Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Egypt's Coptic Christians fighting to survive

For most, it is too early to judge Egypt's new government. For the Coptic Christians, it may already be too late. 

Mohamed Morsi, President of Egypt
by Lydia Green

As Christmas gifts are packed away, Egypt’s Coptic Christians head back to their shops and offices for the start of the New Year. On the surface things seem calm. Yet within the community there is palpable tension about what changes the future might bring.

Roughly 10% of the Egyptian population are Coptic Christians, making them the most populous Christian community in the Middle East. But they start the New Year more anxious than usual, as President Morsi’s new constitution - written by an Islamist-dominated assembly - could pave the way for stricter and more Islamic laws in the country.

The Copts’ relations with their neighbours have always been mixed. Things got off to a bad start when Mark the Evangelist, patron saint of Egypt and disciple of Jesus Christ, was executed in Alexandria, and as the religion began to expand, nearly 150,000 Egyptian Christians met their deaths at the hands of the Romans.

Yet their fortunes improved considerably when Emperor Constantine decided to convert to Christianity himself. The Coptic community began to flourish, and soon became host to one of the largest philosophical schools in the Eastern Church. From 640, the country fell under Islamic rule, but the Christians continued to fare well, subject only to certain restrictions of movement and dress. They remained the majority religion in the country for at least four centuries, dwindling to 40% of the population in the 1500s and 25% under the Ottomans.

In recent times, the relationship between Copts and their fellow Muslim Egyptians has been largely peaceful, though occasional conflicts have emerged over church building permits and work discrimination. Mubarak’s government, despite accusations of corruption, did much to suppress the Islamists - whose growing influence many now fear.

As crowds gathered in Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral for Midnight Mass, new Pope Tawadros II addressed his community: "Do not be afraid," he said. "Even if humans feel a lot of fear, remember God will take care of you. This is a collective message because fear is contagious."

However Ishak Ibrahim, who monitors religious freedom cases for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told me people were concerned. They fear that the Islamist-backed government intend to "use the constitution to apply the shariah. They want to enforce certain behaviour and…restrict freedom of speech."

President Morsi strongly rejects these claims and has made efforts to allay the Copts’ fears. He called the Pope to wish him well on Christmas Day, sent a delegate to attend the new Pope’s Christmas mass and has appointed just under a dozen Christians to the new Islamist-dominated parliament.

For many, however, it simply isn’t enough. The wealthy elite, who can afford to travel, are considering emigration, yet for a poorly educated and financially struggling majority this isn’t an option. Instead they seek to unite with secularists and moderate Muslims who also look upon the Islamists’ rise with concern.

Sandra is a Coptic student from Cairo. She echoed these opinions to me: "Christians and Muslims have lived together for ages in Egypt. We are assured by our friends that if anything bad happened they will stand by us, which is something we witnessed at Christmas with the many, many greetings I personally received."

However, Morsi’s efforts have far from alleviated Sandra’s fears: "I am still concerned about the future of Christians in Egypt, especially after the new government was elected."

The Coptic community can only wait to see what the New Year has in store. @LydiaGreen17

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