In Conference Speech

By George Gurguis, MD – President of Coptic Solidarity

Good morning. I would like to welcome you and thank you for attending Coptic Solidarity’s ninth annual conference. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank our distinguished guest speakers for joining us. Their participation and your presence with us today suggests that you care about the cause of the Copts and about Egypt. We have an impressive array of speakers, and I look forward to hearing their perspective and their recommendations.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Egypt’s Copts: Faces of persecution”.

Copts enjoyed a relatively satisfactory level of freedom in Egypt’s modern history up until the 1952 army coup. A strong undercurrent of discrimination against the Copts started shortly after the so-called 1952 revolution – several of the “Free Officers” who led the 1952 army coup were members of the Muslim Brothers – and existed during Nasser’s era with an agricultural land grab through the “Agrarian Reform Law,” which disproportionately targeted property of Christian families, churches, monasteries, and the confiscation of private businesses of prominent Copts. Furthermore, they were marginalized in the political process which followed cancellation of political parties, and through setting a limit on the number of Copts in the cabinet and other state institutions. While violent attacks on Copts occurred, they were very sporadic. Collectively these measures deprived Copts from the support of prominent figures in their community who would represent their political interests, and by default left the church, an essentially spiritual institution, as the only institution to represent their interests vis a vis the government.

We can justifiably date the current or modern wave of persecution of Egypt’s Christians to the early nineteen seventies with Sadat releasing the Muslim Brothers and establishing al-Gama al-Islami‘a in universities and other institutions. While on the surface it might seem that Sadat’s immediate goal was to counter Nasserite, leftist and communist forces that threatened his rule, Sadat had a different agenda. A member of the Muslim Brothers himself, he bragged about participating in political violence, which the Muslim Brothers conducted against the monarchy before the 1952 coup. His statements in 1965 as a General Secretary of the Islamic Conference, his fascination with  Zia’ul Haq of Pakistan, his close relationship with King Fisal of Saudi Arabia and his praise of Iran’s Islamic revolution as the greatest revolution since the French revolution, betray his Islamization plans for Egypt from the outset. Discrimination increased during Sadat’s era, particularly starting in 1972 when violent attacks on Copts, their churches, and properties escalated. Large-scale incidents of violence started with large numbers of Copts killed during incidents such as el-Khanka and el-Zawia el-Hamra. For Sadat, these attacks were not sufficient reason for the church to protest. Sadat condoned such attacks with pronouncements such as “I’m a Muslim president of a Muslim country.” In fact, some accused the state security apparatus of inciting sectarian violence to Sadat’s political advantage. When Copts in the US demonstrated against him during one of his visits to Washington, he put the Coptic Patriarch under house arrest in his monastery, away from his flock and attempted to split the church leadership. He abused the term “Copts in emigration” to paint them as treasonous, to split the Coptic community, and to incite hate against Copts. State-owned media began to be flooded with the likes of Sheik al-Sha’rawi who openly denigrated Christians and their beliefs. Similar incidents with increasing frequency occurred in various parts of the country, particularly in Upper Egypt. Islamists with their characteristic garb roamed the streets intimidating both Christians and moderate Muslims. Christian-owned jewelry stores, pharmacies, and other stores were favorite targets to plunder.

No lessons were learned from Sadat’s assassination. Religious extremism and violence against the Copts, with the government’s passive condoning continued to escalate during Mubarak’s era. Large-scale attacks in Abu Korkas, el-Koshh (twice) and in Nag Hammadi, in addition to numerous others continued up to the January 2011 New Year’s attack on the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria, shortly before the January 2011 popular uprising. Muslim Brothers and other fundamentalist Islamist groups proliferated and were allowed to spread their fanatic ideology in the Egyptian society. Extremist Wahabi teachings, foreign to the nature and character of the Egyptian, were imported from Saudi Arabia and found fertile ground in a society where education had plummeted. Egypt’s financial woes left it open to exploits of the Arab oil money, which fostered religious fanaticism. Members of the Muslim Brothers infiltrated state institutions to the extent that now these institutions are incapable of fighting extremism or reforming themselves. Educational curricula ingrained hate of people of non-Sunni Muslim faith in children from an early age up to college. Fundamentalist Islamist ideologies and practices invaded every aspect of the social space, gradually leading to the withdrawal and marginalization of the Copts, and other minorities in their own society, rendering them second-class citizens.

