The annual Coptic Youth conference held every autumn by St Mark’s Church in Shubra, Cairo, is an event the young men and women in the congregation eagerly await. This year, however, an unexpected surprise lay in store for the participants. Even though the four-day conference is usually concerned with spiritual and social matters, this one departed from the norm and introduced a topic of vital importance these days, that of youth participation in political life. And, more surprising, the speaker who addressed the young congregation inside the church premises was a Muslim—writer and journalist Hamdi Rizq.
Let me dream
The opening address was given by Ibrahim Youssef, a professor of medicine at Cairo University and the main supervisor of the meeting.
“Citizenship, as we know it, is that as long as I have an Egyptian ID I am Egyptian; I perform all the duties and get all the rights of an Egyptian citizen,” Dr Youssef said.
“Our target in this symposium is to announce that we are implanted in this country, we love it and will never leave it, whatever the reason. We are not a weak minority; we are Egyptians, regardless. Let me dream that while I am a professor at the faculty of medicine I may one day be vice-dean, or university president. Let me dream that there would one day be a Coptic defence minister or a Coptic minister of interior.”
Dr Youssef introduced journalist Hamdi Rizq, who spoke about the recent constitutional amendments which included an important and much-publicised article stating that the Egyptian Constitution was based on citizenship.
Learn to love
“Hopes are still possible, dreams are still possible and songs are still possible,” Mr Rizq began, quoting a widely popular song. He continued: “I have seen all of you before; everywhere, in the street, at school, in stores and supermarkets. Do you think you look different from us?
“The concept of ‘the other’ is not real,” he went on. “How can we say ‘the other’ when a Copt is part of me? The Egyptian Christian is not only a first class citizen but also a distinguished one. Copts are a human store of physicians, pharmacists, businessmen, agriculturists, and so on, How can we ignore such a store?”
Mr Rizq said the recent constitutional amendments were but texts. “Texts can’t teach us to love one another,” he said. “Even if we had an article in the Constitution that said Copts had the same rights as Muslims, it would be no use unless Muslims were convinced of the concept. The government did its work and changed the text, but it can’t change mindsets.
“I believe the sectarian disease that has infected our generation hasn’t infected yours yet; you are the generation of globalisation and secularism which has no particular religion.”
Nabil Shehata, an engineer and one of the supervisors of the meeting, thanked Mr Rizq for his frankness and open-mindedness. “You tackled the concerns of these young people; deep concerns that cannot be solved by just seeing a priest shaking hands with a sheikh,” Dr Shehata said.
“The State announces it is Islamic. And we have seen no positive result of all the laws and decisions issued by the government.
“I believe citizenship means abolishing the religion box from ID cards, official papers, and not least from the minds of the majority, which is what the government has failed to do.
“Schoolchildren are obliged to study verses from the Qur’an by heart. The Egyptian media is completely biased towards the Islamic side; Qur’anic verses are aired at the beginning and end of TV and radio broadcasts. This makes me feel that I, as a Christian, am a second class citizen. Even when any channel broadcasts Mass it is only for an hour, as if it were doing us a favour.
“When a Copt says to a Muslim, ‘Good morning,’ he replies ‘Peace be upon you, and the mercy of God and His blessing’, which is an Islamic salutation. Can you tell me, in which leading post can we find a Copt? What should I do when I read a job advertisement which declares ‘Copts need not apply’? Why is a mosque inside an illegally-built building never pulled down, whereas a church is very easily pulled down?
“The big crisis we face is that Muslims believe that, since we are Christian, we are more loyal to the Christian West than to our fellow-Egyptian Muslims. Nothing can be more erroneous, but just try to tell that to anyone, they’ll think you’re joking. I believe the only solution is to abolish all public religiosity.”
A question of tolerance
It was the young people’s turn to talk. Mina Atef remarked that, since the Holy Bible tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, and recommends that we forgive the other, we fulfil these words. However, we do not find Muslim leaders doing the same with young Muslims, that is teaching them to love and accept the other!
Mina Ibrahim asked why the law of personal affairs was applied to Copts while it was governed by Islamic sharia or legal code. “And who can rescue us from the Muslim Brotherhood, when its members spread everywhere and are known by name in universities, even though the group is legally banned? They flaunt their challenge to the law, and desire to be in power by whatever means.”
One young woman pointed out that Copts grew up learning to be tolerant and trying to live peacefully and without conflict but that the situation was worsening to the extent that Copts were being killed inside their churches. “Even when we don’t hit back, fanatics find ways of harassing us,” she said.
Glimmer of hope
“Everyone should know the other’s religion,” Amal Nadi said. “The Qur’an believes in Eissa (Jesus), the son of Mariam (Mary)—even though not as the Son of God. Yet a Muslim friend whom I have known for eight years believes I worship three gods!”
In closing, Mr Rizq said that despite the concerns of the Coptic community he sees a glimmer of hope. By declaring 7 January, Coptic Christmas Day, a national holiday, and by appointing Dr Youssef Boutros Ghali as Minister of Finance even though Islamists say that Christians and Jews should not be allowed to manage financial affairs, President Mubarak has proved he is taking steps to address the unfairness of the religious scene in Egypt.