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Egypt : Paying the price

The spate of attacks launched by Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, against Christians constitutes collective punishment for Coptic participation in the mass demonstrations that led to Morsi’s ouster, researcher Suleiman Shafik tells Dina Ezzat

Egypt’s Copts and other Christians face tough times. Since the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July churches and the homes of Christians have been the targets of regular attacks, some of them under the eyes and ears of an indifferent police force.

The attackers identify themselves as Islamists. Indeed, the writing on the walls of burned churches and houses in Upper Egypt over the last month has conveyed a single, chilling message — that Egypt is exclusively an Islamic country and Copts should move elsewhere.

“This is collective punishment. The message is that Copts should find themselves somewhere else to go,” says Suleiman Shafik, a researcher into Coptic affairs. “The fact is, though, that Egypt is their home and Copts are staying.”

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly in the wake of growing numbers of attacks on Christians, Shafik is less concerned about the slogans daubed on walls than he is with the identity of the attackers.

“For the first time in decades we are seeing Muslim Brotherhood members directly involved in attacks against Copts. Previous attacks against Copts have been by and large the doing of other Islamist groups, Jihad and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya. The Muslim Brotherhood has not been directly involved in any such attacks since 1950,” says Shafik.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which was established in 1928, instigated some attacks against Christian targets in the 1930s and 1940s. Otherwise, says Shafik, relations between the Islamist group and Egypt’s Copts, while they witnessed ups and downs, have remained manageable.

In the run-up to the presidential elections of 2012 Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi, tried to solicit Coptic support through positive public statements and appearances at the Coptic Cathedral.

“We are talking about a serious shift in positions here, and it’s very disturbing,” notes Shafik . He adds that “there is no doubt” in his mind about the “Muslim Brotherhood identity of the attackers” not only because there is no attempt to conceal this identity but also because “it is a well-known fact” that the villages in Upper Egypt where the attacks have happened “fall squarely in the area of Muslim Brotherhood influence”.

Equally disturbing for Shafik is the context in which the attacks take place. “I am not just talking about a police force that stands by while churches and houses are being burned down. I am talking about people being attacked for no reason other than the fact that they are Copts, and Copts participated in the 30 June demonstrations that led to the ouster of Morsi.”

During the final months of Morsi’s year in office, Muslim Brotherhood leaders began to complain about the presence of Copts in anti-Morsi demonstrations. Mohamed Al-Beltagui, whose anti-Coptic statements from the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in fall squarely within the realms of hate speech, was among the most vociferous.

What people like Al-Beltagui fail to realise, argues Shafik, is that “Copts are fully-fledged Egyptian citizens who have the right to protest against anything they happen to dislike, especially when it comes to a president determined to deny their existence.”

The size of Egypt’s Christian population has been the subject of debate for decades, not least because the national census studiously avoids any religion-based count. According to many independent sources, Christians, whether Copts, Catholics or evangelicals, constitute one fifth of the population rather than the officially touted 10 per cent.

“To put things in black and white, Copts are being punished for exercising the perfectly legitimate citizenship right of protesting against the president,” Shafik says. “And the only body that is intervening to stop this is the army.”

During the past month army vehicles have been deployed in the villages of Upper Egypt where attacks have taken place to provide the Coptic community with a sense of security. Such scenes are in sharp contrast to the images Copts have lived with since 9 October 2011 when military vehicles were used to kill Coptic demonstrators in front of the Maspero television headquarters.

“During the first interim phase churches and people were attacked in the context of disputes between neighbours or feuds over a love affair between a Muslim and a Copt. Now we are seeing attacks for no reason at all,” says Shafik .

Sectarian violence against Copts has been a recurrent story since the late 1970s. Indeed, late president Anwar Al-Sadat is blamed by many historians for inciting sectarianism as he courted Islamist groups as a counterbalance to the lingering influence of leftists.

Sadat himself criticised the Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III and placed him under house arrest. Shenouda remained secluded until Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981 and turned a new page in relations with the Church. Implicit in the new dispensation was the understanding that the patriarch would keep the Coptic population “within the walls of the church”.

“For years Copts would demonstrate inside the walls of the Cathedral grounds. All that changed when they took part in the 25 January Revolution. There were repeated attempts to force them back inside the churches but neither the Copts nor the Church complied. Instead, the opposite happened. They defied these attempts. One result of this was the marked presence of Copts in every demonstration that led the way to 30 June,” argues Shafik.

Now, he says, the homes and places of worship of Copts and other Christians are being attacked as a form of “collective punishment”.

“We now see all the houses of Copts in a village being attacked. This signals a shift from the individual discrimination faced by many Copts towards wholesale persecution. The state needs to interfere, strongly, to stop this.”

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.