BEIRUT

Middle East

Egypt’s Copts voice fear and optimism

Thousands of Egyptians Muslims and Copts attend a celebration on New Year’s Eve in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

CAIRO: Egypt’s Copts – who will celebrate Christmas Saturday – are enjoying a louder voice in post-Mubarak Egypt, despite uncertainty of what an Islamist majority government will bring for them.

Violence and discrimination against Egypt’s native Christian community has continued in a worrying trend under military rule. In October, 28 Copts were killed at the hands of the army in what has become known as the “Maspero massacre.” The popularity of Salafists, who subscribe to a more literal interpretation of Islam, is particularly worrying for Christians.

But others remain optimistic that the revolutionary period has provided an opportunity for Copts and other Egyptian Christians, who together make up around 10 percent of the population, to speak up for their rights.

“The freedom provided by the new Egypt in which you can say what you want to, plus the fear of Islamists has pushed the Christian minority to be active and go outside their traditional role of not getting involved in politics,” Maged Adel, a youth leader at the Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church in Cairo, told The Daily Star.

“For the first time, people voted because they felt that it would be taken seriously, unlike in previous years when it was a foregone conclusion,” he added.

Naguib Gobraiel, head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organization, agrees. “It has been the first time in parliamentary history that Copts are going out with such force in the first, second and third stages. Copts wanted to make sure that their voices are heard.”

The third stage of elections to the People’s Assembly, parliament’s lower house, was completed this week with Islamist parties, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Nour Party, maintaining the lead. In the first and second stages, they captured between 60 to 70 percent of the votes.

Christians tended to vote mainly for the liberal Egyptian Bloc, which calls for a secular rather than a religious state. And in districts where the vote came down to an FJP or Nour candidate, Christians said they voted FJP, which is considered more moderate.

The bloc is an alliance of the Free Egyptians Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and Tagammu. The FEP was founded in April 2011 by Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire Copt.

“The new, liberal parties, like the Free Egyptians and Social Democrats, have good representation of Copts. Before the revolution, Christians were limited to a couple of ministerial posts,” said Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher in the Freedom of Religion and Belief at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Ibrahim estimates that Christians might get about 10 out of 322 seats in the PA. Christian candidates won through party lists rather than as individual candidates, he said.

Adel said he was uncertain what to expect for life under an Islamist dominated parliament. “It is unclear what alliances have been made and will be made between the army, Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and Liberals. I can’t figure out what is happening – maybe history will,” he said.

Gobraiel says that since March more than 100,000 Christians have left the country, a statement that has attracted controversy for lacking evidence. He said: “Egypt could become like Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, where the Christian populations have significantly diminished over time.”

Not everyone subscribes to this theory. Ibrahim said most Christians, like Muslims, don’t have the economic means to migrate, even if they wanted to do so.

And a new generation of Christians have become politically active, just like their Muslim counterparts, suggesting a desire and willingness to stay the course of the country’s attempts to carve out a new landscape.

Groups formed after the Jan. 25 revolution, such as the Maspero Youth Union, have been demanding their rights through marches, sit-ins and social media. That has sometimes placed them at odds with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the main representative of the community.

The youth group recently issued a statement on its Facebook page calling for a vigil to object to invitations made by the Coptic Church to Egyptian security officials and Islamist figures to attend its Christmas celebrations. It said evidence proves that state officials were involved in past crimes against Copts, such as the Alexandria church bombing on New Year’s Eve in 2010 that killed 23 people, and Maspero, when 28 died.

“The church increasingly does not represent the views of young Copts, who are more politically engaged than what it is comfortable with,” said Wael Eskandar, a writer and analyst.

While the church did encourage people to vote, it has also made statements discouraging Christians from protests.

Adel says the church shouldn’t be making statements on either of these subjects. “It has spiritual authority, but not authority over Christians as Egyptians and their rights as citizens.”

He is critical of the MYU for demanding their rights as Christians, rather than as Egyptians. But he also sees this as possibly being the start of something new: “The future may see a revolution within the church itself.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 06, 2012, on page 8.

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