Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Copts' status through American eyes

By Hoda Tawfik

In a 1,000-page report on the levels of religious tolerance in the world, Coptic Christians came up for appraisal. The report gave credit to President Hosni Mubarak for granting approval to all requests for permits to build churches submitted to him. During his 18-year- tenure, the report said, Mubarak had accepted 230 such requests. According to an Ottoman decree issued in 1856, the Coptic Church cannot build, repair or upgrade any church unless prior approval was obtained from the head-of-state.

Robert Sieple, US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said he was told that "in a few years this decree will be totally gone, and there will be a lot of liberty for people who want to start new churches."

In 1998, said the report, President Mubarak delegated the responsibility of permit approvals to governors. "During the 1990s, the government increased the number of building permits issued to Christian communities to an average of more than 20 a year, compared with an average of five permits issued annually in the 1980s," said the report. The government reported that governors issued 207 permits for church-related repair during 1998, representing a significant increase in approvals gained.

However, the report added that church construction and repair remains time-consuming and did not sufficiently address the needs of the Christian community. Another major complaint made by Christians cited in the report was that the "Interior Ministry delays -- in some instances indefinitely -- submitting to the president their requests. They also maintained that security forces had prevented them from using permits already issued."

According to the report, some of the government's discriminatory practices exercised against Coptic Christians include the omission of the Coptic era from history books in schools and the negligible media coverage of Christian-related issues.

Progress has been made, however, and the general picture is one of optimism, contended the report, pointing to the government's establishment of a committee of academics to revise the history curriculum in primary and secondary schools early this year. A primary objective of this committee, explained the report, "is to re-introduce into the curriculum the Coptic and Byzantine periods of Egyptian history".

There were some improvements, too, in media coverage, with more programme time given to Christian issues on government-owned television and radio. "For the first time in decades, [television] broadcast Christmas and Easter celebrations live," it said. In the press, more editorial space was given to Christian issues and writers compared to previous years.

Also to be applauded is the Ministry of Culture which, according to the report, sponsored several events devoted to Coptic issues, including a seminar on the nationalistic role of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Ministry of Tourism has also placed emphasis on the approaching millennial celebrations marking the visit of the Holy Family to Egypt by developing the sites visited by them. The report also noted that Mrs Suzanne Mubarak has endorsed the development of reading material that advocates religious tolerance. "These publications are distributed by projects under her patronage that promote literacy and educational opportunities for girls," said the report.

Negotiations have also been held between the Ministry of Al-Awqaf (religious endowments) and the Coptic Orthodox Church over 1,500 acres of land seized from the latter and given to the ministry in 1952. Although 800 acres have been returned to the church in the last couple of years, noted the report, a committee continues to review claims to the remaining property.

The report said that while several thousand people are imprisoned because of alleged support for, or membership of, Islamist groups seeking to overthrow the government, "there were no reports linking their detention to religious beliefs."

The report briefly mentioned the attacks on Christians by Islamist and terrorist groups in the 1990s, but indicated there were no reported killings of Christians by extremists during the first six months of 1999.

Moreover, in its review of societal attitudes, the report referred to the commonaliy between Christians and Muslims, as both share the same ethnicity, race, culture and language. Geographically, Christians and Muslims are not segregated but instead live together as neighbours. "At times, religious tensions flare up and individual acts of prejudice occur," the report said, but pointed out that the public believes that fighting discrimination is closely linked to improving economic conditions. "The majority of citizens agree that more needs to be done to eliminate discrimination, but argue that development of the economy and society is the most effective and enduring way to abolish social prejudices," it added.

The report observed that while the constitution makes no distinction between its citizens on the basis of religion or creed, discrimination on the basis of religion can be observed in areas specifically related to education and employment.

The report noted, however, that the government was taking action to address discrepancies between Egyptians of different faiths.

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