The very first sign of sectarian-based tension in modern times in Egypt emerged after the assassination of the Coptic prime minister Boutros Pasha Ghali in 1910,
on account of his adopting a policy that was seen by some to favour the British who were then occupying Egypt. This led to what became known then as the Coptic Congress which convened in Assiut in 1911, and demanded better representation; equal access to civil service positions; equal access to State education; and designation of Sunday as a holiday. The British occupation and the Muslim majority described the Coptic demands as “fabricated grievances” and rejected them all.
A hundred years later came the 2010 Umraniya incidents, which marked the first time Copts left the relative safety of the walls of their churches and took to the streets to protest the injustice against them. During the intervening century, four kings—Abbas Helmy II, Hussein Kamel, Fouad and Farouq—and three presidents—Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak—ruled Egypt, aided by no less than 65 governments.
The term of the Ikhwani (Ikwan is Arabic for [Muslim] Brotherhood, MB) president Muhammad Mursi marks the second time in the period from 1910 to 2010 when the country’s leader acted as though he wished to end the Coptic presence in Egypt. Abbas Helmy II, who ruled Egypt from 1892 to 1914, wanted to expel the Copts to Sudan. Mursi’s group—the MB—and their allies are outspoken in their hostility towards Copts. Since they won the parliamentary majority in June 2012 there have been 43 sectarian attacks against Copts during which 60 Copts lost their lives and 918 were injured. Twenty-four church buildings were assaulted during this period and 124 families were forcefully displaced from their home towns or villages, only 81 of which later returned home. Not one of the cases of assault against Copts was investigated.
In addition, during that period the Salafi figure Yasser al-Burhami alone insulted Christianity 14 times, while the Islamist preacher Abu-Islam burnt a copy of the Holy Bible. Burhami issued the famous fatwa— a fatwa is an Islamic legal opinion—that taxi drivers should not drive priests. All of Burhami’s fatwas can be found on the websites www.salafvoice.com and www.anasalafy.com
Burhami was never put on trial, quite the reverse: he was selected to the board of the constituent assembly that was charged with drafting Egypt’s new Constitution last year. Abu-Islam was kept for only one night in custody for burning the Bible and when earlier this month he was sentenced to 11 years in prison the sentence was suspended pending appeal. Notwithstanding, 12 Copts, among whom were two children, were convicted of contempt of Islam in immediate trials. The children, aged nine and ten, were not handed sentences, but the other defendants were sentenced to years in prison and/or steep fines.
Bullying and intimidation
Several topmost Islamist figures, among whom were the second man in the MB group, the Vice Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater and the President’s aide for foreign affairs Essam al-Haddad levelled at the Copts false accusations that were meant to raise public antagonism against them.
Shater alleged that 80 per cent of the demonstrators who took part in the ‘million-man protests’ against Mursi’s regime were Copts, an allegation so ridiculous that it brought to the fore the question of the real number of the Coptic population. This [secret] figure has never been announced by subsequent Egyptian governments; Shater’s declarations meant that the Coptic population could never be the minority it is officially claimed to be, or that his estimation was erroneous and not well-intentioned.
Haddad accused Copts of being in possession of arms and weapons and of violently attacking peaceful Muslims, when in fact they were the ones who had come under attack. Haddad was alluding to the notorious incident last April when the Copts were leaving St Mark’s Cathedral after a funeral service for four men who had lost their lives in the vicious attack against the Copts of Khusous. As the Copts prepared to leave to bury their dead, they were rounded up in the cathedral grounds and attacked by Muslim extremists and outlaws, as the security forces looked on, for more than five hours.
Finally, yet very importantly, the MB are wiping out any remnants of the basis of national consolidation through their attempts at ‘Ikhwanising’ the social and economic foundations of the civil State. Egypt is undergoing a demographic transformation’ at the hands of the MB by forcing the Copts to leave through bullying and intimidating them, leading to their ‘voluntarily’ relocation outside Egypt.
In the old days, Copts used to take their plight to the ruler, whether he was just or corrupt. Now the ‘ruler’ and his group are hostile to Copts; they allow, or at least turn a blind eye to, the burning of the Bible and to the contempt of Christianity. Most of the rulers to whom I referred above used to undermine the rights of Copts. However, the MB, its political arm the Freedom and Justice Party, and its presidential arm Dr Mursi, have far outgrown the issue of undermining Coptic rights; they want to treat Copts as Dhimmis, non-Muslim subjects living under Muslim rule. The battle between the Copts and the rule of the MB has thus become a battle of survival.
26 June 2013