In his Wednesday sermon last week, a teary-eyed Pope Shenouda attempted to console the families of the Nagaa Hammadi shooting victims, whom he called martyrs. Later on, in a remark most observers missed, he compared the Nagaa Hammadi victims to Joseph, who was “conspired against and cast away from home by his brothers.
Whether the comment concealed an insinuation to the position of the Copts inside present Egyptian society or was an unintentional passing remark, the fact of the matter is the Pope’s biblical parable perfectly encapsulated the predominant sentiment most Copts have come to share since Jan. 7.
The fury, and grief, over the six Copts murdered on Eastern Christmas day hasn’t waned for even a minute. On Wednesday, throngs of Copts continued to flock to the Cathedral of Abbasiya. Inside, the view was downhearted: small caskets were placed in front of the grand alter as dozens of mourners, all draped in black, chanted hymns, asking God to “help in time of distress.
By now, it seems that regardless of how severe the punishment the murderers will receive, nothing will heal the wound or remedy the harm that has been done. For Copts, the Nagaa Hammadi shooting is no longer a mere crime by a gang of petty delinquents who have been wrecking havoc for the past few years under the government’s watch – this was an attack against Christianity.
Yet the Egyptian government continues to insist that the Christmas massacre was not sectarian, that it was an isolated incident. Not a single Copt I’ve spoken to in the past couple of weeks believes so. The three suspects arrested two days later were reported to be distant relatives of a 12-year-old Muslim girl “allegedly raped by a Christian. Yet none of the six murdered Copts had anything to do with that incident. This was no case of vengeance; this was a clear-cut hate crime.
The Egyptian government has been attempting to sell the illusion of harmonious Muslim-Christian relations for decades, insisting that nothing could tear “the fabric that unites the nation. Most Egyptian Christians would disagree.
In fact, relations between Muslims and Copts have been steadily deteriorating for more than three decades. More than 150 hate crimes have targeted Copts since the mid-70s; the majority of these went unpunished.
We, Copts, were all fed stories of discrimination, injustice and horror stories of Christian converts while growing up. Most Copts, at one point or another, have been subjected to religious prejudice. The vast majority, especially those residing in small villages and destitute cities, always felt marginalized and forsaken by the government.
Coptic immigration has been steadily increasing for decades. In almost every family we know, there is more than one member who moved to the US, Canada or Australia years ago. The motif isn’t a mere search for a better life; it is a strong desire to be treated as equal citizens.
Perhaps that is why a considerable percentage of Copts feel strong kinship to the West (notice the deafening cheer the American ambassador to Egypt always receives at Christmas mass). This also explains why the overwhelming majority of Copts join the Republican Party in the US. (Most Copts voted for Bush in both terms).
The Mubarak regime did adopt some initiatives to improve the conditions of Copts, but these were baby steps taken after the damage was already done. The reality is Copts are still struggling to build their churches; some have been denied top governmental positions while they continue to be virtually unrepresented in the parliament.
Copts became more isolated as church communities grew larger and stronger. The rise of Islamic extremism coincided with the beginning of a new wave of Christian fanaticism, spearheaded by the Copts in the diaspora. As the country began to immerse further into an outward form for religion, religiosity became a contest between followers of the two faiths. The measly efforts of Islamic preachers and Christian priests to bridge the gap between the two religions underline an imperative and unexamined reality: Egyptians’ rejection of the other.
The question most Egyptians face now is this: What comes first, religious or national identity?
In a nation where the greater part of the population is deprived of their rights, the national identity is becoming increasingly obsolete. Religion has infiltrated every facet of contemporary Egyptian life: politics, business, art and even sports. The recent comments by the Egyptian national football team coach Hassan Shehata regarding his decision to choose his squad based on the players’ morals sparked outrage from liberal intellectuals, with one columnist claiming that this kind of mentality “led us to the massacre of the South.
Everything is now evaluated, first and foremost, from a religious-moral prism. Clashes between the two faiths have thus become the norm, and not the exception.
The government seems clueless about the role it should assume at this stage: the rational secular role or the popular religious one. The church is no different, walking on a tightrope between political detachment and social activism.
Meanwhile, the Coptic public’s demand for more political engagement from the Church has been mounting. The Church has acquired some influence over the past decade, but never expanded into a full-fledged pressure group with the type of authority that can shape public policy.
The pacifist, distant stance Copts have maintained for decades has been abandoned. Over the past five years, more Copts have been participating in demonstrations, expressing their anger in the open.
The situation at hand has transcended Copts’ neglected rights; the catastrophe runs deeper than that. Long before the Twin Towers were hit in 2001, a clash of religions was already in full swing in Egypt. What we have now is a widespread culture of hate, nourished by political, religious and educational institutions.
Take the unfolding events of this week. Most Copts welcomed the visit of US Ambassador Margaret Scobey to the Pope, praising her for speaking out about their grave concerns which their own government is utterly disregarding.
As always, most commentators criticized Scobey’s comments, asserting that Egypt’s “local affairs are none of America’s business. The US embassy, however, later told local media that the ambassador did not raise this issue during her visit.
The rising popularity of anti-Muslim TV stations is a direct consequence of this repressed culture. For Copts, who have grown to relish their victimization, Islam has come to represent the root of everything that is wrong with this country. In a TV interview before Christmas, Pope Shenouda condemned these channels, yet he also implied that their existence functions a natural response to the anti-Christian discourse.
Egypt tends to forget pretty easily. Both public and media attention has shifted last week to the football team’s African Cup of Nations campaign. Copts remain angry, rejecting any reconciliation. Churches everywhere in the country refuse to the turn the other cheek this time around, transforming this week into grand outlets for anti-government protests.
Nagaa Hammadi will happen again. Extreme measures are required to confront this calamity. The media can do little at this point. A complete overhaul of policies is paramount. Crucial educational reforms must be implemented, starting with the termination of the poisonous religion classes.
But nothing will change anytime soon. The Egyptian government is still reluctant to take serious steps to deal with a cataclysm that’s spiraling quickly out of control; and for the time being, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for this violence.
Joseph Fahim is the Arts and Culture editor of Daily News Egypt.