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How far does road to equality stretch for Egypt’s Christians?

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 24 Aug 2016
St. Mary and St. Samuel Churches
Egyptians pray in St. Mary and St. Samuel Churches celebrating Virgin Mary feast in Sheikh El-Zayed in 6th of October. (Photo: Mai Shaheen)
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“I was praying for health and comfort; for my family, especially those of my children in Canada and Australia, and of course for my country, but things still need to be put on the right path,” said Samiyah, an elderly Coptic woman, as she left prayers marking the end of the 15-day fast for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary at the Mar-Girgis Church in Heliopolis.

In a perfect serenity of an upper middle-class woman in her late 70s, Samiyah – who has lived all her life in Heliopolis since she was married to her now-deceased husband Youssef – spoke of her unease about the situation in the country.

“You see, I think that we have to be a bit more aware about the problems of the poor and the very poor, and we have to realise that pain is sometimes hard to put up with. I honestly fear that things might be very difficult for many people with the continued rise in prices that is affecting all of us, and we have to worry about what kind of reaction this will cause,” she said.

Samiyah said that she is “praying that nothing bad will happen to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi,” because she thinks that “he is the one who saved Egypt at a time of ordeal,” and she is certainly disturbed over the idea of a possible angry reaction from the masses over the harsh economic conditions.

“I am just hoping that he will pay attention to the voices of those suffering and perhaps utilise better advisors to reconsider some economic priorities, such as whether he wants still to go ahead with mega projects or to give attention first to food prices, health, and so on,” Samiyah said.

She also expressed pessimism over the situation faced by Copts, who are still suffering sectarian attacks, especially in Upper Egypt, as well as discriminatory policies that put constraints on the building of churches; constraints that are not faced by anyone looking to build a mosque.

“These are very unfortunate things that we had hoped would start to change, but unfortunately this has not happened. I must say that I am thinking that this might not happen in my life time – but maybe one day,” she said.

“I just hope that President El-Sisi will act to secure a breakthrough in the matter of church construction, because just as I like to come to my church for prayers and solace, I hope that every Christian will also have a church to go to that is not too far from where they live, especially for the sake of the elderly and the women in Upper Egypt who are not allowed to travel far without male companionship,” Samiyah said.

During the past week, Christians were yet again dismayed following the state's failure to agree on terms for passing a new law that would introduce reform on church construction, the restrictions on which are based on radical Wahhabi interpretations of Islam's stance on building churches.

Although the passing of a new law easing regulations for the construction of churches has been set as a priority by the 2014 constitution, it was only a few weeks ago that a draft came out.

Initial optimism over the expected passing of the law was short-lived, as the government insisted that the final say on church construction should be with security authorities, which leaders of the Coptic community, both religious and political, accuse of being biased against Christians.

The dismay over the fate of the long-promised law comes only a few weeks after signs emerged of unexpected tension between the state and the Coptic community – and worse still, between the state and the Church.

Over the past few months, several attacks on Christians took place in rural Upper Egypt over a rumour that a group of Christians intended to convert a house into a church.

Following the attacks, the Coptic Orthodox Church said that security officials failed to provide protection for Copts and their properties.

The head of security in Minya was recently replaced against the backdrop of growing Coptic unrest. 

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi vowed tin a quick response to hold violators accountable. 

The US State Department has said that Egyptian Coptic Christians still face enormous challenges, though stated that President-Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has made efforts to protect the country's christians, according to its 2015 Annual Report on International Freedom released last month.

Leading Coptic activist Ramy Kamel said that “all this blood and suffering has not prompted the state to act to end the inequality Copts are subjected to when they simply want to pray.

At a seminar held last week in Cairo by Egyptians Against Discrimination, Kamil also blamed some Church leaders for toeing the line with the government at the expense of fighting for basic constitutional rights for Christians.

Kamil, along with other activists and leading church figures, has criticised the state over its reluctance to take prompt action against those who commit sectarian-based violence and harassment, whether attacking churches or assaulting Christians.

One recent incident involved an attack on an elderly Christian woman by a Muslim mob over rumours that her son was having an affair with a Muslim woman.

Coptic researcher Soliman Shafik believes that the government does not want a confrontation with what he says is likely a dominant sentiment in society against giving Christians equal opportunities to build Churches or assume top positions.

“What the constitution says [about equal citizenship and freedom of worship] cannot change reality, and what the government is willing to offer Copts will continue for the most part to be lip service and minor gestures like the presidential participation in the Christmas Mass, rather than anything more fundamental,” Shafik stated.

Many Coptic activists and researchers also believe that the state is not willing to put any pressure on the police to adjust its attitude towards Christians, at a time when police cooperation is required to deal with expected protests against looming prices rise.

“[The government] does not want to lose the support of the Salafists, whose clergy and sheikhs are very influential in rural Egypt,” said Shafik, referring to those who follow the ultraconservative Salafist strain of Islam.

Consequently, Shafik is not expecting any breakthroughs on any major Coptic issues, including the passing of the law on church construction.

Shafik believes that the debate over the building of churches will be “put on the shelf, and the Church will not be able to challenge this decision given the current economic hurdles facing the country.”

However, Mary, a Coptic woman in her mid-30s living in the lower-class Ain Shams neighbourhood in eastern Cairo, sees that the situation for Christians in Egypt is more favourable than that of Christians elsewhere in the region.

“God is here for the weak and the vulnerable; at least the current regime is not going to allow [the Islamic State militant group] to kill us like they did with Christians in Iraq," Mary said, though she added that "otherwise, [the government] is not at all what it had promised to be.”

“We had great dreams and expectations when we saw the president attending the Christmas Mass in 2015, but today we know that this is the maximum we will get and that the times for dreams is over,” she said.

The US State Department's 2015 report on human rights offered unprecedented praise for the positive attitude that the Egyptian state was taking on Christians, though still voicing some concerns including whether full freedom of worship is fully supported in Egypt.

In public statements addressing the grievances of Christians last month, President El-Sisi said that the state is doing everything it can to ensure equality among citizens, but that “there are things within the dominant culture that require change, and this needs time.”

Pope Tawadros, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who sources close to him say has been "very depressed," applauded the presidential statement.

A few weeks earlier, the Coptic patriarch had made a statement criticising what he said was the government's failure to address attacks against Christians in Upper Egypt.

Following the statement, the pope paid a visit to the presidential palace with other leading Church figures, where they were offered reassurance of the presidency's commitment to supporting Christian rights. In the same meeting, the pope was blamed by the presidency for having failed to contain the increasing criticism of the regime by Copts in the US and Australia over the situation of Christians in Egypt.

On the other hand, senior political commentator Amr El-Shobaki says that the grievances of Copts are not very different from that of any other group who had hoped that the ruling regime that followed the 25 January and 30 June uprisings would act to end inequality.

“Obviously there is inequality, but there are also challenges that stand in the way of ending this inequality,” said El-Shobaki.

He argues that it is the role of civil society to address these matters; working to end prejudiced beliefs in order to pave the way for equal rights for all citizens, as well as ease the potentially long wait for equality.

“However, the state has co-opted the role of civil society, and in the absence of any credible or serious political medium to act as the natural go-between in these situations, the state has been pitted against the people,” he said.

Although both El-Shobaki and Shafik dismissed the idea of a larger fallout between the state and the Church, neither could predict the wider Coptic reaction.

“We praying for patience but we are seeing signs of impatience. We are seeing it with Copts in the expatriate communities and we cannot predict what will happen next,” Shafik said.

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