For Copts: the pain persists

29-03-2014 11:36 AM

Youssef Sidhom

My last editorial tackled the recent al-Azhar fatwa—Islamic legal edict—which established the rights of Christians to freedom of worship

. The fatwa stipulated that churches should be granted protection, and that necessary works of maintenance, repair, and restoration should be freely permitted. The fatwa was unequivocal in ostracising the banning, assault or demolition of churches. I reviewed the content of the fatwa and hailed its spirit of tolerance. All the same, I made it very clear that I cling to the citizenship rights firmly established in the Constitution to safeguard the Coptic rights advocated by the fatwa. Because, on the ground, Copts have long been the victims of practices that contradict the spirit of that fatwa. Their churches have been targeted and assaulted while the civil and [Islamic] religious authorities merely looked on. 
“Regimes come and go, but the Christians’ pain remains”. This is a series of feature stories Watani plans to print; the first of the series went down in the issue of last Sunday 23 March on Page 6 under the title “Radicals close down churches and the government stands powerless”. It reported on churches, in various spots in Egypt, which were closed by security authorities following violent assault by Muslim extremists who rejected the presence of a church in their midst. Typically, the closure of a church on security orders came under the pretext that prayers in the church threatened social peace, security and stability. Whether the closure is out of conviction or in submission to pressure by radical Islamists, the result is one and the same: these authorities offer the extremists a gift on a silver platter, and stab citizenship rights in the heart. Of what use can the tolerant fatwa be as long as it remains ink on paper and no headway is made towards applying and empowering it?
The disturbing reality about the persistence of Coptic ailments is that, ever since the 25 January 2011 Revolution in which Copts strongly took part, they have been looking to get out of the dark tunnel of grievances they have so long been trapped into. They actively participated in the revolution, giving precedence to the national cause over their demands as Copts, and were confident that the triumph of the revolution would bring about the legislative reform that would secure full citizenship rights to all Egyptians, themselves included. These aspirations never saw light; the Islamists hijacked the revolution and took Egypt under their sway as the Muslim Brothers came to power and put an end to all democracy. On 30 June 2013, exactly one year into the presidency of the Islamist Muhammad Mursi, the second revolution erupted and overthrew the Islamists. The Copts again had high hopes they would see better days, their grievances would be righted, and their suffering come to an end. 
Today Egypt has a great Constitution that stipulates in its first article that the Arab Republic of Egypt is a State with a republican democratic system based on citizenship and supremacy of the law. Article 235 stipulates that during its first round after the Constitution is put into action, the parliament should issue a law to govern the building and renovation of churches, securing the freedom to practice religious rites to Christians.
Sadly, the on-the-ground situation of Coptic churches never changed. As though all levels of State authority stand powerless to do anything till new legislation is passed by Parliament. Yet it should not have escaped the attention of those in authority that they didn’t have to wait for the new legislation; the public consensus confirmed in the drafting and approval of the Constitution must serve as their strongest weapon in the war against extremism. The anticipated legislation should take care of regulations for building and restoring churches, but has nothing to do with the widespread extremism that casts a dark shadow on churches. When the State itself acquiesces to extremist pressure and appeases the extremists by closing down the churches, is it not breaching the Constitution, the freedom of belief and the defence of places of worship? Is it not practically upholding fanaticism and extremism over the tolerant fatwa of al-Azhar? Is it not sending a clear message to the extremists that the State is too weak to stand up to them, so why should not they bask in their power and fanaticism? And last, does not all this push the Copts back into the bleak tunnel in which they had long been trapped, as if the 30 June Revolution never erupted in 2013 nor was the 2013 Constitution established?
The pains of the Copts persist. The worst of the pain is caused not so much by the radical extremists but by the State. The State’s ineptness, weakness and inadequacy at protecting Copts and upholding citizenship rights are to blame for the Coptic pain. Instead of firmly applying the constitutionally established citizenship rights, the State turns its back on them and indulges the extremists and terrorists.
WATANI International
30 March 2014
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