Christian TV hits Egypt's airwaves

Aghapy TV, owned by the Coptic Christian church, says it wants to promote unity. Critics worry it will do the opposite.

Aghapy TV, the first completely Christian, Egyptian-run television channel, is hitting the airwaves at a particularly delicate time.

Aimed at promoting the teachings of the Coptic Christian faith around the world, the station made its debut last month with 24-hour programming that will eventually include church services, documentaries on saints, and family programs, all in several languages. Funded by donations from around the world and owned by the Coptic Church, it airs on a US-operated satellite network.

Aghapy TV's executive director, Father Bishoy Al-Antony, says the channel's goal is to foster better relations between Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population, and the Muslim majority. "Our aim is to get Christians and Muslims closer together," he says. "God is love, and we will show them our God and our love."

But the effort comes amid growing tensions between Christians and Muslims. Just weeks before Aghapy's debut, sectarian riots broke out in Alexandria, killing three people. Parliamentary elections, which end Thursday, are giving surprise victories to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

Copts and Muslims trade insults in Internet chat rooms and Islamic satellite programs criticize Christianity, while non-Egyptian Christian satellite stations target Islam. Analysts worry that a station like Aghapy could deepen the sectarian divide.

"I am against Christians having one TV station and Muslims having another," says democracy activist Negad Al-Borai. "This is part of the problem, not the solution."

Copts and Muslims talk nostalgically about a time when religious affiliation mattered far less. That was before the 1970s, when former Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat began supporting Islamic groups in a bid to counter leftist groups. Sadat announced that he was a Muslim president for a Muslim nation, and made Islamic law Egypt's main source of legislation.

While Egypt's constitution provides religious freedoms for citizens, the Hamayonic Decree, a remnant from Ottoman law, remains in force, requiring a presidential permit to build, renovate, or even make minor repairs to churches.

Discrimination prevents Copts from serving in senior government posts, the police, and military. No Copts are governors or public university deans. Earlier this month, US lawmakers warned that their support for US aid to Egypt will depend on greater governmental protection for Copts.

"Why not let a Copt work in government?" says Bassem, a Coptic accountant, who had aspired to be a diplomat. "In our universities you can't enter certain colleges. It's clear: You're a Copt, you can't enter."

One Copt elected

This year, the ruling National Democratic Party nominated just two Christians for the 444 electable seats in Egypt's parliamentary elections. Only one Copt, Youssef Boutros-Ghali, has been elected to date. As Egypt's finance minister and nephew to former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Mr. Boutros-Ghali had considerable influence within the party.

Analysts say that discrimination against Copts has contributed to the rise in sectarian violence. In late 2004, thousands of Christian protesters clashed with police over the alleged forced conversion of a priest's wife to Islam. In 2000, 21 Christians were killed when sectarian fighting erupted in the southern village of Kosheh.

Muslim-Copt segregation is growing

The tensions between Copts and Muslims are rooted in an increasing segregation, commentators say. With the country more fundamentally religious and with government services in decline, Muslims have tended to turn to mosques for help, while, more recently, Christians have turned to their churches.

Some private companies restrict their hiring to a particular sect, while schools often inculcate in children a sense of religious distinctions.

"More and more day-to-day life revolves around the church for Copts and around the mosques for Muslims, which makes them more divided," says Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, a Copt and former parliamentarian with the opposition Wafd party. "This is an extremely dangerous situation."

The gains of the Muslim Brotherhood during the elections, using the slogan "Islam is the solution," are chilling for some Copts. "It's a catastrophe," says Adel, a Coptic manager at a glassmaking firm. "It will make our situation much worse."

Indeed, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood argued this week against letting Christians hold senior leadership positions. "If we are to apply the Islamic rule, which says that non-Muslims have no guardianship over Muslims, then a Christian may not be president," Mohamed Habib insisted.

Government officials argue that they are addressing the sectarian tensions in Egypt. "Whenever there is a complaint, we act right away," says Osama Al-Baz, President Hosni Mubarak's political adviser. "Not through police measures, but by amicable means, by talking to people and telling them that it is a travesty of justice to treat a non- Muslim differently than a Muslim."

Some civil groups are trying to bridge the divides. After the riots in Alexandria, two nongovernmental organizations conducted a fact-finding mission there, later recommending that a committee of both religions be formed to discuss solutions. Egypt's National Council of Human Rights, which has close ties to the government, also is studying sectarian problems.

Activists say that greater democratic reforms will strengthen religious rights. "With freedom and democracy and the right to participate," says Fahmy Howeidy, a political analyst, "people will believe that this is their country, to build together."

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