6 January 2012

Egypt: Coptic Christmas - Moving Beyond the Fear

Photo: IRIN
Christian and Muslim demonstrators, some holding the holy Muslim’ book and others holding the cross, marching in Cairo.

Churches under threat, demonstrators killed, homes destroyed: since the revolution, the news has constantly portrayed Egypt's Coptic Christians as victims.

But while some Copts prefer to keep as low a profile as possible, others are raising their voices. On the eve of their Christmas celebrations (on 7 January), three politically active Copts share their experiences. "We are moving beyond the fear."

The images from New Year's Eve are still fresh: an angry mob in the southern Egyptian city of Asyut storms the home of a Coptic student, chanting "Allahu akbar". The student was accused of publishing an offensive cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed on his Facebook page. It's an all too familiar scene: a vague suspicion is all it takes for the situation to spiral out of control.

Beyond the fear

Yet something has changed since the revolution of January 2011, argues Peter Talaat of the liberal Ahraar Party. In the 1980s, many Copts left Egypt to escape the violence or because they'd had enough of being treated like second-class citizens. Talaat:

"But now Copts are letting their voices be heard, like every other Egyptian. Their situation is no better, but they have moved beyond their fear."

That's all well and good, I countered, but I have spoken to a number of Copts in Cairo who dare not leave their homes or who want to flee the country for fear of violence. Can't Talaat see that? Yes, he concedes, "but I think that in terms of percentages the fear is evenly spread among Muslims and Christians. People are uncertain about the future and their safety."

Talaat also believes that, unlike the past, the current wave of violence is not specifically targeted against Christians.

"Now it's mainly the army using force against the civilian population. They're acting as if the people are crazy."

A Christian Muslim Brother

Parliamentary candidate Amin Iskander, another member of the Coptic community, has joined the list of candidates for the pro-democracy Karama party, which has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. It's a decision he is often asked to explain.

"Some Christians see me as a traitor. But I think I can be a bridge builder." Iskander sees how charged the relationships between Christians and Muslims are in Egypt.

"I'm not blind. I know there are Muslims who refuse to vote for a Christian and vice versa. But I am trying to break that sectarian mould. We are not going to parliament to hold Friday prayers or Sunday sermons. So if you were to ask me how to ensure Coptic voices are heard, my response would be: get 20 Christian candidates on the Muslim Brotherhood's list, and make sure that they win."

Protecting the Copts

Liberal Copt Ibrahim thinks that the Muslim Brothers will have to change their tactics once they get into power. He sees two possibilities:

"Either they will tyrannise the Coptic community, allowing sectarian tensions to flare into government violence and prompting outraged responses from around the world. Or they will do what Mubarak did and do their best to show that they are the ones who will protect the Christians."

The latter mechanism seems to be prevailing - to some extent at least - in the run-up to the Coptic Christmas celebrations on 7 January: the various political parties are falling over each other to prove that they are the ones who can and will protect the Copts against attacks by Salafist extremists.

Not only the demonstrators on Tahrir Square, but also the Muslim Brothers have called for protection for their Christian compatriots. Even the Salafist Al-Nour Party is planning to set up protection committees for the churches.

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