Egypt arrests three members of Toronto-based Copt group

OMAR EL AKKAD

August 10, 2007

An obscure, Toronto-based Coptic Christian association has been thrust into the spotlight after three of its members were arrested in Cairo earlier this week, signalling another salvo in a long-running battle between Egyptian authorities and expatriate Christian groups.

Adel Fawzi, Peter Ezzat Mounir and Adeeb Ramses were arrested in Cairo on Wednesday, according to multiple sources. All three were working for the Cairo offices of the Middle East Christians Association, a Coptic Christian group founded by Nader Fawzy, an Egyptian-born Swedish citizen currently living in Toronto. Mr. Fawzy founded MECA four years ago after arriving in Canada, and says the group now has offices around the world and thousands of members.

Mr. Fawzy said Egyptian members of MECA have been intimidated by Egyptian police before, but never arrested.

"We didn't do anything against the law," he said. "I don't know how far the police will go in Egypt."

It is as yet unclear what charges Mr. Fawzi and Mr. Mounir face. While no formal charges have been filed, the trio appear to have been accused of insulting Islam, converting Muslims to Christianity and working with a foreign group. Mr. Fawzy said there is no evidence to support any of the allegations against the men, adding that the arrests were likely retaliation for a number of court cases MECA has launched against the Egyptian government in recent months.

In one of the cases, the group demanded compensation on behalf of the victims of Muslim riots in the predominantly Coptic village of Al Kosheh in 2000; more than 20 Christians were killed during the riots. A decision in that case is expected within the next few months.

The group has also had some association with Mohamed Hegazy, an Egyptian journalist who set off a firestorm when he attempted to use the courts to force the Egyptian government to recognize his conversion from Islam to Christianity.

The Hegazy case and the arrest of the MECA members are two examples of a continuing battle over religious and personal rights currently raging within Egyptian society. Expatriate Coptic groups, in particular, have been critical of the Egyptian government. MECA's own website contains a number of articles that could be seen as critical of Islam. The site's designer, a group called Free Christian Voice, also blasts a number of Muslim scholars on its own website.

However, Mr. Fawzy said MECA is simply a human-rights group. "The only thing we ask for is equality, nothing more."

But the group is clearly conscious of the potential for reprisal. Mr. Fawzy said he could not hand out photos of the arrested men for fear they would be further assaulted after their release from custody. He also would not disclose where in Toronto he worked. In order to avoid publishing the group's address and phone number, the MECA website is registered with an anonymous domain-registration service based in Utah.

This isn't the first time in recent years that a cross-border Egyptian dispute has spilled into Canada. In January, 31-year-old Canadian citizen Mohamed el-Attar was stopped at Cairo International Airport on a flight from Toronto. He was detained and charged with espionage, as investigators accused him of belonging to an Israeli spy ring operating in Turkey and Canada. For weeks, Egyptian media published salacious rumours about Mr. el-Attar's sexuality, and allegations he converted from Islam to Christianity. Mr. el-Attar's lawyer countered that his client's confessions were obtained under torture.

In April, Mr. el-Attar was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years.

Mr. Fawzy said he is not yet certain what will happen to the detained MECA members. He noted that one of the men arrested, Mr. Fawzi, is in his 60s and requires medication.

Other Christian groups rallied to MECA's aid yesterday. Writing to U.S. President George W. Bush, Christian Solidarity International head John Eibner said the arrests "take place against a background of increasing state-sponsored persecution of Christians in Egypt and growing intolerance of Christians and other religious minorities throughout the Middle East."

Background

Copt is an English word taken from the Arabic word Gibt or Gypt. It literally means Egyptian. Today, Coptic Christians form about 13 to 15 per cent of Egypt's population. Since the church is not allowed to carry out an official census, accurate membership figures cannot be compiled.

Copts relate that the blessing of Christianity on their country goes back to the days when Jesus was a young boy and the holy family travelled to Egypt and lived there for a time. However, it was Saint Mark the Evangelist, during the first century, who founded the Coptic Church.

After the invasion of Arab Muslims in the middle of the seventh century, the church suffered a slow decline until the 1940s and 1950s, when an unprecedented revival grew out of Coptic Sunday School movements in Cairo, Giza and Asyut, started and led by a group of laymen who sought to teach Christians about their faith. The movement revitalized the church by giving ordinary Copts a sense of identity in the face of increasing marginalization by the Muslim majority. Many of the current Coptic leaders emerged from that movement.

Today, the Coptic Church has spread throughout the world, with communities in many different countries. A member of the Egyptian Coptic community, Boutros Boutros-Ghali was appointed secretary-general of the United Nations in 1991.

Sources: The Encyclopedia Coptica, TourEgypt.net, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, American Centre for Law and Justice, Arab Media Watch and Middle East Christian Outreach


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