Human Rights - Coptic Christians

American University in Cairo

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Coptic Christians and Freedom of Religion in Egypt

Freedom of belief is guaranteed in Egypt and a relatively large Coptic Christian community resides here although it does not enjoy quite the same political support and reassurance as the much larger Islamic population. In a class visit by Sami Fawzi, a Coptic Christian scholar and author from Cairo, we learned of a few specific instances in which the minority Coptic religious institutions do not receive the freedoms that they deserve. Meanwhile, these areas were limited to individual circumstances and although important, the Coptic Christians enjoy notably extensive freedom of religion when compared to relatively low standards in the region in this regard.

Although a minority in Egypt, the Coptic Christians do make up as much as 15% of the population, or ten million people. I found it especially interesting that they have had such a presence in this predominantly Muslim country since their founding, in the 1 st century. A key to the comfort they enjoy is the absolute freedom of expression and belief that they unquestionably enjoy within the Church building. The Coptic criticisms are with regard to their ability to propagate their beliefs.

While the constitution states that all people are equal before the law, the Coptic Christians take issue with certain elements of the practical treatment of their religion by the government. As Islam is the official state religion, certain restrictions are placed on them. For example, they are required to formally apply to build a church and cannot do so wherever they please. They are also under represented in Parliament and they cannot advance into senior leadership positions in organizations like in the army, public universities, etc. In additional, they encounter great difficulty converting non-believers because a Muslim seeking conversion would presumably be faced with great individual persecution.

It was interesting that Coptic Christians are adversely affected by the foreign policy of traditional ideological supporters in the West. Because there is such a pervasively anti-Western attitude among more radical Islamic groups, Mr. Fawzi noted that it is risky to ask for assistance, financial or otherwise, from countries like the United States. Presumably, they are more aware of this problem as a result of the acute objections that much of the international community has had since the outset of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. Nonetheless, it is unfortunate, but the Coptic Christians consider it detrimental to their cause to be perceived as having too close of ties with western foreign powers.

Finally, it was illuminating to hear that the Catholics, Protestants, and Coptic Christians do not readily cooperate with each other either. While ninety percent of the Christians in Egypt are Coptic, there are also Catholics and Protestant communities that could conceivably help each other and contribute to greater equal treatment for Christianity. I was predisposed to see the Coptic discussion as a tension cutting across sectarian lines, but this particular revelation promptly changed the frame through which I understood Sami’s position. For the majority of the discussion, I perceived the Coptic Christian’s grievances in the context of a purely Muslim-Christian tension but it is important to remember that the Christians do not get along particularly well with each other either.

It is possible that this tension among the Christians reflects a negative culturally-disposed attitude toward institutions that advocate viewpoints conflicting with the dominant leadership. Instead of representing anti-Christian attitudes, the inferior treatment of Coptic Christians could be more accurately understood as reflecting the motives of the individual state institutions toward its domestic actors. The circumstances of somewhat limited freedom of expression could be explained as an effort by the nation’s leadership to maintain preeminence over the minority religions which, in this case, includes Coptic Christians. It would be interesting to understand this issue of intra-Christian divergence in greater depth to determine whether this hypothesis is accurate.

Nevertheless, there is currently a subtle fear of repression among the Coptic Christians that is understandable in light of the fact that they have suffered from isolated cases of religious extremism, even in the past decade. Mr. Fawzi mentioned a case in which twenty-one Coptic Christians were killed in the south of Egypt after they had allegedly poisoned water that Muslims drank from. There are also instances in which anti-Coptic propaganda was circulated and there is a general sense of under representation in political affairs. These cases serve to illustrate instances in which Coptic Christian did not enjoy the range full of political and civil rights that should be guaranteed.

Meanwhile, I was encouraged by the relatively minor nature of the grievances articulated by Mr. Fawzi. Compared to the egregious violations of freedom of religion that the world community has observed, particularly horrific in instances of religious genocide in the past century, the Egyptian government is fairly open and accepting of other religious perspectives. Meanwhile, in order to offer true freedom of religion, the Egyptian authorities should look at modifying their attitude toward church-building, representation in government, and conversion.

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