Egypt's Copts: A cry of pain

Yasmine Fathi , Friday 14 Oct 2011

The state sanctioned persecution suffered by Coptic Christians in Egypt under Mubarak's rule shows no sign of ending under the military council, ensuring the struggle for rights remains as vital as ever

Mina Daniel
A mourner cries over the coffin of Mina Daniel, who was shot dead by Egypt's military on 9 October (Photo: Reuters)

Last February, two young Egyptian men sat together in Tahrir Square. They laughed, joked and sang as they participated in the mass anti-government protests against Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak.

Young and hopeful, they camped in the square, chilly night after chilly night, until Mubarak announced that he would step down. They thought they won, that they had helped shape a better Egypt. What they didn’t know is that only nine months later one of them would be dead.

The two friends, Beshoy Tamry, 23, and Mina Daniel, 25, are both Coptic Egyptians. Despite, the years of discrimination they faced because of their Christian faith, they stood in Tahrir Square first and foremost as Egyptians. Egypt’s fight for freedom was their fight for freedom. For them, the Muslim protesters in the square were like brothers, sisters, comrades but most of all partners in the nation.

“For me, the fight was about Egypt, because I felt that the Coptic problem was a part of the overall Egyptian problem,” remembers Beshoy. “And if you can free Egypt, then you can free the Copts.”

But they were wrong. Less than a month after the revolution, the attacks on Coptic Christians began. Churches were burned, Coptic homes torched and fanatical anti-Coptic tirades began being hurled at them by Islamists. The latest attack took place in September in Aswan, when Muslim youths in the village of El-Merinab torched a church that was being renovated. A statement in response to the attack by the Aswan governor, who justified the attack by saying that the church did not have a permit, infuriated the Copts even further.

A group of activists, including Beshoy and Mina organised a march from Shubra to Maspero on 9 October to express their anguish over the latest crisis.

The doomed march turned bloody with protesters clashing with the army, which used tear gas and live ammunition to quash them.

That night, Egyptians watched with shock, as horrific images of Armoured Personal Carriers driving over protesters played out on screens across the nation. A few hours later, endless photos of young Copts, lying motionless on the streets and hospitals, dead and disfigured were posted all over the social networking sites. One of those images was of Mina, covered in a blanket up to his neck, as he lay dead on the hospital floor.

“My friend Mina fought for Egypt’s freedom during the revolution,” says Beshoy. “But he was also a Copt and he wanted to fight for his people too, but he didn’t make it. He was killed because he wanted to say the truth.”

And with these sad words, Beshoy summed up decades of pain as Copts struggled against various forms of discrimination and fought to gain their rights, build their churches and be treated as equals.

For years, the long-suffering Copts struggled as an increasingly Islamised Egypt turned against them. Former friends and neighbours began using a variety of derogatory terms to describe them, including Kafirs (heretics) and Blue Bone. Muslim Sheikhs, during the Friday sermon and through the proliferation of satellite religious channels, every day told Muslims that it is haram (sinful) to give holiday greetings to Copts for Christmas or Easter, that it is better not to be friends with them or have common business interests. And slowly the Copts found themselves isolated.

“I wouldn’t call it outright persecution but it was definitely some kind of discrimination,” says Ehab El Kharat, a psychiatrist and human rights activist. “In terms of opportunities to get promoted to places of authority [like] the government, the army or the university, you don’t have among the highest ranks of the army or university professors a proportionate representation of Copts.”

Copts also found themselves struggling to find jobs because of their faith as well as being looked over for promotions in favour of Muslim colleagues.

Additionally, while state TV aired thousands of hours of Muslim religious material per month, the Coptic Christians had to make do with a twenty-minute sermon by the Pope in Easter and Christmas.

However, the revolution seemed to bring Muslims and Christians together at last. Rampant corruption, increasing poverty and police brutality had compelled Egyptians to stand together to bring down a dictator who had ruled with an iron fist for three decades.

And gradually Tahrir Square turned into utopia. Chants of “Muslims and Christians united,” and “Long live the Crescent and the Copts,” warmed the hearts of many Egyptians as the whole world watched in awe as Christians created a human shield to protect Muslims as they prayed in the square during the uprising.

“In the square, they were faced with a common goal, common threat and an ambiguous future,” El Kharrat explains. “In social psychology, when you put people in such a situation, you produce solidarity.”

However, shortly after Mubarak stepped down, and much to the chagrin of Copts, these chants of solidarity began to fade as they were overpowered by a stronger, more powerful call, namely the chants of “Islamic State, Islamic State,” which began to be heard in protests.

