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Egypt’s Christians Must Stay | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A protestor holds the Koran and a cross as hundreds of Egyptians from different political opposition parties and different religions march towards St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbasya.(AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA)

In the sermon he gave during the funeral mass for the victims of the sectarian clashes that Egypt witnessed last week, Bishop Raphael—who also serves as secretary of the Coptic Church’s Holy Synod—said: “We will not leave Egypt; neither bloodshed nor lack of security rules Egypt.” Although such discourse always raises some concerns, it also keeps alive hopes that the voice of reason and wisdom will prevail to confront the recurrent attempts to incite sectarian violence in Egypt.

The source of concern is that a considerable portion of the Christians do not feel reassured and they are of the view that certain groups are seeking to drive them out of the country through intimidation and sectarian violence. The objective of this is to eliminate peaceful coexistence between the people of Egypt. As for hopeful indications, this can be seen in the widespread condemnation that these incidents have elicited across Egypt, not to mention the strong rejection of any attempts to incite violence and end the historic peaceful coexistence that has characterized the country for thousands of years. Bishop Rafael emphasized that Egypt’s Christians will not leave “our” country. This was a message that was further highlighted by the local media, which reported that those attending the funeral mass chanted: “This is our country.” This determination raises hopes that the attempts by a small minority to incite sectarian violence will end in failure. Even if such attempts may intimidate some to migrate, the majority of Egypt’s Christians will stay in the country, determined to champion coexistence and confront anybody who seeks to jeopardize Egypt’s unity, rip apart its social fabric, or drown it in sectarian violence.

Provocative sectarian discourse can be seen clearly in a number of media outlets, particularly television channels adhering to Egypt’s Islamist current. It has become customary for some figures to make defamatory statements against Egypt’s Christians. What is even worse is that some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership used discourse that included explicitly threatening the Copts via the media or social networking. Likewise, leading figures in the Salafist Al-Nour party issued a number of provocative statements in the media.

This escalatory climate had explicit repercussions on the ground, as could be seen in the harassment and attacks of women who participated in the protests against the Brotherhood rule. Some of these women informed the media that regime supporters had physically and verbally assaulted them, which included sectarian insults. According to reports, regime supports had insulted these women describing them as “ dishonorable” Christians, when in fact many of them were Muslim.

During the parliamentary and presidential elections, we heard reports about Islamist supporters denying Christian voters access to the polls by means of threats and intimidation.

One cannot help but feel bewildered when hearing a Muslim Brotherhood leader—in this case Essam Erian—urging Egyptian Jews in Israel to return to their “homeland” i.e. Egypt, while at the same time some Islamists are seeking to expel the Copts, who have a well-known historic presence in the country. We also saw Islamist supporters appear on television channels inciting against Egypt’s Coptic community, issuing the most defamatory statements with the sole objective of inciting sectarian violence.

There are a lot of things in Egypt that have been difficult to understand since the revolution was hijacked and many people’s hopes and dreams were dashed. However, there can be no doubt that it is these escalating sectarian incidents and rhetoric that is the most difficult thing to understand today.

Sectarian incidents are nothing new to Egypt, and this has always been a tool that regime’s utilize to distract people’s attention away from domestic crises. Investigations revealed that senior members of Egypt’s Interior Ministry were involved in the bombing at the Al-Qiddissin Church in Alexandria in 2011 which took place at a time when the Mubarak regime was facing strong public pressure just prior to the eruption of the revolution. It appears that the objective of this was to preoccupy the general public with a fabricated sectarian crisis. However it is striking that since the revolution, sectarian conflict has returned to the scene and we have seen the emergence of a provocative sectarian tone. This is something that is particularly clear during electoral campaigns, not to mention during the controversy surrounding the new constitution, or indeed any time when there is tension on the political scene.

There are many who base their interpretation or justification of these attempts to incite sectarian conflicts on conspiracy theories, particularly those involving a foreign hand. Although there may be some truth in such theories, the primary responsibility for this lies with the domestic scene. A lot of the responsibility must be placed on the shoulders of the regime, particularly if it tends to turn a blind eye towards those who provoke sectarian discourse in return for them helping the regime impose its vision on the ground, and conspiratorially pass its policies one after another.

The danger is that playing the sectarian card is akin to lighting a match while sitting on a barrel of oil in the midst of your own home. The fire will burn everything, and nobody will be safe from harm.

Egypt must seek to avoid this sectarian incitement and the escalating climate of hatred and tension between different components of society. Instead, Egypt must spread a culture of tolerance and coexistence, where cultural and religious differences are respected, while all Egyptian nationals enjoy equal citizenship rights. If such a society could be implemented, nobody would feel marginalized or that their rights were being denied or that there were any questions regarding the concepts of citizenship or identity.

I wrote an op-ed on January 5, 2011, entitled “Beyond the Alexandria Crime.” Following this, an Iraqi Christian reader, under the alias Ashour Al-Iraqi, posted a comment that I have never forgotten. The comment read: “Two of my cousins were killed by Al-Qaeda in Mosul three years ago. The objective was to spread violence among the children of the same homeland. However this attempt did not succeed in inciting us to respond by killing the children of our Muslim neighbors or friends who had nothing to do with what was happening. In fact, they were the first to suffer as a result of Al-Qaeda’s terrorism. We preferred to leave the country than to stain our hands with the blood of our peaceful Muslim brothers who we shared both our sweetest and most bitter days with.”

Reading this comment, I can only hope that sectarianism does not spread in Egypt and that the Egyptian people will not fall prey to this.

I’m hopeful that the Egyptian people get the message and that nobody will be forced to leave the country, because a true homeland must contain everybody and exclude nobody.