M is for Mosque: How Egypt's Copts were sidelined

Yasmine Fathi , Saturday 4 May 2013

Post-revolution Egypt has suffered from rising sectarian violence, Ahram Online investigates the history of troubles between the country's Muslim and Christian communities

File photo: A Christian boy looks from inside the Saint Mary Church, which was set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians on Saturday in the heavily populated area of Imbaba in Cairo May 8, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

“What’s been done will be done again.”

This is a line from the Bible that has taken on a special resonance as Egypt's Christians weigh up yet another attack on their homes and places of worship.

This time the assault took place in early April in the village of El-Khosous, Qalubiya governorate, which left five Christians dead. It is not yet clear what led to the clashes. Many stories have emerged in the aftermath of the violence.

Some say a group of Christian children drew a Nazi Swastika on a Muslim religious centre in the village, infuriating Muslim locals who mistook the symbol to be a crucifix. Others say that clashes erupted after a Muslim man sexually harassed a Christian woman in the village for several months.

Eyewitnesses have also accused a local Muslim Sheikh of allegedly inciting Muslims to attack Christian locals.

The incident was horrific and more blood was spilled at the funeral of the Christians who died in El-Khosous.

The funeral took place in Egypt’s main Coptic Orthodox cathedral St Mark’s, Cairo. But as the mourners were leaving the building, unknown assailants attacked, leaving two more Christians dead.

Copts watched in horror as the assault played out live on TV. The security forces were filmed shooting tear gas and birdshot bullets into the cathedral grounds. It was the first attack on the sacred building since it was built in 1968.

“The attack on the cathedral was a special incident,” says Samuel Tadros, research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom. “[It was] the moment that we will remember in ten or twenty years as the moment the Copts finally got the message that this country is not theirs.”

That moment

The question many Egyptians ask is how did we reach this moment?

While sectarian tension has been a chronic problem in Egypt for decades, many Christians had hoped that the January 25 Revolution would resolve the issue:  they would become equal citizens with their Muslims counterparts.

Sectarian tension escalated during Hosni Mubarak’s regime culminating in the bombings of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve in 2011. Christian revolutionaries believed that the end of the former president’s era would bring better times.

But their hopes were quickly dashed. Only weeks after Mubarak was ousted, a love affair between a Muslim girl and a Christian boy resulted in the burning of a church in Atfeeh in the Nile Delta governorate of Helwan.

“Since then, 25 churches have been attacked,” activist and researcher Suleiman Shafiq says. “This incident and others have left at least 59 Copts dead.”

The attacks and clashes, he says, will continue.

“As long as we don’t admit there is a problem, we will see a repeat of these incidents over and over again,” Shafiq explains.

Hundred years of discrimination

In December 2010, just a month shy of the revolution, clashes erupted between Copts and the police after a municipal council decided to halt construction of a church building in the lower middle class district of Omraniya, in the governorate of Giza.

“This incident marks a100 years of discrimination against Copts in Egypt,” Shafiq says.

In 1911, Egyptian Christians had called for the Coptic Congress of Assiut, which took place in March of that year, where they demanded an end to the increasing religious discrimination in state employment and education, proportional representation in parliament and a Sunday holiday for Copts.

However, the Copts demands were never met. A hundred years later, many blame the Coptic crisis on the increasing Islamisation of Egypt.

Shaifq insists that the issue is much deeper than that.

“In the past 100 years, there has been four kings, three presidents and 64 governments,” explains Shafiq. “These governments included 42 in the liberal era, seven during the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, seven under Anwar E;-Sadat and nine during the Mubarak era.”

Discrimination against Copts spanned all these regimes, he says. In 1934, the building code for houses of worship was introduced. The controversial law, which put ten strict conditions on building churches, is still applied to this day.

“Obviously this took place in the liberal era,” says Shafiq. “So, this is a chronic problem which will not be resolved unless we have a modern civil state in Egypt.”

When Nasser’s 1952 Revolution took place in Egypt, the relationship between the state and Coptic citizens began to change.

“They started to introduce the idea of a quota for Copts in different fields,” explains education expert Kamal Mougheeth. “In my opinion, the ‘60s is when the systematic immigration of Copts to the West began.”

When Sadat came, he empowered Islamists to fight the leftist and Nasserist opposition. This included releasing many Islamists leaders from prison and allowing Islamism to flourish on campuses.

Sadat also flaunted his Islamic faith, calling himself the “devout president” and frequently used Quranic verses and Hadiths in his speeches.

Sadat also amended Article 2 of the then-constitution to state that Islam is the religion of the state and that Sharia (Islamic law) is the main source of legislation. Before that, Islamic Sharia was just one of the main sources of legislation not the main source.

In 1972, a church in the village of El-Khanka was burned. The incident signalled serious trouble in Muslim-Christian relations.

However, according to Tadros, religious discrimination actually predates the modern era.

“The sectarian problem is a historical,” Tadros explains. “People love to believe that we had this glorious liberal age where people lived happily ever after but, of course, this is pure mythology.”

He pointed out that during the Mamluk (1250 –1517) and Ottoman eras (1517 – 1914), a strict dress code was imposed on Copts; they were also banned from riding horses and hiring Muslim servants. The last time the dress code was imposed was by Mohamed Ali in 1817, says Tadros.