Islamists, who after years of suffocation under Mubarak, were all of a sudden free, and directed much of their venom towards the Copts. On 5 March, less then a month after Mubarak stepped down, a church in the town of Sol, Atfeeh was set on fire, following a dispute between two over the romance between their Muslim daughter and Christian son.

This incident, which led to mass protests by Copts, was followed by one attack after another. In Qena, a Coptic resident was mutilated when Salafists cut his ear off as punishment for running what they claimed to be a brothel. Also in Qena, locals, once again led by Salafists, held protests in front of the governorate’s office and blocked train tracks passing through the district in protest against the appointment of a Coptic governor.

The anti-Coptic fire was catching more momentum every day. For someone like Beshoy, it came as a huge shock.

“When Mina and I were in the square, we were incredibly happy,” remembers Beshoy. “We thought that there won’t be anymore discrimination against Copts, that life will finally be good and fair. I never expected that it would become worse.”

Beshoy grew up in Naga Hammadi, a town that had nothing to do with the national unity rhetoric often bellowed on Egyptian TV. The Muslims and Christians there barely mixed. They did business together yes, but there were no house visits or exchanges of greetings during holidays. Beshoy was not invited into a Muslim home until he was 23.

“The Copts lived in isolated communities and were on their own,” says Beshoy. “I fear that this will be the model, not just in Naga Hammadi, but all over Egypt, if we don’t solve this crisis.”

For years Copts in the town – which only had one church – campaigned for a new church, but to no avail. The town’s MP, says Beshoy, was prejudiced against Copts and repeatedly denied them a licence to build a new church. It was only when he briefly lost the elections in 2002 that the locals managed to galvanise support and quickly build a new church.

Then in 2010, the massacre happened. A gunman opened fire on Christians as they emerged from a Christmas service, killing six Copts.

This incident brought Beshoy and Mina together for the first time.

After the attack, Beshoy, a soft-spoken, bespectacled computer engineering student, decided to enter politics to defend the rights of Copts against the increasing discrimination they faced. A couple of weeks after the attacks he joined the Copts for Egypt movement, which is where he met Mina. Together they headed to Naga Hammadi to attend their first anti-government protest.

“It was the first time either of us entered politics, but that’s what Naga Hammadi did, it motivated a lot of Copts to become politically active,” Beshoy remembers.

The duo became increasingly active on the political scene and participated in the pro-change movement that called for an end to the 30-year rule of Mubarak.

“I was the first to scream ‘down with Mubarak’ at the Abbassiya Cathedral,” Beshoy smiles proudly.

It was during one of his brief visits to his family in Naga Hammadi that thousands of protesters marched through Cairo and occupied Tahrir Square on 25 January, the first day of the 18-day uprising that was to oust Mubarak. Mina, who was in Cairo, joined the protests on the first day, while Beshoy returned to the capital as soon as the roads were re-opened.

“Mina and I were flying with happiness,” smiles Beshoy. “We were so filled with hope and with big dreams that things will change, that they will get better. That a new fairer Egypt will emerge.”

When the anti-Coptic attacks began, the duo held tightly to their optimism. That is until the Imbaba crisis in May when two churches and a number of homes were burned in the district after Salafists insisted that a young woman was being held captive in a church after converting to Islam.

“At this point, I saw with my very own eyes Muslims and Christians clashing and beating each other,” says Beshoy. “I also saw that the army was there and they didn’t try to stop it.”

Beshoy, who was accompanied by Mina – both wearing long beards – managed to infiltrate a group of Islamist thugs and watched with horror as they burned Coptic homes.

“We just pretended to be one of them,” says Beshoy. “And we watched helplessly as they destroyed homes.”

Then the final tragedy occurred when they both decided to join the Maspero march last Sunday.

It was during those doomed hours, that Beshoy watched his friend die. The two, who were walking together throughout the march, were both running as an army truck tried to run them over.

“Then I heard a shot and saw Mina fall to the ground,” says Beshoy. “I thought it was a silly wound. So I carried him and ran to the ambulance.”

Leaving his friend, in the care of the medics, Beshoy ran back to the scene, to help more of the wounded, but when he returned, Mina was dead.

“I was just in a state of shock,” says Beshoy. “I just stayed there the whole night with him in the hospital and until the funeral and I just couldn’t believe that my friend is gone.”
Now, only four days after his friend’s funeral, Beshoy is still seeking answers to a complicated question. Why are the Copts being targeted?

One reason, says El Kharrat, is the oppressive nature of the Mubarak regime, which made it difficult for Egyptians to accept one another.