Attacks on Christians continued after Mubarak’s demise during the transitional period under the control of Egypt’s SCAF, with famous attacks on the Mar Mina and Mar Guirguis churches in Sol, Mar Mina in Embaba and Mar Guirguis in Marinab. However, the loss of life and during these attacks is incomparable to the large massacre perpetrated by Egypt’s Army against peaceful Christian demonstrators at Maspero on October 9th, 2011, during which 28 Christians we killed, with live ammunition or trampled under the army’s armored personnel carriers, and 300 wounded. Coptic Solidarity chose this incident to mark it as an annual remembrance day for all modern Coptic Martyrs. To this day, no responsibility has been assigned to those who ordered the attack.

The one-year rule of the Muslim Brothers witnessed, in addition to the by now regular attacks, the unprecedented attack on the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, seat of the Coptic Patriarch under the watch of police forces who reportedly were inciting the mob. This attack would symbolically be comparable in its meaning to an attack on St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Once in control, the Muslim Brothers suspended the parliament and the judiciary as they sought to establish a religious state or a Caliphate, and apply Shari‘a. Talk of imposing a poll tax, jyzia on Christians , which was abolished in the late nineteenth century for the first time since the seventh century Islamic Arab conquests, circulated. It was said, “If Christians don’t like it they could leave.” One hundred thousand Christians emigrated out of Egypt that year.

The June 30th, 2013 second uprising, which witnessed 20 million Egyptians taking to the streets, and the Egyptian Army’s intervention which brought an end to the Muslim Brothers’ rule, demonstrated Egyptians’ fundamental rejection of the Muslim Brothers Islamist agenda. The pogrom of Wednesday Aug. 14, 2013 during which 25 Christian were killed, 86 churches, 3 ancient monasteries, 4 schools, and 230 houses were burned, not including other Christian-owned businesses, in what was described by the Right Honorable Lord Alton of the UK as the Copts “Kristallacht”, showed the depth of the Islamists hatred of Christians.

President Sisi finished his first four-year term and was recently re-elected for a second term. His friendly gestures towards Copts have remained just that, as his government has failed to protect them, their churches, or their property. His call for reforming religious discourse has gone ignored by al-Azhar, and no meaningful reform of educational curricula in state-run public schools or universities materialized. Salafi Islamists have continued to spread their extremist teaching in every corner of the social space inciting hate of people of any faith other than Sunni Islam. More importantly, attacks on the Copts have continued with a ferocity that exceeds those observed during Mubarak’s and even the Muslim Brothers’ rule. In addition to major attacks such as the bombing of St. Peter’s church, el-Botrossia, in el-Abassia, Cairo, the Palm Sunday twin attacks on St. Marks cathedral in Alexandria and St. George in Tanta, the attack on pilgrims to the monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor, and the attacks on Copts and their forced evacuation in Northern Sinai from El- Arish without help from the government, what we notice is a persistent stream of violence, incidents during which a smaller number of Copts are killed; some in their own homes while asleep, some in front of their shops, or a priest killed in broad daylight with the sign of the cross carved on his forehead. In the summer of 2017, the government being unable to protect them, advised Copts and churches to cancel their summer activities and pilgrimages to ancient churches and monasteries, several of which remain closed to the public. In 2017 alone, 100 Copts were killed. The summer of 2016 witnessed numerous attacks, which prompted Bishop Makarios of Mynia to state (and I paraphrase) that hardly 3 days pass without hearing about an attack on Copts. The much-touted church construction law of 2016 has kept the same loopholes of the old law. Not one new church was granted permit. It also failed to fulfill one of its major components, namely the legalization of 3,700 already existing churches (only 53 churches were approved early this year). At this rate, it will take 71 years to grandfather unlicensed, already existing churches. Arbitrary church closures in small villages by Security Forces continued bowing to threats of violence by Islamist mobs, all of which leads us to ask, what has changed in the condition of the Copts that lead USCIRF to remove Egypt from its recommended list of Countries of Particular Concern?

