• 04:44
  • Tuesday ,06 September 2016

Egypt’s Christians Say They Are at a ‘Breaking Point’


Copts and Poliltical Islam


Tuesday ,06 September 2016

Egypt’s Christians Say They Are at a ‘Breaking Point’

 The Egyptian government has appointed Imam Mahmoud Gomaa, a Muslim cleric, to keep the peace between Christians and Muslims in this corner of upper Egypt. “Everything is good,” he insisted in an interview, citing Christian participation in his official peace-building initiative.

But just a few hours later, the local bishop, Makarios, offered a very different view. “I have nothing to do with Mahmoud Gomaa,” he said.
Once again, Egyptian Christians are feeling under siege, at least in Minya, a city on the banks of the Nile where about 40 percent of the population is Christian. And once again, Christian leaders are divided over how to respond.
At the highest levels of the Coptic Orthodox Church, there is an effort to not make waves and to work with the central government to present an image of unity and calm. After a series of attacks on Copts this summer, the Coptic pope, Tawadros II, pleaded with his followers in the United States not to go ahead with planned demonstrations outside the White House intended to bring international attention to the violence.
“Please, for Christ’s sake, avoid this behavior,” he said.
But in Minya, where violence against Christians often flares, local Coptic leaders are reluctant to go along.
“We are at a breaking point,” Bishop Makarios said. “People can’t put up with any more of this.”
Egypt’s Christian community, an estimated 10 percent of the population, has long had a symbiotic relationship with the state. The government provided security in an increasingly hostile environment, and the Christian leadership helped present a face of tolerance and religious freedom to the West.
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That compact frayed badly in the waning years of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency and seemed to come undone altogether after he was toppled from power and an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was elected. Attacks on churches, led by Islamist youths, surged.
So when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted Morsi in 2013, the Coptic Church was among his staunchest supporters. When Mr. Sisi attended Coptic Christmas services in January 2015, he was cheered enthusiastically as the first Egyptian leader to do so.
Yet the limits of that support have became evident in Minya, where Christians continue to suffer violence and humiliation. Houses have been burned, Copts attacked on the streets and hate graffiti written on the walls of some churches. In all, Coptic officials have counted 37 attacks in the past three years, not including some 300 others right after Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were ousted from power in 2013.
The turning point for local Copts came in May when an older Christian woman was stripped naked by a mob, which had been incited by reports that the woman’s son was having an affair with a Muslim.
“After that woman was stripped, we couldn’t be quiet, not after that,” Bishop Makarios said. What especially angered Copts, he added, “is that officials came out denying the incident.”
“Had they apologized or said they would follow it up, it would be different, but this was an insult to Egypt and the women of Egypt,” he said.
Not only was the Muslim woman not having an affair with the son, the bishop said, but she is suing her husband for libel for having started a false rumor.
The violence created tensions both inside and outside the Coptic Church. In public, Pope Tawadros II took what, to many of his followers, looked like a timid approach. In Minya, Bishop Makarios decided to speak out. And Imam Gomaa, the government official, accused him of overreacting. The violent attacks were just minor disputes that happened to take place between Muslims and Christians, he said.
“No one has been killed,” Imam Gomaa said. “No one has even been wounded. There’s no conflict. The problem is really with the journalists writing about it.”
Actually, the bishop said, there have been killings. In July in the Minya village of Tahna El-Jabal, a Christian was stabbed to death by a mob, he said. A month earlier, in Sinai, a Christian priest was killed by Islamic State extremists, making him the Islamic State’s ninth victim among Copts in the northern Sinai.
While someone was jailed in the stabbing, the bishop said that if the pattern after other attacks on Christians was repeated, the perpetrator would be freed.
“In such attacks, every one of them is released, not a single one has been punished, and that’s what really upsets the Copts,” he said. “So long as no one is punished, this is just going to get worse.”
Bishop Makarios sees organizations like the Family House as a big part of the problem. Formed to reconcile communal differences, the group has instead acted to deflect criminal prosecutions. It resorts to tribal negotiations that the church feels end up intimidating Coptic minorities into accepting nonjudicial settlements with their more numerous neighbors, instead of the government’s stepping in to carry out legal prosecutions.
Copts are also concerned that they have been unable to get permission to open new churches, which is often refused by the police on security grounds. In the Minya bishopric alone, which has 100 churches, 150 villages have no church, but few new ones have opened.
In Ismailia, for instance, the Copts have built two new churches in recent years, but have yet to start using them, denied permission to do so on security grounds. Instead, they received permission to pray in a tent outside one of the churches, but the tent recently burned down.
Two young men accused of setting the fire were immediately released, returning to a hero’s welcome in the community, Christians from the village said in interviews here.
“The police say they can’t open because of security concerns?” said Abram Samir, a lay church official. “It’s their responsibility to protect me and let me have my rights.”
Imam Gomaa said that many churches were being built, but that building too many might inflame antagonisms. “If they don’t have a church in their village, why can’t they go to another village and pray?” he said.
Three years ago, the situation was much worse, after the military violently put down Muslim Brotherhood protests against its taking power, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of protesters. Islamic extremists responded by burning down an estimated 76 churches around the country, including four in this city.
Imam Gomaa does not dispute that that was a bad time, but said it was much better now.
“Everything is good. Just the media makes it look like we have a problem,” he said. “We have always been living together. There is no conflict. All the reported incidents have been individual, isolated cases.”