The Egyptian government has struggled to consolidate its power since the fall of Hosni Mubarak; the Muslim Brotherhood now dominates the newly elected government. The fact that a religious political organisation is the dominant political power has brought unwelcome consequences for religious minorities in Egypt. Coptic Christians represent the single biggest religious minority in the Middle East and have historically endured hardship and oppression. But the plight of the Coptic Christians has now taken a dramatic turn for the worse. As the new government pushes for an Islamic constitution, extremists are increasing their attacks on Coptic Christian churches. It may appear easy to overlook the conditions experienced by the Coptic Christian minority, especially given the political issues currently affecting Egypt. But we must ensure their religious rights are not overlooked.
Coptic Christians are referred to as “Aqbat al-Mahgar”, Coptic Diaspora in Arabic. The term is commonly used in state media and tends to carry negative connotations. These have risen in prominence since the release of the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims,” produced and promoted by an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in America. Coptic Christians are referred to as ‘Copts’ by many Egyptians. Most Egyptians shy away from identifying Coptic Christians as Egyptians. According to Nancy Messieh, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East and editor of Egypt Source, on 9 October 2011, “as tanks crushed peaceful protesters outside the Maspero state television building, Egyptian state TV journalist Rasha Magdy called on Egypt’s honorable citizens to defend the nation’s military, which she said was under attack by armed Copts”. That night, the use of the word ‘Copts’ made it easier for state television to create an instant division among Egyptians. As images of Egyptian men and women being chased down by army tanks were broadcast on live television, these men and women were simply labelling them as ‘Copts,’ rather than Egyptians, or even Egyptian Christians. This fuelled the sense of disassociation between Egyptians and Coptic Christians, making it easier for the non-Christian Egyptian population to detatch themselves from their fellow Christian citizens and discriminate against them.
As of November 2012 Tawadros II has been Pope of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt. However, the new Pope faces an uncertain time in the Arab world’s most populous country, and one which overthrew Hosni Mubarak last year and has since elected Mohamed Morsi. The rise of Islamism after the revolution that ousted Mubarak has sparked fears among Coptic Christians of further persecution at home, despite Morsi’s repeated promises to be a president “for all Egyptians.” Despite his promises, sectarian attacks against Coptic Christians have increased, and dozens have been killed in violence over the past two years. Many Egyptian Christians such as Emad Eskarous argue that the revolution has made matters worse for Coptic Christians. Clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims are now a regular occurrence. In January 2011, a suicide attack on a church in Alexandria killed 24 people, and in a separate incident at least 16 people were wounded after an attack on a church and Christian homes in a village near the Egyptian capital on 1 August, 2012. The fears induced within the Coptic community by the rise in attacks are illustrated by an increasing number of asylum application to the United States.
Religious rights exist to serve all religions, regardless of a difference in beliefs. It is not acceptable to oppress one religious group just because they are a minority. The Egyptian government should do everything in their power to discourage attacks on Coptic Christians and protect the rights of all religions. As the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to restore religious rights for Muslims, they must learn to protect religious rights for Egypt’s religious minority groups as well.