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.
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In 2010, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights published a report noting the rise of sectarian violence in the past two years. Mubarak's fall from power in February 2011 was followed by a rash of attacks on churches that startled the community. Some blamed it on extremists who felt empowered to take advantage of the security vacuum.Skip to next paragraph
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Since his election, Morsi hasn’t done what Christians feared, although his apparent appointment of a Salafi, or ultraconservative Islamist, as head of the ministry that oversees mosques, has caused worry. “Morsi hasn’t done anything yet – nice or not,” says Khalil.
Yet many are wary of him. Before becoming president, he was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a large, hierarchical organization that proselytizes, does social work, and encourages a greater role for Islam in society. Morsi led the committee that drafted a detailed political platform for the group in 2007. The document said Christians and women should not serve as Egypt’s president or prime minister. That position was not in Morsi’s platform when he ran for president, but he relied heavily on religious rhetoric during the first phase of the presidential election and promised to implement sharia, or Islamic law.
Morsi is a 'president for Islamic people only'
The Minya governorate, where Abu Qurqas is located, has a large Christian population and has experienced its own share of sectarian problems over the last year and a half. The capital city of Minya sits less than four hours by train south of Cairo along the Nile. Abu Qurqas is half an hour from the city, past bougainvillea-lined roads that run along a canal feeding lush agricultural fields.
In both towns, Christian residents called the court ruling in the Abu Qurqas case unjust.
The case was tried in a state security court, an exceptional court system based on Egypt’s now-expired emergency law that routinely violates due process, according to rights groups. Verdicts in such courts cannot be appealed, but must be ratified by the executive. The verdict in this case has not yet been ratified. Often the attackers in sectarian violence are never brought to justice, deepening the sense of discrimination and alienation in the Christian community.
“It is not a fair judgment,” says Ragai Sami Nagi, owner of a four-table restaurant in Minya. He accuses Egypt’s judiciary of being under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood, and attributes the result to that. Under a Muslim Brotherhood president, “there will be no justice,” he says.
Nady Adel Naguib, another Minya resident, puts it more bluntly. “The Coptic people now don’t have a president,” he says. “Morsi is a president for Islamic people only.”
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Fear is the wrong response
Some fear Morsi will impose sharia, restrict the rights of Christians, and make them feel even more like second-class citizens in their own country. Others fear his election will embolden extremists or religious conservatives who don’t have ties to Morsi but will try independently to impose their beliefs on others.
But others say fear is the wrong response. “I know many Christians who are scared. But if they trust God, they don’t have to be afraid,” says taxi driver Youssef Kamal. He adds, “Anyway, Morsi hasn’t done anything yet.”
Even if Morsi did want to make the radical changes Christians fear, he faces many hurdles. He is locked in a power struggle with the military and Egypt’s high courts, both of which view Islamists with hostility and have moved to restrict Morsi’s power.
Fears that Egypt would become another Saudi Arabia overnight are unfounded, says Karima Kamal, a journalist who has written several books on Coptic issues in Egypt. “You can see that it's not even easy to choose a prime minister, and it's not easy to choose [government] ministers, so of course it's not easy to turn everything upside down in Egypt,” she says, referring to Morsi’s difficulty appointing a cabinet.
Ms. Kamal, like Khalil, the priest in Abu Qurqas, says Christians might well focus on what they have in common with many Muslims in Egypt, rather than isolating themselves in fear.
“Of course Copts are the ones who are most afraid, but any ordinary Muslim has his fears, his worries, doesn’t feel at ease these days and is waiting to see what’s going to happen,” she says.