Church at­tack raises calls to up­root big­otry

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Grow­ing up in Egypt, Mina and other Copts re­mem­ber all too well the anti-Chris­tian slurs they used to hear at school and on the street. Once, while play­ing foot­ball, a Mus­lim youth snatched Mina’s neck­lace and cru­ci­fix and stomped on it. “I won’t for­get that day,” said Mina, now in his 30s. Egypt is now try­ing to come to terms with the kind of reli­gious big­otry be­hind a De­cem­ber 11 sui­cide bomb­ing in a Cairo church that killed 26 peo­ple dur­ing Sun­day mass. “School cur­ric­ula, some (reli­gious) plat­forms and the ab­sence of an en­light­ened cur­rent are what have led to this,” said Cop­tic Church spokesman Bou­los Halim.

Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties have an­nounced the ar­rest of four ji­hadist sus­pects. But the au­thor­i­ties must go much fur­ther and ad­dress the kind of prej­u­dice run­ning through Egyp­tian so­ci­ety that for decades has fu­elled at­tacks on Cop­tic Chris­tians, said Halim. “Po­lice and mil­i­tary power have never been able to erase ter­ror­ism. It must be ac­com­pa­nied by the power of thought,” he said. The at­tack claimed by the Is­lamic State group was the sec­ond church bomb­ing in Egypt since 2011 and only the lat­est sec­tar­ian in­ci­dent in the Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­try where Chris­tians have long com­plained of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Copts, who make up about 10 per­cent of Egypt’s 90-mil­lion pop­u­la­tion, say they are side­lined both in the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and state in­sti­tu­tions. Halim traces the roots of vi­o­lence against his com­mu­nity to the 1970s, when then pres­i­dent An­war Sa­dat em­pow­ered Is­lamists against his so­cial­ist op­po­nents.

At­tacks by Mus­lims on Chris­tians, es­pe­cially in ru­ral ar­eas, car­ried on af­ter Sa­dat him­self was as­sas­si­nated by ji­hadists in 1981 and suc­ceeded by his vice pres­i­dent, Hosni Mubarak. In more re­cent times, Copts have also had to con­tend with Is­lamist ex­trem­ists whose pro­pa­ganda por­trays them as out­siders and sec­ond-class cit­i­zens.

Some say the roots of dis­crim­i­na­tion can be found in schools. Schools teach com­pul­sory classes in re­li­gion, with Chris­tians leav­ing class­rooms dur­ing Is­lamic lessons to at­tend separate Chris­tian re­li­gion tu­ition. In Ara­bic classes, Chris­tians mem­o­rize Qu­ranic verses-a pri­mary ref­er­ence for teach­ing the lan­guage-while Mus­lims are taught about Chris­tian­ity from an Is­lamic per­spec­tive. “They don’t learn any­thing about my re­li­gion,” said Peter, a Copt in his 30s. Big­otry was one of the rea­sons that Peter, who asked not to be fully iden­ti­fied, left Egypt, say­ing it made him feel “like I’m not from this coun­try”.

Halim said con­fronting dis­crim­i­na­tion should in­volve govern­ment min­istries as well as in­sti­tu­tions from both sides of the reli­gious di­vide. They should “cre­ate a na­tional project to start a cur­rent of en­light­en­ment among Egyp­tians”, Halim said. Af­ter Mubarak’s over­throw in a 2011 up­ris­ing, Copts came un­der at­tack again, with dozens killed in sec­tar­ian clashes and in a con­fronta­tion with the mil­i­tary in October that year. Un­der Is­lamist pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Morsi, fun­da­men­tal­ists reg­u­larly in­cited vi­o­lence against Chris­tians.

Fol­low­ing his over­throw by the mil­i­tary in 2013, Mus­lim mobs at­tacked dozens of churches and Chris­tian prop­er­ties ac­cus­ing the Copts of hav­ing sided with the army. With former mil­i­tary chief Ab­del Fat­tah Al-Sisi’s elec­tion a year later, Copts hoped they had found an ally who un­der­stood the dan­gers of Is­lamist ex­trem­ism. Sisi, who over­saw a bloody crack­down on Morsi’s sup­port­ers and pledged to wipe out a ji­hadist in­sur­gency, be­came Egypt’s first pres­i­dent to at­tend a Christ­mas mass. His ad­min­is­tra­tion also fi­nally reg­u­lated church con­struc­tion un­der a law sup­ported by the Cop­tic Church, though op­posed by crit­ics for re­tain­ing ob­sta­cles.

“What hap­pened is not enough to change ide­olo­gies,” said Halim. There has been an uptick of sec­tar­ian in­ci­dents in 2016. In May, Mus­lim vil­lagers set ablaze Chris­tian homes and pa­raded an el­derly Cop­tic wo­man naked over ru­mors that her son was in a re­la­tion­ship with a Mus­lim wo­man. In Fe­bru­ary, au­thor­i­ties halted the hir­ing of a Chris­tian wo­man as a school prin­ci­pal af­ter stu­dent protests in Minya prov­ince, south of the cap­i­tal.

Vi­o­lent at­tacks have in­creased, with clashes of­ten ig­nited by ru­mors that Chris­tians were build­ing a church. Ac­tivists say ex­trem­ist Salafi preach­ers are spread­ing ha­tred in non-main­stream reli­gious ser­vices, some of them avail­able on­line. “It is very clear that ha­tred is present in speeches. I don’t know what they (the au­thor­i­ties) are wait­ing for,” Halim said. This year, four Cop­tic teenagers were con­victed of in­sult­ing Is­lam af­ter they recorded a video mock­ing the Is­lamic State group. The govern­ment prefers to defuse com­mu­nal ten­sions or clashes be­tween Mus­lims and Copts by hold­ing “con­cil­i­a­tion meet­ings” rather than ap­ply­ing the law, crit­ics say.

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