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Egypt's beleaguered Christians worry about persecution, neglect under Morsi

The past 18 months have been particularly trying for Egypt's Christians, who have clashed with Muslims and lost a religious leader. Now they wonder what life will be like under an Islamist president.

By Correspondent / July 31, 2012

In this June 30 file photo, newly-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi waves to guests after giving an inaugural address at Cairo University in Cairo.

Mohammed Abd El-Maaty/Egyptian Presidency/AP

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Abu Qurqas, Egypt

Afaf Ibrahim Fanous walks through her brother’s former home, pointing out the fire-blackened walls, charred doorways, and gaping holes in the bathroom where the fixtures used to be. 

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The thick dust and cobwebs that have settled on the ruined house since last year don’t hide the signs of the fire and looting that took place during clashes between Muslims and Christians in this small village in the rural Nile valley. As Ms. Fanous reaches a balcony on the third floor, overlooking another burned house, this one with a cross on the outside walls, she begins to weep – but not over the ruined house.

Police arrested and tried 20 people – 12 Christians and eight Muslims – for their involvement in the clashes, during which Muslim crowds attacked and burned dozens of Christian homes and shops and Christians fired guns from their rooftops. One of the those arrested for the violence, which killed two people, was Fanous's brother. 

All Christians on trial, including her brother, were sentenced to life in prison, while all Muslim defendants were acquitted. 

To Fanous, it felt like another, unbearable, injustice added to the initial attack. “All the attackers are free; they weren’t punished. But the people who tried to defend their homes are all in prison,” she says.

It has been a difficult 18 months for Egyptian Christians. During the period between former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and the election of a civilian president, in which Egypt was under military rule, there were at least 12 incidents of serious sectarian violence, often involving Christian homes or churches being attacked and burned. On New Year’s Eve, 2011, a bomb ripped through a church in Alexandria, killing nearly two dozen people. In October, Army soldiers and unidentified civilians attacked a mostly Christian protest in Cairo, killing 27 people. 

Adding to their difficulties, the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the largest in Egypt, passed away earlier this year.

RELATED – Who are Egypt's Copts?

Then came the election of Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Christians considered the election of an Islamist president the worst possible outcome of the vote. They fear Morsi will make it harder to build new churches and practice their faith, despite his promises to treat Christians as equal citizens.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concerns about respect for religious freedom in a speech yesterday after the State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2011. She said Egyptian authorities have failed to consistently prosecute those who commit sectarian violence, which sends a message that "there's not going to be any consequences." The report covered 2011, before Morsi took office.

“We are a little bit afraid of the future,” says Yunan Khalil, the priest of the Virgin Mary Catholic church in Abu Qurqas. “The Muslim Brotherhood is not clear. They say something, but do the other."

Morsi's history raises eyebrows

The difficulties are not new. For decades, Christians in Egypt have faced incredible obstacles getting government permission to build or renovate churches, while mosques are relatively easily constructed. Coptic history is virtually ignored in schools. There are few Christians in top government positions. Under Mubarak, the Coptic community increasingly withdrew from participating in political life, and it came to rely on the Coptic pope – who then passed away – as an intercessor with the government.

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