Religious freedom at a crossroads

Published on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Sameh Fawzi, December 19, 2012.

Amid the polarisation between “loyalists” and “opponents” of the government during the last three weeks, the Copts have found themselves in a catch-22 situation. While the Islamists criticise and warn them for allying themselves with the secularist camp, the country’s civil opposition considers the Copts to be a force supporting basic values in society such as freedom, equity and justice and therefore as a de facto partner in the battle against the “religious state”.  

Looking at the statements made by the Islamists regarding the Copts, it seems that they are unconvinced that the latter are entitled to be treated as equal citizens in Egypt and therefore they do not recognise the Copts’ right to make free political choices.

The present atmosphere of polarisation does not help as far as religious freedoms are concerned. When the Islamists appeared as the country’s dominant political force following the 25 January Revolution that toppled the former Mubarak regime, the Copts justifiably started to think of the challenges that they could now encounter in their own country. The Islamists have been responsible for putting out ambiguous messages regarding the Copts, both religiously and politically. The Copts, in the traditional Islamist literature, are described as “infidels” because they are not Muslims and do not believe in Islam, and as a result for the traditionally minded Islamists they are not entitled to the same citizenship rights as Muslims.

The enlightened thoughts that some Islamic scholars have published over recent decades have not had a noticeable impact on the perception of the current Islamist movements towards the Copts. And the religiously motivated violence that hit Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s, albeit targeting all Egyptians, particularly targeted the Copts. The latter suffered attacks as individuals, as well as attacks on property and churches.

For these reasons, the rise of the Islamists has sparked fears among the Copts, who emerged from the 18-day struggle against the old regime with the positive feeling that their active involvement in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and the Coptic martyrs who had died during the revolution, would be enough to end the legacy of misunderstanding, lack of appreciation and mistrust that has been present between them and the Islamists. However, this has turned out to be wishful thinking, and the problems are far from over.

Distorted images of Christians have accumulated over the years in the Islamists’ minds, and as a result they are almost immune to change in the short term. On Christian feast days it has become common to hear voices in the media accusing the Copts of disloyalty and urging Muslims not to participate in events with them or even to exchange seasonal greetings.
A few weeks following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and the collapse of the former regime’s security agencies, religious tensions erupted in severe forms, with the demolition and burning of churches, increases in religious fanaticism, the convictions of a number of Copts on charges of blasphemy, etc, some of the latter resulting in lengthy sentences in prison.
President Mohamed Morsi then came to power following elections in June this year in which the Copts generally speaking voted for his rival, former prime minister Ahmed Shafik, in the run-off. Morsi started his term in office by sending out positive messages to all Egyptians, particularly the Copts, whom he repeatedly described as “citizens and partners”, promising them justice, freedom and equality. However, despite these good wishes and official meetings between top clergymen and Morsi, there has not been any improvement in relations between the new regime and the Christian community.

At the same time, while Coptic problems have not been addressed, Salafist groups allied to the Muslim Brotherhood have continued to exercise pressure on the Copts in different forms by imposing restrictions on freedoms, blocking the process of building churches or service-providing buildings, and infringing on the personal freedoms of the Copts. In some religious problems, the government has reacted positively to deal with them, but in others its role has been more ambiguous.
The government generally still relies on the same methods used by the Mubarak regime in dealing with religious tensions, by organising “reconciliation sessions” for example between Muslims and Christians despite the fact that disputes between the two have caused casualties, the destruction of property and the temporary displacement of some Christian families. There have been unconfirmed reports that an increasing number of Christians have migrated to the West following the 25 January Revolution … //

… Despite the acknowledgment in the constitution of the Christian faith, other articles inserted in the document, and not included in any Egyptian constitutions before, have sent out shockwaves to different segments of Egyptian society, including Christians. These include Article 219 that defines Sharia according to traditional methods of Sunni jurisprudence crafted in the early centuries of Islam. There is a strong fear that this article could be interpreted in a way that allows more restrictions on religious and personal freedoms.

In addition, the practice of religious freedom and the building of houses of worship, the draft constitution states, should fall within the scope of the law. There are worries over the content of any upcoming law in this regard, particularly in the light of some ultraconservative opinions expressed by the Islamists on the issue of religious freedoms before and after the 25 January Revolution.

It is difficult to disentangle the religious issue from the socio-economic problems Egypt is suffering from and from the antagonistic political atmosphere. During recent months, social protests have reached their peak, with statistics showing 300 cases in the first half of September alone across government agencies, the private sector, and elsewhere. The political antagonism, challenging economic situation, and social problems provide the inflammatory environment for intolerant practices.

At root, the situation of Egypt’s Copts is not so very different from that of any other citizens who want to be fully-fledged members of the national community. They want, like all Egyptians, to see the rule of law, a representative political system and a tolerant society.
(full text).

Links:

Egypt’s 2012 timeline, on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Mona El-Nahhas, December 19, 2012;

The Arab Spring: What went wrong, on Al-Ahram weekly online, December 19, 2012:
The Arab Spring succeeded in dislodging dictators who had clung onto power like limpets to a rock. But what would follow? The people who took to the streets, some of whom paid with their lives, gave little thought to what was to follow. In those heady days it seemed enough to rid their countries of detested regimes. Whatever came next must surely be better … (full text … announcing a coming special issue).

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