After this, the legal framework of dhimmitude, which is the status of non-Muslims under the Islamic state, began to dissipate.

“But the social manifestation of it remained longer,” says Tadros. “For example Copts were not allowed into the modern schools of Engineering and Medicine before 1885.”

Even in the modern era, the situation of Copts continued to be a problem.

“Even the most liberal secular thinkers in Egyptian history had a Coptic problem,” explains Tadros. “If the Copts claimed to be the descendants of the pharaohs then [they thought] where does this leave us? If the Copts claimed to constitute a separate nation, not one seeking independence and a state, but a separate nation emotionally, this challenged the idea of Egyptian nationalism.”

He added that the Egyptian national discourse also had contradictory messages. On one hand, Egyptians were told that Egypt is a united nation. On the other, it treated the Copts as a separate community to Muslims.

“Meaning that while it does not want them to be a separate body, it acknowledges them as a separate body,” explains Tadros. “So which is it? Am I an individual who happens to be a Christian? Or am I part of this Coptic element that somehow got united with the Muslim element to create Egypt?”

S for sectarianism

In recent decades, Copts had to battle with generations of state-led prejudice in an education system that many feel demeans their religion. This system often exacerbates the divisions between Muslims and Christians.

“The main role of education is to spread the idea of equal citizenship between Egypt’s different factions,” explains Mougheeth.

He pointed out that in Egypt, if a child is raised in a Christian home, they would probably have a photo of the Virgin Mary and the crucifix on their wall. If they are in a Muslim home, they will probably have Quranic verse decorating their living rooms.

“When they enter the educational system, they should learn to focus on combined national symbols like President Gamal Abdel Nasser or football player Abu Treka,” explains Mougheeth. “The point here is to take the focus away from your own religious symbols and to encourage you to love something in common.”

But, he adds, the educational system in Egypt fails to do that.

Starting from the late 70s, the school curriculum has included an increasingly anti-Christian rhetoric.

The Islamists began trying to gain control of the education system. According to Mougheeth, they opened private Islamic schools and encouraged their children to study teaching in order to take positions in schools across the nation.

“These Islamist teachers then climbed up the career ladder until they reached decision-making positions,” he said.

By the mid-80s sectarian ideas began spreading through the schoolbooks.

“In the mid-1980s, I remember a school book that taught students in middle school that the Bible is fabricated,” says Mougheeth. “I asked myself, how could the education minister pass this?”

The Islamic faith also dominated much of the schoolbooks. One book researched by Mougheeth had 68 per cent Islamic content.

“Children were taught the letters using Muslim vocabulary like V for veil, M for mosque and P for prayer,” says Mougheeth. “Quranic verses were also taught and Christian children had to memorise them.”

Mounir Megahed, the coordinator of Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination said that all this deepened the divide between Muslim and Christian students.

“Muslims who studied this began feeling superior because their religion was positioned as the official religion,” he explains. “Christians began feeling that they are pressured to do things they didn’t want to do.”

Another problem, he says, is the “hidden curriculum,” which is the values and morals teachers instil in the students. If the teacher has an anti-Christian rhetoric, he may be able to brainwash the students to start hating their Christian friends.

“This hidden curriculum is not written in any book but the children are of course influenced by it,” Megahed asserts.

No rule of law

The lack of legislation to protect Christians only intensifies the crisis.

For years, activists and human rights campaigners have been calling for the introduction of an anti-discrimination law to help decrease the mistreatment of Christians. Before the revolution, a proposal was written, but ended up gathering dust in parliament.

Shortly after the Maspero massacre in October 2011, where more than 25 Copts died after clashes with the army, the then -ruling military council added two articles in Egypt’s penal code to criminalise discrimination. But no law was issued.

The Morsi regime has also followed in the footsteps of Mubarak by allowing reconciliation sessions between Muslims and Christians after every attack.

“These reconciliation sessions usually pressure the victim to give up their rights,” says Megahed. “So the criminals feel that they can do this as many times as they want. What we need is the rule of law.”

Youssef Sidhom, the editor of Christian Watani paper says that fanatics who incite Muslims to attack Christians are never brought to justice either. In the incident in El-Khousous, he says a Muslim Sheikh allegedly called for the people of the village to attack Christian homes.

“Today anyone can spread a rumour that may result in a tragedy,” explains Sidhom. “In a country where the law prevails, the inciter is punished more than the person who committed the crime. But not here.”

Calls for a unified building code for houses of worship have also been unmet.

The law is seen by both Muslim and Christian activists as an important step to stand up for human rights against sectarianism. Following the latest attacks on Christians, Pope Tawadros II renewed calls for the law once again. However, many activists believe that the call will fall on deaf ears.

“To date, President Mohamed Morsi has not visited the church. Not once,” says Shafiq. “He calls himself the president of all Egyptians but he never went to church.”

He added that there will be no improvement in the situation for Copts during the Morsi regime.

“The Pope speaking about the law in these circumstances is like a father talking about his daughter’s wedding dress when he knows she is dying of cancer,” concludes Shafiq. “There will be no law simply because they do not recognize the church.”

Short link: