CAIRO: On this the fourth day of Pascha, the holiest week in Christian Orthodoxy, spirituality for some has taken a back seat to civil unrest. Hurling rocks and bottles at security forces, Copts in Alexandria took to the streets for a fourth consecutive day claiming they are the victims of discrimination and inequality by the Egyptian government following the murder of an elderly worshiper inside the Saints Church.
Police say Mahmoud Abdul Razik Salah Eddin Hussein attacked several worshippers at the St. George s Church before going to Saints Church, where he allegedly stabbed 78-year old Noshi Atta Girgis to death. Hussein was charged with murder, illegal entry into a place of worship and illegal possession of weapons. Some 3,000 protesters took to the streets following Girgis’s funeral on Saturday. A Muslim man, reportedly wounded during scuffles with police, died of his injuries the next day. Christians make up approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s 73 million inhabitants.
Coptic Orthodox Christians, the largest religious minority group in Egypt and the largest Christian group in the Middle East, have long complained of the government’s failure to make the same acquiescences it does for Muslims. Coptic patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, a resilient supporter of the current government under President Hosni Mubarak, was said by people in Coptic communities to have broken down in tears during last weekends’ services. With the exception of an occasional sectarian squabble, Muslim and Christian Egyptians have generally cohabitated peacefully for some 14 centuries. In recent years the church, backed by vociferous Egyptian ex-patriots, has successfully lobbied the Egyptian government to ease restrictions on such privileges as the building of churches as well as equal media coverage on government-run television. Nevertheless, scholars say, their sense of security in a world of growing fanaticism is gradually depleting.
“[Copts] feel they are first class citizens because they are as old as Egypt itself, says Coptic scholar Milad Hanna. “It is in their practical and political life that they feel they are getting to be second class citizens. This is the paradox in which Christians are living. They are supporting the government, supporting Egypt, but they are criticizing the government about the handling of their security. As riots broke out along several blocks in the Sidi Bishr section of Alexandria this past weekend, many Copts complained that their security is not a priority for the Egyptian government. Others insisted that growing Islamic forces have worked tirelessly to encase churches within hamlets of mosques so to cap their reach within the society. “The government feels they will not like to imprison some of the Muslims . because this will flare up the situation, Hanna explains. “They do not want to annoy the majority as a cost for protecting the Copts.
“This incident in Alexandria was not due to a lack of security, adds Hafez Abu Sa ada, secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). “We can’t put security on each Christian person or at every institution or every Christian home. There is a basic lack of tolerance, religious tolerance, and we have to accept this value of accepting each other. This goes for the government too.
A series of events in recent years has created a sense of trepidation among Christian Egyptians. Last October, protests surrounding a church play recorded and sold on DVD sparked anger among Muslims who deemed the storyline offensive to their faith. I Once Was Blind but Now I See, originally performed at Alexandria’s St. George Church in 2003, told the story of a poor young Copt drawn to the practices of militant Islamists who eventually try to kill him. Thousands of protesters surrounded the church, calling the play an “insult to Islam. Three men were killed in clashes while dozens more were wounded.
Less than one year earlier in the delta town of Abul Matamir, a melee ensued following the disappearance of the wife of a Coptic priest after she was denied divorce. Wafa Constantine threatened to convert to Islam after the church denied her permission to divorce her husband who purportedly abused her, despite having lost both legs to diabetes. Rumors spread like a wildfire, some saying Islamic extremists had held Constantine captive so to shield her from the church’s influence. Violent protests erupted, and Pope Shenouda retreated into isolation at his monastery.
The most deadly incident in recent years claimed the lives of 21 people, 19 Christians and 2 Muslims in Kosheh, a city some 400 km south of Cairo. Clashes began following a dispute between a Christian cloth merchant and a Muslim customer. Neighbors interfered, and gunfire quickly followed. The Coptic Christian Church accused local police for failing to prevent sectarian violence.
Hanna believes the Copts are “passive, saying it is perhaps this over-patience that has delayed real changes. Under Islamic law, non-Muslim males must convert to Islam to marry Muslim women, but non-Muslim women need not convert to marry Muslim men. Christian men are prohibited from marrying Muslim women. The Coptic Church excommunicates women members who marry Muslim men.
“Conversion is a serious offense in Islamic Law but in the criminal law in Egypt, there is nothing against conversion, says Mahmud Moustafa, a Cairo district attorney. “However, if conversion causes some conflict between the Copts and Muslims then it might be an offense, not because of the conversion but because of the violence which it may trigger.
Article 98 of the Egyptian Penal Code states the use of extremist ideas or thoughts to undermine other religions or insult the followers of other religions or cause conflict between sects of society is a state security offense. While this has never been enforced in matters of conversions, legally it is a serious offense. “Either we accept changing religion or we do not accept changing religion, adds Abu Sa ada, who is calling for the establishment of a Religious Affairs Committee as part of the People s Assembly. The Committee should include official representatives from the Ministries of Information, Education, Endowments, Interior as well as representatives from the Church, Al-Azhar and Civil Society. “We must treat this as a citizenship issue, he says. “It is slowly getting to be two different groups, adds Hanna. “They are all Egyptians, yes. They are all educated in the same schools, yes. They live together, yes. Nevertheless, when it comes to religion, these go to church as Copts and those go to mosque[s] as Muslim and as fanaticism increases in the country, so will messages delivered by churches and mosques.