Copts welcome Easter amid hope, fear and determination to fight for rights

Ekram Ibrahim , Sunday 24 Apr 2011

In the midst of rising sectarian tensions, some Copts are considering fleeing the country while others opt to ready themselves to fight for social and political equality and emancipation

Coptic and Muslim protesters in Tahrir square raise the cross and the Quran to underline unity

The January 25 Revolution has succeeded in inspiring countless Egyptians and offering them hope of a new, egalitarian state. As Egyptian Copts celebrate Easter filled with these new hopes, socio-political developments have burdened this section of society with fear as some of them consider the notion of leaving the country while others equip themselves politically, readying for coming political battles.

The latest Salafist incidents have caused considerable panic and depression among many Egyptians, leading several Copts to grapple with the thought of escape. “As a lawyer, I have recieved several calls from terrified Copts who want to flee the country,” Nabil Gobrial, a human rights lawyer, told Ahram Online.

After the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February several incidents of sectarian violence have taken place, including the burning of the Two Martyrs Church in Soul village in March.

A group of Muslims, enraged over a love affair between a Muslim woman and a Copt, burned down the church. Things, however, went further than the church burning as some Muslims attacked Coptic residents as well, forcing them to leave their homes.

The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has rebuilt the church as the village Copts begin to return to their homes, but no one, as yet, has been held accountable for the events. The lack of a thorough investigation has raised many fears about how willing are the current interim rulers in forcefully clamping down on anti-Coptic incitement and attacks.

“The SCAF didn’t treat the issue fairly; the law should have been enforced,” said Dina Samir, a freelance writer.

Moreover, protests erupted in the Governorate of Qena against the appointment of a Coptic governor.

Alonside the extremists’ sectarian actions and speeches, Copts are worried that the SCAF is not showing sufficient resolve in prohibiting such behaviour, and punishing it when it does take place. “We need security; they need to take actions against this misconduct,” stated Samir.

Politicised Salafist and Islamist speeches were not regularly heard in Mubarak's Egypt, as Salafists acted within the limitations and parameters set for them by the State Security police, which backed Salafist movements in an attempt to both undermine the Muslim Brotherhood, and intimidate Egyptian Copts. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned and worked under severe limitations.

“It is a crisis of democracy rather than religion; if Muslims did not free themselves from old ideas, things will get even worse,” Father William Sidhom told Ahram Online.

Moreover, Copts fear political marginalisation and possible isolation from the rapidly expanding political scene. For example, the constitutional referendum committee assigned by the SCAF had no Coptic figure involved whereas Tarek El-Bishry, known for his Islamist leanings, headed the committee, which also included a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In contrast to the despondency shown by some, there are many Copts are thrilled about the new political scene in Egypt, viewing changes as very promising signs which will require some extra effort from all sections of the society.

Copts are increasingly becoming more politically engaged. The most prominent example of this is business tycoon Naguib Sawiris's formation of a liberal political party called “Free Egyptians.” Furthermore, many prominent Coptic political and intellectual figures and activists are involved in the leaderships of other political parties. Samer Soliman, a political science professor, is a leading member of the newly formed Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

“The only way for Copts to voice their opinions and demands as citizens is through political parties,” Soliman told Ahram Online.

The participation of Copts in the Egyptian political arena came after many  Copts disobeyed Pope Shenouda, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, when he discouraged his flock from taking part in the Egyptian revolution. Many Copts participated in the 18-day protests, protecting Muslims from thugs during their prayers by making human shields. Coptic masses were also held in the square.

“The Church's role should be kept to worship only, I am glad several Copts are beginning to realise this,” said Kamal Zakher, a secular Coptic thinker.

Meanwhile, Copts stress the importance of demanding their rights, which had suffered from long disregard.

“A unified houses of worship law benefits all Egyptians,” Hani Riad,a human rights activist and coordinator of the January 25 Youth Movement, stated. Riad has participated in several anti-sectarian protests which took place after the 18-day uprising, demanding the rights of Egyptian Copts.

Adding to the hope of many Copts, several reports began circulating in Egypt following 25 January indicating that the old regime was largely responsible for the bombing of the Two Saints Church which took place on New Year’s Eve 2010. Additionally, political analysts are describing how the old regime used the threat of sectarian tension in Egypt to keep its hold on power and maintain the status quo.

“Now we know that Muslim citizens are not our enemies, and this is a source of tremendous relief to many copts, however the fight for a secular country will not be an easy one after all the sectarian feeling that the fallen regime had acted to spread” said Fakhr Botros.

According to Soliman, a democratic Egypt can be achieved via the creation of a political participation law, the SCAF should work on separating religion and politics and the political parties’ law should be revised to enable the participation of all sections of Egyptian society.

“A civil society with awareness and education and laws that criminalise discrimination, are what we need for a better Egypt, not just for Copts,” stated Soliman.

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