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A Guide to Egypt's Challenges: Religious Freedoms, Minorities

Bassem Sabry provides a multi-pronged overview of the political, economic and social challenges facing Egypt's first post-Mubarak president, with an emphasis on the everyday problems facing average Egyptians

Bassem Sabry , Thursday 16 Aug 2012
Muslim and Christian
A Muslim holding the Koran (top L) and a Coptic Christian holding a cross are carried through opposition supporters in Tahrir Square in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)
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In the aftermath of the January uprising and the progressive message many felt to be at its core, Egypt's religious minorities appeared hopeful about their place in society, becoming more visible and vocal in their demands. Following the political rise of Islamists, however, they seem to have made a cautious retreat. 

Two broad sets of questions are involved here, other than the traditional concerns of limited freedom of religion and worship.
 
The first regard the future of groups outside the mainstreams of Sunni Islam, Christianity and Judaism. 
 
Independent minority faiths as well as intra-religious factions face various societal and state hurdles in gaining official recognition and openly practicing their beliefs. These include members of the Bahai faith, whose Egyptian adherents are estimated to be several thousand. and Shia. Conservative estimates put adherents of the latter at 50,000 to 80,000, while others claim a much higher figure. 
 
In 2009, adherents of the Bahai faith won the right to simply have a dash of omission next to the entry for religion on their national ID cards. Previously they had to either officially profess to Islam, Christianity or Judaism, or live without such identification, as some have done for years.
 
The latter option meant they were unable to fulfill any undertaking that involves almost any official paperwork, including the mere act of opening a bank account or buying a cellphone contract.
 
Other immediate practical problems persist. 
 
One prominent example is the lack of legal recognition by the state of marriages involving such officially-unrecognised faith groups. 
 
In fact, married or widowed individuals of such faith groups actually face greater difficulty in obtaining national ID cards than their single counterparts. The problem relates to the fact that Egypt does not employ civil marriage contracts, and all marital arrangements are religion-based. 
 
In mid-2010, the government -- encouraged primarily by the Bahai community -- began studying proposals on how recognition of these marriages could be integrated into the legal framework of the Egyptian state, but the subject’s order of priority was superseded by the uprising. The issue has not yet been revived.
 
The Constituent Assembly's potential move towards specifiying Christianity, Islam and Judaism as the only faiths free to worship -- in contrast to the previous non-specifying articles of the document -- some worry this will further complicate efforts.
 
The second, and better-known, question concerns the status of Christians, who are Egypt’s largest minority at an estimated 10 per cent of the population and have to attain interfaith harmony.  Concerns by Egyptian Christians have sharply increased since both the 2011 New Year's Eve bombing of the Qideesien Church in Alexandria, which left 21 dead and dozens injured, and the rise of political Islamist movements and political forces following the uprising.
 
Unrest facing Egypt's Christians as well as incidents involving clashes between Christians and Muslims also appeared to be relatively on the rise over the last few years. The subject has become an even more pressing part of the discourse shortly after the uprising, with the March 2011 burning down of the Sol Church in Helwan and the subsequent clashes between Christians and Muslims in Manshiyya area of Cairo (which claimed the lives of 13 people, 140 injured) raising immediate alarm bells. 
 
The bloody events at Cairo's Maspero TV tower in October last year brought the nation to a petrified standstill, both due to the violence the evening witnessed, as well as the worries over potential long-term inter-religious unrest.
 
Some explain the perceived rise in sectarian incidents as the product of increased economic hardship. Others worry it reflects the appearance of a less tolerant form of religious discourse in a country that had generally been known for societal harmony and coexistence. 
The trivial nature of the events which triggered the most recent sectarian clashes further raises the urgency of the debate.
 
Clashes between Muslims and Christians last week in the village of Dahshour saw exchanges of molotov cocktails and gunfire, the destruction and burning of several Coptic-owned homes and shops, and an attempt to ignite a local church. They reportedly began, however, after a Coptic laundry worker accidentally burned the shirt of a Muslim customer while ironing it.
 
Coptic groups have complained that perpetrators of sectarian violence frequently escape proper punishment, and that Coptic families in areas of sectarian tension are often forced to move out to avoid escalation.
 
Following the revolution, Egypt passed a new anti-discrimination law that was widely welcomed. 
 
There are also fresh efforts to draft and enact a law unifiying regulations for building and maintaining houses of worship, which would theoretically address long-held Copt concerns about a lack of full freedom to build churches.
 
Debate continues too on a new personal status law that would regulate marriage and divorce matters for Christians and non-Muslims in general. This remains the subject of controversy even within the Church, especially when it comes to rules governing divorce.
 
Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party have expressed their general commitment to the principle of equal citizenship.
 
An advisor to Morsi previously indicated that the president was planning to appoint a Coptic vice-president as well as a female one. Such moves would set a historic landmark in the history of Egypt.
 
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