Lawyer: Egypt Does Discriminate against Copts
By Mohammed Al Ba’ly
Albawaba.com - Cairo
The visit of the American Committee for Religious Freedoms made to Cairo recently has pushed the Coptic issue in Egypt into the limelight. A Copt himself and a human right activist, Mamdouh Nakhleh is one of those who are deeply involved in the Coptic affairs.
Following are excerpts of an exclusive interview with him:
Q. You are one of the most renowned researchers and speakers on the Coptic issue in Egypt, what are the various aspects of this issue?
A. The Coptic issue in Egypt is limited to two aspects: a legislative and an actual practical side. As for the first aspect, there are some laws that restrict religious freedom and discriminate between Egyptians on a religious basis. The second clause of the constitution after it was amended in 1980, for example, reiterates that Islamic law (Sharia’) is the main source of legislation. According to this clause, any other legislation issued should be consistent with the Islamic Sharia’ principles even it has to be applied to Copts.
Secondly, the law issued on February 16, 1856 (Ottoman Law) bans the construction of churches without official approval, but there are no laws restricting the construction of mosques. On the contrary, the Egyptian laws encourage the construction of more mosques. In the south of Cairo Darassalam area where I live, there is only one church versus 365 mosques despite the fact that the ratio of Muslims to Copts in the area is not that high.
Furthermore, the law of military service in the country permits the reduction of the compulsory service period from three years to one year for those servicemen who memorize the Holy Quran. The law should have decreased the service period for those who memorize the bible also, had it sought equality among citizens.
More, the Education Law offers rewards and prizes for memorizing the Quran, while it does not do the same for those who memorize the Bible. The Radio and TV law does not permit broadcasting of the Sunday prayers. Holiday laws are only for Muslims. These are but examples of discriminatory measures in the Egyptian law.
As for the discrimination practices, the Coptic era, for example, is not taught at schools. Admissions to police and military colleges are less for Copts than the number to which their ratio in the society entitles them. The ratio of their posts in the security departments of the State is even next to nil. The Egyptian beaurocracy is responsible for devoiding Copts of assuming positions such as governors, neighborhood heads, university deans and presidents.
Q. Do you see that beaurocracy is the only cause for that?
A. Beaurocracy is the main cause but the general atmosphere, penetration of fundamentalists in the state’s various organizations and sensitive governmental authorities have had negative impacts on the Copts rights.
Q. Have you faced this discrimination personally?
A. Yes. In 1995 and 2000 Parliamentary elections, I faced a sectarian propaganda against me as a Copt and in my capacity as the director of the “Word [human rights] Center,” I receive tens of complaints monthly from Copt citizens facing various types of discriminations. I have recently known that the Police Academy has admitted only 20 Copt students out of 1,114 other students accepted this year.
Q. Do not the Egyptian civil society institutions and parties play a role in confronting this discrimination?
A. We play a role but the political parties refrain from approaching prohibited issues and red lines and some parties even deny the existence of such problems except in blunt cases.
Q. The National Unity Center for Human Rights which was involved in Copts affairs has recently been closed in Egypt, What was the reason behind that?
A. It was the immigration of the center’s director, Maurice Sadek to the USA. He was the only worker at the center and so with his immigration, the center was closed.
Q. But the center was bitterly blasted by the media before the immigration of Mr. Sadek. Has this played a role in pushing Sadek to immigrate?
A. Yes. The security and other departments launched the attack that made it difficult for Sadek to continue work and so he emigrated from Egypt.
Q. The Coptic church plays a growing role in bringing Copts together, what are your comments on this particularly when it intensifies the severity of sectarianism in the community?
A. The church is not required to play this role, but the Copts have no other option. The state and the civil society reject them and so they have no other alternative but to resort to the church. However, I don’t believe that this would lead to sectarianism because the church does not play a political role. I reiterate that the assembly of Copts behind the church alone is unnecessary.
Q. At the recent Coptic Financial Council elections, the church has excluded your name from a list of backed candidates and it was known that the church list would guarantee the winning for those on it, why did the church attempt to throw you out?
A. The church always supports the conservatives, reactionaries, old people and the rich. I do not have any of the aforementioned qualifications because I am a liberal progressive and not a rich person. I am a politician who calls for the politicization of the church financial council and developing it into a parliament for Copts. So the church does not support me all the time but rather gives me the green light for most of my moves. For example, my disclaim of the case against the serial Awan Alward (a series about the marriage of a Muslim to a Christian girl) came as a result of the wish of the Pope who called me to his residence and asked me to do so. I obeyed the Pope without being convinced in an attempt on my part to prove to him that I work under his umbrella.
Q. But you contested the Pope’s list before the court?
A. That was in 1995 and I disclaimed the contest but I have not done so at the recent elections.
Q. Your claim of working under the umbrella of the Pope contradicts with his stand against your winning in the Financial Council elections. What do you have to comment on that?
A. The Pope did not stand against me. Rather, he confirmed that he wanted me to serve Copts through other means. The church financial council aims at financing the church, so it seeks the rich to join it.
Q. The church relationship with the Egyptian government has been improving over the past few years, what is the impact of that on Copts and their assembly around their church?
A. The impact is negative because it pushes the Copts towards violence. Copts pin all their hopes on the church and want it to be strong in defending them. For example, after the recent Kashh Village violent incident, a delegation came to me from there and I we headed to meet the Pope. Unfortunately we met only with his secretary, who showed apathy. The delegation left the Pope’s office angry. But the church’s official Gazette did a wise thing by publishing on the next day the village incident story under the headiline “Our Martyrs in Kashh.” This has alleviated anger amongst Copts and prevented the occurrence of more violence because that move on part of the church meant for Copts that the church adopted the issue of those who were killed in the incident. If the church appears to be strong and violent, this would be better for Copts and Egypt as a whole.
Q. What is your comment on what was said by some newspapers about the presence of Christian armed militant groups similar to groups of Islamist militants?
A. I can confirm that that there is only one case and the whole subject is not worth discussing.