Problems on hold
Where Coptic issues are concerned, Egypt’s House of Representatives notoriously persists in hiding its head in the sand, refusing to acknowledge that on the ground Copts are victims of oppression and discrimination, and that their grievances need to be addressed with courage. Instead, the House insists that Copts have always lived under exemplary conditions. It selectively recalls mellower situations from the past and cloaks them in honeyed, flowery rhetoric to project an image of Copts living peacefully in Egypt; all the while burying stories past and present that point to the contrary. Recently, the House adopted that attitude in the face of a US Congress report that criticised Egypt for the oppression and harassment Copts are subjected to, not at the hands of terrorists, but inflicted by fundamentalist and extremist Muslims. It does not help that officials look the other way and fail to implement the rule of law to defend the rights of Copts.
The House appears to imagine that those outside Egypt, who criticise the situation of Copts in Egypt, are either unintelligent or have no access to correct information. It seems to think that they can be silenced with the mention of carefully selected incidents of the distant past, glazed-over with rhetoric on current constitutional principles and laws that are mere ink on paper. On 12 November 2017, I wrote in this context: “Why would Parliament resort to such flawed behaviour? It is enough to admit our weaknesses with courage and candour, and to insist that these are internal problems to be dealt with by Egyptians inside Egypt; no other party may interfere under the pretext of rectifying matters or resolving problems.”
The Copts’ patriotism, despite their suffering, is time honoured. Last December, we Copts were joined with our Muslim fellow citizens in utterly rejecting the memo presented to the US Congress criticising the situation of Copts in Egypt, not because it was not true but because we firmly believe our problems should be resolved inside Egypt, by Egyptians alone. Last month, the Coptic Church, as did the Cairo-based Islamic institution of al-Azhar, refused to meet US Vice-President Mike Pence on his visit to Egypt, in protest against the US decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
This time round, however, how did the House of Representatives respond to Congress’s criticism of the situation of Copts? On 23 January, under the title: “In reply to US Congress’s claims… the House of Representatives: Egypt never changed its national fabric since the dawn of history”, the State-owned daily al-Ahram published the reply sent by the House of Representative’s Foreign Relations Committee to Congress. Here are excerpts from this reply; the exclamations are my own.
The reply said that Egypt never changed her national fabric since the dawn of history [!!], and has over the ages maintained national harmony among all her children, Muslims and Copts [!!] Through her civilisation and human heritage, Egypt has absorbed all cultures and religions without discrimination between Muslim and Christian [!!] Her land embraced the breadth of intellect and faith, and ensured safety and security to all [!!] No Christian was forced into Islam. During the 1919 [nationalist] Revolution, the Crescent embraced the Cross, and the slogan of “Religion is for God, and nation for all” reigned supreme. [In Egypt] The sanctity of Muslim and Christian places of worship is guarded, and highlights the significance of citizenship and firmness of national unity [!!] Keen to apply citizenship rights, Egypt in 2016 passed the Law for Building Churches, following which it has witnesses a renaissance in the building of churches and the legalisation of status of more than 4,000 churches [!!!!] The House of Representatives is about to discuss an anti-discrimination bill. The State is keen for Copts to take leading posts in cabinet ministries and State authorities and institutions [!!] The Committee cited Article 53 of the Constitution, which stipulates that all citizens are equal before the Law; equal in rights and freedoms, and that the Constitution has made discrimination and incitement of hatred crimes punishable by law [!!] The Committee did not overlook the heartfelt participation of President Sisi with Copts in their feasts and celebrations.
However, the Foreign Relations Committee—which was under no obligation to give this historical, selective, wobbly reply—did not mention the on the ground extremism and discrimination that Copts suffer at the hands of fundamentalist and extremist Muslims in regions such as Giza, Minya, Assiut, and Sohag, where they are attacked, terrorised and banned from worshiping. Local officials and security authorities fail to defend the Copts; they bypass the law by holding unofficial, traditional conciliation sessions between the victims and their attackers, imposing on the Coptic victims unjust terms and penalties that include forced displacements and closing down churches. The attackers, on the other hand, get away with their crimes unscathed. When the House of Representatives acts as though blind to these facts, it squarely acknowledges its intention of doing nothing about Coptic suffering. The tragedy is that instead of rejecting foreign interference in Egypt’s affairs, and promising to rectify matters, the House stuck to a lame reply that evades reality, imagining that Congress would swallow it.
I would like to draw your attention to an article written by Murid Sobhy and published by al-Ahram on 27 January, under the tile “What the Pope did not say”. Commenting on Pope Tawadros’s historic visit to Al-Ahram on 23 January, Mr Sobhy wrote:
“A warm-hearted dialogue flowed on a purely national backdrop. Some admitted to the existence of discriminatory practices against Copts here and there, and the Pope replied in his habitual calm that we have just embarked on the road to Coptic rights, and have yet to reach its end. What the Pope did not say, however, in regard to his sagacity and the sensitivity of his position as head of Church, is that the time has come to firmly implement the law where Copts are concerned. This means that all discrimination or incitement of hatred against them, failure to apply the Law for Building Churches or to impede the legalisation of unlicensed churches, should be brought to justice. Claims of apostasy or deriding religion [Islam] that are used [against Copts] should be confronted. It is time to implement full citizenship rights in action not in words.”
What does the House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee think about Mr Sobhy’s view? And what does it say about the pages upon pages in Watani that report in detail on incidents against Copts? True, we owe the US Congress no reply to their criticism; Coptic problems fall squarely among our Egyptian affairs. But this means that we must candidly and courageously acknowledge them, confront them, and come up with the remedy.
4 February 2018