My worst fear is that, following the Christmas Eve crime against the Copts in Nag Hammadi, we would get carried away by the tone of chivalrous rhetoric growing shriller by the day. This is bound to throw us off the path we ought to take if we are ever to resolve the sectarian strife brought so shockingly to the foreground by the Nag Hammadi crime. I insist on drawing a distinction between the crime in itself—which has social, cultural, and political roots other than the religious dimension—and the day-to-day reality of the Coptic problem. The Coptic problem has been systematically swept under the carpet for so long; the Nag Hammadi calamity merely brought it back to light. Rational persons in Egypt—Muslims and Copts alike—are calling for real reform in order to halt the sectarian illness afflicting the nation’s body.
In the wake of Nag Hammadi, several courageous, candid statements were issued by human rights organisations and political parties, diagnosing the illness and prescribing the cure. Prominent among these was the statement issued by the National Council of Human Rights (NCHR)—the details of which were already tackled in the Watani editorial of 17 January—which NCHR head Boutros Boutros-Ghali said would be raised to the president. Such statements went beyond the direct Nag Hammadi crime and into the wider perspective of the legislative reform and sea change required if there is never to be a ‘Nag Hammadi’ again.
The statements carried recommendations to criminalise attacks against Copts, their churches, homes and property; and to refrain from holding so-called traditional ‘reconciliation sessions’ between the Coptic victims and their Muslim attackers who ought to be prosecuted instead. Those responsible for promoting hatred and antagonism should be questioned and taken to account. Curricula should be purged of material which, directly or indirectly, propagate thought that non-Muslims are inferior to Muslims and that Islam is superior to all other religions. The media should be restrained from ‘religionising’ every petty detail in our daily life for the benefit of fundamentalist, Islamist fanaticism. An end should be put to legislative discrimination against Copts by passing a unified law for building places of worship.
The recommendations were a source of comfort and hope that reform may be in the making. Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, vice head of the NCHR, said that even though he was not absolutely comfortable with the passage of a unified law for building places of worship, delaying its passage would send out an erroneous message that the State was happy to discriminate against Copts. This, Dr Abul-Magd said, carries ruinous implications.
For his part, activist Aleiddin Hilal wrote that whoever sought a magic formula to cure the sectarian illness would do well to look into the NCHR statement on sectarian strife or the 1972 Oteifi Report which was issued in the wake of a major sectarian incident four decades ago. Rhetoric on the tolerance of Islam or the age-old amicable relations between Muslims and Copts will not do the trick, he said. Rather, we need to activate current constitutional stipulations through proper legislation that criminalises ridicule of religion and bans religious discrimination.
“Copts have rights,” wrote intellectual Ezzat al-Saadani. “What harm can there be in granting them these rights? Let them build new churches and restore old ones; let them be assigned to high-ranking State posts, and let them have a parliamentary quota just as women do.”
Under the title “Absent awareness and lacking vision”, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament Mustafa al-Fiqi wrote that the only answer to our problems lay in non-sectarian, national education. Our religious, cultural, media, and—most importantly—educational institutions should shoulder the responsibility of reformulating the future of this nation basing on compassion, tolerance, and citizenship concepts. Passing a unified law for building places of worship would dissipate no less than 50 per cent of the causes of sectarian strife, and would counter allegations of official discrimination and inadequacy.
Such great notions express the dire need to change the lax official attitude towards the detrimental, unprecedented escalation in sectarian strife. I was hoping the message would soon enough get through, but I fear that we might have quickly slipped back into old habits of falsifying the truth and denying the existence of any problem. Anyone in doubt needs just listen to the loud voices denouncing the report of the US committee on religious freedom and the European Parliament statement on Nag Hammadi, as “interference in our domestic affairs, since Copts in Egypt enjoy rights and duties on equal footing with Muslims”. If this were true, may someone bother to explain the rationale behind all the heated debate on sectarian strife, of which the above-quoted are mere samples?
Honeyed rhetoric will do nothing to solve the problems of Copts.