Violence against Christians in Egypt

Egypt’s continuing sectarian violence

Reprinted from Africa Review

By DALLIA M. ABDEL MONIEM Posted Thursday, October 6  2011 at  10:11

History teaches us that with change, with revolution, comes improvement. But it seems that is not always the case, especially if the improvement is expected but fails to materialise.

For many of Egypt’s Coptic population, things have become worse rather than better. The latest statistics from the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations (EUOHR) show that since March, nearly 100,000 Egyptian Copts have left the country with the number possibly rising to 250,000 by the end of this year. Though some skeptics have questioned the number, saying it is “exaggerated”, there is nonetheless a genuine concern and fear that the increasing levels of sectarian violence will lead to a mass exodus of Egypt’s Christian community, who form 10 per cent of the country’s population.

According to Naguib Gobrail, a lawyer and the head of EUOHR, the latest bout of destruction of Christian places of worship is part of a “systematic policy of ethnic cleansing” by Salafi (hard-line Islamist) groups targeting Copts. Speaking at a press conference plaintively named ‘The Cry of the Copt’ and held only two days after a church attack, Gobrial lamented that “Copts feel like strangers in their own country; many are being forced to leave Egypt as a result.”

The attack on the Mari Girgis (St. George) church in Upper Egypt was the latest that has seen Christian establishments targeted. According to eyewitness accounts, a number of Muslim men surrounded the church in the village of El-Marinab near the city of Edfu, set fire to parts of it and then proceeded to move onto Coptic homes in the area as well as Christian-owned businesses.

The attack was the most recent in a continuing spate of similar violent acts against the Coptic Christian community. On New Year’s Eve, a church in Alexandria was bombed leaving 23 people dead. In May, clashes in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba saw 12 people killed and 52 wounded over rumours that Christians had kidnapped a woman who had converted to Islam. The spiralling violence led to the burning of a church on May 7, for which 48 Muslims and Christians are being tried in a criminal court.

Other incidents have included Coptic girls being forced to wear the veil to public schools and one man’s ear getting chopped off by hardliners.

The Salafis

The governor of Aswan, Mostafa El-Said, stated on state television the clashes erupted when the Christian community “unlawfully tried to add more floors” to a Christian guest house, adjacent to the church, with “the intention of turning it into a church which provoked the Muslims,” as the permission was only for an added 9 metres but had been exceeded to 13. He added that the Christian community should apologise and denied the clashes were violent, a statement that angered many Copts.

The governor’s assertion that the attack was not on the church but a service centre was disproved by Gobrial at the press conference where he displayed documents confirming the partly burnt down building was the Mare Girgis Church.

These building regulations have been at the heart of various clashes between Muslim and Coptic Christian, especially in regard to the issue of building new churches or expanding established ones. It’s a commonly held belief by most Egyptian Christians that the law governing the construction and repair of churches imposes more conditions, and is more restrictive and complicated, involving as it does a long and difficult process of bureaucratic red tape – whereas Muslims can build a mosque anywhere.

For years many activists and observers have called for a more unified law for houses of worship and in June a new unified house of worship law was passed. The new law says the Ministry of Local Development will issue the permit, then the Ministry of Religious Endowment or the representative of the religious group will provide written consent. Finally, the governor approves or rejects the permit within three months (otherwise approving the permit by default).

The religious community cannot appeal the governor’s rejection of a permit through the administrative courts. Furthermore, no house of worship can be built closer than 1,000 metres to another church or mosque and that all places of worship will be under the Central Auditing Agency’s supervision. Needless to say, both Christian and Muslim community representatives have cried foul at the law, with each side believing there are points to the law that are unfair to them.

But as of yet, attacks against churches continue with Gobrial pointing the finger of blame squarely at the Salafis, those who adhere to a very strict and hard-line interpretation of Islam, saying: "Their teachings are extreme. They call us infidels and burn our churches. They don’t consider us as citizens; to them we are strangers to this land.”

It should be noted, however, that Egypt’s largest Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has stressed the Christians’ right to the presidency and accepted them as members in its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.

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