Respecting religious rights in Egypt

It is good that the Egyptian Minister of the Interior has taken note of his country's Coptic Christian minority's complaint that in recent months Copts have borne the brunt of acts of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists. The Minister, Muhammad Nabawi Usmail, told the Egyptian Parliament: "We will not allow extremist Muslims or Copts to stir up trouble in Egypt and threaten the security of our people." That may sound an even-handed rebuke to the overzealous of both the Muslim majority and the Christian minority in Egypt. But what manifestly prompted Mr. Ismail's statement was the unusually desperate gestur against Muslim fundamentalist violence by the aggrieved Synod of Egypt's age-old Coptic Church.

Frustrated by what the Coptic community feels is the Egyptian government's reluctance to arrest and indict those responsible for sectarian violence against Copts, the Synod decided to forgo the usual joyous celebration of Easter in Coptic churches throughout Egypt. The Copts allege that some of their churches have been damaged and that members of their community have been abused and insulted in many parts of Egypt.

Few Muslim heads of governments have as tolerant and enlightened an attitude toward all religions as has President Sadat. Those who know him say he is imbued with a deep awareness of the equality of all men and women before God. There are Copts in his government. One of them is Foreign Minister Boutros Ghali, known to many outsiders for the continuing prominent part he plays in the follow-up negotiations to the Camp David accord. Mr. Ghali will be in President Sadat's party when the Egyptian leader visits the White House next week.

But Mr. Sadat is under heavy pressure from Muslim fundamentalists, now is resurgence in Egypt as in other Muslim lands, not only for coming to terms with Israel but also for giving definitive asylum to the deposed Shah of Iran. It may therefore be understandable why Mr. Sadat has been reluctant to do battle with his Muslim fundamentalist critics on the additional issue of enforcing the guarantees for security and freedom which Copts enjoy on paper under the Egyptian Constitution.

All three of the great monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Islam, and Judaism -- have intermittently been embarrassed by their own zealots, fundamentalists, and extremists. One need recall only what is going on today in Northern Ireland or on the West Bank of Jordan. On the latter, both Mr. Sadat and Mr. Ghali are certain to be making the point to President Carter that the peace process is hindered by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's acquiescence in Jewish zealot plans for Hebron. Presumably they both are aware that their point will be made all the more effectively if nobody can catch the Egyptian government out for not curbing its own zealots at home.

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