The increase in sectarian violence against Egypt’s Christian communities endangers not only the country’s ancient Christian heritage, but also the cultural, social and political dimensions of society.
This was one of the assertions made by political scientist and sociologist Mariz Tadros, one of the 30 experts invited to speak on the theme of religious freedom at an international conference: “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.”
The conference, which took place over the weekend, was organized by Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project, in collaboration with the Acton Institute, and hosted by the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome.
Religious persecution against Coptic Christians has been on the rise since the 2011 ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Further fierce uprisings followed the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, forced out office this summer and placed in custody pending his trial. Violent attacks against Christian communities followed. A revised constitution put forward by the country’s interim government – which, Tadros says would improve the rights of Egyptian citizens – will be voted on next month.
In an interview with ZENIT, Tadros, who is a research fellow for the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, offered her perspective on issue of religious freedom in light of the current situation in Egypt:
ZENIT: What have been your impressions of this conference?
Tadros: It’s important to recognize that some freedoms are sometimes more recognized than others. Sometimes we focus on women’s rights – and that is so important, and so needed – but we also need to recognize other ways in which social and political exclusion operate, and be able to name them for what they are, and be able to recognize that they do harm societies, not just those who are marginalized.
ZENIT: With regard to Egypt, it seems that there was a period of time in which Muslims and Christians lived together in relative piece. As we have seen recently there has been a rise in instances of violence. Is this consistent with what you have witnessed, and if so, why is there this increase in persecution?
Tadros: The research we did, quantitative and qualitative data, showed that during Mubarak’s era, which ended in 2011 when he was ousted through a revolution, there was a lot of sectarian violence against Christians. This violence took the form of some very bloody attacks on Churches. We saw one on the New Year of 2011. There was also the secret political police used to sometimes try to turn the Muslims against the Christians… so that the regime would stay in power.
But the number and severity of incidents of sectarian violence against Christians has increased dramatically from 2011 onwards. I would say that increase has been at least two-fold. We’ve had a doubling of the incidents of sectarian violence that we have witnessed. The incidents have increased in terms of intensity – so, a lot more violent attacks – and they have increased in terms of what kind of attacks happen. New kinds of sectarian discrimination and violence have occurred after the revolution. For example: kidnapping Christians in return for money, which we had not witnessed before. The way in which Islamist groups have used an open discourse of hate speech against Christians has increased dramatically.
ZENIT: You had spoken about the threats against the preservation of Egypt’s Christian heritage – the destruction of ancient Churches, Christians leaving en masse, etc. What could it mean for Egyptian society to have its Christian heritage under such threat?
Tadros: There are two risks. Once you start homogenizing society, it won’t just be Christians that will suffer. It will be the entire society. It will be artists. It will be musicians. It will be media people. It will be members of other religious minorities. It will even be Muslims whose ideas do not conform to the norm. When you assault diversity, everyone suffers. Therefore, there will be more encroachment on everyone if that continues.
The second loss: These are some of the most ancient Churches in the world. This is part of the global Christian heritage. That heritage is not just spiritual. It is spiritual, cultural, social, and political. What we will be losing is a tremendous amount of that enrichment.
ZENIT: Shortly after the uprising I spoke with some of those in Egypt, as well as some who were working with those on the ground, and despite the violence and persecution, they still maintained a certain sense of hope for the future. Is this still the case? Do you share this sentiment?
Tadros: I think we have to be cautious; we need to make sure we don’t end up with another regime that usurps power. But, the [new] constitution is making me hopeful because if that constitution passes – it is not perfect – it at least has certain articles that enshrine rights in an absolute way.
That would make it easier afterwards for the next parliament to issue legislation that has a strong grounding. I’m hopeful that the fear barrier has been broken, and that citizens will rise. I trust that the citizens who rose against two authoritarian regimes will not tolerate anyone who will take over their rights.
My faith is in the Egyptian people, and their ability to stand for their rights.
ZENIT: Do you have any final thoughts?
Tadros: I would like to emphasize that there is a great deal of citizen mobilization, citizen voice. There is a great deal of people rising to demand their rights. It is very important for the West to listen to these people. It created a huge rift between the Egyptian people and the West when they risked their lives by going out on a revolution on the 30th of June in millions. For then their voices to be negated, to be omitted, and people saying “it was the military”: “What about us?” That’s what they said. “Why didn’t you talk to us?” I fear that this could create a rift when we create new disconnects, when we don’t listen to people on the ground.