‘The people are afraid. The revolution has provided a historic opening for equality and freedom for people of all faiths in Egypt but the prospects for Christians depend on the future government’.Such were the recent remarks of Antonios Naguib, the Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria. In many respects they encapsulate the sense of deep uncertainty felt not just by Egypt’s 250,000-strong Coptic Catholics but also the much larger Coptic Orthodox community who number up to 10 million – a mere fraction in a country of up to 86 million.
The 25th January Revolution that climaxed with the fall of President Hosni Mubarak may indeed have been followed by a wave of euphoria – a victory for sheer people power – but what followed showed that the Government may nip that bid for freedom in the bud. In fact, reports just out name Egypt among eight countries where restrictions on religious beliefs and practice have risen substantially. True, the report issued by the Pew Forum concerns the period before Mubarak left office, but with many of his key lieutenants still in place, it shows that there is genuine cause for concern. All the more so if, as feared, a coalition between Islamists and secularists emerges victorious in key parliamentary elections due this winter. Recent reports showing major cracks appearing in the coalition will do nothing to calm the fears of Christians. These past months have left them horrified by the scale of Islamism in Egypt, the extent of which was ruthlessly kept underground by Mubarak’s hard-line security apparatus.
On a recent visit to Egypt for fact-finding and project assessment work with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, it was this sense of fear that seemed all-pervasive among the many Christian communities we met up and down the Nile. On one of the few occasions we departed from the great river that is Egypt’s life blood, we travelled east from Cairo to Ismailia, out towards the Suez Canal. The region is inextricably linked with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement which has its roots here. The local bishop, Mgr Makarios Tewfik, told us: ‘Under Mubarak, the Muslim Brothers were under Gestapo-style control. Now they are very visible. They may get up to half the seats in the next election. This is a great concern for us’.
The scale of the Islamist threat to the future of Christianity in Egypt became clear in a very tragic way on 7th May 2011 when extremists attacked churches in the Imbaba district of Cairo. The violence left 15 dead and more than 230 injured. It rekindled memories of the bomb blast that took place next to a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day 2011. In that atrocity 20 people were killed and 70 were injured. The rise of Salafist extremists – no longer contained by Mubarak’s notorious security apparatus – was a theme that constantly recurred during conversations we had with Christian communities. After Mass in a church outside Luxor we spoke to a family experiencing grave difficulties. With her husband and two children standing next to her, a middle-aged woman described how she was too afraid to go out in public without a head veil for fear of insults of worse from intolerant Muslims. She said that she and many others were denied jobs principally because of their Christian faith and that the threat of violent attack was too strong to ignore. She said: ‘The Muslims tell us we should leave. They say that we do not belong here. There is no freedom for us Christians. We want to leave Egypt. We want to come to Europe.’ Reflecting the threat of widespread emigration of Christians, Bishop Joannes Zakaria of Luxor described how when he announced that he was going to Rome for a conference some of his faithful begged to be bundled into his baggage and effectively smuggled out of the country.
The extent to which Christians are justified in their fears is difficult to assess. After all, there are, in the midst of all the difficulties, distinct signs of progress, especially more recently. For us they were symbolised by the graffiti we saw in a wall in central Cairo in which a red heart was flanked by the Cross and the Crescent. A more tangible sign of improvement came this summer when the interim military government that took over from President Mubarak announced proposals to scrap the rule that the President’s permission is needed for churches to be built. Already the government has in effect relaxed the rules on church building. In an interview in June, Bishop Kyrillos William of Assiut reported that within a few weeks plans for three new churches had been approved with another favourable decision expected soon. He said: ‘If these proposals come into law, it could mean that building churches will be almost on the same level as constructing mosques. What we are seeing here is one of the first fruits of the demonstrations back in January. When the Christians demonstrated, the first right they demanded was the construction of churches’. With Egypt’s political situation in a state of profound uncertainty ahead of all-important elections, the die is far from cast and there is much for Christians to play for as a new country is built out of the old. Not for nothing has Patriarch Naguib called on his faithful to step out into the open and play their part in re-defining the place of Christianity at all levels in society – in law and government, economics and perhaps especially in the age of new technology the media in all its forms. His message is clear – Christians must speak up now and claim their rights. Could it be that the greatest thing they have to fear is fear itself?
John Pontifex is Head of Press & Information for Aid to the Church in Need UK www.acnuk.org