Easter for Egypt’s Coptic community passed on May 5 without incident came as a relief for many Christians who have felt increasingly under threat after early April’s violence in Al Khosous and Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral.
The fighting in Al Khosous on April 5 left four Christians and one Muslim dead. The funeral, which took place at the seat of Egypt’s papacy, St. Mark’s Cathedral, witnessed attacks on the mourners within the church compound by unknown Muslim assailants, Reuters reported on April 6. Witnesses accused the police of standing by as mourners were attacked and firing teargas into the compound.
In a rare display of discord, on April 8 Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Church, criticized Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi for not protecting the church during the funeral.
Egypt Independent reported that Pope Tawadros called for the vigilant application of justice and the law. Morsi had telephoned the pope the previous day, April 7, to say he considered any attack on the church a personal attack on him.
Although Morsi attended Easter services last year as a presidential candidate, he instead offered this year’s Easter greeting to the pope via telephone. Pope Tawadros II, who led his first Easter service since becoming head of the Coptic Church, read out a list of names of other Egyptian leaders who had also greeted the pope by phone. Reflecting the current political divide, the worshippers applauded the most loudly for Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Sheikh Mazhar Shaheen of Omar Makram mosque by Tahrir Square, and head of the Judges Club Ahmed Al Zend, all of whom are perceived to be engaged in their own battles with the Muslim Brotherhood dominated government. President Morsi’s name received very little applause.
For Mary, a Shubra resident who works for a local NGO, her extended family tried to dissuade her from permitting her son, a prep school student, to attend Easter services. Mary’s reaction, echoed by others, was matter-of-fact, “If you die in church, you die a martyr.”
Christians constitute 10% of Egypt’s population of 84 million. Although they have a long historical legacy in the country, they have complained of societal and institutional discrimination for decades.
Alfred Raouf, co-founder of the Free Egyptian Movement and a member of the Constitution Party, said: “Starting after Sadat, especially after the peace treaty with Israel, there was no outside enemy anymore. The Christians become the new ‘other,’ the internal enemy. Sadat didn’t have a strong ideology, and was having a difficult time with the Nasserites and socialists, so released many of the Islamists from jail to help combat them. He encouraged the Islamists and fueled the sectarian divide.”
The current situation of Brotherhood rule is the worst-case scenario for many in the Christian community. According to the Catholic Relief Services’ Cairo office, as of mid-March, almost 100,000 Christian families had left the country in the last two years over fears for their future.
For Raouf, the number of Christian emigrating is endemic of the country’s situation, and not unique to Christians. “Everyone wants to get out, including Muslims,” he said. “Christians just usually have families outside who can help them, and some countries have immigration policies that make it easier for them.”
Mary (whose full name is withheld because of her employer’s terms) resists the idea of leaving. “Solving the problem is not to emigrate,” she said, but then looking at her son, added: “But, I’m also rethinking this. If Morsi wins a second term, I’ll leave if they succeed. I need a future for myself and my son. But, I don’t think this will last for another four years.”
Her son, John, is more pessimistic. “Things are going to keep getting worse for another 30 to 40 years. At least in America or Britain, I’ll have a chance to live a better life.” He explains that his motivations for wanting to leave are a combination of the deteriorating economic, political and sectarian conditions.
Bishoy Tamry, a university student and member of the Maspero Youth Union’s political committee, said: “The Christians who call for emigration are a betrayal. What we think in the Maspero Youth Union is that we will continue our struggle with the Muslims against the regime. We know the ways of peaceful struggle to make a positive difference.”
Many Christians believe that the cause of Christians is closely linked with moderate Muslims. “What impacts them, impacts us,” said Mary. “The Salafis don’t consider them Muslim, and the Brotherhood wants to marginalize them.”
Said Rouaf: “After the revolution, the Islamists are speaking more freely on TV and in the media, whereas before they would say everything only in the mosques. Now, people are refuting them and criticizing them publicly, and it’s mainly moderate, sympathetic Muslims, not even the Christians. We will suffer for some time, but now the wound is open, and we have to clean it. Before, the wound was sealed with everything toxic festering inside.”
During Easter, there was controversy over a fatwa by Brotherhood leader Abdel Rahman al-Barr, who argued that Muslims are unable to greet Christians for Easter without compromising their religion. There was a flurry on social media denouncing the comments, and many popular bloggers and commentators wished the Christian community a happy Easter. Saad El Katani, the head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, also sent his Easter greetings to the heads of the three churches celebrating the holiday last Sunday.
Regardless of words of solidarity and the reconciliation meetings, which generally occur between the mosque and the church after any sectarian incident, including the violence at Al Khosous and St. Mark’s Cathedral, the underlying fact is that the law needs to be applied to overcome mistrust between the religious communities.
“The perpetrators know that they will never be brought to justice, that they will get to escape,” Raouf said. Although many have been happy with the new pope for his rare criticism of Morsi following the incident, and believe that he may be a stronger force than his predecessor, Raouf still blames the church for agreeing to sit down with anyone representing the attackers at all.
He also views the root of sectarianism in the failure of the state to provide services. “All of the social services, including hospitals and schools, are next to a church or a mosque. As long as the state cannot provide, this gap will be filled by religious institutions.” Gaining support, and votes, by providing social services has long been a strategy used by the country’s Islamists, and one that is believed to have helped the Brotherhood win the last elections.
Reflecting on the future, Tamry worries that as Christians become increasingly fearful of this regime, they will withdraw from political life and get used to political attacks. However, at the same time, he sees hope in the deteriorating conditions,
“With Mubarak,” Tamry said, “Christians had a sense of safety, and now with the Brotherhood, the only way to be better is to change. In a way, it’s better than the past.”