Friday, November 18, 2005

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?



At 5:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Egyptian government is as radical as Osama Bin Ladin, but with a sweet tongue

At 7:21 PM , Anonymous raif said...

With the recent advances of the Moslem Brothers in the elections, Copts need to be stronger and more united than ever. Every Copt is called upon to act in whatever way available to him or her. God will help us if we start to help ourselves.

It is time for Coptic unity and not for arguments and personal attacks. It is also time to make a united front with the free thinking Moslems and others all around the world.

At 9:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

We need to participate with Muslims in all walks of life. To go to school for 4 years without making friends with Muslims means that your education is not adequate. There are three groups of Copts, one is fanatic who see Muslims as the ‘Arabs invaders of the seventh century’, the second is the ‘I don’t care Copt’ who is happened to be born to a Coptic parents, and the majority of the Copts who are a true Christian. The first one is shouting that Muslims are killing us and destroying our lives; he is making like miserable for the rest.
The second group does not care, and therefore, does not participate. They are useless to the Copts or to Egypt.
The third group ‘KNOWS’ that the ruler of the World is Christ our God. They worship Christ, and they are not afraid and are not intimidated by the rise or the fall of Islam in Egypt. They see life and the world in bigger contest. They are not naive but wise. They know that being in Christ makes you enemy to this world. They life their life with hope and joy knowing that their redeemers is never far away. Their Christ is bigger than any one or force against them. Their power is in their prayers. They don’t actually got excited when some of their Coptic friends and relatives marches in the street of the worldly West hoping to free them. Their strength is in Christ who created the world not in Europe with large population which already left Christ.

Copts look to Christ for your strength, and work with al Muslim to build a better Egypt. That is your only option. If we don’t participate with our neighbors and friends to build a better world for our children. If we make it better for Muslims, they will make it better for Christians.

And for all Copts, If you want to hold Christ high in your midst, then expect the gate of Hell to be open to swallow you. And when you see it fierce fire, just remember He who said the gate of hell will never prevail against YOU. In these words you have all your safety and security, even if you can’t build a single Church.

Finally, when Christ is high and worshiped, the Muslims too might come to His light not your churches.
Blessings to al Egyptians, Muslims and Christians.


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