Friday, December 24, 2010

'Strangers in our own country': Egypt's Copts look back on dismal year

Clashes with security forces over church construction in Giza cap a depressing twelve months for the Middle East's largest Christian population

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - December 2010

Christmas is approaching in the Al-Talbiyya district of Giza, but the road to St Mary’s, the neighbourhood’s half-built church, is a bleak one. Lined by a small row of windswept shops on one side and a deserted, faded-neon set of children’s funfair rides on the other, the ground is scattered with giant clumps of concrete – all torn from the four-lane highway that towers above. It was from this highway late last month that security forces launched a barrage of tear gas, live ammunition and handheld rocks upon thousands of Coptic Christians demonstrating below.

“Imagine for a moment how it feels to be standing in your own country with your own people, as the agents of your own government begin hurling bullets at you and your children,” recalls Ayed Gad, a local pharmacy worker who was on the scene. The clashes, triggered when local authorities halted construction at St Mary’s, left two young Copts dead; at the time a local priest described the government’s actions as ‘barbaric’. “The police acted as if they were Israel and we were Hamas,” Father Mina Zarif told a local newspaper.

It’s been a dire year for Egypt’s estimated eight million Copts, the largest Christian community in the Middle East. 2010 began with an Upper Egyptian drive-by massacre of churchgoers leaving a Coptic Christmas midnight mass; it has ended with the deadly violence in Al-Talbiyya, along with election results that leave Copts with less than 1% representation in parliament. In between there has been a bitter row over the alleged kidnapping of a priest’s wife who wanted to convert to Islam, accusations by Muslim clerics that Christian places of worship are being used to stockpile weapons, and a high-profile spat between the Coptic pope and the Egyptian government over the Church’s right to regulate ‘personal status’ issues among its members.

“Sectarian polarisation of Christians and Muslims stretches back over the centuries, but the problem of sectarian violence as we know it today is a modern phenomenon,” says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and a prominent human rights activist. “This year we’ve seen Muslim protesters shouting anti-Christian slogans after the Friday sermon, which is a very new and worrying development.”

Bahgat’s campaign work concentrates on two areas: communal violence between Muslims and Christians, and the more humdrum problem of daily prejudice. “The issue in Egypt is not just the torching of homes and attacks on monasteries, but also the everyday examples of employment discrimination and other non-violent manifestations of sectarianism,” he claims. Egypt’s Copts complain of being shut out of the higher echelons of business, politics and academia; despite notable exceptions like finance minister Youssef Boutros Ghali or telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris, most Christians believe they are denied opportunities for social advancement because of their religion – a state of psychological insecurity that has in turn fuelled an entrenchment of sectarian identities.

“Egyptians have become increasingly embedded in their religious institutions and the consequence of that is a growing sense of polarisation,” adds Bahgat. “We’re trying to tell people that it’s equally bad to only do your grocery shopping from a Christian vendor because you’re Christian, or if you only go to a Muslim dentist because you’re Muslim. These are the seeds of sectarianism that eventually escalate into neighbourhoods being set aflame.”

Just down the road from the disputed St Mary’s – now clad in scaffolding and guarded day and night by state security officers – the neighbouring church of St Paul’s is tucked away down a dimly-lit side alley. Here, in a third-floor chapel and beneath the glow of energy-saving chandeliers, festive worshippers are engaging in the traditional Coptic fast – abstaining from animal products for 43 days in preparation for the Advent – and pondering another institutional challenge to their community. Every pew is packed solid, and it’s been standing room only for evening services throughout the run-up to Coptic Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7th.

“Things have been getting more crowded since the late 1980s; to keep up with the growing size of our community we’d need at least three or four new churches in the area – but of course they can’t be built” says Nabil Girgis, a senior member of the congregation. Egypt’s Christians have played as big a part in the country’s recent demographic explosion as their fellow Muslims, but whereas new mosques are built and renovated freely throughout the country, Christians have to navigate a bewilderingly web of bureaucracy in order to secure permission for church construction; there are an estimated 2,000 churches in Egypt today, alongside 93,000 mosques.

It’s a state of affairs that has left some feeling like their very identity as Egyptians is being purposely eroded by the state, particularly when set alongside the government’s apparent reluctance to prosecute Muslim perpetrators of communal violence – a tactic, says Bahgat, which leaves Christian victims feeling “assaulted twice, once by their Muslim neighbours and then again when the powers-that-be side with the attackers.”

“We are treated as second-class citizens in every way; the only interaction we have with the government leaves us feeling like failures, and of course that makes us feel like we don’t belong,” says Peter Gobrayel, a worshipper at St Paul’s. “I fought for Egypt in the 1967 and 1973 wars, and was a PoW in Israel; you could say that I’ve spent the whole of my life on the frontline for my country. Now, speaking honestly, when I see the nation burning I just want to add petrol. I am an Egyptian first and foremost, and yet my country seems to want to eradicate me.”

The greatest difficulty in assessing the extent of anti-Copt discrimination in Egypt is picking out which grievances are motivated foremost by sectarian tensions, and which are merely the product of a wider breakdown in state-society relations; many of the complaints raised by Copts, from mistreatment at the hands of police to being passed over for civil service promotion due to a lack of wasta (connections or influence) are common to all Egyptian citizens, be they Muslim or Christian.

Long-term corruption and political malaise has left the government’s role as neutral social arbiter fatally weakened, and the concurrent growth of visibly Islamic symbols and discourse in public life since the 1970s, when the Muslim Brotherhood largely abandoned its attempts to overthrow the regime and instead concentrated its efforts on ‘Islamising’ society from below, has created an environment where sub-state religious affiliations increasingly trump any sense of national identity, and where normal community disputes can quickly take on a dangerously sectarian hue.

For Hossam Bahgat, Copt-Muslim tensions will only be resolved when the government ends its security-driven response to sectarian violence, and begins implementing the rule of law. “The reaction of the state to sectarian trouble is always motivated primarily by their desire to impose ‘quiet’; hence it is directed by the security services in a typically heavy-handed way,” he argues. In the aftermath of the Al- Talbiyya fighting, over 150 local Copts have been taken to jail, prompting Pope Shenouda to withdraw to a rural monastery in protest.

“When you look at the big picture, it’s so clear that the security apparatus is at the heart of the problem,” says Bahgat. “Their tactics are bad not only for democracy and human rights, but for long-terms security too.” Peter Gobrayel agrees. “We just want to be treated like Egyptians, with our rights respected and our voices heard. These days it’s hard to find anyone, Christian or Muslim, who gets treated like that.”

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