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Christians make strong showing in Egyptian Parliament

More Christian candidates are running in this year’s parliamentary elections in Egypt.

CAIRO — The phone on the desk in front of Maged Talaat Ramzi does not stop ringing.

Every now and then, someone calls him to confirm support.

"I find support wherever I go," Ramzi told Al-Monitor. "People are able to differentiate between those who will defend their rights and those who give them lip service only."

Ramzi is one of dozens of Christian candidates running in the House of Deputies (lower chamber of parliament) elections, which will be held between Oct. 24 and Nov. 8.

Around 108 candidates are running within the four party lists contesting the 284 seats specified for the political parties in the parliament.

Dozens of other Christian candidates are running, among a total of 4,000 candidates, as independents, including Ramzi. They are contesting an additional 284 seats.

The House of Deputies elections, held every five years, take place this year amid an unprecedented feeling of political empowerment for the nation's Christians, about 10% of the population of 102 million. Almost 90% of the Christians are Coptic Orthodox.

Having suffered political marginalization for decades and been targeted by Islamist extremists, Egypt's Christians, the largest religious minority in the Arab Middle East, are emerging as a formidable and influential political force in this country.

“This political empowerment is a direct result of the rights given to Christians in the constitution and the election laws that guarantee seats in the parliament for them,” Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, told Al-Monitor.

In what is seen as payback for the nation's Christians for supporting him against the Muslim Brotherhood (the movement of late Islamist President Mohamed Morsi), Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been backing a raft of measures to ensure that Christians are not left out as far as the political, social or construction development of his country is concerned.

Sisi is the first Egyptian president to be keen on attending Christmas celebrations at the Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo every year. On one of the celebrations, he asked Christians to only say they are Egyptian if asked about their identity, outlining the way he views this Egyptian minority.

Apart from nurturing close ties with the Coptic Orthodox pope, Sisi has ordered the authorities to construct a new church in every new city.

Sisi's government is constructing over 14 new cities to cope up with the country's runaway population growth.

In 2016, the Egyptian government formed an ad hoc committee to legalize the construction of churches for the first time in Egypt's history, ending decades of suffering for the nation's Christians who have long complained that the number of churches available was far from enough for the Christians in all provinces. The committee has so far legalized hundreds of churches.

Sisi also takes personal responsibility for the protection of Christians who were particularly targeted by a branch of the Islamic State (IS) in Sinai.

When IS bombed a downtown Cairo church in December 2016, killing over 25 people and wounding 49 others, Sisi participated in the funeral of church bombing victims and vowed to bring those carrying out the attack to account.

“These measures make the Christians feel that they are equal to their Muslim compatriots,” Karim Kamal, a civil society activist and an advocate of Christians' rights, told Al-Monitor. 

Egypt's House of Deputies election law allots a quota of the seats specified for political parties for Christians.

The law does not impose any restrictions on the number of Christians who can run in the 143 constituencies specified for independents. One of the people running in the elections this time is a Coptic priest.

Ramzi and others are making use of this and are campaigning fiercely to have a place in the next legislature.

In al-Sahel district, northwestern Cairo, where Razmi, 42, is running, several other candidates, all of them Muslim, are contesting the same seat. 

Election posters with Razmi's photo and name printed on them flutter in the air and cry for attention side by side with those of Muslim candidates.

The idea of a Christian running in elections always opened the door for tension and sometimes violence in the past.

In 2001, a Christian candidate, the Rev. Saleib Mata Sawiris, had to pull out of the parliamentary elections on the orders of then-Coptic Pope Shenouda III when it appeared the priest's candidacy would bring sectarian violence to the Shubra district, a Christian stronghold in downtown Cairo.

The candidate running against Sawiris was a Muslim and a member of the party of then-President Hosni Mubarak. 

Apart from being a member of the Coptic Orthodox Lay Council, Sawiris owned a school in Shubra that admitted Muslim and Christian pupils. In the middle of the school, he established a small mosque and encouraged Muslim pupils to perform Muslim prayers.

Kamal said that now, "There is a change of culture and Muslims are more open to the idea of a Christian representing them in the legislature." 

Sectarian sensitivities are far from over in Egypt, but they apparently are diminishing in a country where people long used to identify themselves by their religion.

This does not mean that the suffering of the nation's Christians is coming to an end.

Christians still complain of the problems caused by extremists in some cities far from Cairo, where the construction of churches continues to face fierce opposition. The Christians also complain about the failure of state authorities to enforce the law when these extremists attack.

These are apparently additional motivations for people such as Razmi to be in the legislature.

Razmi meets people everywhere in his constituency and is pinning more hope on Muslim voters than Christian ones to win the elections.

He stands outside mosques in his constituency following the weekly Friday prayer, which usually witnesses a large congregation of Muslims, to appeal to those departing the mosques.

Ramzi said he is confident of his chances of victory.

“This is because I know that voters will not look at my religion, but at my record among them,” Ramzi said. “These people have confidence that I will serve their best interests in the legislature more than anyone else will do.”

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