“The Salafists were oppressed, the Muslim Brotherhood were oppressed, the Copts were oppressed and the common man was oppressed,” says El Kharrat. “And everyone found security in this kind of equation. Then suddenly, after the revolution, the lid was lifted and everybody saw other members of the group; they saw each other for the first time and many people felt that they didn’t like what they see.”

However, there are other more sinister reasons to explain the recent clashes between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians. Mubarak has previously been accused of using sectarian tension and the threat of divisions of the country to remain in power.

Analysts believed that whenever the voices of his opposition became too loud, he would pit Christians and Muslims against each other, so the attention would move away from the corruption of his regime. It was also his way of teaching Egyptians that he is the force that unites them. His famous words, “it’s either me or chaos,” were repeatedly used to silence voices of dissent.

After his fall, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took power. While there was an initial honeymoon period, revolutionaries repeatedly express their anger with the way the military council is handling the transitional period and demand that they hand over power to a civil authority. It is this tug of war between the revolutionaries and the SCAF that has made some analysts suspicious over the recent flare of sectarian tension in the country.

“Just like Mubarak used the Coptic card to control the people and stay in power, so the military council is doing so now,” says Mounir Megahed, an activist and long-time campaigner for the rights of Copts.

To compound the sense of injustice, criminals who perpetrated and led the attacks on churches and Copts during Mubarak’s rule were never brought to justice. This was a major source of pain to Copts, who had to watch as murderers got away with their crimes year after year. Instead, the former regime held reconciliation meetings between the two faiths. Now, again, the military council is using the same technique.

“The whole point of these reconciliation meetings is to pressure the victim to not pursue the case,” says Megahed.

But, this technique may no longer do the trick.

“They need to apply the law, which is what we have been asking for decades,” insisted Sameh Fawzy, a political analyst. “If someone kills a Christian, then he should be put on trial.”

They also need to find a way to deal with those who incite hatred against Copts.

“We need to bring these people to justice. To make them accountable for what they say,” Fawzy says. “The governor of Aswan said that the church was attacked because a religious cleric in the town is turning villagers against Christians. Fine, who is this cleric and why is he not being punished?”

Emad Gad, a political analyst and member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, added that the army is purposefully attacking Copts to gain legitimacy from among the country’s Muslims.

“During the Maspero clashes, they made it look like the Christians were attacking the army, which is largely Muslim,” says Gad. “And they urged people to go protect the Muslim army.”

The army, says Gad, also allowed religious parties to enter the political scene, including Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya.

“Even the man who assassinated President Anwar El-Sadat [Aboud El Zommor] now has a party,” fumed Gad. “They also allowed the Mujahadeen who were hiding in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bosnia to return to Egypt. The whole point of this is to get the support of Islamists, a powerful faction, so that they can remain in power.”

Even Islamist parties, says Gad, have turned their back on Copts. Even though after the 18-day uprising they assured everyone that they want a civil state where all citizens will be equal, now they call for a Muslim state that applies the Sharia Law.

“They were only pretending and now they are showing their real face and using the ‘Islam is the solution’ slogan again,” says Gad.

There may also be another reason for the disturbing frequency of attacks on Copts. According to Sameh Naguib, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, the SCAF is using the Copts to send a warning message to other factions in the country. Egypt, he says, witnessed its biggest workers’ strikes in history during the last few months, causing the military council to panic.

“But can they massacre the members of the public transport strike?” asked Naguib. “No, that could result in an even bigger strike by the country’s entire workforce. So they decided to attack the Copts, because they are the weak and vulnerable group in society and (can) use that attack as a warning signal to everyone else.”

All this has made many Copts feel even more alienated. Already thousands have packed their bags and left the country, while others are disappointed and disillusioned.

With the pain of his friend’s death still raw, Beshoy feels that he has no fight left in him. But, he says, he will continue in the struggle, at least so that his friend’s death will not be in vain.

“I will do it for Mina,” says Beshoy. “Even if this world is filled with injustice, the Copts will not live on their knees with their heads bowed. No, we will fight and fight and fight.”

And in an act of defiance, Beshoy, decided to do his friend one last favour.

“Mina always told us that if he is ever killed in a protest, he wants a funeral march to Tahrir Square, because that’s where it all started and that’s the last time we were happy,” says Beshoy.

However, while walking to the square, Mina’s funeral march was attacked.

“It didn’t matter,” smiles Beshoy. “We held Mina’s coffin and continued walking. We let him say goodbye to the place he loved best, Tahrir Square.”

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