“We have nothing to do with elections,” the pastor of Nagaa Hamadi Cathedral, Bishop Kirolos, said firmly from his seat at the church of Qena, 500 kilometres south of Cairo.
Kirolos declined to explain his change of heart, given that he has always encouraged church followers to support the electoral candidates of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). “In our days, wise is the man who keeps his silence,” he stated abruptly.
The bishop only revealed that he declined NDP proposals to support a Coptic candidate -- even for the newly introduced women's quota seats -- in the Nagaa Hamadi district.
Like other Upper Egypt cities, Nagaa Hamadi has a considerable Coptic population. This particular Coptic population was at the centre of one of an early and bloody incidents related to the elections.
On the eve of the last Coptic Christmas, Hmam Kamouni, carrying a machine-gun, stopped before the Nagaa Hamadi Church and shot dead six young Coptic men on their way out of the Christmas mass. A poorly armed Muslim police guard on duty was also killed.
The massacre was immediately qualified by Muslims and Copts of Nagaa Hamadi as part of a political vendetta ordered by one of the leading figures of the NDP to avenge Kirolos's rumoured intention to rally the Coptic vote for an NDP political adversary.
Today, Kamouni has not yet been convicted. Meanwhile, the NDP politician whose name was involved in the scandal, Abdel-Rehim Al-Ghoul, was selected to be one of the ruling party's candidates in Nagaa Hamadi along with Fatehi Fakheri, another NDP member whose brother, Nasser Fakheri, with close association to Al-Ghoul, was overlooked by the party.
The political fate of Al-Ghoul is of little interest to the Copts of Nagaa Hamadi. It is legal justice that they anticipate eagerly. “All I want is for the court of law to promptly issue its verdict and for the wrong to be made right,” said Zackariyah, father of Ayman, one of the victims of last year's crime.
A year after the massacre, Zachariah's misery cannot be overstated: his health has declined and his faith in his rights as an Egyptian citizen has all but disappeared. “Is this our country? I am not sure. I don't think it is our country. I don't think we (Copts) have a place here,” he said.
Radiyah, the wife of Zackariyah, like other Copts and for that matter many Muslims, recalls times when Muslims and Copts lived peacefully and lovingly side-by-side. However, bitter and in mourning having lost a son at age 27, Radiyah is not sure she wants anything to do with Muslims. Nor is she sure that Muslims want to have anything to do with Copts.
“I go into a store and they look at me with unease, and they look at the cross I am wearing with a clear sense of agitation,” she lamented. Radiyah fears that the state (parliament and government alike) is careless about the rights of Copts. Christina, a 24-year-old resident of Sohag, feels likewise: “I am not interested in elections.”
Christina says that that “as a Christian” a politician can run. “But as a Christian he will not be elected.”
The complaints of Copts over discrimination go beyond the political. Assessed as constituting 10-15 per cent of the 80 million plus Egyptian population, Copts complain of wider discrimination in public life: textbooks privilege Islam over Christianity as the source of good values; the government gives more and better jobs to Muslims; and parliament fails to attend to basic Coptic grievances, including personal status rights.
And it is Pope Shenouda -- patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt -- that Christina counts on to protect her rights as a Copt.
Increasingly Copts say that they resort to the Coptic Church and its “influential Pope” rather than to the state in pursuit of basic civil rights. For them, Pope Shenouda is not just a spiritual leader but also “a sect leader” who substitutes for biased executive and legislative bodies.
As such, it is the succession of Pope Shenouda, who is getting old and frail, that concerns citizens like Nargas, a middle-aged Orthodox Coptic lady from Luxor, and Khalil her husband. The retired couple say that they are not interested in this month's parliamentary elections, or even next year's presidential elections, but only the fate of the church beyond Shenouda. “We are scared that if he is not there we will have nobody to protect us.”
Nargas acknowledges the increasing role of Coptic businessmen in providing more job opportunities for Copts and in speaking up for the rights of Copts, but she insists that even those businessmen “are supported by” Pope Shenouda.
For Georgette Kellini, an outspoken Coptic member of the 2005-2010 parliament, this Coptic apathy is only nourished by the failure of the leading political parties, the NDP included, to run a sufficient number of Coptic candidates.
The NDP, whose leaders endlessly endorse equal citizenship, nominated no more than 10 Coptic candidates on its list of close to 800 nominees for 508 seats and 64 allocated for women. “Many more Copts wanted to run,” Kellini said.
Kellini was appointed in the outgoing People's Assembly by President Hosni Mubarak (the constitution allows the president to appoint 10 MPs). She appreciates the difficulty of Coptic candidates securing wide support, “although it happens in some districts”. She therefore proposes the reintroduction of the slate system that, in theory, would allow for more Copts to gain seats. “If a Copt cannot run by himself, he can run with Muslims