Islamist influence grows in Egypt
By Heba Saleh in Cairo *
The priest in charge of a church in Imbaba, a poor area of Cairo, has spent 24 years trying to get the Egyptian authorities to allow him to tear down a wall and install a second exit from the building.
Not only does restricted access make his church a firetrap, but it also means that wedding parties and mourners heading for the condolences hall could find themselves colliding in the tiny lobby.
Egyptian law requires even the most minor alterations to church buildings to be approved by the authorities before they can go ahead. Restrictions also apply to the construction of new churches, which need a presidential decree.
Discrimination against the Coptic Christian minority was the main theme of the second International Coptic Conference on Egypt, held in Washington this week. The gathering, which included an informal hearing on the issue on Capitol Hill, drew virulent criticism in the Egyptian press, where many saw it as an attempt by Copts living in America to mobilise US pressure on Cairo.
But Youssef Sidhom, a Coptic newspaper editor and one of a handful of Egyptians who went from Cairo to the Washington conference, says the problems of the community should not be left to fester any longer.
“As long as the Egyptian political machine insists on falsifying reality and denying the problems of the Copts, our responsibility will be to reveal these problems and place our issues under the international spotlight,” he said.
Copts complain of widespread discrimination, especially in employment. They also say they are rarely given senior state jobs.
The rise of an assertive Islamist current over the last three decades in Egypt has added to the strain on relations between Muslims and Christians. Government efforts to contain the Islamists have combined political repression with concessions to their social and cultural agenda, often at the expense of the principle of equality.
This has deepened mistrust between the two communities and reinforced a tendency on both sides to see their religious identity as more significant than their common citizenship.
Sectarian tensions periodically flare up into violence. In the latest instance, in Alexandria last month, thousands of Muslim demonstrators tried to attack a church because it had produced a play deemed offensive to Islam. Police protected the church, but three people were killed.
The violence prompted a debate of unprecedented frankness in the local press. A chorus of Muslims and Christian commentators argued that both the government and religious leaders were failing to address the underlying problems.
"If things continue this way, it will become dangerous,” says Negad Al Boraie, a democracy activist. “The sectarian trend is becoming more entrenched and this means that with time the members of each community will prefer to just deal with those of their own faith.”
Some people would argue that this is already happening. Sally Rafaat, a Coptic woman who has just graduated from Cairo University, says she went through all four years of her course without making any Muslim friends.
“On my first day at university, I was met by the co-ordinator of the Christian group.” she said. “ He introduced me to the other members, and they became my friends. The Christians on campus isolate themselves, and the others see them as separate. But it is also be-cause there is a very strong Islamist movement on campus which shows no respect to us.”
Coptic participation in public life has declined dramatically in recent decades, while discrimination, and the general poverty of state services, drive many young Christians to the bosom of their churches. These now provide much more than spiritual sustenance; they run clinics, sports tournaments, theatre groups, educational courses and even employment services. This mirrors the activities carried out by mosques and the charities attached to them.
“The government has not allowed the establishment of proper political parties,” says Mr Boraie. “This has left only the churches and the mosques as venues for all sorts of activities, which of course just reinforces the separate religious identities.”
Youssef Sidhoum argues that isolation is damaging to the Copts. He also regrets the increasing tendency of the church to speak for the community on political issues. The Coptic patriarch had made it clear before September’s presidential elections that the church supported the incumbent, President Hosni Mubarak.
“The government agrees that the church should represent Copts, and it considers that what the church says should stand for all Copts,” he says. “Whenever we approach any senior official about any issue related to the community, he asks us: ‘Does your pope approve of this?