While this is not meant to be a comprehensive chronology of the modern wave of persecution of the Copts, (other organizations are documenting that) we can see that in the span of approximately sixty years or two generations, old sensibilities changed, and whereas Christians and Muslims made good neighbors, now the regular Muslim Egyptian is taught not to befriend Christians or people of other faiths, congratulate them on their religious feasts, or even share other social celebrations with them. Some communities in villages in Upper Egypt are now segregated by religion further breeding animosity and mistrust. Nasser’s discrimination against the Copts, which was rather impersonal applied through various laws or presidential orders that seemingly applied to everyone, gradually morphed into open persecution from Sadat’s era on to present time where the violence is person on person. Thus, we see a relationship between the rise of a totalitarian fanatic Islamist ideology under the Muslim Brothers, el-Gamaa al-Islamia, Salafis or other extremist groups and the modern wave of persecution of Egypt’s Copts, which was further strengthened by importing extremist Saudi Arabian Wahabi teachings and the rise of international Islamic terrorism. This rise in violence and persecution occurs with the Egyptian government’s blessing., The government until today has shown lack of political will to confront these extremist groups despite calls by Egyptian thinkers to confront the Islamists or risk internal destabilization and lawlessness.

Persecution of Egypt’s Copts has many faces and exists at many levels in the government, and in the society at the individual and group level. In the early twentieth century Copts occupied fifty percent of government posts. There were Copts in the major leadership positions in various government institutions, including the Prime Minister’s post. Starting in 1952, initially through a process of attrition, but later through overt systematic religious discrimination, we now rarely find Copts in any meaningful government posts. Presidential elections being a sham not withstanding, no Copt could run for president. No Copt could be vice president or prime minister. The cabinet since Nasser’s era will only have one or two symbolic Coptic ministers at the most. No Copt could occupy the posts of Foreign ministry or ministry of defense. Of Egypt’s 27 governorates, there isn’t a single Coptic governor even in governorates with a large concentration of Christians. There are no Copts in specific institutions such as National Security, any of Egypt’s intelligence agencies, or National Defense Council, the Republican Guard, or presidential palace offices. Copts are seriously underrepresented in police and military academies. In the judiciary, Copts occupy only a meager 2% in various judiciary bodies. In the parliament, the total number of Copts represents 6.5%. If we exclude the number of appointed Copts and those on the temporary restricted list, their percent would drop to 2.01%. Of the 24 parliamentary committees, there isn’t a single Copt that serves as chairperson any of these committees, and only 3 out of 72 Deputy Chairpersons are Copts. Discrimination is also observed in the promotion process in various ministries or government institutions and only a few make it to positions of General Manager or Undersecretary.

In the area of education, public school curricula trivialize approximately 700 years of Coptic history or one third of Egypt’s history in the common ear. History curricula glorify the Arab conquests picturing Copts, the indigenous Egyptians, with their long Pharaonic and Hellenistic-Roman heritage and civilization as inferior to the conquering Arabs. Public school compulsory Arabic language courses mix language with religious precepts that denigrate non-Muslims. Coptic Christians students are forced to provide “the correct” answers that denigrate their own history and faith or risk failing their classes. Assigned readings in various colleges or universities include books that denigrate Christians and people of other faiths. Of Egypt’s 18 state-run universities with 70 leadership positions, there isn’t a single Copt who is appointed as a president, and only 4 out of 960 dean and vice dean positions are occupied by Copts. While Copts represent about 12% of the total population, they represent 25-30% of college students However, the number of Copts who make it to faculty positions is below 5%. Coptic medical graduates are prohibited from pursuing a career in obstetrics and gynecology, one could only assume for perverse fears.

A developing country such as Egypt spends E£12.3 billion of taxpayer’s money on al-Azhar University while spending only E£ 2.8 billion on Cairo University. One only needs to know that al-Azhar high school graduates are allowed to enroll automatically in all police and military academies to understand the fanaticism and prejudice that is characteristic of the police and the military. In contrast to its earlier more moderate years, al-Azhar has grown to espouse extremist fanatic Islamic teachings, which it instills in its students. Al-Azhar is beginning to attracted international attention lately as more authorities worldwide are becoming increasingly aware of its role in producing extremists and would -be terrorists.

Religious persecution by the government could not be more blatantly expressed than when it comes to building churches and allowing Coptic Christians to practice their religion. While there are no restrictions on building mosques of any size or anywhere, building a church requires approval by the governor (until October 2016 it required a presidential order) and clearance by the Army and several state security agencies, as if churches present a threat to national security. The new 2016 church construction law has failed to deliver on what it promised, a clear streamlined process without much red tape or loopholes. It also failed to deliver on one of its major components, the legalization of 3,700 already existing unlicensed churches. Arbitrary closures of churches by Central Security Forces using the excuse of bowing to the demands of fanatic mobs and keeping the peace remain a common occurrence. Rumors of Christians gathering in a house to pray are sufficient reason for mob attacks and for security forces to arrest the house owner, a repeated occurrence that prompted Bishop Makarios of Minya to state that worshiping has become a crime. Depriving Copts from practicing their religion aims to humiliate them and erode their 2000 -year -old religious heritage, language, and culture. Copts have been arrested for praying at unlicensed churches, while fanatic Islamist mobs that attack or burn Copts’ houses and churches go unpunished on the excuse that the church was unlicensed in the first place and hence the attack was not a crime, an example of collusion between the government and society in persecuting its Coptic minority.

