By Mai Shams El-Din – Mada Masr –
June 4, 2013: Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church stood behind then Chief of the Armed Forces Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he announced the end of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi’s term in office.
Next to him was the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Mohamed ElBaradei, who later became vice president, Defense Minister Sedky Sobhy, and a variety of other public figures.
The moment facilitated a more cordial relationship between Coptic Christians and the state. Feeling threatened with Morsi and the Brotherhood in power, many Copts found a savior in Sisi, and in return, voted for his presidency in June 2014.
Sisi showed his gratitude, making a surprise appearance at Christmas masses at the Coptic Cathedral, a precedent for Egyptian presidents. The Armed Forces also promised to renovate many of the churches destroyed in the wave of violence that swept the country following the dispersal of the pro-Brotherhood Rabea al-Adaweya protest camp in August 2013.
But the resurfacing of attacks on Coptic Christians in the last few months highlights unresolved grievances and a sectarianism that is perhaps more deeply seated within the Egyptian state.
An elderly Coptic woman was stripped naked in the streets of Karm village in Minya in May, following a rumor that her son was romantically involved with a divorced Muslim woman. This led to a wave of violence against the village’s Coptic minority, with several homes looted and destroyed.
Sisi made a statement condemning the incident and promising a swift investigation, but despite statements from the church, Minya Governor Tarek Nasr denied the assault, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of plotting to cause rifts between Muslims and Copts by spreading rumors. Soon after the clashes escalated, representatives from Minya Security Directorate, Al-Azhar and local church leaders held an urgent customary reconciliation session.
A study by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) released in 2015 shows that these sessions, commonly spearheaded by the state’s security apparatus, usually lead to violating citizenship rights and often enhance discriminatory practices against Coptic minorities. Despite 45 documented cases by EIPR of sectarian violence being resolved through customary arbitration sessions in the last five years, Coptic officials have voiced their opposition to these sessions. Bishop Macarious of the Minya Archbishopric heavily criticized Al-Azhar and state institutions for resorting to such methods.
In an interview with Mada Masr, Macarious said the recent incident in Minya was the final straw. “We discovered that such sessions are not a real solution to sectarian violence, and give others the green light to commit more crimes against Copts,” he asserted, adding, “The government has to protect the state, and such protection won’t happen unless the rule of law is enforced and those who committed these crimes are referred to court.”
Coptic Christians living oversees wrote the following statement addressed to Sisi following the recent Minya attack: “We stood by Egypt and you during June 30 protests, and stood against attempts abroad to undermine your legitimacy, and held meetings in the EU, US Congress, and European parliaments along with Egyptian diplomats to defend our country and your own legitimacy. Now we want you to stand firmly against the governor and security leaders who did not protect the people. Releasing statements to implement the rule of law and then sending state officials for reconciliation sessions won’t work.”
The apparent disinterest of the state in dealing with such incidents of sectarian violence shows a disregard for Coptic citizenship. In June 2015, a Coptic man living in Jordan published photos that were deemed offensive to the Islamic religion on his personal Facebook account, which sparked a wave of violence in his village of Kafr Darwish in Beni Suef. His family was targeted by angry Muslim residents and a number of houses owned by Copts were vandalized and looted. Security forces forcibly relocated the young man’s family to another city, claiming they did so for their protection.
In June, police briefly detained a number of Coptic Christians in a village near the local Amreya district in Alexandria for praying in an unauthorized services center affiliated with the church. Twelve people were later arrested — six Copts and six Muslims — following a wave of violence on June 18 in the village, when a Coptic cleric was attacked. The Muslim detainees were released shortly after their arrest and the Copts were referred to prosecution before being released. In a leaked video showing the events, a number of protesters chanted, “We don’t want a church, Islamiya Ismlamiya.” A photo online showed the family of a Coptic citizen camping in the street after he was kicked out of his home.
Conflicts over building churches have frequently led to sectarian violence. A major protest by Coptic activists in Cairo against the demolition of a church in Marinab village in Aswan led to one of the deadliest massacres in which 23 Copts were killed by the Armed Forces in front of the Cairo Maspero building in October 2011.
Coptic Christians have been waiting for a much-promised law to regulate the building of houses of worship, an issue that has prompted much conflict over the last 40 years, particularly in Upper Egypt.
The laws currently governing the building of churches date back to the Ottoman Empire. The Hamayouni Decree, issued in 1856, gave the Ottoman Sultan supreme power to permit the building of houses of worship and tombs for non-Muslims. In 1934, then-Interior Minister Mohamed Ezaby Pasha issued a decree stipulating 10 conditions for Copts to be able to build churches, which is still in effect today.
The 10 conditions include obtaining the approval of the neighboring Muslim community and not building in a village, city or a district if there is another church nearby.
The government is expected to send a draft law organizing the building of churches to parliament, but many fear this law will never materialize.
Coptic parliamentarian for Shubra district, John Talaat, told Mada Masr that the state does not have the luxury of procrastination. “According to the constitution, this law should be passed before Parliament before its first session ends, and we are forced to pass this law no matter what happens,” he says. The first parliamentary session, which legally ends on June 30, is expected to be extended to August.
Contempt of religion charges
In February, a court issued maximum sentences of five years in prison for three Coptic teenagers who appeared in a video mocking the Islamic State, adding to a rising list of cases of contempt of religion under Sisi.
A number of parliamentarians have requested the annulment of Article 98 of the Penal Code pertaining to contempt of religion, but the Justice Ministry maintained it is essential to “fight religious extremism.”
EIPR researcher in religious freedoms, Ishaq Ibrahim, told Mada Masr that while the Coptic community still values Sisi, there is increasing anger toward state institutions and the government for not properly handling Coptic grievances.
“It is obvious that Coptic support for the government now is weaker than in 2013. People are increasingly angered by a poor response to injustice and ongoing sectarian violence. They still value Sisi for ending Brotherhood rule and his visits to the Cathedral, but if the status quo continues, they will soon direct their anger at him personally,” Ibrahim anticipates.
“Copts viewed June 30 as a heavenly intervention to save them from the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s why most of them blindly supported any measures by the state as long as it means protecting them from Islamists. With recent incidents, a major part of the Coptic population realized that the government is not working for their protection. However, they still distinguish between Sisi and the government, they have huge respect for him,” says Peter Roumany, a Coptic activist based in the southern governorate of Qena.
This is also the sentiment of Micheal Nabil, a Coptic citizen living in Alexandria. “Sectarian issues still persist,” he says, “and for this I blame the government and those who do not hold officials accountable for their failures.”