How to Allay Coptic Fears in Post-Revolutionary Egypt

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After the revolution and the rise of the Islamists, many Copts have become concerned about their future. Fahmi Howeidy spoke to several scholars who conclude that while Coptic fears are very real, they're also fanned by the media. Members of the Muslim middle class share some of the same apprenhensions about the new government.

It is appalling that the Coptic Christians in Egypt should feel afraid following the revolution. But what is worse is that this is happening alongside the rise of the Islamists, whose doctrine is supposed to dispel those fears.

Until recently, I used to think that the talk about fear was limited to extremist Coptic circles in Egypt and abroad that were spreading intolerance and mistrust. I knew that some church leaders have consistently promoted intolerance. However, I recently discovered that those who are worried among the Copts are more numerous than I imagined. A group of Coptic elders who happened to be my neighbors and friends visited me on the occasion of the Eid al-Fitr holiday. They explicitly told me that they are afraid of the current atmosphere in Egypt. Some of them told me that their children have decided to emigrate because they no longer have confidence in the future of Egypt after the Islamist rise.

This reminded me of an article by Dennis Ross, the former Middle East aide to President Obama. In his Washington Post piece, he said that 100,000 Copts left Egypt after the revolution.

I also noticed that many Copts demonstrated on August 24, at least in Heliopolis, Abbasia and Daher. It was said that the primary objective of the demonstrations was to bring down what they called the rule of the Brotherhood. I know that the person who had called for the demonstrations passed by some churches and prodded the Copts to come out against the regime and join the campaign to bring down the president and end the rule of the Brotherhood. That did not surprise me because this same person calling for demonstrations had a few months ago delivered a speech at a ceremony organized by the Lebanese Forces Party. At the ceremony, he said that he was inspired by the role played by Samir Geagea, who has a black and suspect record in modern Lebanese history. But what really surprised me was when he agreed to incite a significant number of Copts to join the demonstrations, something which added a sectarian dimension to the political polarization. The smell of sedition was in Egypt’s air, inspired by the bloody war between the Maronites and the Muslims that took place in Lebanon.

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I do not want to generalize. I caution that it is important to differentiate between two groups. On the one hand are those who take advantage of the Coptic issue, radicals who call for separatism and reject coexistence unless it is according to their terms, clowns who seek political prestige by presenting themselves as representatives of the Copts and those who are being used by Muslim and Arab-haters among Egyptian immigrants in the United States and Canada; on the other hand is the majority of the Copts, who are aware that they are part of this nation and are among its most honorable sons.

Here I am talking about the latter group. Their fears bother me and push me to insist on the need to lessen their fears and restore their confidence, not only for the benefit of civil peace and coexistence, but also to be in compliance with Islam. Islam is a religion that has granted non-Muslims their rights: “God does not forbid you from being righteous and just toward those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes, God loves those who act justly.” [Koran 60:8]. Before discussing those fears, I want to make clear that the categories I referred to above are not limited to the Copts but also include Muslims — among whom are moderates, extremists, wise men, fools, misfits, deviants, etc.

What exactly is scaring the wise and moderate Copts? I asked that question to friends and researchers whose integrity I trust. They spoke to me about things that have occurred or are expected to occur in the future. This is what they said:

- With regard to what is happening on the ground, they spoke of the issue of building churches and regulating existing ones. They are alarmed by the repeated attacks on some churches and wondered about the reasons for inaction against the attackers. They expressed their reservations about the lack of significant Coptic representation in official positions, whether in the new government or in the governorate appointments. They expressed their anger at the remarks of some clerics who have insulted Coptic beliefs and leaders. Some of those clerics commented on the death of Coptic Pope Shenouda III by saying that "the head of apostasy has died." That comment affected the Copts.

- They have heard about things that they cannot confirm really happened. They heard that Coptic girls were insulted and humiliated for not wearing the veil. Other Coptic girls were abducted in order to be converted to Islam. Some Copts fled from their villages in order to avoid attacks by Muslims. There is also a tendency to remove Copts from the army and exclude them from sensitive state positions due to the so-called "Brotherhoodizing” project.

