Egypt's Copts lash out at government's anti-Christian rhetoric

Egypt's Coptic Church unleashed one of its strongest criticisms ever of the government after back-to-back deadly attacks on Copts that the pope insists were incited by harsh anti-Christian rhetoric. 

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Coptic Christians run on the roof of the main cathedral in Cairo as police fire tear gas during clashes with Muslims standing outside the cathedral Sunday.

An attack on the main cathedral of the Coptic Orthodox Church has provoked the church's strongest criticism of Egypt's leaders in decades, an indication of deepening worry over the deteriorating situation for Christians in Egypt.

Beleaguered as they have been by a rise in attacks in the last five years, many of which went unpunished, many Egyptian Christians were fearful when Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president last year. Sunday, when a crowd attacked the cathedral complex that holds the seat of the Coptic Orthodox pope, it was a realization of their fears.

And many worry that the ground is growing more fertile for attacks on Christians because of a rise in incendiary religious rhetoric. Clerics and others on religious television channels are responsible for spreading much of the bigotry and discriminatory rhetoric, but members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), as well as the Brotherhood's official Arabic website, have also engaged in discourse stigmatizing religious minorities, particularly Christians.

The violence Sunday evening, in which attackers and defenders of the cathedral exchanged rocks, Molotov cocktails, and gunfire over the compound walls, followed the playbook of most attacks on Christians – police did little to protect Christians, standing by while those outside the cathedral hurled rocks and shot at those inside.

Accounts differ about just how the violence began. It followed a funeral for four Christians killed, along with one Muslim, in religious violence the day before in a village just north of Cairo. (Another man died of his wounds from that violence a few days later.) Those outside the cathedral say the fighting began when mourners exiting the cathedral began to damage nearby cars. The mourners inside the compound say they were met by a shower of rocks when they emerged from the compound carrying the coffins.

But most agree the small police force present did nothing to stop the violence. Videos of the clashes show them standing by or shooting tear gas into the compound as those outside threw rocks or fired guns toward those inside. 

When asked to consider why the violence had begun in the first place, Mounir Atef, a young Christian man who had come to attend the funerals and ended up in the middle of the violence, did not pause.

“The Brotherhood and some of the television channels are broadcasting sectarian talk,” he said. “These channels are always saying we're infidels.”

He says that anti-Christian rhetoric has worsened since Islamist parties – ultraconservative salafis as well as the Brotherhood – came to power. “After Morsi, some people feel they can attack us without consequences,” he says.

Legitimizing incitement

Religious tensions and attacks on Christians in Egypt were also common under former President Hosni Mubarak. During his nearly three-decade rule, the police rarely held accountable the perpetrators of religiously motivated attacks, instead often insisting on “reconciliation” meetings that fostered a culture of impunity and left victims without justice. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says such attacks began to rise sharply in 2008 and continued, largely with impunity, under the military leadership that took over after the Egyptian uprising.

But analysts say the Islamist parties' rise to power has been accompanied by rising incendiary rhetoric against Egyptian Christians.

“No one can disregard the impact of Islamists since they took power on the mounting sectarian sentiment against Christians” – both religious and political, says Khalil Al Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Durham University in Britain

“Some Islamists look at Copts or Christians not only as a different religion, but they also accuse them that they are not truly Egyptians or patriots.” The incendiary discourse, he says, “can lead to legitimization and cover for sectarian incidents.”

Radicalization and sectarianism has increased among some Christians as well, Mr. Al Anani says. “We also cannot disregard the mounting radical discourse among some Christians and coptic youth. But it is a reaction to the sectarian discourse coming from Islamists.”

Public officials join in

What heightens the danger, says Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation in New York, is that such rhetoric is not just coming from clerics on television but also from FJP officials and in articles on the official website of the Muslim Brotherhood.

During December protests against Morsi at the presidential palace, which ended with clashes that killed 11 people, senior FJP leader Mohamed El Beltagy said in a television interview that the majority of the anti-Morsi protesters were Christian. The Muslim Brotherhood's official Arabic website published stories suggesting that the founder of an anarchist group called the Black Bloc, vilified by the Brotherhood, was a Christian who also led a Christian militia. During the referendum on a new constitution, the website published multiple stories alleging violations by Christian voters.

FJP officials sometimes associate with nonmembers who stir up tensions with their comments. Safwat Hegazy, a preacher who is not a member of the Brotherhood, spoke at campaign rallies on Morsi's behalf and last year warned Christians that if they “splash water” on the legitimacy of the president, “we will spill his blood.” The FJP-dominated Shoura council, the upper house of parliament, appointed Mr. Hegazy to the National Council for Human Rights last year.

This week, FJP official Mohamed Soudan told local newspaper The Daily News Egypt that Copts started the violence at the cathedral. “The Copts then took their arsenal and started the violence, and it seems they were prepared for a civil war and not a common funeral,” he told the newspaper

Such rhetoric by public officials “feeds an air of permissiveness whereby Christians are stigmatized,” says Mr. Hanna. “Even if it's not incitement, it is a huge contributing factor to have political leaders … engaging in what is oftentimes code for anti-Christian sentiment.”

In a sharply polarized society where the rule of law is weak and bigotry and sectarianism are a long-standing problem, such remarks by public officials are dangerous, say Hanna and Anani.

FJP spokesman Mourad Aly said in a written response to questions that Mr. Soudan's comments do not represent the views of the party, which had not accused either side of triggering the clashes. In response to a question about remarks by Beltagy and other officials, he said the party's official position is clear.

“We consider Christians partners in the homeland, and citizens with equal rights, as enshrined in the constitution. We reject any attempt to sow seeds of hatred or sectarian disputes between Muslims and Christians in Egypt,” he wrote, adding that Brotherhood members formed human shields to protect churches last Christmas and the party nominated Christians as candidates in elections.

“We believe that Coptic rights were violated in the Mubarak era due to mismanagement and marginalization by the state,” he wrote. “This is not what we advocate in the new Egypt.”

Coptic Church takes a stand

After the violence at the cathedral, Morsi called the Coptic patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, and promised to protect the cathedral. But the pope subsequently blasted the president in a television interview, confronting him in a way church leaders have not done since the previous pope was sent to a monastery in the Sinai by former President Anwar Sadat.

The president promised to protect the cathedral, but in reality he did not, the pope said. The church had never been subject to such an attack before, “even during the darkest ages,” he said, adding that the attack had “crossed all red lines.” 

“This is a society that is collapsing. Society is collapsing every day,” he warned.

His secretary said Pope Tawadros had five demands for the president, including applying the law equally, ensuring citizenship for all Egyptians, and changing the religious discourse. 

The unprecedented criticism from the pope and the church “is indicative of how serious they now perceive the threat. That you have increased sectarian rhetoric that exists not in the sort of unofficial space occupied by militant preachers underground, or even above ground, but is being espoused by political leaders," Hanna says.

Morsi promised an investigation into both incidents. But Human Rights Watch notes that at least five incidents of religious violence have taken place since Morsi came to office and prosecutors have only opened an investigation in one case. It has not led to any prosecutions.

“We can fairly say that the Brotherhood and Islamists did nothing to resolve and ease such sectarian tensions among Muslims and Christians,” says Anani. “They made it worse by their discourse and their irresponsible response to these kind of events.

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