On the evening of Saturday, 24 January, several churches across the country, Orthodox and others, will hold prayers for the wellbeing and safe return of 27 Egyptian Copts held hostage for over a month by a radical militant group in Libya.
“The prayers will be joined by a large number of public figures, Muslim and Christians included. We will pray for the safety of those Egyptians and for the peace of mind of their tormented families who are suffering immensely over the fate of their children,” said Coptic activist Nader Shokri.
The Saturday prayers are the second step of a public awareness campaign initiated by Coptic activists to bring society's attention to the plight of the abducted Egyptians — the most recent group targetted in a series of attacks that have killed and kidnapped Egyptian Coptic citizens forced by acute poverty to pursue a livelihood amid the dangers of Libya.
On Monday, in the heart of Cairo, Coptic activists organised a standstill protest, calling on the state to act more decisively to secure the return of the kidnapped Copts.
Speaking to Ahram Online on his way to the Monday protest, Bishoi, a 24-year-old Coptic activist, argued that, “The fact that we are still lobbying for state action is very disappointing. I have followed the statements made by government officials about the many efforts to bring the abducted Egyptians back, but to be quite honest I don’t see that the state is acting with due firmness on the matter. I have to say that had these abducted men been Muslims and not Copts the state would have had a more effective approach.”
A sentiment of state discrimination on this issue is clear in the statements of other Coptic activists. “I follow the press and the media in general, and I follow closely what the state does on this front. To be honest, I feel that there is not sufficient attention afforded to their plight, and I have to say that this is simply because they are Copts,” said Ramy Kamil, a Coptic activist and member of the Maspero Youth Union formed to defend Coptic rights.
According to Bishoi, it is the attitude of the state on this and other pressing problems, “rather than the visit of the president to the [Coptic] Cathedral” during Christmas Mass that reflects the true position of the state towards Coptic citizens.
El-Sisi's Christmas visit
In an unprecedented and widely celebrated move, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi took part in the Coptic Orthodox Mass on 6 January.
The visit was not announced ahead of time. While followers of the Coptic faith were in the midst of the mass they were overwhelmed with joy to see the president that they love, and think of as their "saviour" from Muslim Brotherhood rule that they feared was going to be detrimental to their own existence.
“I truly regret I did not go to the cathedral. I am used to praying at the neighbourhood church, but had I known of this I would have certainly wanted to go to the cathedral for this great moment,” said Audette, a Coptic Orthodox woman in her early 70s.
A resident of Heliopolis who comfortably belongs to the secure upper middle class, Audette says that she has never been subject to any form of “direct discrimination.” “Not once in my life. I am very well treated everywhere I go, and I am loved and supported by neighbours and friends, Muslims and Copts alike, with no difference whatsoever.”
However, Audette always felt that the state was somehow “not looking at Copts as it does with Muslims.”
“We cannot deny that especially since the second half of the rule of [late President Anwar] Sadat there has been a disturbing rise in anti-Coptic sentiment and speech to the point that we were hearing some anti-Coptic statements — even if not so vile — in some of the Friday sermons in the Heliopolis mosques. Imagine in Heliopolis, that has always been a hub for people of many faiths and of many backgrounds,” she argued.
The “joy” over the visit of El-Sisi is hard to underestimate in large Coptic quarters, even though this was not the case for activists, where the visit was largely seen as a public relations attempt to increase the popularity of the president in the Coptic sphere at a time where his otherwise large popularity is suffering a decline due to acute economic problems, and to appeal to the West that is apprehensive over the state of freedoms and rights in Egypt.
“What matters most to me is for the president to take action to establish equal citizenship for all Egyptians,” said Kamil.
Arguing that there are only very few references in El-Sisi's presidential discourse to "citizenship," Kamil argued that as far as he is concerned the visit remains of limited significance if not followed by “actual steps on the ground to liberate those abducted in Libya and to end the daily suffering that Copts endure in so many ways, starting from the construction and protection of churches to the basic execution of paperwork at government offices, not to mention faith-based discrimination in accessing jobs and high-level state positions,” he argued.
The brief participation of El-Sisi in the Orthodox Christmas Mass was overblown, in the opinion of Kamil, by some of the top clergy who went as far as qualifying the visit as the “appearance of Jesus Christ in the cathedral.”
“This was only a metaphor; it was designed to reflect the joy that overwhelmed everyone as El-Sisi stepped in — to compare it to the joy that overwhelmed the world with the birth of Jesus Christ,” said Audette.
She added that “At the very least, and even if not followed by any concrete steps, this visit remains a very strong and powerful gesture from the head of the state to Coptic citizens.”
A step towards equal citizenship?
In press statements to Channel One of Egyptian TV, Father Armia said that the visit to the cathedral was a source of joy “to all Egyptians and not just to Copts, because it showed the true kind, wise and loving nature of their president who deals with respect with all his citizens.”
