Egypt government bears brunt of Coptic Christian anger

As protests continue in the wake of a Jan. 1 church bombing, the fault lines are growing between the Egypt's Copts and its secular regime.

Nasser Nasser/AP
The Islamist bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day sparked widespread protests, such as this one in Cairo. Copts are angry with the government, which they see as discriminatory.

Sweet, smoky incense filled the dim sanctuary of one of Cairo's Coptic Christian churches recently as congregants gathered to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period for two young Coptic men killed in clashes with police.

Women wearing bright head wraps and traditional dresses pressed into pews alongside worshipers in more urban dress as the priest chanted prayers at the Church of Archangel Sorial and St. Mina.

Reflecting the nervousness of a community still recovering from the Jan. 1 bombing of a fellow church in Alexandria, one woman grabbed the wrist of a visitor, flipping it over to check for the cross tattoo that most Coptic Christians bear. Outside, security forces ringed the block surrounding the church, while auto rickshaws whizzed by herds of sheep scouring the garbage-strewn streets.

It was in this neighborhood, Al Omraniya, that violent fighting erupted between Christians and police in November when local authorities halted construction on a church building.

The clash marked a rare outburst of anger that's been quietly building for years in Egypt's Christian community. That anger was ignited a month later by the New Year's Day bombing of an Alexandria church that killed 23 people and sparked widespread protests. Islamists are widely suspected in the bombing, which came just weeks after an Al Qaeda-linked website published a list of Coptic targets around the world, including the church in Alexandria.

But it was not Muslims who bore the brunt of Copts' anger after the bombing, as the government feared. Instead, thousands of passionate Egyptians protested against the government. Christians say they will no longer take the discrimination, injustice, and marginalization the regime has long subjected them to.

"There is no justice for us," says Yousuf, a young Copt from Al Omraniya whose brother was one of 157 arrested in the riots. "So why are we going to vote for them? The church should not support the National Democratic Party," he adds, referring to the ruling party that gained an even tighter grip on power in recent elections.

Coptic Orthodox Church leaders have supported the Egyptian regime for decades despite Copts' discontent, partially because they fear the alternative is an Islamist takeover of the country.

But the events of the past year have repeatedly put that relationship to the test, and now signs of fault lines are growing.

In parliamentary elections shortly after the Al Omraniya fighting, the head of the Coptic church, Pope Shenouda III, reportedly cast his ballot for an opposition candidate rather than the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Local priests, who normally encourage their congregations to vote, were silent. And after the Alexandria bombing, the pope issued a mild but rare criticism of the regime in an interview on state television.

"The state also has a duty. It must see to the problems of the Copts and try to resolve them," he said.

The growing popular outrage – hundreds of Copts protested again Wednesday after a policeman fatally shot a Copt on a train, though it was not clear that the person was targeted for being Christian – may be too much for the church to dispel without distancing itself from the government. That's an unwelcome prospect for a regime that is battening the hatches as it prepares for a new leader.

President Hosni Mubarak – widely believed to be grooming his son Gamal to replace him – has ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years, during which Egypt has become increasingly divided.

The growing Islamization of society, combined with the discrimination Copts feel from the government, has propelled them to seek refuge in the church.

"The [Coptic] church in Egypt is playing many roles – defender of Christian interests, mediator between bureaucracy and Christians, and as a state within the state for Christians," says Emad Gad, an analyst at the state-funded Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "When a Christian faces any troubles, he just goes to the church and the priest helps him in solving this dilemma."

Close church-government ties benefit both sides at the top. As the church becomes more insular, the regime is able to manipulate an entire segment of the population – more than 7 million Copts – by dealing with the pope. That gives the pope himself a great deal of leverage. Dr. Gad says that at election time, the church often asks for the building permits it needs.

Those incentives help explain why the church has supported the NDP even while it complains of discrimination. While constructing a new mosque is simple, the church must get permission from the president or governor to build a new church or even make simple renovations to existing houses of worship.

Justice is routinely denied in cases of violence against Christians, and the government refuses to acknowledge religious motivations as a factor in attacks against Copts, usually blaming the crimes on other factors. While the first article of Egypt's Constitution says citizenship is for all, the second says that Islamic law, or sharia, is the basis of all legislation.

These grievances accumulate in part because the government fears that any overture to Christians would anger Islamists, who it sees as the biggest threat to its power. Some also accuse the security forces of being anti-Christian, their brutal treatment of Islamists notwithstanding.

But many problems arise at the local level, when Muslim officials and bureaucrats act on their own prejudices. (Copts are underrepresented in local governance as well as parliament.)

Father Mina Zarif leads the church in Al Omraniya, which was supervising the construction that caused the clashes. Sitting in his cramped office, where pictures of saints adorn the walls, he says the church had the necessary permits to build, but that the local officials stopped them regardless, without justification, and then sent security forces to viciously storm the building. "The local government is against us," he says. "It is clear. We don't doubt that." When asked how far up the opposition goes, he says, "To the heavens."

He describes a harsh and violent attack on the church building under construction, during which witnesses said police used tear gas and fired at those present. Angry youths threw stones at police.

To some, a solution requires the rank and file Christians breaking out of the box that the political relationship between their church and government has put them in. Instead of allowing the church to negotiate for their rights, Christians should demand equal treatment under the law as citizens, says Sameh Fawzy, a Coptic columnist in the newspaper Al Shorouk.

"Copts should be dealt with as citizens within the state, not citizens in the church," says Mr. Fawzy. "It's dangerous to deal with Christians as a monolithic group. We shouldn't squeeze them into one box in the pocket of the government."

Related: Who are Egypt's Copts, and the Middle East's other Christian populations?

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