“The forces of the revolution and reform should unite in achieving their dream of justice and freedom. They should also avoid sectarian, ethnic, doctrinal and religious conflicts in order to preserve their national fabric and respect citizens’ rights; and they should join forces to achieve a democratic transformation for the benefit of everyone, in a framework of national consensus and harmony aimed at building a future based on equality and justice. Furthermore, they must prevent the uprising to be exploited by sectarianism or denominationalism or to provoke religious sensitivities.”
On 11 January 2012 His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, together with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Egyptian Prime Minister, signed The Al-Azhar Declaration in support for the Arab Revolutions, of which the quotation above is an extract. It speaks of ‘freedom and justice’ and it is, perhaps, not insignificant that the largest party elected to the first Egyptian parliament after the 2011 Revolution which has adopted the name of the ‘Freedom and Justice Party’ is an Islamist Federation representing the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Declaration laudably espouses ‘national unity’, ‘consensus & harmony’, ‘equality & justice’ and respect for ‘religious sensitivities’ whilst eschewing ‘sectarianism’ and ‘denominationalism’; an agenda which Egyptian Christians will happily embrace. All major political and religious groupings – including the Salafist ‘Al-Nour Party’ – have also endorsed these principles. It now remains to be seen how they will be put into effect, especially in the drafting of the new Egyptian Constitution.
Having secured an incredible 65% of the votes, the Islamists will certainly consolidate their hold on the institutions of state, including the Presidency and, in due course, the military. However this happens, it will be a time of testing and struggle for Egypt. There is still plenty of talk of democracy but we should not forget that countries which publicly announce themselves as ‘Democratic Republics’ are often distinguished by their lack of fundamental democratic rights. Similarly parties which arrogate to themselves titles with high-moral aspirations do not always match their actions to their words.
Since Maspero, the Army – once the symbol of national unity – can no longer be viewed as an impartial guardian of the state guaranteed to protect the vulnerable; whilst its broken pledges have seriously damaged its credibility. Unless the equality of all is enshrined in the new Constitution and successive legislation, Christians will rightly fear that their freedoms and security depend on accommodating themselves to the transient goodwill of a hostile majority.
With depressing regularity this journal, as well as local and international human rights’ organisations, records new outrages against Christians, which have not abated since the Revolution. Only a government determined to address these problems by urgent reform of unjust laws, as well as decisive action to prevent sectarian attacks, will be able to justify its words by its actions.
One matter of concern for Christians is the inequality they suffer over the restrictive rules and complex bureaucracy required for the construction and renovation of churches compared to the total freedom for the erection of mosques; and whether the long promised unified law for places of worship will be passed by a parliament with an Islamic majority. Since 2005 several bills have been presented to parliament yet were never acted upon. After the Revolution it was hoped that this would be adopted as part of the new Egyptian Constitution.
The Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, Mahmoud Ghuzlan, was quoted as saying that the Brotherhood is in the process of drafting a law for the construction of places of worship in general and he believes such a law would be favourable to both Muslims and Copts as a means of building bridges of mutual trust and tolerance. The Brotherhood, he says, does not object to a unified law to organise the construction, maintenance and restoration of places of worship in Egypt in general, but (and here a significant qualification is made) it must take into consideration the population density and geographical distribution of communities belonging to a specific religion, since Egypt’s towns and villages differ in their ethnic diversity. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood will adopt such a law in the People’s Assembly is still uncertain, since it claims it lacks important information concerning the numbers of places of worship in Egypt. They claim that this information will reveal the adequacy of the number of churches in proportion to the Coptic population, or whether they are in excess to its needs.
Another leading spokesman among them, Sobhi Saleh, believes that it is not advisable to open a discussion on a unified law for places of worship at the present time because it might lead to sectarian problems and, he says, priority should be given to more important issues. As for al-Azhar’s initiative to pass the unified law for places of worship, Mr Saleh says that any information issued aside from the Brotherhood’s official documents can be nothing but individual opinion that may be correct or incorrect.
It has also been pointed out1 that there is a common tendency, even among liberals to refer to attacks on Copts as “sectarian strife.” The strict meaning of the Arabic al–fitna is “the differing in opinion between people and what occurs between them in way of fighting”. It is hardly appropriate to apportion equal blame when one group is clearly being oppressed by the other. The Copts, although victims, are stigmatised as culprits and condemned equally with their attackers. When homes and businesses are set on fire by marauding Islamists the press reports it as “sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians.” At other times the attacks are somehow excused by an imagined affront to Muslim sensitivities (the appearance of domes or crosses); outrage over an alleged infraction of planning laws; insulting Islam or its prophet (cartoons of Mickey Mouse) or the uncorroborated accusation of suspected familiarity between a Christian boy or a Muslim girl.
In March 2011, when a group of Muslims attacked Ayman Anwar Mitri, a 45 year old Christian Coptic man in the Upper Egyptian town of Qena, cutting off his ear because he had allegedly rented out an apartment to prostitutes; they claimed they were applying Sharia law. A ‘reconciliation’ meeting was made in the presence of Colonel Ahmed Masood, deputy military ruler of Qena, whereby Ayman Mitri and the Muslims came to an ‘agreement.’ He was duly photographed shaking his assailants’ hands while Colonel Masood looked on benignly. Bizarrely the missing ear was Photoshopped back in the picture released for publication. Later, Mr. Mitri admitted that he agreed to reconcile and forfeit his rights because, “I was threatened, they threatened to kidnap the female children in our family.” These reconciliation meetings simply allow the criminal to escape the consequences of his crime, whilst the victim is humiliated by such an affront to justice.