Egypt's Coptic Christians Endure Harassment by Muslims

Labeled `infidels' by militant Islamists, they're detained, sometimes tortured

SOON after Wanness Sweha, a Christian, advised a neighbor not to convert to Islam, the police came knocking. They arrested Mr. Sweha and two family members, and imprisoned them for six months without formal charges.

Since their release last September, Sweha, an elderly tailor, and his family live in fear. ``They go to work and the church and never speak about religion,'' says Sweha's lawyer, Moris Sadek. ``They have no freedom.''

Despite increased efforts by human rights groups to stop discrimination against Egypt's Coptic Christians, inequalities persist. Christians can convert legally to Islam here, but Muslims are not permitted to convert to Christianity.

At least 10 percent of Egypt's 58 million population are Copts. The name comes from the Greek word Aigyptios, meaning Egyptians. They consider themselves the country's original inhabitants, direct descendants of the pharaohs. Their church, founded in the 1st century AD, is one of the oldest in Christian history.

Police harassment of Copts, who are suspected of proselytizing to Muslims, is a routine practice. And militants, seeking to create a pure Islamic state in Egypt, also target Copts as ``infidels.''

Christians - particularly those whose family members have converted to Islam - are increasingly harassed by police, according to Gamal Abdel-Azis, a human rights lawyer in Cairo. The harassment of family members of converts has long been prevalent in Upper Egypt, but has recently shown up in Cairo, Mr. Azis says.

Police often call Christians to the police station after one of their family members has disappeared mysteriously - presumably converting to Islam - and ask them to sign a paper that guarantees they won't harm their relative. The family is not told the whereabouts of their missing relative, or whether the person converted freely to Islam or was coerced by a militant group, human rights activists say.

Police say they must protect the convert from the Christian family that, they say, often tries to force the convert back into the Christian fold. Boutros, not his real name, has spent weeks searching for his teenage daughter who disappeared three months ago. At that time, police detained Boutros, his son, and his brother in a crowded cell for two days until they signed a paper promising not to hurt their daughter.

Boutros says he just wants to know what is happening to her. ``I have spent my life savings. What more can I do?'' he asks.

Harassment of Christians can get even more brutal. In one case, a Christian book printer in Cairo, suspected of spreading his religion, was detained six times from August 1990 to March 1992, a November 1994 report from Human Rights Watch/Middle East states.

A dozen security police officers came to the book printer's shop in August 1990, seized his machinery and religious books the shop was printing, then took the Christian printer into custody.

The police never identified themselves or issued a warrant for the printer's arrest.

While in custody, the book printer's interrogators kept asking him the same three questions: Who gave him the money to do his printing? Who told him to print his religious books? And who was going to distribute the books? When the printer did not provide names, he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks.

Copts also came under attack when Islamic militant groups launched their violent campaign to overthrow the Egyptian government nearly three years ago.

While political analysts say Copts are no longer targets of Islamic militant groups, extremists killed 12 Copts in 1994 and nine in 1993, according to the Cairo-based Center for Human Rights/Legal Aid.

Human rights groups say that an increasingly religious Muslim government and populace continue to discriminate against Copts:

* Police do not intervene when Islamic militants attack Copts.

* The government levies severe restrictions on the construction and repair of churches.

* Copts are underepresented in government - Egypt's 454-member parliament has only five Copts - and discriminated against at work, and barred from top positions in the military, universities, and public companies.

`THE [Egyptian] state has sent a clear message that the Copts can be discriminated against,'' says Chris George, executive director of Human Right Watch/Middle East in New York. ``They are treated as second-class citizens.''

Recently human rights groups increased efforts to help Egypt's Christians. The Human Rights Watch/Middle East report released last November attacks the government's treatment of Egypt's Christians.

The Cairo-based Egyptian Organization for Human Rights launched a campaign to stop discrimination against Copts late last year. An EOHR fact-finding mission is investigating the rights of Copts in Egypt, and plans to publish the results of this project and distribute them to government ministers and the media in June.

Discrimination against Copts began to increase two decades ago when former President Anwar Sadat decided to tolerate political Islamic organizations to counter leftist opposition groups, human rights activists say.

Since then, the government has made greater use of laws that discriminate against Copts. An archaic 1856 Ottoman statute prevents Copts from building or repairing their churches without the Egyptian president's ``express permission.''

Clergy complain that it can take years to paint a wall or build a bathroom. Copts say authorities close churches that have been open for decades and arrest people suspected of using their homes as places of worship.

In contrast, mosques can be built simply with a license from the local official engineering department or without any government approval at all.

While accusations of rampant discrimination continue, government authorities deny any unequal treatment of Copts. ``They are full citizens like any other full citizens,'' says one official. ``We don't look at Copts as minorities, but as Egyptians.''

Human rights groups say the government's discriminatory practices have encouraged Islamic militants to use violence against Copts.

The recent upsurge in Islamic militancy began in May 1992 when extremists gunned down 13 Copts in the Upper Egyptian village of Dairut, 190 miles south of Cairo.

While the extremists have been reined in by the government in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, Copts are still having trouble forgetting the recent violence against them.

``We are afraid,'' says a Coptic door-to-door salesman, who asked to remain anonymous. He is speaking softly in the pharmacy of a Coptic friend in the slum area of Imbaba, a former Islamic militant stronghold. ``Every one of us feels we can be killed at any moment.''

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