Across the street from my cousin’s apartment in Rod al-Farag, an area in Cairo’s populated Shubra district, hangs a poster that depicts the former Coptic Pope Shenouda III. A note saying “many thanks to all Muslims who supported us in times of grief” marks the bottom of the photo. The thank you message came to spread about as the death of the Coptic leader had struck his followers in late March 2012. Similar words of unity were uttered during Shenouda’s funeral, three days after his passing. Then, a senior cleric paid respect by saying “it is because of him [Shenouda] that we have national unity with our Muslim brothers”. The words recollected the efforts the Pope had made to bolster interfaith ties in the country. One of the measures includes a ban he imposed on the Copts, preventing them from visiting Jerusalem. “Except with our brothers the Muslims, following the liberation [of Jerusalem]” Shenouda had said – following the example of his predecessor Cyril VI in 1968.
However, contrary to the hopeful messages expressed by the Coptic clergy, Egypt has suffered from sectarian tensions ever since the Free Officers took power over the country in 1952. The wide unionist tendency that unified Muslims and Christians in early 2011 has also proved to be largely transitory. In this respect, the 2011 revolution has failed to bring back a sense of “Egyptianess” the country had known during (and long after) the 1919 revolution.
Likewise, in the months after Mubarak’s downfall, the volatile political situation further engraved the weak position of the Christian minority. After the infamous bombing of Alexandria’s Qediseen Church, days before the protest against Mubarak was initiated, similar attacks continued to take place under Field Marshal Tantawi (and his successors, Morsi and Mansour). The height of the violence was reached in the days following the dispersal of two pro-Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo on 14 August. Then, more than 40 churches (and many more houses and shops) were torched. As is the case with the bombing of the Qediseen church, most of the ravaged churches and maltreated families still wait for any form of reparation.
The larger attacks only form the tip of the iceberg. In less covered attacks, Copts have proven to be even more vulnerable. Forced expulsions, child abductions, raping, drive by shootings, murder and other crimes against Egypt’s Christian minority are widespread, with a higher incidence rate in the more rural areas of the country (such as the Minya province). Often citing “a lack of evidence”, the state apparatus has failed to bringing justice, leaving the culprit virtually victorious.
In the procedures following the violence, Christians are often forced to renounce their right to justice, and accept the result of so-called “reconciliation sessions”, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has found. During these informal meetings, local police officers and religious leaders gather, forcing the victim(s) to “reconcile” with the offender(s). Among the procedure’s critics is Bishop Makarios of Minya. The traditional hearings “fail in dealing with the root of the problem… hands are shook before the media, greetings and smiles were exchanged, while hearts remained filled with hate” he said, talking to al Monitor.
For a long time now, the impunity and judicial bias against Copts have been a point of criticism put forward by human rights activists. Yet, up until today, the country’s leaders fail in bringing solutions. The state has, moreover, instigated sectarian violence itself. As with the case of the 2012 Maspero Massacre, where 28 Christians and their fellow Muslim supporters got killed in the hands of the military during a demonstration that denounced the demolition of a church (on top of that, another 31 demonstrators were later put to trial in military courts). Or, the 2009 pig cull, when officials ordered to killing of 300,000 to 400,000 pigs belonging exclusively to Egyptian Christians.
A new republic?
When it was voted on in early December 2013, Egypt’s amended constitution saw only little progress. While the revised document enhanced the status of the state apparatus, Egypt’s religious minorities saw minor advancements. An article stipulating the “absolute freedom of belief” was introduced but only pertains to the three monotheistic beliefs (and excludes followers of the Shia Muslim tradition). Copts, who were promised that “all barriers to building churches” would be eliminated, were disappointed when a final decision on this symbolic dossier was put off yet again. As Article 235 states today, the coming House of Representatives is ordered to “issue a law aimed at regulating the construction and restoration of churches in a way that ensures that Christians perform their religious rites freely”. There is, however, little doubt that a spectacular breakthrough will actually take place. Since 1952, Copts have struggled to obtain the needed warrant to build, renovate or even patch up a church’s toilet, the authorisation for which is the responsibility of the country’s president.
Paying lip service to the Coptic issue, high officials, including president Adly Mansour, former interim premier Beblawi, and presidential candidate Al-Sisi, have, meanwhile, met with Coptic Pope Tawadros, a strong supporter of the 3 July military takeover. Yet, it remains to be seen to what extent real progress will take place in a post-Sisi Egypt. For now, the impunity, as sectarian violence persists throughout the country.
If Egypt’s new rulers are in for a real change, they must start by disclosing the correct size of Egypt’s Christian population. Henceforth, this step should allow Copts to have a more accurate representation of their interests in the country’s institutions. The Copts, too, have a duty to rely more on party politics for channeling their aspirations. In time, the latter should replace the Coptic Pope as the voice box for his coreligionist in political affairs, and add to a more pluralist Egypt.