Egypt: the religion "time-bomb"
As she nurses a badly wounded relative, a simple but very angry young woman says, "Where is America? Why aren't the Americans here to protect us if our own government has failed to protect us?"
The shocking statement by this Egyptian Copt during a report by a foreign TV channel in just a few words summarized the extent of the danger posed by the growing sense of indignation felt by Egypt's Christians. Her statement is both regrettable and unacceptable but not without justification.
The clashes last Wednesday between Christian protestors and police over a church-affiliated construction site have not only overshadowed the legislative elections that take place Sunday, but also highlighted the gaping whole in both the government's and the People's Assembly's ability to deal with the rising tension between adherents of the two religions.
The recent incident, however, should not be confused with other incidents that pitted Muslims and Christians against each other in cases of alleged forced conversions and land disputes involving church construction. The rare confrontation between what the official Middle East News Agency estimated at 3,000 Christian demonstrators and security forces could not have been more ill-timed, unless the timing was deliberate. One cannot help asking why this tremendous over-reaction to what is common practice in all these squatter areas full of informal housing?
Clashes had erupted early Wednesday between security and Copts protesting in front of the Mar Girguis Church after Al-Omraneya's district administration's halted the construction of a community center which the Copts wanted to turn into a chapel next to the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael church.
The authorities said the Copts had violated their building license, which was made out for a service building not a place of worship. (But hasn't every other building in Cairo somehow violated its building license?) The situation reached a head when police started arresting construction workers.
Security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, leaving 19-year-old Makarious Gad Shaker dead and tens injured. The Ministry of Information said demonstrators ignored police requests to cease the violence.
The next day the Prosecutor General ordered 156 people remanded in custody for 15 days facing a mile-long charge sheet that includes assault of central security force troops, attempted murder of an Omraneya police station officer, criminal damage of a central security forces vehicle, theft of a central security forces vehicle battery, illegal assembly, causing a disturbance, use of illegal weapons, and even failure to carry personal identity documents.
Muslim and Christian activists have demonstrated against both the actions of the district administration and the arrests, while lawyers have claimed that they were prevented from representing the defendants during their interrogations.
It's clear that the outburst of the 3,000 Christian demonstrators was orchestrated beforehand. A religious minority whose grievances are being constantly ignored in a country drowned in dire economic conditions will not remain silent forever. Constituting six to 10 percent of Egypt's population, Christians, like Muslims, suffer unemployment, lack of proper housing, overall amenities and share the general feeling of insecurity prevalent among the majority of Egyptians.
But add a sense of religious discrimination into the mix and you have a time bomb that will explode any minute.
What happened last Wednesday was just a teaser and without a unified law regulating the building of houses of worship that is equitable, just and reflects the exact needs of the Christian community in Egypt, then such clashes and the ensuing feeling of injustice can only continue to fester and lead to a sense of alienation and marginalization that will eventually give the US the pretext to meddle into Egypt's internal affairs, even more than it already does.
We all know the outcome of Sunday's so-called elections. As an Egyptian and Muslim, I implore those who will represent us at the People's Assembly to put that law at the top of their agenda.
For too long PA sessions have been an arena for settling political scores between individuals whose self-interest always came first. For the sake of all of us — Muslims and Christians — let's hope that this time around the assembly will pass a law that will serve the cause of internal peace in this nation.
No to religious discrimination. No to sectarian strife.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.