Fatah, a former advisor to Morsi and coordinator of the NJC, said he advised Morsi’s government to help build an institution focused on addressing religious animosity in Egypt. “They [officials] now know they have been late in realising the importance of such institution,” Abdel Fatah told Al Jazeera.  

But Ayman Ali, a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader and adviser to the president, defended Morsi, telling Al Jazeera the president was working hard to revive the NJC, expand it, and give it a “real role”.

Morsi has done his best to communicate with the Copts’ religious, political, and intellectual leaders, said Ali. He has also appointed a Coptic presidential aide – although Samir Morcos resigned in December, complaining of a vague job description and lack of consultation by the president. 12 Copts also have seats on the Shura council, the upper house of Egypt’s parliament – nine of which were appointed – that now has full legislative power in absence of a House of Representatives.

“The current regime has the political will to implement the true meaning of citizenship without any discrimination among all citizens,” said Ali, while warning a solution to decades-old problems would not be easy and would take time and effort.

Mutual mistrust

The sudden rise of Egypt’s Muslim political groups – led by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis – has bred a growing mistrust between the two sides.

Coptic Orthodox Christians chant anti-Morsi slogans [Reuters]

Sameh Fawazi, a Coptic member of the Shura council and a representative of the church in its political dialogue with the president, told Al Jazeera the Coptic community felt it was the victim of “systematic discrimination under the rule of Muslim Brotherhood”, saying the government had not taken “decisive measures” to protect Copts.

Ayman Al Sayyad, a former adviser to Morsi who resigned after a controversial decree gave the president judicial powers last December, also attributed rising tension and mistrust to the government’s failure to provide the Coptic community with a sense of security. 

He blamed the failure on the rise of the ultra-conservative Salafis and the vocal criticism some of their leaders have directed towards the Christian community. Sayyad said the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated the assembly that wrote Egypt’s new constitution, should have not passed the constitution after the church withdrew from the assembly in protest.

Fawazi said the Brotherhood also regarded the Copts with scepticism.

“[They] have the conviction that Copts don’t want them, because Copts have already voted with the opposition in the many votes since the revolution, including the presidential elections,” he said, noting large numbers of Copts taking part in anti-Muslim Brotherhood protests also didn’t help reconciliation.

Abdel Fatah, Morsi’s former adviser, said Copts and their issues were being misused by some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political opponents, and the Coptic Church should rise above the political manoeuvring.

Some observers suggest Copts have achieved political gains since the revolution, including the formation of several political groups with Coptic leaders playing key roles.

Noha Al Zeiny, a judge who worked on the NJC, told Al Jazeera it was wrong to call the recent tension “sectarian”.

“Mourners inside the church were chanting against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. They were part of the ongoing political context which rejects [Brotherhood] rule,” Zeiny said. “The good part is there is agreement over rejecting the rule of Morsi, his government and regime. This agreement is overshadowing sectarian tension.”

Follow Alaa Bayoumi on Twitter: @alaabayoumi

Source: Al Jazeera