Blasphemy laws, or the so-called denigration of religion laws, have been applied during Sisi’s rule more than ever before and are conveniently used to silence political dissenters, Muslim reformers, or people of other faiths. While more Muslims are charged with blasphemy, more Christians are actually convicted of blasphemy according to USCIRF’s 2017 report. Young Christian children and youth were charged with blasphemy even when mocking terrorist organizations such as ISIS. While the law is supposed to equally protect Judaism and Christianity from attacks, the field is wide open for fanatic Islamists, Salafists, and Muslim sheiks to denigrate the Christian faith, curse Judaism, and every other non-Sunni faith in their speeches, TV programs, and at the end of every Friday prayer without fear of having charges of blasphemy or hate speech leveled against them. This lopsided application of blasphemy laws reveals a bias to protect Islamist ideologies while emboldening the denigration of other faiths and their minority followers.

Contrary to Egypt’s constitution, there is no freedom of conscience or of belief in Egypt. While a Copt may freely choose to convert to Islam or leave their faith for no other faith without any legal consequences, a Muslim may only do that on pain of death. A Muslim man can marry a Christian woman, however all their children have to be raised as Muslims. A Christian man cannot marry a Muslim woman. Orphan Christian children who lose both parents have to be raised Muslims in case they become wardens of the state. Other faith groups such as Baha‘i, Hindu, and Buddhist, are not acknowledged as such. One’s faith is documented on the state-issued identification cards, and official forms necessary for conducting daily business. This makes Copts and all other non-Sunni minorities vulnerable to discrimination and harassment at the individual level with state officials.

Denial, obfuscation, and deceit have been the Egyptian government’s main response to the ongoing religious persecution. Copts are not a minority; Copts are “part of the national fabric”; there is no discrimination or persecution only innocuous sectarian strife. This has been the Egyptian government’s mantra since Nasser’s time. Sadat’s belligerent dealings with the Church reflected a supremacist mindset; Copts should be grateful and not complain or protest even when attacked and killed. Since his assassination, through Mubarak’s era to present time, Coptic affairs have been relegated to various state security agencies. Egypt’s government does not see oppression or persecution of its Coptic minority as a religious freedom and civil rights issue but as a security issue. Being Christians, Copts in the Islamist’s mindset must owe their loyalty to the Christian West, they must not be trusted and must automatically be thought of, as would traitors. Although the era of colonialism and using minorities are a reason for military intervention by Western military powers is long gone, the Islamists’ mind with its paranoid proclivities still thinks this is the case in our modern time, despite the fact that Copts have never sought or requested protection from any foreign power. In reality, these bogus claims are used in a manipulative way to justify their hatred and attacks on the Copts and keep them on the defensive. Denial has also extended to the church, which has been co-opted and under intense pressure to deny any ongoing persecution contrary to reality on the ground. Letters denying persecution have been issued by various church authorities in Egypt and delivered to visiting foreign politicians. State security has pursued every Coptic rights organization to either co-opt them, infiltrate them from within, or disband them using threats and intimidation. The Egyptian government’s denial of the ongoing persecution of the Copts is in itself a form of impunity as it has been noted  in this conference in previous years.

