One step forward, two steps back:
The troubled lives of Egypt’s Coptic Christians
Life has long been precarious for the country’s second-largest religious group
NO GROUP immediately claimed responsibility for a bomb that ripped through a chapel in Egypt’s capital on December 11th, killing 25 worshippers and wounding 49 (see picture). But those behind the attack in Cairo timed it to coincide with Sunday Mass for the Coptic Christians, next to their most important cathedral, on the eve of a national holiday marking the birth of the Islamic prophet Muhammed. In his remarks after the bombing, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a general who overturned an Islamist government in 2013, reiterated his longstanding promises to ease religious tensions and protect minorities. It is a familiar refrain for Egypt’s long-suffering Christians.
And yet for watchers of religious freedom, the Copts of Egypt present something of a paradox. Most pundits agree that the fortunes of this large and historically important community have somewhat improved since 2013. That year was a low point as mobs attacked their churches, property and communities. But in a country where sectarian tensions are never far from boiling over, and human rights in general are gravely abused, life for Christians has never been comfortable or free of danger.
For better or worse, Mr Sisi has forged a close relationship with Pope Tawadros, the leader of the Coptic Christians who are thought to make up between 10% and 15% of Egypt’s 89m people. For two successive years, the president has appeared at the Copts’ Christmas celebrations in Cairo which take place in January. The Coptic prelate has been defensive of the Sisi government and discouraged his followers, in Egypt or elsewhere in the worId, from criticising the president. But some rank-and-file Egyptian Christians feel their spiritual leader has been too deferential to the president and too slow to articulate the community’s complaints.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, one of two agencies in Washington, DC, that monitor liberty of belief, acknowledged in its latest annual report that the Cairo government had taken “some positive steps to address religious freedom concerns”, for example by curbing extremist messages in Muslim sermons and school lessons. It added that religiously inspired attacks on Christians and other minorities had diminished and there had been prosecutions, albeit on an insufficient scale, following the sectarian violence of 2013. The president had provided state help with rebuilding churches damaged during those attacks. Among the 596 members of the current parliament, the number of Christians was unusually high at 36.
But USCIRF still rates Egypt as a “country of particular concern” in respect of religious liberty, in other words in the top global tier of violators: the commission’s chairman Robert George told Congress the country has taken “one step forward, two steps back” in matters of freedom of belief.
The State Department, whose annual report on religious freedom around the world is an important reference work, also found that the Sisi government had failed in its stated intention of upholding Christian rights.
The government frequently failed to prevent, investigate, or prosecute crimes targeting members of religious minority groups, which fostered a climate of impunity, according to a prominent local rights organisation. The government often failed to protect Christians targeted by kidnappings and extortion according to sources in the Christian community, and there were reports that security and police officials sometimes failed to respond to these crimes, especially in Upper Egypt (in the country’s impoverished south).
Ordinary Christians are sceptical both of government promises and of their own church’s staunchly pro-government leadership. As is noted by Sarah Yerkes, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution think-tank, “Increasingly, Egyptian Christians are speaking out against the Egyptian government, ignoring the wishes of the church. Most recently 82 Copts signed a public letter protesting the church’s widespread support of [President] Sisi and expressed frustration that even under Sisi, the situation for Christians in Egypt has not improved.”
In some ways, the Copts of Egypt have the worst of both worlds. President Sisi presents himself as their ally and protector, so Islamist foes of the government bitterly resent them. And in the end, the president’s protection turns out not to be adequate.