Egypt moves to combat violence against Christians

In the wake of sectarian clashes that killed 15, Egypt's interim government said it will draft a new law that could better protect Christians' ability to worship in peace.

By , Correspondent

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    Egyptian Army soldiers arrest a man from his house opposite the burned Coptic Virgin Mary church, in connection with the recent attack, in the low-income Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo, on Tuesday, May 10.
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Egypt’s interim government said Wednesday it will draft a new law to ease restrictions on building churches, potentially rectifying one of the most apparent forms of discrimination against Christians in Egypt.

The new law would also make it illegal to protest outside places of worship, or to use religious slogans in elections. It comes in the wake of Muslim-Christian clashes Saturday that killed 15 people after an ultraconservative group of Muslims attacked churches in Imbaba, a poor district of Cairo.

The time is long overdue to give Christians equal rights in building places of worship, says Bahey el-din Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. But he is reserving judgment on the measure until the details are announced.

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“It is a good step forward, despite that it is too late,” he says, adding that revising the law was first proposed 39 years ago. “But you know, late is better than never. … This doesn't mean that we are sure that this will meet the essential need to secure equal rights to build and repair worship places. This will depend at the end of the day on what this proposed law will say.”

The government-controlled National Human Rights Council proposed a draft law five years ago that did not fully address the problem, he says, partly because it gave the state security apparatus final say over the decision on whether to build a church. He says he hopes the new proposal, which the government has asked a committee to draft within a month, will be better.

Under current law, Christians must seek approval from the president to build new churches or even make small renovations to existing buildings. The decision is usually left to governors, who often consult police or state security. Christians say plans to build or renovate are often delayed or denied. There are no similar restrictions for building mosques.

Government will also rebuild, reopen churches

The cabinet also said the government will rebuild churches destroyed in attacks, and reopen those shut down by authorities. At least 48 churches have been closed without explanation in past decades.

The two churches damaged in Imbaba were the latest in a string of church attacks. A bomb exploded outside a church in Alexandria on Jan. 1, and a Muslim mob burned down a church in the village of Soul, south of Cairo, in March. Days later, clashes erupted between Christians and Muslims in another poor area of Cairo, killing at least 13 people.

Though Christians protesting in Cairo welcomed the cabinet’s announcement, many said they will wait to see if the government will go further.

Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said Sunday that real change will require addressing difficult issues like school curriculum, media, and religious discourse in Egypt. A long-lasting solution, he says, will need to be implemented by a democratically elected government.

The current caretaker government was appointed by the military council ruling Egypt since former President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in an 18-day uprising in February. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for September, with presidential elections to follow.

“We don't think that the issue of sectarianism and sectarian violence is going to be addressed in a comprehensive manner during the transition," said Mr. Bahgat. "A solution to a social problem that has been ignored for four decades is going to require a parliament, stable government, and elected president.”

As the interim government tries to quell sectarian tensions, some are suggesting that members of Mr. Mubarak’s ousted regime may have fomented the attacks.

“My impression is that we have some elements from the former regime [involved]. It is not really sectarian violence,” says Diaa Rashwan, a member of the fact-finding committee on the violence established by the National Council for Human Rights. The committee released a report yesterday that also suggested extremist religious interpretations and a security vacuum also contributed to the violence.

Who was behind the attacks

Witnesses to the violence said a group they identified as Salafi Muslims, who follow an ultraconservative strain of Islam, gathered at the St. Mina church in the poor district of Imbaba and accused its members of holding inside a woman who had converted from Christianity to Islam after marrying a Muslim man.

Christian witnesses said Muslim mobs began attacking the Christians who had gathered to defend the church, and destroyed Christian homes. Egypt’s Interior minister said a local Christian businessman and former member of Mubarak’s ruling party first fired on the crowd from a building near the church.

Later, a Muslim crowd burned down the Virgin Mary church, also in Imbaba. A YouTube video, since removed, appeared to show the crowd breaking into the church and destroying it before lighting it on fire. A church employee was killed inside the church.

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