Christians in the Land of the Nile

By: Sandra Boulos
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Talking about Egypt, the pyramids, the Red Sea coral reefs, and the treasures left by the pharaohs come to mind. But very little is known about its Copts, the Christians of the land of the Nile that constitute a distinct and ancient minority that miraculously survived centuries of hardships living among the Moslem majority.

On August 8,2007 2007, the Egyptian security service stormed Peter Ezzat's flat in Cairo , blindfolded him, arrested him, and confiscated his computer and his video camera. What wrong did he commit?

Peter Ezzat is a 24 year old Copt, who works part time for a Canadian based human rights organisation, the "Middle East Christian Association." Another member of the same organisation, Dr. Adel Fawzy, was also arrested the same day. Peter's family remained in the dark as to why he was arrested and where he was taken until the following day. Peter remains in the police custody until the writing of this report 30 days later.

Peter is being accused of proselytization, insulting Islam and causing sectarian agitation between the country's Muslims and Christians. Doing Christian missionary work in Egypt is strictly forbidden. Religious freedom is allowed in one direction only: conversion from Christianity to Islam but not the opposite. Helping a person interested in Christianity to contact a Coptic priest, is considered proselytization.

The other two accusations, which are very often used arbitrarily, insulting Islam and causing sectarian agitation between Muslims and Christians, are equally very serious accusations.

What will happen to Peter after the 30 days of police custody is uncertain. In the best outcome is that he may be released based on the finding that the accusations against him could not be substantiated by the state. He could also face continued detention without a court hearing, and of course, there is the possibility of receiving years of prison sentence by a court.

Minority in Egypt
Copts constitute 10-15% of Egypt's population, A sizeable religious minority. The rest are of the Moslem faith. The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the oldest Christian congregations in the world. Supposedly, Mark the evangelist himself introduced the new faith to Egypt in the first Christian century. Christianity continued to spread and flourish in the country until the Islamic Arab invasion in the seventh Christian century. This lead to its islamisation. The Christian era of the Egyptian history is always ignored and concealed even in the history school books. Islamization caused the Christian population to drop in numbers.

The word "Copt", which once simply meant "Egyptian", is used nowadays exclusively to indicate the Christians of Egypt. And despite unsurmountable difficulties, the Copts maintained their own culture, church services, language, and monasteries over the centuries.

Life is not easy for Christians in a country where Islam is referred to in the constitution as the state religion and in which the Sharia, the Islamic law, as the main source of the legislation.

Christians in Egypt have to live with a variety of problems: job discrimination, physical aggression in the form of pogroms as happened in Al Kosheh, a village in Upper Egypt, in January 2000 when 21 Christians were murdered by Moslims, or street fightings as happened in Alexandria in April 2006, when an angry group of young Copts protested in the streets after the murder of a Christian worshiper by a Moslem inside a church during the service which was encountered by an angry Moslim mob.

It is not surprising therefore to see that more and more Christians are keen to leave the country: Large Coptic congregations can be found now spread all over Europe, USA and Australia. The economic situation in Egypt is dismal. Both Christians and Moslims suffer from the difficult economic situation.

Radicalization on both sides

The discrimination of the Copts by the state is implemented at different levels: Freedom of religion exists only for to the people who convert to Islam; Copts are under represented in leading government positions; the building of churches is impeded; and crimes against Christians go unpunished. There is a tense public feeling of hatred against the Copts. An increasingly poisoned climate prevails between the two communities. Radicalisation is spreading on both sides, in the last decades as the bad economic situation and the increasing sense of hopelessness lead the people to seek solutions for their problems in religion. An additional cause behind the radicalization on the Muslim side is the adoption of Wahhabism, an ideology imported from Saudi Arabia, which brands all non-Muslims (even all non-Sunni among them) as unbelievers. The influence Wahabism grew in the last decades mainly through the substantial financial support from Saudi Arabia. Many young Moslims are incited

Another sign of the increasing Islamization is the growing success of the Muslim Brothers, a legally forbidden, but practically tolerated group. They succeeded to garner 88 of the 444 seats of the lower house of the Egyptian legislature when they were allowed to run as independents. The Moslem Brotherhood infiltrated and dominates other civilian organizations such as the professional societies and student unions. They manage to infiltrate society through their charitable work – a space where the Egyptians are abandoned by the state.

Christians, and many Muslims, feel that the current governing regime is offering them two hopeless alternatives: the status quo under President Mubarak, and possibly his son as a successor, or, and this is regarded as the worse, a future under the rule of the Muslim Brothers. Regardless of the actual chances of the Muslim Brothers to reach power ultimately and what, their plans are for the Copts once they do, the Christians watch their increasing strength and influence with great fear. They see their chances for an equal status in their homeland decreasing considerably with the Muslim Brothers in power.

The chances for a change towards democracy and the respect of human rights in Egypt don't look bright. Peter Ezzat's and others' arrest indicates that the road is dark and fraught with dangers and obstacles. A further threatening sign for the Copts future in their own country.

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