At the level of the society, either at the group or the individual level, prejudice, discrimination, harassment and persecution of Copts, and people of other faiths has become a common daily occurrence. Individuals and groups commit such acts without second thoughts, and I doubt that they are even aware of the nature of their behavior. Individuals are raised to accept this behavior as the norm. Riled -up by a false rumor or by an inflammatory Friday prayer sermon, mobs will attack Christians’ homes pelting them with stones inducing fear in Christian families which usually live amidst majority Muslims’ homes. Mobs have attacked churches forcing worshippers to lock themselves in the church. These incidents are not mere anecdotes. They are not uncommon occurrences in Egypt. Coptic women, easily identifiable by not wearing head covers or by wearing a necklace with a cross are harassed, and some are raped. A good majority of the Egyptian society has now been brainwashed to accept extremist teachings that are often times simplistic. The society is awash with religious edicts, fatwas, which are now available even at kiosks in metro stops as fast food or drive through services. One can obtain fatwas concerning any personal problem. Fatwas concerning farewell intercourse with one’s deceased wife, nursing adult males, spitting to ward off the devil and intercourse with animals feature in the social discourse. A few weeks ago, Egypt’s Grand Mufti issued a fatwa that drinking water or eating during the month of Ramadan is not an issue of personal freedom, but is “an attack on Islam.” Egyptians have been arrested by the police for that despite the fact that no violation of this nature exists in Egypt’s penal code. These fatwas are used for social engineering purposes and to discourage Egyptians from thinking for themselves.  A woman dean of one of al-Azhar’s colleges issued a fatwa, which gives license to raping non-Muslim women. An attorney on a TV program justified violating women who don’t wear the hijab, indirectly inciting attack on Coptic women while simultaneously directing a veiled threat to Muslim women. After the attack on the Sufi mosque in Northern Sinai, a TV news anchor during an interview on the air said that she could understand why Christians are attacked but could not understand why fundamentalists attacked other Muslims. This tongue slip shows how perpetrating violence against Christians has become “understandable” so to speak. A supremacist mindset and totalitarian ideology can only underlie this violence that seeks to subjugate other human beings who do not share its vision.

The following are examples of the violence at the level of society be it on individual or group, some of these examples demonstrate collusion between the government as represented in the police, security forces, the army among other government institutions:

  • The so-called arbitrary “reconciliation sessions” during which Coptic victims of violence forgo their right to pursue their attackers in court, reconcile under threat of yet another violence or attack; Coptic victims have no say in these sessions which are held in presence of high ranks from the local police, security or other government officials in addition to religious representatives. The Coptic victim is helpless facing a fanatic community that imposes its will on the victim who is now used as a scapegoat to keep the peace in the village community. Victims, individuals or families, have been asked to leave their villages “to keep the peace.” In the twenty-first century, animals have been demanded as compensation, sometimes these animals are sacrificed in the streets or the Copt is required to present his own death shroud and be spat on.
  • Conflicts involving multiple Christian families who dare to defend themselves and their homes against their attackers result in forced migration of these families from their ancestral villages, mounting to a slow pace religious cleansing.
  • The kidnapping and forced conversions of Coptic women with the collusion of police forces and al-Azhar. Often underage girls are kept in hiding until they reach the legal age to convert. These women are not even allowed to meet with their families or their attorneys to ascertain they have done so of their own free will.
  • The kidnapping of young Christian children for ransom. In some cases the police is negligent in conducting necessary investigations.
  • The murder of young Christian soldiers in their army units, some are shot in the back, some their bodies carried signs of severe beating or torture. However, the army would cite suicide or seizures as the cause of death. 10 cases have been documented since 2006, seven of them occurred between 2015-18 on Sisi’s watch. To our knowledge these cases have not been satisfactorily investigated and no responsible individuals were brought to justice.

In closing, there are numerous recommendations one can make, large or small steps towards achieving religious freedom and equality for the Copts. For the past five decades, Copts have been subject to incessant and worsening persecution. There are no indications of this escalating persecution reversing course or even levelling. The optimism that Mr. Sisi inspired initially has faded. Egypt’s government, with Mr. Sisi as president, clearly lacks the political will to confront the fanatic Islamists or enforce the law. After four years, sentimental gestures have failed to translate into real or significant positive changes for the Copts. The Church has been co-opted and remains under immense pressure. It is in no position to provide moral support for the Copts in their struggle for religious freedom and equal civil rights. Egypt’s economic challenges are immense. But the real threat to Egypt’s internal stability is embodied in a culture of religious extremism. Unless Egypt’s government sets out to change the existing culture, any economic loans or aid will be to naught.  Religious fanaticism, intolerance, and violence have shackled Egypt’s immense human resources and wasted the talents and creativity of its youth. Copts are the soul of Egypt. They stand for freedom of conscience, individual liberty, and responsibility.  I believe that silent moderate Muslims do too.

If Mr. Sisi is sincere and wants to leave his impact on Egypt’s history, let him start with taking specific steps within his power to end the exclusion of Copts from various state positions, and initiate concrete actions towards changing the culture; and the economy will follow naturally.

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