Muslims and Copts in Egypt

Dancing on the Volcano

About ten percent of the Egypt population are Coptic Christians. Contrary to the official position of the government, there are frequent tensions between the two population groups. Nelly Youssef reports

Coptic pope Shenouda III. (photo:
Pope Shenouda III is the highest authority in the Coptic church. He is regarded as the 116th successor of Mark the Evangelist, who brought Christianity to Egypt

​​Since the elections to the Egyptian parliament, a play which is showing at a theatre in Alexandria has caused anger among many Muslims. It tells of a young Copt who converts to Islam and then back to Christianity, because he finds Islam repugnant.

The Muslim religion does not appear in a very good light in this play, which includes insulting comments about the Prophet Mohammed. Demonstrators demanded that the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church issued an apology for the play, which is also being distributed on CD.

The church refused to apologise and that led to further demonstrations. Some of the 5,000 protesters became violent, and several Copts and Muslims were injured.

This was the first time that there have been such large protests by the Muslim population in Egypt.

Reasons for the escalation in violence

The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights published a report on the incidents. It listed reasons for the escalation in the violence, such as the provocative intervention of the security forces and the government's unwillingness to get involved in the crisis. It tried to keep the incidents quiet and claimed the situation would calm down of its own accord. As a result, it failed to take the action which was necessary.

The report accuses religious institutions like the Azhar and the Coptic church of having no interest in investigating the reasons why the situation has got worse. The report says that nobody was trying to analyse the phenomenon or to work energetically to prevent it from happening again.

Hafez Abu Sa'ada, General Secretary of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights told Qantara how important he thought it was to discuss such sensitive topics openly and honestly. He said his organisation had made proposals to the relevant authorities as to how one might work against the causes of the crisis and prevent repetitions.

For example, they had pointed to the necessity of establishing a committee for religious affairs in parliament, which would include influential representatives of media, education, charitable organisations and state security, as well as representatives of the Coptic Church, the al-Azhar and NGOs.

The committee would deal with issues presented by citizens and work out practical solutions to prevent conflicts between the adherents of different confessions and religions. The committee would also establish uniform regulations for the construction of houses of worship.

Copts are discriminated against

Youssef Sidhom, editor of the weekly newspaper "Watani," the only Coptic newspaper in Egypt, has accused the government of making it difficult for the Copts to become involved in politics. There were, for example, only two Copt names on the list of candidates for the parliamentary elections.

Sidhom describes as empty rhetoric the grand speeches made during official state events and at conferences in which promises are made to strengthen the position of minorities and to ensure peaceful coexistence between the different population groups.

The writer Samir Marquis also says the Copts are discriminated against. And that discrimination goes much further than just a theatre play which has given so much offence. More important was the fact that Copts were finding it increasingly difficult to get jobs in government and the public services.

Plans to build churches are confronted with difficulties, although President Hosni Mubarak recently issued a directive requiring mayors to permit the construction or the restoration of churches.

Under this directive, decisions on the construction of a new church or the restoration of an old one have to be made within thirty days of an application.

This directive supersedes a directive from the period of the Ottoman Empire under which Copts had to get the approval of the head of government before the building or restoration of a church.

Marquis says the Egyptian government has been pushing the Copts out of political life since the fifties and that it is only in rare exceptional cases that government offices were held by Copts. The state thus reduces the Copts to a religious grouping standing outside the general community.

Lack of democracy and civil rights

George Ishaq, coordinator of the "Kifaya" movement, is convinced that the political climate in Egypt—in which a lack of democracy and the free expression of opinion is a typical characteristic—leads to people turning to what is the weakest uniting factor in Egyptian society: religion.

It is not only the Copts who are discriminated against, he says. Muslims too suffer from the fact that the principle of equal rights has not been implemented. It is not an issue between Muslims and Copts, he says, but a crisis of culture and democracy.

One Copt who did not wish to be named says that Copts in Egypt suffer from daily insults, for which they never receive apologies.

Only twenty new churches have been built in Egypt in the last thirty years. In their Friday sermons Muslim preachers describe Copts as "unbelievers." Copts are mocked in films and most Copt students studying at Egyptian universities feel isolated as Muslim fellow-students avoid them and reduce communication with them to a minimum.

Scheich Ibrahim Rida, who is employed by the Ministry for Religious Foundations ("Awqaf") as a preacher and teacher, says that the crisis between Muslims and Copts cannot be solved by security measures or apologies from the religious institutions.

He believes that what is needed is rather a fundamental political and cultural change in society which will allow Copts and Muslims to live together as citizens in peace.

Foundation of a Centre for Prevention

Nabil Abd al-Fattah of the "Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies" edits an annual report on the religious situation in Egypt. His view is that Coptic organisations in the Coptic diaspora are being used as a way of putting pressure on the system. The aim is, with their help, to fight movements of political Islam and their anti-Coptic positions.

According to Abd al-Fattah this pressure from diaspora Copts on the movements of political Islam and on religious institutions could lead to the suspicion that the Copts, especially in the USA and the EU, are gathering their strength to strike a blow against the system, and especially against the Islamists. It was this suspicion which had led to the violent reactions of some Islamists.

Abd al-Fattah has proposed the foundation of a Centre for Prevention which could act as an early warning of possible religious or confessional conflicts with a view to preventing them. New laws are also needed, he says, punishing religiously insulting or rabble-rousing behaviour.

Movements for Christianisation and Islamisation

One of the reasons for the worsening of the relations between the two religious groups is the recent rise of campaigns for Christianisation and Islamisation.

A few months ago, several hundred Copts demonstrated in Cairo, protesting about a Copt who had converted to Islam. They accused Muslims of having kidnapped the Copt and having forced her to convert to Islam.

In another case, a young Muslim woman, Zeinab, fled from her home and sent a message to her family telling them that she had converted to Christianity. Zeinab took the name of Christine and said she had converted after she had come into contact with Christianity as a result of a Christianisation campaign.

The case which has been attracting the most attention and has recently been very much in the public eye was that of two sisters, Marian and Christine, who married two young Muslims and converted to Islam. The mother of the two young women appeared on television and claimed that her daughters had been kidnapped.

T he two women responded by sending a videotape to the television station on which they stated that they had converted to Islam voluntarily.

All this increases the tension between Muslims and Copts. And it is in the context of these incidents that the Organisation for Personal Rights, which is active in Egypt, has accused the interior ministry of not respecting the rights of Egyptian citizens who have converted either to Islam or to Christianity, in that it does not allow them to declare their faith in public. This is the case even after some of the individuals affected have won court cases allowing them to do so.

The writer and historian Yunan Labib Rizq comments laconically, "While throughout the rest of the world, people are concerning themselves with progress and technology, we here are worried about who's converted to Islam and who's become a Copt. These are clear signs of backwardness, since religious issues are the private matter of each citizen. After all, there is no compulsion in religion!"

Nelly Youssef

© 2006

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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