Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Religious freedom at a crossroads

Egypt is becoming more and more divided along religious lines, threatening religious freedoms, writes Sameh Fawzi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Amid the polarisation between “loyalists” and “opponents” of the government during the last three weeks, the Copts have found themselves in a catch-22 situation. While the Islamists criticise and warn them for allying themselves with the secularist camp, the country’s civil opposition considers the Copts to be a force supporting basic values in society such as freedom, equity and justice and therefore as a de facto partner in the battle against the “religious state”. 

Looking at the statements made by the Islamists regarding the Copts, it seems that they are unconvinced that the latter are entitled to be treated as equal citizens in Egypt and therefore they do not recognise the Copts’ right to make free political choices. 

The present atmosphere of polarisation does not help as far as religious freedoms are concerned. When the Islamists appeared as the country’s dominant political force following the 25 January Revolution that toppled the former Mubarak regime, the Copts justifiably started to think of the challenges that they could now encounter in their own country. The Islamists have been responsible for putting out ambiguous messages regarding the Copts, both religiously and politically. The Copts, in the traditional Islamist literature, are described as “infidels” because they are not Muslims and do not believe in Islam, and as a result for the traditionally minded Islamists they are not entitled to the same citizenship rights as Muslims.

The enlightened thoughts that some Islamic scholars have published over recent decades have not had a noticeable impact on the perception of the current Islamist movements towards the Copts. And the religiously motivated violence that hit Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s, albeit targeting all Egyptians, particularly targeted the Copts. The latter suffered attacks as individuals, as well as attacks on property and churches.

For these reasons, the rise of the Islamists has sparked fears among the Copts, who emerged from the 18-day struggle against the old regime with the positive feeling that their active involvement in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and the Coptic martyrs who had died during the revolution, would be enough to end the legacy of misunderstanding, lack of appreciation and mistrust that has been present between them and the Islamists. However, this has turned out to be wishful thinking, and the problems are far from over.

Distorted images of Christians have accumulated over the years in the Islamists’ minds, and as a result they are almost immune to change in the short term. On Christian feast days it has become common to hear voices in the media accusing the Copts of disloyalty and urging Muslims not to participate in events with them or even to exchange seasonal greetings.

A few weeks following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and the collapse of the former regime’s security agencies, religious tensions erupted in severe forms, with the demolition and burning of churches, increases in religious fanaticism, the convictions of a number of Copts on charges of blasphemy, etc, some of the latter resulting in lengthy sentences in prison.

President Mohamed Morsi then came to power following elections in June this year in which the Copts generally speaking voted for his rival, former prime minister Ahmed Shafik, in the run-off. Morsi started his term in office by sending out positive messages to all Egyptians, particularly the Copts, whom he repeatedly described as “citizens and partners”, promising them justice, freedom and equality. However, despite these good wishes and official meetings between top clergymen and Morsi, there has not been any improvement in relations between the new regime and the Christian community.

At the same time, while Coptic problems have not been addressed, Salafist groups allied to the Muslim Brotherhood have continued to exercise pressure on the Copts in different forms by imposing restrictions on freedoms, blocking the process of building churches or service-providing buildings, and infringing on the personal freedoms of the Copts. In some religious problems, the government has reacted positively to deal with them, but in others its role has been more ambiguous.

The government generally still relies on the same methods used by the Mubarak regime in dealing with religious tensions, by organising “reconciliation sessions” for example between Muslims and Christians despite the fact that disputes between the two have caused casualties, the destruction of property and the temporary displacement of some Christian families. There have been unconfirmed reports that an increasing number of Christians have migrated to the West following the 25 January Revolution.

