• 15:16
  • Wednesday ,05 January 2011

Egypt Coptic Nerves Frayed by Tension with Islamists

By-Issandr El Amrani



Wednesday ,05 January 2011

Egypt Coptic Nerves Frayed by Tension with Islamists

It has been a tough year for Egypt’s Coptic community. It began with a gruesome murder outside a church on Coptic Christmas day and ended with security forces killing two men and arresting more than 160 Christians who rioted after they were prevented from converting a charity building into a church.

The summer, meanwhile, saw a war of words between bishops and Islamist intellectuals over the alleged conversion of a priest’s wife to Islam.
Even among the faithful, a growing rift emerged over the Coptic Orthodox Church’s strict prohibition of divorce, which is pushing some members to convert to more relaxed Protestantism.
Pope Shenouda III, the 87-year-old Patriarch of Alexandria, underwent a series of operations, fuelling worry about the future leadership of the church, much as the country worries about its future political leadership.
There is certainly cause for concern: in recent years, incidents of sectarian strife have multiplied.
The church murder at Naga Hammadi in Upper Egypt, whose motive remains unclear but is said to be linked to local politics, sparked several days of rioting. Muslims, believing Copts would avenge the murder by burning a mosque, ransacked Christian shops while security forces did not dare intervene – a fact that may speak more about tensions between the two communities than the murder itself.
Many Copts’ nerves are frayed by what they see as mounting Islamisation of society. “This is not a political issue, it is a cultural one,” says Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, the scion of a prominent Coptic family and the secretary-general of the opposition Wafd party.
He adds: “Egypt has been greatly Islamised, the atmosphere has changed under the influence of millions of Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries and bringing back Wahhabism [the puritanical brand of Sunni Islam]. This has now infiltrated our schools, our educational curriculum and our culture.”
Mr Abdel Nour says this phenomenon is further marginalising Christian Egyptians. Estimated to represent 10 per cent of the population, Christians complain that they face discrimination and are under-represented in important government posts.
A former MP, Mr Abdel Nour has tried unsuccessfully to regain his parliamentary seat twice, at times facing anti-Christian attacks from his opponents. Only five Christians were elected to Egypt’s parliament in 2010, out of 508 seats.
This year’s election campaign period was marred by a riot in Omraneya, near Cairo, sparked by the authorities’ refusal to allow Christians to add a dome to a building registered for charity services. Believing the building, said to have been used secretly as a church, would be destroyed, locals clashed with security forces.
The incident caused a rare public spat between the church and the government, with Pope Shenouda calling for justice in a sermon and warning that “Coptic blood is not cheap”. The pope also, for the first time, voted against the ruling National Democratic party in the first round of elections and did not vote in the second, just as much of the opposition was calling for a boycott.
Hosni Mubarak, the president, was reported to be extremely concerned by the riot and to have given orders to quell the tensions. Even al-Ahram, the leading state-run newspaper, was forced to make a front-page apology to the church after an editorial appeared criticising the pope for defending rioters.
“Omraneya represents a significant shift because it is the state that is using violence directly against Christians,” argues Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist. “It serves to legitimise the same type of violence committed by extremists.”
Mr Bahgat runs an organisation called the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) that issues a regular report on sectarian tensions. Civil society groups such as the EIPR are trying to make sectarian relations a more publicly-discussed issue, in contrast with officials, who often prefer to paper over the debate.
The EIPR’s reports show that many sectarian clashes are sparked by a dispute over illegal church construction. Christians must obtain special permits to build churches from either provincial governors or the president, but complain that these are hard to get.
“Copts do this out of desperation,” says Youssef Sidhoum, the editor of the Coptic weekly newspaper, Watani, referring to the Omraneya riot. “The procedures for obtaining a building permit are extremely speedy for a mosque, but it’s a very different story for a church.”
Mr Sidhoum and many Copts complain that, although a law streamlining the construction of all religious buildings has been ready since 2004, it has never presented to parliament.
“We have a serious problem, but unfortunately the government, at all levels, is not attending to the problem the way it should be,” says Mr Abdel Nour.
“The result is that it is is becoming more dangerous. What happened in Omraneya could happen any day and any place.”
The Financial Times