The plight of Egypt's Christians

The plight of Egypt's Christians

Youssef Sidhom

World media has highlighted the violence suffered by members of Egypt's Coptic Christians recently. But as this interview by the Italian-based Oasis Centre with Youssef Sidhom, chief editor of the Cairo-based Coptic weekly Watani shows, Copts neither seem to like nor to conform to the label of 'victims'. (The following are edited extracts from the interview).

Sidhom: The Copts came out of the Mubarak era with great hopes. They expected that all the forms of discrimination that they had suffered would be overcome. But this has not yet happened. Egypt is going through a crisis of instability. The situation is complex and the Copts are involved with the moderate Muslims fighting against the attempt to transform Egypt into an Islamic state.

Oasis Centre: A complex situation even more so following the approval of the constitution last December ...

Sidhom: Both the Christians and moderate Muslims lost their battle over the constitution. Nonetheless we are not desperate yet as we are preparing for the next general elections. It is an illusion to imagine that the Egyptian moderates, Muslims and Copts, can together gain the majority in parliament. In such case they could reform Egypt and lead it towards an accomplished democracy, a civic state. The real challenge, however, is to construct a strong opposition, creating a coalition between the Christian and Muslim liberal parties – and thus limit attempts to translate inappropriate articles of the constitution into laws that aim at the construction of an Islamic state.

Oasis Centre: How?

Sidhom: On the one hand there are the Muslim Brothers, the Salafis and other Islamist groups that will create a strong coalition. On the other there are various liberal parties: will they be able to unite in a strong coalition? I hope that they manage to do so and do not argue. It will be the last possible battle.

Oasis Centre: Is there a specific program that can keep the liberal parties united or are they rather cemented only by the fact that they have a common enemy?

Sidhom: What united them was the passage of the constitution. This critical situation will keep the liberal parties united. Until today the liberal parties have known what they do not want rather than what they do want. This situation leaves no room to produce a development program, and it is so delicate that each one has concentrated on the crucial point: to stop Egypt becoming a religious state.

Oasis Centre: But even before the revolution, the old Egyptian constitution made a precise reference to the principles of sharia as the source of the legislation. What change is there today?

Sidhom: The old constitution clearly established that Islam is the religion of state and that the principles of sharia are the main source of the legislation. But Egyptian moderates, together with the fight among the military on the one hand and the Islamists on the other, have contributed to avoiding Egypt becoming a religious state. After the revolution, the army was sidelined, while political Islam, under the umbrella of the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, has made itself heard declaring: "Now we can govern Egypt and transform it into a religious state." Today they have a free hand, but people have realised that in apparently harmless constitutional articles, dangers can be hidden.

Oasis Centre: There is often talk of the fact that the Coptic community has been hit by a dramatically growing emigration towards the West. Can you give us confirmation of this?

Sidhom: Owing to the present serious and uncertain situation, and not knowing what tomorrow has in store for them, as soon as the Christians have the possibility to leave Egypt they do not hesitate to do so. But I am speaking of a very small minority. It is said that over 100,000 Copts have left Egypt over recent months, but there is no proof in support of these numbers. We have asked all the foreign embassies for estimates on emigration, also so as to compare these flows before and after the revolution. But the embassies do not classify emigration data according to religion.

There is also another issue: even if 100,000 Copts had emigrated from Egypt in the last two years, we must think about the eight million Copts who are still here and who cannot leave.

Oasis Centre: What are the most serious forms of discrimination today towards the Christians?

Sidhom: The first one is legislation on places of worship. If Christians want to build or restore a church, they face a long bureaucratic procedure until they obtain the president's approval. Instead, Muslims can build mosques everywhere and very easily. In 2006 a Muslim MP presented a draft bill to change legislation so that there would be a single law for all places of worship. The assembly approved the bill but it has never been made into law.

The second form of discrimination is that no Christian can, in practice, aspire to a place of responsibility or a high level in the civil service. The third, and most dangerous, form of discrimination is linked to education.

In school books, marked expressions of political Islam are to be found, for example the suggestion that Islam is the only religion accepted by God. This is very sad as generations of young Egyptians have grown up under the influence of this ideology. Egypt needs two things first of all: to save the economy, as the country is dying economically, and to save the education system.

Oasis Centre: Do you ever feel in danger?

Sidhom: I grew up in the middle of a Muslim majority, I have many friends of Islamic faith, I live in the capital, many Muslims work with us here at Watani and I never feel threatened. But the Christians who live in the villages, separate from the Muslims, are often at risk owing to the presence of groups of fanatics.

Before the revolution, the discrimination was carried out according to the law of the official bodies of the state. Today the legislation is still the same but the official state security services have other things to take care of. Groups of Islamists have taken over in their place. They are the ones threatening the Christians in our cities, villages and the rural areas.

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