Friday, May 26, 2006

Copts Demonstrate at King Tut Exhibit.

Under the shadow of immense gold banners heralding the opening of the King Tut exhibit, dozens of Coptic Orthodox Church members from across the Chicago area gathered Thursday outside the Field Museum to protest religious discrimination against fellow Christians in Egypt.

Some demonstrators hoisted wooden staffs with crosses, while others wore crucifixes around their necks or carried American flags as they chanted: "We all stand tall, equality for all."The crowd of about 80 included members of the three area Coptic Orthodox churches: St. Mark in Burr Ridge, St. Mary in Palatine and St. George in Monee. With heavy media attention surrounding the Tut exhibit, the Coptic community saw an opportunity to raise awareness about the plight of Christians in their homeland."We need to be recognized as people and we need to be heard," Atef MacKar said. "It is important to show that we are the Copts, we are sons and daughters of King Tut and we will not tolerate seeing our sisters and brothers persecuted in Egypt."MacKar, who lives in Downers Grove and attends St. Mark, said the protest was planned to coincide with the visit of an Egyptian delegation for the exhibit opening.

Protest leaders said their goal was to send a message to U.S. politicians that foreign aid to Egypt should be contingent on religious freedom and human rights.Another protester, Cameel Halim, said the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has worsened the situation for Egypt's Coptic community."I get sad when I visit Egypt now," he said. "The Copts have lost their pride. Spirit is down. They are isolated from society."

The Coptic Orthodox Church was founded by St. Mark the Evangelist in the city of Alexandria around A.D. 43. The Copts make up about 12 percent of Egypt's population of 77.5 million.Discrimination and human rights abuses against Coptic Christians remain widespread in Egypt, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Copts face societal intolerance, and Egyptian authorities have been accused of being lax in protecting their rights.No Christians serve as governors, presidents or deans of public universities, and very few Christians hold positions in the upper ranks of the security services and the armed forces, Coptic community leaders said.

A 14th Century law bars Christians not only from building new churches, they said, but also from performing necessary maintenance on structures without government approval.Recent violence in Coptic churches in Egypt has renewed fears of escalating religious strife. In April, a Muslim man was accused of knife attacks at three Coptic Christian churches in Alexandria that left one man dead and about a dozen others wounded. The incident unleashed three days of rioting on the same weekend Christians were observing Orthodox Palm Sunday.Anissa Essam Hassouna, an official with the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and part of the Egyptian delegation visiting Chicago, said Thursday that the government has "neglected" the issue of how Copts are treated in Egypt but "is trying to do better.""This will continue to be a sensitive issue until a law comes out and says everyone has real rights," she said.

Another protester at the Field, Magdy Gergis, said he was unsure what effect the protest would have but hoped it would educate the public."At least the problem will be exposed to people," Gergis said. "At least we will show our sadness and suffering. Some people here in America have an idea of what is happening with the Copts. But since many of us still have family there, we live it and feel it every day."