"As Coptic Christians, We Are No Longer Afraid"

Egypt’s Future Is Uncertain, But Minorities Are Seen As Ready to Assert Their Rights

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By Oliver Maksan

The year 2013 was not a good year for Egypt’s Christians. The wave of violence that engulfed dozens of churches and religious institutions after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi was unprecedented in the recent history of the country, whose Christian tradition can be traced right back to the time of the Apostles. While former President Morsi sits behind bars, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is preparing to stand for election as his successor. But what is the view of Egypt’s Christians?

Mina Elkess is an activist of the Maspero Youth Union, the Coptic civil rights movement. The Union takes its name from the autumn 2011 army massacre of Coptic demonstrators on Cairo’s Maspero Square.

«The majority of Copts unconditionally support Field Marshal Sisi. If he stands for election as president, they will vote for him. They regard him as a hero who liberated them from Morsi and the Islamists. As activists, we are a little more sceptical. Our experience of the army has not been good, and it is now possible that another general will become president. At present, the general atmosphere in Egypt is not very libertarian,» says Elkess.

It is a fact that, following Morsi’s dismissal, the prisons are populated not only by Islamists, but also by representatives of the emerging democracy movement of 2011.

The civil rights campaigner stresses that Eqypt is a deeply conservative Islamic society: «It started with President Sadat in the 70s and has since established deep roots. But its mentality, which has some fanatical elements, must change if the Christians are to move towards achieving equal rights. Progress depends to a large extent on the incoming president.»

Sisi, the Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces who announced Morsi’s overthrow in July 2013, has yet to declare his candidacy. According to observers, however, it is simply a matter of time.

«As a person, Sisi is considered to be a conservative Muslim, so that we cannot be sure how he will conduct himself in office,» cautions Elkess.

Whatever the future holds for the country’s Christians, he insists, one thing will not change: «As Coptic Christians, we are no longer afraid of asserting our rights.»

Not very good, but good

Father Rafic Greiche, the press spokesman for the Greek Melkite Catholic Church in Egypt, takes a similar view, «There were around 7 million Copts among the 25 million demonstrators who took to the streets against Morsi last year. We were absolutely fed up with him. For us, Morsi’s ousting was like a miracle of God.»

Last year Greiche’s own church in Cairo was sprayed with anti-Christian slogans by fanatical Islamists.

«The Muslim Brotherhood were a disaster, both economically and politically. Egyptians ultimately realised that their agenda was not Egypt, but the restoration of the Caliphate. As Christians, our position was especially dire; we were not afforded any protection against attacks by fanatics. The entire public climate deteriorated for us.»

The cleric is now optimistic, however, about the future of the largest country in the Arab world. «The new constitution that was adopted in January is not very good, but it is good. From a Christian perspective at least, it is the best we have ever had.»

Greiche is focusing on the improvements in civil rights and liberties. Religious freedom in particular, he says, has been reinforced. He remarks that this is all the more commendable in view of the turbulent circumstances in which the constitution was drafted.

As regards the forthcoming presidential election, he remarks, «I am not concerned about who becomes president. His term is restricted to eight years and, because of the new constitution, the post is no longer the nucleus of such central authority and autocracy. The parliament and the government are now stronger. As a Christian, I am more concerned that the pattern established in recent elections could return another Islamic majority to the new parliament which would be able to overrule the president’s decisions. That cannot be ruled out. We have not yet reached the end of the democratic transition.»

For Greiche, a change in mentality is key, «It can only be achieved through education. Schools and universities are therefore the best investments in Egypt’s future. A lot could be achieved if France, Germany and the UK were each to build 30 new schools.»

Starting point

Changing mentalities through education is the starting point for George Ishak. He heads the cultural department of the Catholic education authority in Cairo.

The Catholic Church, whose membership in Egypt numbers just about 250,000, maintains 170 schools there. Around 170,000 students attend the establishments, which are distributed throughout the whole country. The majority of the students are Muslims.

«We are currently planning to step up activities to reinforce democracy and human rights in Egypt. Summer camps are being organized for mixed groups of Christian and Muslim students, both girls and boys. We are also hoping to host events together with the state schools to promote understanding among Muslims.

“Although I am aware of inevitable difficulties at first, there is no alternative. Our goal is to strengthen the notion of civil equality for all Egyptians. As important as it is for all of us, religion cannot be paramount if we are to live together in harmony. I am appealing for help from the West so that we, as Christians, can spread the message of tolerance and fraternity among our Muslim brothers as well. That is our mission.»

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Oliver Maksan is a Jerusalem-based correspondent for Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)

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