Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 November 2011
Issue No. 1071
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Calls for protection of Copts

Foreign attention to Coptic concerns is putting Egypt's government, and some in the Coptic community, on the defensive, Dina Ezzat reports

Despite a statement made earlier in the week by Coptic Patriarch Pope Shenouda to shrug off a resolution that was passed Thursday by the European Parliament calling for the protection of Copts and churches in Egypt, the European Union, among other international community circles, is determined to keep a close eye on the situation of Copts in Egypt as part of a wider concern over the fate of Christians in the Middle East.

"For us, this is not a matter of intervention in the internal affairs of any particular country, but it is a matter rather of the universality of human rights and also of the fate of Christians not just in Egypt but also in other Arab countries where political Islamic groups are set to gain power," said a Brussels based European official who asked for her name to be withheld.

On Thursday, the Strasbourg-based European Parliament expressed concern over the killing of Coptic demonstrators on 9 October in Cairo. The parliamentary resolution, which was also mindful of the fate of Christians in Syria, called on authorities in Egypt to "do more to protect vulnerable and targeted Christians" and to make sure that they "can live in peace and freely express their beliefs throughout the country".

The statement came alongside more pointed criticism of the handling of civil rights by Egypt's transitional authorities, particularly those of Copts whose churches have been subject to an increasing frequency of attacks since Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February.

"For us, it is not only a matter of Copts, although we are aware that there is a problem -- a big problem -- there; but it is more a matter of the administration of the whole transition towards democracy in Egypt that is marked by considerable violations," said a Cairo-based European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

During the past few days and within the next few weeks several visiting European diplomats have been and will be bringing the attention of their Egyptian interlocutors to the fact that "there is considerable pressure in European capitals on the government to act to secure the Coptic community in Egypt," the same source said. He went on: "We would rather avoid making public statements because our objective is to make our message heard, but we are under enormous pressure."

The message, according to one concerned Egyptian official, was "plain and direct". According to this source, in addition to the collective European position that was conveyed through European Union officials, before and after the European Parliament resolution, European governments have been independently telling Egyptian officials that their countries cannot turn a blind eye to what has been happening in Egypt and that they would have to continue to "monitor the matter very closely".

The reply of the Egyptian side to European concerns has been essentially accommodating. "We basically tell them that the government is willing to provide for the security of all Egyptians equally, and that the government is going to make sure that all necessary legislation is duly issued to block any sense of discrimination that might be sensed by the Christians of Egypt," the Egyptian official said.

According to this official, "a strong point for our argument was the statement made by Pope Shenouda, whereby he clearly said that Copts are not soliciting any foreign intervention in their affairs."

The statement of Pope Shenouda is almost a cliché statement that the Coptic patriarch makes every time Coptic rights groups speak of the need to resort to international human rights law. This week, the statement was reiterated directly after the European Parliament resolution was passed.

For some European diplomats, the stance of the patriarch is expected because no matter what he really thinks he must feel obliged to make such statements. "We understand that he must feel that it does not help the cause of Coptic rights if it becomes subject to public debate among foreign governments; there is a certain sensitivity there," said another Cairo-based European diplomat.

This sentiment of understanding, however, is not immediately present among grieving Copts who still cannot get past the nightmare of 9 October's carnage, or the fear of further attacks on churches.

"For me, the question is not one of opening closed churches or giving us licence to build more churches; the question is rather that when I go to pray on Sundays I cannot but think would there be an attack on the church when I am there with my kids," said Nadia, a middle-aged Coptic lady, as she entered the Mar Girgis Church in Heliopolis on Sunday.

Nadia is not suggesting, however, that there should be foreign intervention, but she says that there should be a clear stance from the Pope against the "targeting and humiliation of Copts simply because they are Copts". "What are we supposed to do? [The Pope] should tell us. Yes, we pray and we fast, but then who will protect us the next time we come under attack?"

Nadia says she understands that "our brothers and sisters who have left Egypt to go live abroad" cannot "keep silent on this".

Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Cairo-based Watani newspaper, primarily focussed on Coptic matters, feels that fears of constant attacks against Copts are somewhat exaggerated. "I think nobody could say that Copts are being killed everyday; this is not the case at all." Nonetheless, Sidhom believes there are grounds to feel a sense of discrimination.

"I am not saying we are not having problems, and I am not saying that we have to go through unfair procedures to build a church, and I am not saying that some of our churches have been shut down for no good reason... What I am saying is that these problems will be resolved through direct communication between us, as Egyptian citizens, and the authorities. Foreign intervention does not bring an answer to the Coptic issue in Egypt," Sidhom said.

"In the world of today, countries make comments on developments on other countries whether they are political or social, and Egypt has made important statements regarding the violation of the rights of Muslim minorities, for example, in some countries; so these statements should not be perceived as foreign intervention."

Sidhom is convinced that Coptic concerns, especially related to the construction and refurbishment of churches, will be attended to soon. "There are signs already that the attitude of the government and of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] is changing in the right direction," he said, albeit in an understated tone.

Following the 9 October massacre, both the government and SCAF appeared to dismiss expressions of deep Coptic alarm, and in a way even suggested that the killing of 27 Coptic demonstrators on "Bloody Sunday" was the result of "provocations" by demonstrators who were calling for an end to attacks on churches. This is now changing, according to Sidhom. "There has been a sense of remorse somehow, and I can say that there is a real intention to attend to the concerns of Copts, or at least some of them," he said.

But this is not good enough for some Coptic activists who saw friends killed on 9 October under armoured vehicles and by live fire when the army confronted demonstrators. "Too late for all of this; we have no faith in anything that the government of [Essam] Sharaf or SCAF would say," said Marco Youssef. "Sharaf came to us during a previous demonstration after the attack on the churches in Imbaba, and at the time he made the same promises that his government and SCAF are making today, and nothing happened."

About four months ago two Coptic churches in Imbaba were set on fire by angry Salafis and other mobs who were incited by a citizen who claimed that his Christian born and Muslim convert wife was held at one of the churches after having been kidnapped by members of her original family. The case is now in court.

Coptic activists argue that the Egyptian government talks about the need for international law to be observed when it comes to Palestinian rights, and that it is only fair to ask the Egyptian government to show the same respect for international human rights law when it comes to Copts in Egypt.

"Listen, we have to stop saying that we are equal citizens and all of those things that have no basis on the ground. We are a minority and we should ask for the rights of a minority. This includes the right to worship in peace and to be protected from attacks," said Nadine, another Coptic activist. She added: "We don't want to go solicit international intervention, but we also don't want to be subject to endless unfairness. The choice is not ours but that of the government."

Within the government there are many views on how to move forward on the Coptic issue, especially in the face of the rise of political Islamic groups, some of who are sensitive about some Coptic demands.

"When a Copt was appointed governor of Qena in the first reshuffle after Mubarak stepped down there was a huge demonstration in Qena, incited by political Islamic figures, to remove the governor because he is a Copt, and when we asked the mediation of some prominent Muslim figures they told us, 'But how could you assign a Copt as a governor?' And this is only one of many examples of what we had to deal with throughout the past few months," said a source at the office of the prime minister.

According to the same source, the government "is committed to solving the problems, but this has to be done in a way that does not stir storms."

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