Part 1 of 2
In Egypt, the Copts are being denied access to certain high positions, deprived from the freedom to build new churches, and suffering from increasing suffocating fanaticism from all directions.
My special interest in the Coptic question, which is known to many people, led me to conduct an in-depth study of the history of Christianity in Egypt, in an attempt to acquaint myself with the source of the Coptic culture in all its dimensions and aspects. This entailed establishing close relations with hundreds, not to say thousands, of Copts, including many prominent figures of the Egyptian church. A number of Coptic friends believe that the Coptic question has reached a critical stage, and others dismiss this as an imaginary problem with no basis in reality.
Before going into the subject, I would like to state that the basic premise from which my thought proceeds is that the Copts are (or should be) genuine Egyptian citizens, that is, first-class citizens. Egypt is their country; they are not living here by the grace of others, but are fully entitled to enjoy the status and rights of nationhood, as full partners, not as charity cases.
If this premise is disputed, there can be no dialogue. This essay is neither addressed to those who regard our fellow countrymen of the Coptic faith as second-class citizens allowed living amongst us thanks to our tolerance and magnanimity, nor, a fortiori, to those who call for the imposition of the jizya (the poll-tax payment required of non-Muslims) on members of the Coptic community. To engage in a debate with anyone who rejects the basic premise of this essay is to embark on an exercise in vain. No purpose would be served in trying to initiate what would essentially be a dialogue of the deaf. On the other hand, if the reader accepts the basic premise of this essay as an incontrovertible truth, then there is room for dialogue, provided, however, that no one presumes to speak in the name of the Copts, whether in expressing their grievances or in denying that these grievances exist. Actually, not a single individual or entity in Egypt today, official or unofficial, can claim that the Copts have no problems or complaints. In writing these lines, therefore, I do not presume to speak for the Copts but only to convey to the reader what I have heard over and over again from ordinary Egyptian Coptic citizens, who cannot possibly be classified as rebels or extremists. I am familiar with the allegations of the extremists, which I will not go into here. I will only write what I have heard over the years – and believe to be true – from those who can only be described as moderate Copts. The basic issue is: “Do the Copts in Egypt suffer from serious problems in their own country?” The only possible answer is: “Yes”.
Yes, Copts fear for themselves, their families, their property and their safety much more than Muslims do, though the latter, too, are not completely safe.
Yes, Copts suffer from a public atmosphere of fanaticism characterized by severe animosity towards them.
A major grievance over which there is complete consensus within the Coptic community is that the right to construct new churches or restore old ones has until recently been severely curtailed by legislative and bureaucratic constraints. Although these constraints have been somewhat eased, most Copts believe the situation is still far from satisfactory. I believe that the only way out of what is clearly an untenable situation is to unify the laws governing the construction and restoration of all houses of worship, whether they are called mosques or churches. These laws should lay down a set of rational rules applicable to all Egyptians, regardless of creed. For it is totally illogical that one segment of society should be subjected to arbitrary constraints, while another is allowed to enjoy unbridled freedom when it comes to constructing places of worship, or congregating to offer prayer when and where its members choose. Indeed, and it is often the case, even when, this leads to chaotic situations involving obvious violations of law, people are too intimidated to challenge the offenders, leaving them free to flout the law with impunity.
But while this is a major grievance, it is far from being the only, or even the main reason for the widespread feeling among Egypt’s Christians that they are living a tense moment, not to say a crisis situation. They have a lot more to worry about than the need to obtain a license before they can build a new church, although this is a flagrant case of institutionalized discrimination that is totally unjustified. After all, what possible threat can the construction of a new church represent? Churches are used either as houses of worship or as community centers where people congregate for weddings and funerals; banning or constraining their construction is an abridgement of a basic human right. Still, the Coptic community has other more serious complaints that can be summed up as follows:
The existence of a general climate that allows for the resurgence of a spirit of religious intolerance at different times and in certain areas of the country. Copts are finely attuned to this phenomenon, as sometimes the mere mention of their name is enough to trigger a hostile reaction.
There is a widespread feeling among Copts that their participation in public life has gradually dwindled over the last fifty years. Their sense of marginalization is borne out by the facts like in 1995, when not a single Copt was elected to parliament.
There is, moreover, the specter of communal violence, which can flare up at any time as it has done in the past, most notably in the Koshh incident.
A few analytical remarks on the feelings of unease that these issues engender among the Copts may be useful here.
First, with regard to the general climate which breeds a spirit of hateful fanaticism, this did not come about by a governmental decree or a political decision, but was a natural result of the defeat of the Egyptian revival project, especially after the June 1967 debacle. The vacuum was quickly filled up by a fundamentalist ideology and culture, which put itself forward as an alternative to the movement for a new Egyptian awakening. With the spread of the cultural values of this trend (whose members committed many crimes, most notably the assassination of Anwar Sadat), the general climate fell prey to the forces of conservatism and regression which inevitably bred a situation of hostility towards the Copts. As a noted Egyptian intellectual once put it, whenever the revival project is defeated in Egypt, this has negative repercussions on two groups of Egyptians: women and Copts. The opposite is equally true; in a vital and dynamic cultural climate, the attitude towards these two groups is enlightened and in keeping with the values of civilization and progress. It may be unfair to blame the current regime for creating an environment which breeds fanaticism and allows the resurgence of religious intolerance, with the attendant risk of communal violence. However, it is a fact that the government could have done, and can still do much to limit the dangerous polarization that has come to characterize the cultural climate in Egypt today. To that end, it must adopt a policy aimed at the positive reinforcement of a culture of religious tolerance to replace the spirit of fanaticism threatening us all. While educational curricula and information media are the right place to start, we must not forget the importance of religious pulpits in shaping public perceptions. For there can be no hope of progress if Islamic religious institutions oppose a cultural project aimed at eradicating the spirit of religious intolerance which has taken hold in our society. This is why Al-Azhar must follow the vision of the regime, not the other way round. To leave matters to the men of religion is to accept the spread of a theocratic culture; logic and experience prove that theocracy cannot possibly support a culture of tolerance and acceptance of the right of others to differ; neither can it accept the notion of unity through diversity.
I am well aware that what I propose is easier said than done, and that the Egyptian government faces a daunting challenge. But I also know that the role of any “leadership” (in the broad sense of the word; that is, the executive leaders), is to formulate a vision, and work towards achieving it. In order to succeed, they must lead, and not allow themselves to be led. It would be wrong to claim that the regime is by its nature unwilling to face up to the challenge, or that it is responsible for creating the ugly spirit of fanaticism that has come to pervade our society. However, it has turned a blind eye to this aberration for a long time, only slowly coming to realize that the ideology behind the culture of fanaticism is the main enemy of the regime. It is this ideology which spawned the assassins of Anwar Sadat, the would-be assassins of the Addis Ababa incident, and the perpetrators of many other crimes.