In their struggle against what has been termed prejudice or even outright persecution, many in Egypt’s Christian Copt community seem to have found a sanctuary in the church, where as well as praying they can also vent their rage. In a typical Wednesday sermon at St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, Pope Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark, takes questions and listens to the anguish of members of the community after the sermon. His entrance is always greeted with singing and cheering, and he is referred to by many worshippers as “the president of the republic of Copts.”

The Christian Coptic Church of Egypt is one of the oldest churches in the world and represents the majority of Christians living in the country. The very word Coptic is derived from the Greek word Aigyptos, meaning Egypt – thus a Copt is by definition a native of Egypt.

The percentage of Copts in the overall population in Egypt has been lately a source of controversy, with some Islamist sources claiming it to be no more than 5 per cent, and Coptic sources going as high as 20 per cent.

Recently a Coptic bishop told worshippers in a church in Cairo that today there are between 10 and 15 million Copts in Egypt, out of an overall population of almost 79 million according to the 2006 census.

Surprisingly, the census bureau in Egypt has not released figures concerning Christians since 1986. Following the release of the results of the 2006 census, the head of the bureau was asked about the omission. He said the figures were left confidential in order not to “spark anyone’s anger.”

Religious minorities in Egypt, mainly Christians, have generally been able to practice their faith without severe persecution, though this has varied through the ages.

Following the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642 AD, and throughout the Middle Ages, freedom of religion for what Islamic jurisprudence calls “ahl al-dhimma” (non-Muslims under a pact of protection or dhimma), varied according to who ruled the country.

In the 11th century, the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim, perceived by many present-day Egyptians as having been mentally deranged, is said to have ordered the demolition of most churches and synagogues in Egypt, Syria and Palestine, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, only to order their rebuilding later.

When Egypt came under Ottoman rule in 1517, the Ottomans sought to organise the building of non-Islamic places of worship by a special decree of the Sultan, thus issuing the Hatti Hamayoun, or the Hamayoun law, a modified form of which is still in place.

Many Copts, as well as Muslims, have been calling for the past 35 years – since the first clash between Muslims and Copts erupted over the construction of churches issue in 1972 – for a modern unified law for all places of worship, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. A draft of this law has recently been presented to parliament, and is expected to see the light of the day after the end of summer recess.

But why did tensions rise in the past 35 years?

Many secular Egyptians claim that it began under the rule of former president Anwar Sadat, who declared himself a Muslim president leading a Muslim people. Sadat sought the help of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, they say, and to appease them he amended an article in the constitution to the effect that Islamic Sharia (Islamic law) became “the” source of legislation, rather than “a” source of legislation as was the case previously.

Other observers, however, claim that the idea of “Muslims and Christians living harmoniously throughout the centuries” is simply not true.

“The history of the Copts is full of constraints and discrimination. Quiet times are an exception,” says Bishop Morcos Aziz Zakariya of the Hanging Church in Masr el-Qadima, Cairo.

“Currently, Copts are suffering outright discrimination, and we should not attempt to embellish this fact,” he adds. “Matters are getting worse, and the state is not moving one bit,” says the softly- spoken bishop. According to him, “Christian youth has started to wake up and deal openly with this.”

Many observers, including Christian experts, believe that the regime’s power struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood ties its hands. As a wave of Islamist religiosity engulfs the country, the regime is competing for legitimacy with the Brotherhood, and does not want to appear less Islamic.

This is certainly the case when it comes to building new churches, or even renovating old ones. Archaic laws mentioned above that pertain to the building and renovation of places of worship are quite restrictive.

Copts are not allowed to build churches near strategic areas. A church has to be away from the Nile, creeks, water facilities, another church, mosques, railway stations, important monuments or government property. For restoration work, finding property rights is essential even if the church is hundreds of years old.

The approval of state security authorities is usually required, and in many cases they do not grant permission for fear of antagonizing Islamist zealots. “Restricting churches in that sense is sick,” says Youssef Sidhom, editor of Watani, a newspaper specializing in Coptic affairs. “Some fanatical Muslims want to abolish churches.”

“I can give you hundreds of examples of churches not granted permits when they were in dire need of restoration,” says Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour, leading member of the Wafd Party. “Churches that are falling apart, yet permits are not issued for security reasons.”

Beside the disputes over churches, Copts have lately perceived any violent incidents as part of a tug of a war against their religion. Consequently, they have started embracing “a culture of martyrdom,” says Rafiq Habib, an authority on Coptic affairs, and a Christian himself though not a Copt.

Some Copts are now perceiving themselves as victims of systematic oppression, and believe that they are as persecuted as the first Christians. “This culture represents a resident danger,” says Habib.

On a forum on the website Free Copts, a writer published the names of Christian victims in internal clashes in Egypt, terming the victims “martyrs.”

There are other Christians who refuse to consider “discrimination” as the sole reason behind Coptic agitation. Father Safwat al-Bayadi, head of the Egyptian Anglican Church, attributes the troubles to the fact that “people are suffering in general,” he says.

“Young people are fed up and are unable to speak out. They are poor and unemployed, this is why they fight one another,” Bayadi says. He also blames religious rhetoric in mosques and churches, where the desperate conditions of the young are manipulated to stir trouble and garner support.

According to Bayadi, young people sit in a mosque or a church and think the cleric is speaking the word of God. “If the cleric tells them: ‘go kill a man’, they will probably obey.”

Source News Agency dpa