A source at the office of Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II said that when the Church was notified of the visit “we were overwhelmed with joy.” “We knew it was very tentative and that it could be cancelled at the very last minute due to security concerns, but we still hoped it would happen because it would set a precedent about what the Muslim president of Egypt owes his Coptic citizens.”
In a sense, the source said, the visit was a show of appreciation from El-Sisi for “the suffering that the Copts sustained without raising a word in the outside world during the [one year rule] of the Muslim Brotherhood and to their kind patience during the attacks that followed the dispersal of [the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins during August 2013], and of course to their support to him during the presidential elections.”
The source acknowledged what had been shared by official sources with Ahram Online: that the visit was not subject to agreement among all the president’s advisors. “It is a first, and it is expected that it would raise the concerns of some, especially that it took place in the midst of a fierce war that the president has launched against terrorists,” he said.
Writer and researcher on Coptic history Solimane Shafik, for his part, is convinced that the fact that the president decided to “take this step during the campaign ... is in and of itself a big thing because it goes to show that the head of the executive has a certain responsibility to be with his Coptic citizens in their feasts, as he goes with Muslim citizens.”
Shafik argued: “El-Sisi set the precedent that the president of the state should make an appearance at the Christmas Mass.”
Coptic Christmas was only recognised as an official holiday during the very last years of the rule of Hosni Mubarak. At the time, the step was widely welcomed by Copts who had always been allowed Christmas and Easter as days off, but never as a public holiday similar to that of Muslim feasts.
The step, former government officials said, was initiated by Mubarak to lobby Coptic support for the prospective promotion of his younger and politically ambitious son, Gamal Mubarak, to pursue the presidency.
Criticism was also leveled at the time that for Coptic Orthodox citizens, it is Easter, and not Christmas, that is more significant and that the "official" was designated as Christmas to bypass the Muslim faith's rejection of the Coptic belief that Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead.
“Still, it was a very good move forward. We cannot hope things change overnight. It opened the door for wide state participation in the Christmas Mass,” said Hani, a Coptic engineer in his 50s.
A resident of Shubra, Hani said he was always aware of the keen attention that was accorded to Gamal Mubarak during his participation in Christmas Mass. “However, that was a beginning that later brought all politicians and presidential candidates (prior to the 2012 presidential elections) to come to Christmas Mass."
“Even Morsi made a brief appearance during that Christmas at the Coptic Cathedral. These things are incremental. The visit of El-Sisi is certainly a very big step forward,” Hani added.
Will the state deliver?
According to Soliman the next step is for El-Sisi “to use his pen to adopt necessary decisions towards granting the Copts equal citizenship.”
Shokri argued that some “very elementary moves could offer a sense that the visit would be followed by moves on the ground.” He suggested that a first step should include the reconstruction of at least some of the churches that were burnt down during the summer of 2013 and to allow for the execution of construction permits granted to villagers in Upper Egypt since the 1990s.
Soliman and Shokri agree that subsequent steps should include an end to the discriminatory spirit in the media, school curricula, and the discourse of Muslim clergy. This should be followed by the promotion of laws on equal citizenship, including an end to discrimination in the construction and reconstruction of churches.
According to Kamil and other sceptical Coptic activists, ahead of such steps “one hopes to see an end to the humiliation of Coptic kids in many schools, the forced veiling imposed on Coptic girls in schools, especially in Upper Egypt, and the isolation of Coptic students in separate classrooms in several rural schools.”
Kamil is convinced that for this to happen the Church should refrain from adopting excessively reconciliatory positions towards the state.
Most recently, Kamil, along with other Coptic activists, was critical of statements made by the Coptic Patriarch where he suggested during a TV interview that it was due to the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood that Copts demonstrated on 9 October 2011 against consecutive attacks on churches — a demonstration that ended in the killing of over 20 demonstrators in confrontations with the military police.
“Such kinds of statements are designed to overlook the wrongdoing of the state and to reduce the problems of Copts to the hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Kamil said. “Our problem is equal citizenship,” he added.
Shokri cautiously hopes that things could take a positive step forward. “I want to look at the visit of the president as a recognition of the state that it owes certain rights to its Coptic citizens, and I wait for the state to act accordingly,” he argued.
Both Shoukri and Kamil are convinced that a great deal of what the state delivers depends on the next parliament and whether or not it would have MPs that are sensitive to the need to end discrimination against Copts.
“I am not just talking about Coptic MPs; we need to get over the narrow-minded approach of dealing with Copts as a sect apart,” Shokri said.
He added that once this happens the rectification of the injustices done to Copts would follow.
“It is only because Copts want so much to be fully integrated as full citizens that they rejoiced that much over the presidential visit to the cathedral during the Christmas Mass,” he argued.