Coptic church bombing in Egypt: Mubarak must prosecute

Minority Christians -- called Copts -- rightly complain that no one goes to jail for religious attacks on them. Egypt and other countries must reverse this practice of impunity for perpetrators.

Strong condemnation of the deadly New Year’s bombing at a Christian church in Egypt has come from where it counts most: religious and political leaders of this predominantly Muslim country.

Extreme Islamists – possibly linked to Al Qaeda – are likely behind the attack that killed 21. So it’s encouraging that in Cairo, the grand sheikh of Islam’s preeminent theological institute has denounced the bombing as a “heinous crime.” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak got on national television and promised to bring the perpetrators to justice.

But will he? The Egyptian government prefers to handle sporadic violence against the country’s Christian minority – called Copts – through a “reconciliation” process between perpetrators and victims.

Reconciliation has some value, but no one does time for the crimes against Egypt’s Copts, such as murder or destruction of property. In its 2010 annual report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom rightly condemns such impunity:

“The absence of accountability breeds lawlessness, which encourages individuals to attack, and even kill, others who dissent from or fail to embrace their own religious views, including members of minority religious communities.”

With no firm pushback from the state, religiously motivated attacks on Copts are on the rise in Egypt. Some describe the violence of recent years more like a purge.

Indeed, Christians and other religious minorities – as well as nonconforming Muslims – are under increasing attack in the Middle East and North Africa, regions which a 2009 Pew study found to have the most government restrictions on religious practice anywhere in the world.

In Iraq, where Christian and other religious minority populations have dwindled under threats and hardship, the unsteady government lacks the capacity to ensure proper security. In Iran, the government itself is the persecutor. In a country such as Pakistan, antiblasphemy laws feed religious intolerance – to the point of the Jan. 4 assassination of the governor of Punjab Province, reportedly because he spoke out against blasphemy laws.

In recent years, political and religious leaders from the West and Muslim worlds have come together to further religious tolerance. That effort is important because what leaders say influences the cultural atmosphere. Their rhetoric can, for instance, bring public pressure to bear against a threatened Quran-burning (as in the United States last year).

But what leaders do is just as important, which is why it’s imperative that Mr. Mubarak follow through on his promise to “track down” and “capture” the perpetrators.

As the US religious freedom commission points out, impunity “often leads to endless cycles of sectarian violence.” The world is seeing that now, not just in Egypt but in countries such as Nigeria and Sudan. Holding religious attackers to account can help break that cycle.

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