- The Copts are expecting the worst. The media is talking about the government applying Islamic law and announcing the founding of an Islamic caliphate. In addition, limits are being placed on private freedoms such as limiting what one can wear, controlling interactions with the opposite sex, closing movie theaters, entertainment joints and bars, barring women from wearing swimsuits, putting pressure on banks to prevent usury, etc. In the opinion of those I spoke with, all of this talk of "Brotherhoodizing” the state is only the first step in the Islamization of society.

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I have looked into these supposed actions and found that some are true but most are rumors. Nevertheless, I see no justification for suspending church building or for not fixing the status of illegally built churches. As far as I know, a law regulating houses of worship was prepared by a number of respected Muslim and Coptic intellectuals but that project was rejected by both Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church. In any case, that issue is a carryover from the former regime and has not been caused by the revolution. I think that those I have spoken with are right to criticize the lax treatment of those who attack churches and Copts. Moreover, their complaints about Coptic representation in the government has some merit and should be listened to because addressing that issue is not only about fairness but it is also important to reassure the Copts and strengthen their confidence. Some of those I have spoken with have said that it is no longer enough to repeat the slogan "they have what we have and they owe what we owe," it is now important that that slogan be put into practice.

These critics are right in complaining about what some Islamists, and especially Salafists, are saying, even though some priests say similar things inside their churches. Two wrongs do not make a right. Furthermore, it is the majority's responsibility to respect the feelings of the largest minority. Mistakes or insults by the majority against the minority should be punished more severely than if it were the other way around. The attacks by some clerics should be tackled by a firm decision calling on all mosques to stop criticizing the beliefs of non-Muslims. I also wish that this issue would be addressed by enforcing the laws that punish the defamation of religions. However, let us keep in mind that this problem existed from before the revolution. The rise of the Islamist currents have only made the issue more pressing.

The hardest Coptic fears to lessen are the ones having to do with fears about the future. The media is playing the biggest role here. We must recognize that most of what is being broadcast is only increasing Coptic fears concerning the future. The media has continued the "scarecrow" policy pursued by the previous regime. The media is affected by the polarization in Egypt following the revolution. Rather than seeking the truth and defending civil peace for the higher interest of the nation, the media is filled with spite and malice.

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I discussed the issue with a number of persons, among them constitutional scholar and counselor Tariq al-Boushri and professors Nabil Morcos, Samir Morcos, Jamal Asaad and Dr. Rafiq Habib. They agreed that the media is playing a negative role in scaring the Copts and that the current crisis of confidence is not only between Muslims and Copts but also among the various political forces and between the government and society.

They agreed that it is not only the Copts who are afraid but that the Egyptian middle class, in which the Muslims make up the majority, also has fears that are driven by the media and by statements made by individuals.

Boushri said that the myths and fears outnumber the facts. He said that all Muslims should not be blamed for the errors of some. He added that every mistake should be attributed only to the one who committed it and that that person should be held accountable by the Muslims. If all Muslims are being blamed for the actions of some then that indicates bad faith.

Nabil Morcos objected to the use of the word "fear." He said that "concern" is a more precise description of what ails the Egyptian middle class — and not only the Copts. He said that expanding middle class representation in decision-making circles or in parliament would be enough to allay the concern that the Egyptian life pattern is about to change.

Samir Morcos said that the Copts, who have in the past not participated in politics, have raised their expectations too high after the revolution and some of them thought that politics is only fought in one round. He said that confidence in the future can be achieved when all parties and sects participate in politics. He said that the Muslim Brotherhood should give assurances to society, especially after the rise of the Salafists.

Habib criticized the Christians for assuming that things will get worse. He said that the interaction between Muslims and Christians on the ground would be enough to close the gap created by the media. There are problems between the two parties that cannot be resolved except through direct dialogue by representatives from Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church.

Asaad objected to looking at the issue from a sectarian angle. He said that there is no solution other than both sides participating in society on the basis that they are all Egyptians and not classifying themselves as Muslims or Copts. He wondered: “Why don't we work together on a big project such as the development of the Sinai?”

I will have more to say on the subject next week, God willing.

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Found in: sectarian tension, sectarian, muslim brotherhood, muslim, egyptian revolution, egyptian politics, egypt, copts, coptic church, coptic christians, christians, al-azhar
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