Coptic Christians Under Siege in Egypt

Tuesday, 11 Oct 2011 10:24 AM

By Tawfik Hamid

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Recently, attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt and the destroying of their churches have been on the rise.

The problem has escalated and massive clashes raged Sunday in downtown Cairo between Coptic Christian demonstrators and the military. At least 24 people have been killed and more than 300 injured (mostly Copts) in the worst sectarian violence since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February.

Initially, the demonstrations remained peaceful for hours and turned extremely violent after two military personnel were killed. It is unclear until now who started the attack on the military that sparked the violence. The possibility that anti-revolution groups have sparked the violence must not be excluded.

In addition, there are parties who could be interested in forcing the Copts to flee Egypt for ideological or economic reasons. If the Copts flee the country they are likely to sell their financial assets in the country with very low prices which can work well for wealthy Islamists who can buy these assets to further Islamize the country.

Radical Islamists could be also involved in the initial attack on the military to turn public opinion and the military against the Copts. The possibilities are numerous and further investigations are needed to elucidate who exactly was behind initiating this confrontation between the military and the Copts.

The possibility that the Copts killed the military personnel is very unlikely as it is not in the nature of Coptic Christians to use violence and the teaching of the Coptic Church typically teaches love and forgiveness.

According to one of the presidential candidates in Egypt Buthaina Kamel, some military personnel were shouting “Allah Akbar” (Islamic war cry) while attacking the Christians.

It is fair to say that all what the Egyptian Copts are asking is simply one word: ‘Equality’ with their fellow Egyptian Muslims.

Despite the several attacks on Coptic churches last year, the last one in Aswan was ‘the straw the broke the Camel's back’. Attacking the church in Aswan made many Copts furious as the governor of Aswan — who represent the government — initially denied the existence of the church, and then when he was shown to be a liar he justified the attack by saying that “Copts made a mistake and had to be punished, and Muslims did nothing but set things right, end of story.”

In other words, the mayor encouraged Muslims to take the law in their hands without waiting for government to apply it. This situation made many Copts to be furious as a government official was actually encouraging lawlessness and supporting attacks on the Christian churches. The delay in removing the mayor from his position has just added more fuel to the fire.

This attack showed beyond doubt that symptomatic treatment for problems — for example; by the military building the churches that were destroyed as what happened in the last few months — is inefficient unless it is coupled with implementing other tactics to prevent the problem from occurring again.

The phenomenon of violent acts against the Copts or justifying these acts has become prominent during the ‘Islamic Revival’ of the country that started in the late '70s due to the spread of the Saudi or Wahhabi form of Islam. The latter simply do not accept the existence of other faiths or beliefs beside Islam.

Churches in Egypt have been protected for more than a 1000 years. The attacks on Churches started to be prominent only after the 1970s when the extremely intolerant Wahhabi virulent strain of Islam invaded Egypt.

The following factors have contributed to the rising of the attacks on the Copts and their churches in Egypt. Understanding these factors is fundamental to develop effective approaches to solve it.

1. Theological factors: Undervaluing the lives of non-Muslims is integral and challenged constituent of both traditional and modern theology of Islam . Islamic law punishes a Muslim by capital punishment if he killed a Muslim. On the contrary, killing a non-Muslim is not punishable by death as “A Muslim is not killed for a disbeliever.” This form of discrimination that considers non-Muslims subhumans gives justification for radical Muslims to attack Copts in the country. Until this theology changes and new books of jurisprudence that consider humans as equal are created, the problem will remain.

2. Legal factors: Failure to punish the radical Muslims who attacked Copts and their churches in the past gave a green light for other radicals to do the same crime again and again. The lack of strong punishment against these Islamist radicals was partially due to sympathizing with their radical religious views and partially because of fear of revenge.

3. Role of the media: Several mainstream media in the country have been genuinely trying to stop the attacks on innocent Copts. Ironically, the same media was unintentionally aggravating the problem.

After the attack on the Israeli embassy the man who removed the Israeli flag and destroys it was treated as a ‘hero’ by the mainstream media. This gave an example that justified breaking the law and thus gave a form of acceptance for other people such as Islamic radicals to also break the law and attack innocent Copts.

In other words, despite the attempts of several mainstream media to stop violent acts against the Copts, celebrating a man for breaking the law has ruined their attempts to protect the Copts from the violent acts.

4. Educational factors: The lack of effective educational material that successfully teaches the values of peaceful co-existence with the "other" has further aggravated the problem.

5. Psychological factors: Lack of strong fatwa to denounce the radicals who attack the Coptic churches prevents an important psychological mechanism that can deter many Islamists from attacking churches.

Some suggestions that can help putting an End to the Coptic Christian suffering in the country are below:

1. Immediately establishing a law to consider those who attack holy places or incite violence against religious minorities as traitors to the country as they threaten the national security of the country (the word "traitor" has very strong deterrent effect to prevent future attacks and also it is punishable by capital punishment).

2. Supporting this law by religious fatwa to consider those who attack religious worship places as “Muharab.” This can be a very strong deterrent for many radicals as the “Muharb” (or the criminals who cause mischief in the land) is punishable by very strong reprimands in Islam.

3. Stop all forms of inequality in the law that discriminates against Christians (such as the law for building religious temples)

4. Reform Islamic education to consolidate the value of respecting human life irrespective of its faith. This can be based on the following verse: Quran 5:32: On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person — unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land — it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

5. Media personnel must never celebrate those who break the law as heroes when they do this against Israel. Accepting the concept of breaking the law in any situation justifies for the radical Muslims attacking churches.

6. An apology from the military to the Coptic Christians and attempts of reconciliation are very important to calm the situation. Explaining that the attacks on the Copts were not pre-planned by the military and represent an individual response from some personnel in the military rather than a policy at its leadership levels.

7. Three days mourning for the whole nation as a matter of respect for all who have been killed can help in starting reconciliation process.

Finally, in this particular situation, the mayor of Aswan that justified the attack on the church must be immediately kicked out of the government and punished. Any delay in doing so can only mean that the government as a whole justifies that Muslims can attack Coptic churches and take the law into their hands.






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