Copts in Egypt

The Dome Dispute

The recent attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria has highlighted increasing sectarian tensions in Egypt and discrimination against Christians in Egyptian public life. Another example is the construction freeze on a building being constructed by the Coptic Church in Cairo's Omraniya district. Amira El Ahl reports

Incomplete building being guarded by security forces in Omraniya (photo: Amira El Ahl)
Fury at law enforcement officers: thousands of Coptic Christians vented their anger on the streets of Omraniya after riot police used force to halt the construction of a building being constructed by the Coptic Church in their district

​​The cathedral in Cairo is full to bursting as the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, celebrates Christmas Mass. Some 3,000 invited guests are in attendance, including prominent Muslims such as Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, the sons of the Egyptian president, as well as ministers and actors. Even the controversial television preacher Amr Khaled is there. Tonight is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but this is not a happy time for members of the Coptic Church.

Since the New Year's Day attack in the al-Qiddisin (Two Saints) Church in Alexandria, in which 23 people died and more than 100 were injured, the Copts have been in no mood to celebrate. The bombing was not entirely unexpected: in October, al-Qaida in Iraq had announced that it was planning to attack Coptic churches in Egypt.

The announcement was made in response to reports that the Church had hidden two Coptic women in order to prevent them from converting to Islam. Islamist groups in Egypt organised demonstrations in response to the news, and al-Qaeda used the story to justify attacks on Christians in Iraq.

Chronicle of sectarian tension

Sectarian tensions have been growing for several years now, but the past two years have been especially hard for the Coptic community. Their recent difficulties began when the government had 250,000 pigs slaughtered as a preventative measure to combat swine flu.

The measure was one of questionable effectiveness, and it destroyed the livelihood of thousands of rubbish collectors who kept pigs to eat organic waste. These rubbish collectors – known as zabaleen – are Copts, and they regarded the action as a covert attack on their community.

Exactly one year ago, six Copts were shot and killed after the Christmas Mass in Naga Hammadi. During the year that followed, emotions again reached boiling point with the alleged conversion of two Christian women to Islam.

Then, in November, there was fighting in the streets between Copts and the security forces when the latter tried to stop the unauthorised construction of a church. Two people died in the clashes. Then there was the New Year's Day attack in Alexandria, the worst in a decade.

Christians and Muslims clash on the streets of Alexandria (photo: AP)
Trail of violence: in 2006, at least 20 people were injured in fierce clashes between Christians and Muslims in Alexandria lasting several days

​​The events last November in Omraniya, an informal area in the south of the city, were a turning point for the Coptic community. "Something happened there that has never happened before," says Bahey al-Din Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "For the first time, thousands of furious Christians took to the streets with the intention of attacking government institutions. In the past they always demonstrated in churches or in front of their cathedrals."

The angry demonstrations in Omraniya began after riot police used force to stop the construction of a church in the early hours of the morning of 23 November. The building is situated directly adjacent to the main ring road that encircles the metropolis of 18 million people.

Its imposingly large shell was already complete, clearly visible to everyone driving past. Work on the building had been going on for months, but it was only in November that the authorities in charge noticed that the building was crowned with a dome. That, at least, is the official explanation.

The problem was that the Church had obtained planning permission, allowing them to build a parish hall, but not a church. According to the authorities, the dome indicates that the building was to be used as a church and not for the community-related purposes outlined in the building permit: as a kindergarten, a clinic, or a Sunday school, for example.

Double standards

"I admit that the Copts had built in contravention of the planning permission," says Yousef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic weekly newspaper Watani. "The question is why they did it." He states that it is virtually impossible for Christians to build churches in Egypt.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak (photo: AP)
Criticised: Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has repeatedly been accused by the Coptic minority of failing to do enough to protect them

​​A decree issued in 1934 established ten preconditions for the building of a church. Among other restrictions, a church may not be built alongside or in the vicinity of a mosque. Furthermore, there cannot be any train stations, post offices or electricity stations nearby. "These restrictions were intended to prevent the building of churches in the city centre," says the journalist.

Furthermore, the Muslim inhabitants of the district concerned have to approve the building of the church. Only when all the criteria have been fulfilled will the state security service present the application to the president, who has final approval on the building of every church in the country. The building of a mosque, on the other hand, requires no such approval; it is comparatively easy to obtain a permit.

President Mubarak frequently emphasises that he has never rejected any application that has reached his desk. "But these are the magic words," says Sidhom. "The application first has to reach his desk, which it very seldom does."

In order to circumvent all these difficulties, the Copts have for quite some time now been making do by building community meeting houses where masses are also said. Sidhom describes it as a kind of deal.

The security services know about it and they tolerate the breach of the law because it means that, in turn, no new churches are built. This could provoke conservative Muslims in the country, who are steadily gaining influence. In Omraniya, however, the Copts broke this tacit agreement when they put a dome on top of the community hall.

"What has to change are the laws!"

Coptic Christians during a Christmas Mass in Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo (photo: AP)
Although Coptic Christians have dhimmi status, they are marginalised in Egyptian society

​​The Christians have long seen themselves as disadvantaged. The fact that so many conditions have to be met to build a church is only one of the most obvious difficulties. "The churches are not the problem," says Samih Sami, a Christian and a journalist with the independent newspaper Al-Shorouk. "In the centre of the city in particular there are enough churches. What really has to change are the laws."

The Copts constitute about 10 per cent of Egypt's population of 80 million. Although some of the country's most influential businessmen and ministers are Copts, the Coptic middle classes find it difficult to get ahead. Christians are excluded from many important positions in government and public life.

"It would be completely unthinkable for there to be a Coptic defence minister, let alone a Coptic president," says Samih Sami. Not one of the country's major universities has a Coptic rector, and Copts feel discriminated against in many aspects of their daily lives.

The only area in which the Copts are strongly represented, and also very successful, is private enterprise. "According to statistics from the American Chamber of Commerce, 35 per cent of privately owned businesses in Egypt are run by Copts," says Yousef Sidhom. "The ratio is so high because Copts are marginalised in other areas."

A wake-up call for the country

In this respect, it appears that the attack on the Copts in Alexandria was a wake-up call for many Muslims. All Egyptians have been deeply shocked by it; the statements of sympathy from Muslims are not mere platitudes but expressions of genuine condolence.

The solidarity campaigns that have been taking place since the attack, both on the Internet and on the streets, all sound the same note: Egypt for all! Most Muslims seem finally to have understood that there are problems in the country and that there has to be some fundamental change.

It appears that the perpetrators have achieved the exact opposite of their intentions. Instead of creating further division between Christians and Muslims, the attack has brought them closer together. According to Sameh Sami, "It's a golden opportunity for the regime to do the right thing and change the current state of affairs."

Amira El Ahl

© 2011

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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