When sectarian tensions erupted after the Revolution, the prime minister at the time, Essam Sharaf, formed a committee, the “National Justice Committee”, to deal with religious conflicts and propose remedies for inherited problems. The committee worked well, but after Sharaf was replaced as prime minister by Kamal Al-Ganzouri the importance of the committee decreased to the extent that it now no longer exists. Efforts were made to revive the committee over the last three months, but the government showed little concern. Although the committee introduced an opportunity to deal with religiously motivated problems institutionally, the current regime, as credible sources have revealed, prefers to stick to the Mubarak regime’s mechanisms of dealing directly with clergymen through bargaining and negotiation. 

Last week in Brussels, Walid Haddad of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, and I spoke about the Arab Spring and religious freedoms in a one-day seminar organised by the Religions for Peace organisation at the European parliament. The attendees were politicians, scholars, media people and NGO activists attracted by the ongoing political problems in Egypt. The discussion was thorough, open and critical. Unsurprisingly, Haddad tried to justify the constitutional declaration issued by President Mohamed Morsi on 22 November by saying that it would build and sustain democratic institutions. Religious freedoms, from his point of view, had been clearly mentioned in meetings between Morsi and the new Coptic pope, and Morsi had also appointed a Copt as one of his aides and had included Christians in the Constituent Assembly.

In a gesture drawn from the old regime’s rhetoric, Haddad cleverly touched upon Western fears of the Islamists when he said that his party was moderate and should be supported to prevent other ultra-conservatives from coming to power. When I heard that, I remembered Mubarak’s own memorable statement to the effect that it was either his regime or the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, that statement has become either the Muslim Brotherhood or a yet more conservative Islamist regime. But the difference between the positions is crystal clear: Mubarak was fighting against the Islamists, but the current regime has built an Islamist supporting front consisting of all Islamists regardless of their political views.

The disagreements between the president and his Islamist supporters, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and the other non-Islamist forces in Egypt are growing, and the latter have united for the first time in the National Salvation Front, underlining the growing divisions in society. Egypt is now divided more than at any other time across religious lines, although the battle is between two contradictory models of the state, whether semi-religious or semi-secular. When it comes to religious freedoms, Christians seem to be being squeezed between the two polarised groups.

When the Coptic Church walked out of the constituent assembly, an official statement issued by the Church attributed the main cause for its withdrawal to be that “the ongoing process within the Constituent Assembly will not guarantee a constitution that will provide national consensus or that reflects the identity of Egypt.”

Although the statement did not specify particular points, there was a wider understanding that the “Islamic flavour” of the document, which states that law and liberty should comply with Sharia, or Islamic law, was the main cause for the withdrawal from the assembly. For Christians, the draft constitution acknowledges for the first time their right to look to their religion for guidance on marital issues, religious affairs and the choice of spiritual leaders (Article 3), though Sharia otherwise remains the main source of legislation (Article 2).

Despite the acknowledgment in the constitution of the Christian faith, other articles inserted in the document, and not included in any Egyptian constitutions before, have sent out shockwaves to different segments of Egyptian society, including Christians. These include Article 219 that defines Sharia according to traditional methods of Sunni jurisprudence crafted in the early centuries of Islam. There is a strong fear that this article could be interpreted in a way that allows more restrictions on religious and personal freedoms.

In addition, the practice of religious freedom and the building of houses of worship, the draft constitution states, should fall within the scope of the law. There are worries over the content of any upcoming law in this regard, particularly in the light of some ultraconservative opinions expressed by the Islamists on the issue of religious freedoms before and after the 25 January Revolution.

It is difficult to disentangle the religious issue from the socio-economic problems Egypt is suffering from and from the antagonistic political atmosphere. During recent months, social protests have reached their peak, with statistics showing 300 cases in the first half of September alone across government agencies, the private sector, and elsewhere. The political antagonism, challenging economic situation, and social problems provide the inflammatory environment for intolerant practices.

At root, the situation of Egypt’s Copts is not so very different from that of any other citizens who want to be fully-fledged members of the national community. They want, like all Egyptians, to see the rule of law, a representative political system and a tolerant society.


The writer is a political analyst.

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