Religious violence unlikely in Egypt

  • March 16, 2011
A Christian cleric clasps hands with a Muslim sheik during a rally to demonstrate unity between Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, March 11. The rally took place after recent sectarian clashes left 13 people dead. (CNS photo/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany, Reuters)Despite a church-burning and Muslim-Christian rioting that killed 13 and wounded 140 in a Christian neighbourhood in Cairo March 8, Egyptian Christians don’t believe their country is headed for a spiral of Iraq-style religious violence.

“Egypt won’t become Iraq because the nature of the Egyptian person throughout history is that he loves to live in peace,” Catholic student Fady Bushra told The Catholic Register in an e-mail from Cairo.

“We are all angry. It has nothing to do with being Christian or being Muslim. We are all Egyptians,” said Egyptian-born Germaine Raie of Holy Family Coptic Catholic Church in Toronto.

But even as they express confidence that Egyptians don’t want communal violence, Raie and Bushra are worried there could be more incidents.

“This is due to ignorance or less educated people,” said Bushra. “Forty per cent of Egypt’s population is under the poverty line, which makes these people an instrument for anybody to lead them — especially if he is talking in the name of God.”

Though late on the scene when the revolution broke out, the Muslim Brotherhood is beginning to exercise more influence on events, said Bushra.

“I don’t think Egypt will take such a route (similar to Iraq), but which route it’s going to take and how long it takes, that’s the question,” said Raie.

In the meantime, Church leaders and institutions are taking a cautious approach to the revolution that saw young people occupy Tahrir Square for 18 days in February, forcing Hosni Mubarak from the president’s office.

“We like to have a low profile, that’s for sure,” said Carl Hetu, executive director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association of Canada.

The CNEWA is known as the Pontifical Missions in the Middle East. It finances schools, clinics and agriculture programs in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and other countries. Taking its lead from Catholic bishops of the region, CNEWA has avoided community organizing or any advocacy that would push toward democracy.

“Representing a minority, we want to make sure that in any change of any government or political regime there has to be respect for minorities,” said Hetu.

Whether the Church will clearly stake out a position on the side of the young generation demanding change is entirely up to local bishops, not outside agencies like CNEWA, he said.

“We will never defy what the local patriarch wants to say,” said Hetu.

So far the Church has been a non-factor in a revolution driven by a young population without jobs but with access to the Internet, said 37-year-old office manager Raie.

“The Internet and satellite TV and all this opens to the world over the last 15 years,” she said. “It’s made for a huge change among Egyptians. It makes them open to what is happening around the world.”

Despite her relatively young age, Raie finds that she grew up in an entirely different Egypt than her nieces and nephews. When she was a student, Egyptians needed a letter signed by the prime minister to access the Internet. During the Tahrir Square revolution her nieces found government attempts to block the Internet laughable.

“Auntie, don’t worry,” Raie’s nieces told her. “We know how to cheat the government. They don’t understand the Internet. We do.”

The Church is similarly divided between an aging leadership and a new generation, Raie said.

“When (Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Orthodox Copts) said you’re not allowed to go to the demonstrations, Christian young people said, ‘You only have authority in my religious life; you can tell me what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to the Bible, but when it comes to political life I have the right to choose,’ ” she said.

Within the Church, young priests have supported the revolution while the aging leadership seems unsure, said Raie.

“Christians here don’t want to have a Christian president or something like that,” said Bushra. “All they want is to live in peace and do their prayers without problems.”

But basic religious freedom has been a growing problem since the 1970s, according to a March report from CNEWA.

“Since President Mubarak took office in 1981, more than 1,500 violent attacks against Copts left thousands of Christians killed and injured,” said the CNEWA “Report on the Plight of Christians in Egypt.”

Among the incidents which demonstrate a deteriorating situation for the 10 per cent of Egyptians who are Christian:

  • New Year’s Eve 2011 in Alexandria a bomb killed 23 Christians leaving church. Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed it carried out the attack because Christian women who had converted to Islam were being held against their will. The women deny this.
  • Jan. 11 an off-duty Muslim police officer shot at Christians on a train, killing one man.
  • Nov. 24, 2010 police killed four Christians in a protest over security forces shutting down construction of St. Mary’s Church in Talbiya, a poor Christian suburb of Cairo. Among the dead were a four-year-old suffocated by tear gas. Christians complain that government authorities block all construction and even repair of Christian churches.
  • In May 2010 3,000 Muslims attacked the Coptic Christian population of the city of Marsa Matrouh. The mob destroyed 18 homes, 23 shops and 16 cars while 400 Copts were barricaded in their church for safety.
  • In Kosheh, a village 500 km south of Cairo, 21 Christians were killed and 260 businesses destroyed or looted in 2001. Those accused of leading the attack were freed by court order and no one has faced criminal prosecution.

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