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Egyptian Copts call for 'Brotherhood' of their own

In wake of last year's revolution, Coptic-Christian activists revisit proposals for 'Christian Brotherhood' along lines of Muslim counterpart

Sherry El-Gergawi, Saturday 31 Mar 2012
Coptic march
Protesters march to highlight violence against Copts in Egypt (Photo: Mai Shaheen)
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Prominent Egyptian Coptic-Christian thinker Michael Fahmi is calling for the establishment of a "Christian Brotherhood" along the same lines as Egypt's well-known Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The idea is not a new one. In late 2007, Coptic journalist Joseph Nagy made asimilar proposal. The idea, however, was quickly shot down by both the Mubarak regime and Egypt's official Coptic Church under recently-deceased Pope Shenouda III.

"The idea was first proposed years ago, but last year's revolution encouraged me to revisit it," Fahmi said. "I would like to emulate the Muslim Brotherhood's success and its powerful rapport with the masses, which was reflected in the group's electoral victories in recent parliamentary polls."

After the ouster of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak early last year, the Muslim Brotherhood – which had been formally outlawed since the 1950s – established its own political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The FJP managed to capture almost half the seats in Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliament.

According to Fahmi, many Coptic-Christians – as well as Islamists – suffered under the Mubarak regime. "We faced sectarian discrimination and we, too, lost many martyrs," he said.

The proposed Christian Brotherhood, Fahmi explained, would work to improve the Egyptian economy by bolstering tourism, while simultaneously working to combat illiteracy, ignorance, poverty and intolerance. The slogan of the proposed brotherhood, he says, should be "Love of Egypt is the solution" – a play on the Muslim Brotherhood's well-known electoral motto, "Islam is the solution."

"We agreed that the group's logo should include two olive branches – a symbol of peace – rather that the two swords featured in the Muslim Brotherhoods' logo," he added.

In terms of its organisational structure, Fahmi said the group would closely emulate its Muslim counterpart. Funding, meanwhile, would be drawn entirely from its membership base, he explained, stressing that the group would not have a Guidance Bureau – as the Muslim Brotherhood's authoritative higher council is called – nor would it entertain any political ambitions.

Fahmy went on to say that the proposed group would maintain a safe distance from Egypt's Coptic Church and exclude participation by Coptic clergymen. "We believe there are no politics in religion and no religion in politics," he said. "Religion is a strictly personal affair between man and God."

In a recent opinion poll conducted by US-based organisation Copts United, which is devoted to safeguarding Coptic rights,51 per cent of respondents voiced approval for the establishment of a Christian Brotherhood.

"There's an urgent need to protect the rights of Christians after the problems they've suffered," said Hani Ramses, member of Egypt's Coptic-oriented Maspero Youth Union. "The recent ascendancy of political Islamist groups in Egypt reveals the need for a Christian political party, along the lines of Islamist parties like the FJP and the Salafist Nour and Asala parties, which currently control the lion's share of seats in both parliament and the constituent assembly [tasked with drafting a new constitution]."

Ramses has few doubts, however, that a Christian Brotherhood would face its share of "problems," including accusations of receiving funding from abroad. "There might also be claims of treason, but the Muslim Brotherhood, too, has been accused of receiving funding from the Gulf – especially during recent parliamentary elections."

The Coptic Church, however, along with other Christian denominations in Egypt, does not appear to favour the idea.

Father Marcos, Coptic bishop of Shubra Al-Khaimah, and Father Safwat El-Bayaadi, head of Egypt’s Anglican Church, both rejected the idea of a Christian Brotherhood – or of any political party, for that matter, based on religion. Both churchmen, however, said they "could not prevent" the establishment of such a group.

The UK-based Baptist Church, meanwhile, which closely follows Coptic affairs, recently issued a statement rejecting the establishment of any political party based on religion, including the proposed Christian Brotherhood. The statement went on to note, however, that "everyone has the right to do what they want, unless such actions threaten the welfare of Egypt’s Coptic community.”

The idea has also drawn criticism from a number of high-profile Coptic figures in Egypt, including Naguib Gobrail, chairman of the Egyptian Federation for Human Rights; Kamal Zakhir, founder of the Secular Coptsmovement; Medhat Beshay, a Coptic journalist; and Rasmy Abdul Malak, member of Egypt's confessional council (Mejlis Al-Milli). Abdul Malak even warned that the establishment of a Christian Brotherhood could end up "fostering sectarian strife in Egypt and lead to the further polarisation of Egyptian society." 

Coptic lawyer Mamdouh Nakhla, director of the Cairo-based Word Centre for Human Rights, however, dismissed such concerns. "The Muslim Brotherhood's existence hasn't caused sectarian strife, so why would a Christian Brotherhood necessarily do so?" he asked.

Notably, the Muslim Brotherhood itself appears to wholeheartedly support the right of Egypt's Coptic-Christians to establish a group like theirs.

Mohi Hamed, member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau, told reporters earlier this month that Egypt's Copts enjoyed the "same rights as Muslims." He stressed that it was "only fair" to allow them to form their own brotherhood.

"If we’re calling for democracy and freedom of speech, it must be applied to all Egyptians equally," Hamed said. "The Copts have the right to form an organisation that represents their interests. We support them in however they want to do this."

Hamed stressed that the project's success or failure would depend entirely on Christian support for the idea. "If the idea enjoys enough support among Copts, it will prosper the way the Muslim Brotherhood has," he said. "Otherwise, the idea will simply fade away."

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