Egyptian Christians struggle to overcome minority status

Dina Ezzat , Friday 27 Sep 2013

With the new constitution being drafted, Coptic Christians say they still feel like a minority

Coptic Christians mourn Pope Shenouda III, March 17, 2012 at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo, Egypt (Photo: AP).

In the mid-1990s when Amal lived in Dublin, two of her neighbours were killed in a terrorist attack in Egypt which targeted foreign tourists visiting Luxor.

Amal, who wears the hijab, was subject to what she now recalls as “shocking waves of anger” which were directed at her, her three young children and her husband who was working as a doctor in a nearby hospital.

“For many people, especially those related to or friends with the people who died in Luxor, I was the ‘Muslim terrorist’ and I was treated as such,” Amal told Ahram Online.

Bigotry unleashed in her face, Amal and her family suddenly understood what it was to be a minority. “It just dawned on me that, yes, I was a minority, and I was being singled out and asked to leave for no reason that I could recognise,” she said.

“Christmas was coming our way, so I baked rice with nuts and raisins and took it around to the families living in the neighbourhood. The reception was at first apprehensive but it picked up,” she recalled.

Amal managed to weather the storm and break the psychological barrier. But, she said, she had learned something that stuck: minorities could be easily intimidated.

This week at a Heliopolis public school, Amal accompanied her son Ahmed, who is playing the leading role in a new film by director Amr Salama.

Excuse My French (Lamowakhza) is about the feeling that Amal once discovered: what it is like to be an intimidated minority.

The film tells the story of Hany Abdallah, an Egyptian school boy who makes the decision to hide his Christian faith and pretend to be part of the Muslim majority.

“It is this story of the life of a school boy who knows that if he tells his friends that he is Christian they would dislike him, so he decides to pretend in public that he is a Muslim. All day at school he is a Muslim and when his friends drop by he has to hide anything that reveals his Coptic identity, even though he is a Copt who lives with a Coptic family,” Salama explained at the location of the shooting.

It took Salama three years to get the script that he wrote passed by the censors. He first presented it when Hosni Mubarak was president, and it was only passed after Mohamed Morsi was elected.

“This is not designed to capture any particular moment in time per se; it is rather designed to capture the dilemma of the identity of someone who feels he is a minority – and there are many ways by which you could feel you are a minority in our society. Being a Copt is just one of them,” Salama said.

He added that the objective of his movie is not just to remind viewers that Christians of Egypt face difficulties, although this is something that he underlines, but rather to garner sympathy “for the human experience of a minority, those who feel they don’t fit in for one reason or another - which could make each of us a minority, really.”

The film should be released next January, the time for the mid-academic year vacation. It will probably come out after the completion – and either adoption or rejection – of the 2013 constitution which is currently being drafted to replace the one that was adopted under Morsi and which some Coptic Christians argued sanctioned discrimination.

“Yes, it is written in the constitution that all citizens are equal, but in reality all citizens were never really equal, not during my lifetime. I have not seen it in over 40 years despite the fact that I personally have a very privileged situation as I am upper middle class, but I still know that there are areas in this country that are simply off limits to me,” Nadia, a Coptic woman who lives in Heliopolis, told Ahram Online.

In reality, Christians cannot access some key national security positions and the number of Christians in the cabinet and other key positions is usually limited. In addition, there are endless legal complications that have to be overcome before a church can be either built or renovated.

Since the 2011 revolution, the intimidation of Copts seems to have worsened with more churches being attacked and more Copts being subjected to identity-based attacks.

For Salama, whose film bypasses the issue of time and any relevant political developments, what Copts face today is “basically a matter of identity-based discrimination that is getting worse.”

The issue of anti-Coptic discrimination is not just about the almost standard practices that keeps them from accessing some top jobs. It is also about the legal texts that govern the country. The constitution and legal system still retain the influence of the Ottoman Empire when Christians and other non-Muslims were treated as lesser subjects – exempt from service in the military in return for payment of the jizya, an annual tax.

Things started to change with the abolition of the jizya in 1855, and the 1919 revolution saw the emergence of a sense of non-sectarian Egyptian citizenship in the struggle against colonialism. Copts started to gain a presence in parliament and two prime ministers – Boutros Ghali and Youssef Wahbah – were Copts.

The 1952 revolution by the Free Officers, none of whom were Christian, led to a decline in political participation of Copts. President Nasser aimed to balance the decline by starting the practice of assigning a few Copts seats in parliament. The practice continued, with the same limited numbers of Coptic MPs and cabinet ministers throughout the decades leading up to the 2011 revolution.

Amr Ezzat, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, argues that up until the constitution of 2012, the status of Copts was more or less in accordance with the concepts of the Ottoman rule, despite the language of equal citizenship here and there.

“We have had texts talking about equal citizenship but they failed to actually enact equality among citizens,” Ezzat said.

Today, the representation of Copts in the 50-member committee is almost exclusively limited to representatives of churches, who had walked out on the previous drafting committee to protest what they found to be discrimination.

“Apart from the representatives of churches there is only one other Copt - surgeon Magdy Yaacoub. It is as if Copts are not there except in these two capacities: the Church and the renowned personalities,” said Irene, a business student.

“This is precisely the point: if the state really acknowledged Copts as full citizens it would not have to see them through prism of the Church,” said Ezzat

“It would also not have treated the Church as a separate entity from the state which is not allowed to benefit from the general budget.”

“The fact of the matter is that the state deals with Copts as a separate religious congregation,” he added.

Church representatives on the current constitutional committee are for the most part focused on matters related to their own constituency – especially in terms of personal status rights, which is a controversial matter for religious and secular Copts.

Coptic activist Ramy Kamil, who took part in the 2011 revolution, said that there has been a setback to the status of Copts and almost an attempt to force them back “behind the walls of the Church.”

“Ultimately, the Church is an institution of our society but inevitably it does not represent all the Copts of Egypt,” Kamil said.

Kamil along with other activists has sent the 50-member committee a document of proposed principles they hope will be integrated in the constitution.

“We are not looking for specific rights for Copts. We are looking for equal citizenship rights; our demands is for an end to discrimination in terms of jobs and religious rights,” Kamil said.

He added that these demands are made by Copts “as citizens and not as followers of the Church.”

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