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.

Mohammed Abd El-Maaty/Egyptian Presidency/AP
In this June 30 file photo, newly-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi waves to guests after giving an inaugural address at Cairo University in Cairo.

Afaf Ibrahim Fanous walks through her brother’s former home, pointing out the fire-blackened walls, charred doorways, and gaping holes in the bathroom where the fixtures used to be. 

The thick dust and cobwebs that have settled on the ruined house since last year don’t hide the signs of the fire and looting that took place during clashes between Muslims and Christians in this small village in the rural Nile valley. As Ms. Fanous reaches a balcony on the third floor, overlooking another burned house, this one with a cross on the outside walls, she begins to weep – but not over the ruined house.

Police arrested and tried 20 people – 12 Christians and eight Muslims – for their involvement in the clashes, during which Muslim crowds attacked and burned dozens of Christian homes and shops and Christians fired guns from their rooftops. One of the those arrested for the violence, which killed two people, was Fanous's brother. 

All Christians on trial, including her brother, were sentenced to life in prison, while all Muslim defendants were acquitted. 

To Fanous, it felt like another, unbearable, injustice added to the initial attack. “All the attackers are free; they weren’t punished. But the people who tried to defend their homes are all in prison,” she says.

It has been a difficult 18 months for Egyptian Christians. During the period between former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and the election of a civilian president, in which Egypt was under military rule, there were at least 12 incidents of serious sectarian violence, often involving Christian homes or churches being attacked and burned. On New Year’s Eve, 2011, a bomb ripped through a church in Alexandria, killing nearly two dozen people. In October, Army soldiers and unidentified civilians attacked a mostly Christian protest in Cairo, killing 27 people. 

Adding to their difficulties, the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the largest in Egypt, passed away earlier this year.

Then came the election of Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Christians considered the election of an Islamist president the worst possible outcome of the vote. They fear Morsi will make it harder to build new churches and practice their faith, despite his promises to treat Christians as equal citizens.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concerns about respect for religious freedom in a speech yesterday after the State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2011. She said Egyptian authorities have failed to consistently prosecute those who commit sectarian violence, which sends a message that "there's not going to be any consequences." The report covered 2011, before Morsi took office.

“We are a little bit afraid of the future,” says Yunan Khalil, the priest of the Virgin Mary Catholic church in Abu Qurqas. “The Muslim Brotherhood is not clear. They say something, but do the other."

Morsi's history raises eyebrows

The difficulties are not new. For decades, Christians in Egypt have faced incredible obstacles getting government permission to build or renovate churches, while mosques are relatively easily constructed. Coptic history is virtually ignored in schools. There are few Christians in top government positions. Under Mubarak, the Coptic community increasingly withdrew from participating in political life, and it came to rely on the Coptic pope – who then passed away – as an intercessor with the government.

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.

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.”

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.

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