Sectarian strife plagues Egypt's Coptic Christians

CAIRO — In the wake of Mohammed Morsi’s military ousting on July 3, Egypt’s Coptic Christian communities are finding themselves strangers in their own country. Copts, who make up an estimated 10 percent (Sunni Muslims are 90 percent) of the population, have come under attack by militant Islamist groups and pro-Morsi supporters after the former Islamic president’s downfall.

Gunmen have opened fire on churches, houses belonging to Copts have been burned to the ground, priests and religious leaders have been attacked and killed, and most widely, Copts have become a target for political resentment and finger pointing for Egypt’s political upheaval.

Across Egypt, many churches have closed down temporarily as violence against Copts rages unabated.

“Morsi’s ousting is a blessing to us,” said one teary-eyed Coptic woman who asked not to be named for security reasons. When Morsi, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, came to power last year after Egypt’s first democratic election, she feared for her life, and tried to persuade her daughter to move to the United States. “The last year was hell,” her daughter said.

But now, even after Morsi’s removal from power, she does not feel safe in Egypt. The former president’s ousting has further carved deep political and sectarian divides in the country, and minority groups are bearing the brunt of targeted violence.

‘Infidels’

Many Copts joined millions of anti-Morsi protesters on June 30, the anniversary of the president’s first day in office. Copts found solidarity in Egypt’s Tahrir Square — the heart of the 2011 Egyptian revolution — against the Islamist leader who many Egyptians say monopolized power among the Muslim Brotherhood and stirred sectarian tensions. But elsewhere in Cairo, and the rest of Egypt, Copts were soon labeled as provocateurs and “infidels” by Morsi supporters who defiantly support a leader they say was freely and democratically elected, and wrongfully overthrown by a military coup. Many see Copts as part of a widespread political conspiracy to overthrow their Islamist leader.

Rumors lashing out against minority groups are rampant amongst both Islamist and anti-Morsi groups. Much of the pro-Morsi supporters’ anger toward Copts stems from Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II’s statement that Morsi was negligent in his response to clashes earlier this year outside of a main Coptic church in Cairo that left several dead and scores wounded.

Pope Tawadros also attended the army’s announcement suspending the Islamist-backed constitution, and publicly showed his support for the rebel campaign Tamarod, which sought to acquire enough votes to counter the initial number of votes that elected Morsi.

Pope Tawadros had taken to social media to express his support, saying on Twitter: “It is wonderful to see the Egyptian people taking back their stolen revolution in a peaceful way, through the idea of Rebel and its youth.”

Brutal attacks

In Egypt’s restive Sinai, where jihadi militant groups have unleashed a steady stream of terrorist attacks against police and army personnel following the overthrow of the president, Coptic priest Mina Aboud Sharween was shot and killed on July 6, and a Coptic man was recently found beheaded, his hands and feet still bound.

Egypt

After a series of brutal sectarian attacks, the Coptic activist group Maspero Youth Union issued a statement to the instigators, saying, “We say to them: tear down all the churches, it is not going to stop us from building Egypt. We will use the stones of our churches to build our homeland.”

Rights groups in Egypt and abroad have voiced their concern over rising sectarian strife. In a recent statement, Ishak Ibrahim, an official with the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), said: “Copts are paying the price of the inflammatory rhetoric against them coming from some Islamist leaders and supporters of the former president, who accuse Coptic spiritual leaders of conspiring to foment army intervention to remove Dr. Morsi.”

Magda Abdelmalak, Egypt office director for the humanitarian organization Coptic Orphans, was relieved when Morsi was ousted. Over the past year under the Islamist president, she says Coptic girls in Egypt’s Nile Delta region started wearing hijabs to hide the fact that they were Coptic in public. “When we asked them why,” she said. “The girls would say they are afraid of people on the streets.”

Coptic Orphans, founded in 1988, has worked with more than 30,000 Coptic children in Egypt, many of whom are called orphans because they lost their fathers, who oftentimes are the sole breadwinners of their family. The organization, which is mainly supported by donations from Christians outside of Egypt, aligns with works in 43 dioceses across the country. This is part of an effort to empower Coptic children and families and equip them with tools to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Hope for a better future

While the violence is deeply worrying for Abdelmalak and her community, she has hope that with new leadership, a safe space will emerge for Egypt’s Copts, where Muslims and Christians cohabitate peacefully. Two weeks after the Morsi’s removal from office, and several days into the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, clashes were still raging in Cairo. Opposing protest groups throw Molotov cocktails and rocks at each other, and gunfire echoes down darkened streets. Egypt has a long way to go before political or religious tolerance becomes reality.

The “valuable girl” program, spearheaded by Abdelmalak’s organization, offers a peek into what Egypt’s future could potentially be, given the right initiative. The program aims to foster meaningful dialogue between Muslim and Coptic girls across Egypt, with an emphasis on shared learning experiences.

“We teach education and we teach values,” she said. “We teach them how to think for themselves, to understand their rights.” For 30 years under the former Mubarak regime, many Egyptians did not see any value, or were given the opportunity, to think for themselves. But now, though Egypt is wading through a sea of strife, many Egyptians see a real chance for democracy emerging.

Abdelmalak feels that Egypt cannot move forward unless all children of all faiths have access to education.

“We are living in Egypt together,” she said with an air of profound hope. “We have to sit together, learn together. We are one body.” 

Sophia Jones writes from Cairo. Follow her on Twitter @Sophia_ mjones.