For Copts Under Fire in 2011, Christmas May be the Season to be Wary

Published December 22nd, 2011 - 13:49 GMT

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Coptics under fire: Known as the 'Church attacks' the 2011 Alexandria bombing struck Coptic Christians, 1 January, the week of Eastern Christmas. Twenty-three people died, including Muslim and Christian Egyptians. The suicide attack struck Coptic Christian worshippers as they were leaving midnight mass about 30 minutes into the new year.
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Image 1 of 17: Coptics under fire: Known as the 'Church attacks' the 2011 Alexandria bombing struck Coptic Christians, 1 January, the week of Eastern Christmas. Twenty-three people died, including Muslim and Christian Egyptians. The suicide attack struck Coptic Christian worshippers as they were leaving midnight mass about 30 minutes into the new year.

Remembering Maspero: clashes October 9, 2011 in the Cairo neighborhood of Maspero left 26 dead and 300 injured.  The army attacked a rally of thousands of Coptic Christians gathered before the the State TV and Radio headquarters, or 'Maspero'. Post Mubarak ouster, this was bloodiest act of repression by the Egyptian army.
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Image 1 of 17: Remembering Maspero: clashes October 9, 2011 in the Cairo neighborhood of Maspero left 26 dead and 300 injured. The army attacked a rally of thousands of Coptic Christians gathered before the the State TV and Radio headquarters, or "Maspero". Post Mubarak ouster, this was bloodiest act of repression by the Egyptian army.

Egypt's Coptic Christians have long felt like second-class citizens in their own country. They long to be on equal footing with Muslims. Permits to build churches have often been hard to come by in this Muslim majority country, though under Mubarak, some concessions were made or rights yielded, such as when Christmas was made a national holiday.
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Image 1 of 17: Egypt's Coptic Christians have long felt like second-class citizens in their own country. They long to be on equal footing with Muslims. Permits to build churches have often been hard to come by in this Muslim majority country, though under Mubarak, some concessions were made or rights yielded, such as when Christmas was made a national holiday.

Under Mubarak, the problems of Copts simmered even if they saw less violence than they do now. Their calls for a law to regulate construction of churches went largely unanswered and attacks on churches went unpunished. Coptic originally means 'of Egypt' but has since come to signify Christian, designated to the Christians of Egypt.
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Image 1 of 17: Under Mubarak, the problems of Copts simmered even if they saw less violence than they do now. Their calls for a law to regulate construction of churches went largely unanswered and attacks on churches went unpunished. Coptic originally means 'of Egypt' but has since come to signify Christian, designated to the Christians of Egypt.

Salafis: Mubarak's regime tolerated Salafis. However, after Mubarak, some Salafi elements felt freer to target Christians.  Salafis exceed the Muslim Brotherhood's fundamentalism. They are Ultraconservatives, seeking to return to Islam's austerity, disregarding non-Muslims as citizens. They also view fellow non-practicing Muslims with contempt.
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Image 1 of 17: Salafis: Mubarak's regime tolerated Salafis. However, after Mubarak, some Salafi elements felt freer to target Christians. Salafis exceed the Muslim Brotherhood's fundamentalism. They are Ultraconservatives, seeking to return to Islam's austerity, disregarding non-Muslims as citizens. They also view fellow non-practicing Muslims with contempt.

Some of Egypt’s worst post-revolution violence involved Copts. Muslim & Copt had before tentatively co-existed. There is no denying that Copts are disenfranchised. The rise of Islamists and the near-full adoption of the hijab has left Coptic women exposed. While previously, sect-neutral names were common, now names as Mohamed or Girgis prevail.
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Image 1 of 17: Some of Egypt’s worst post-revolution violence involved Copts. Muslim & Copt had before tentatively co-existed. There is no denying that Copts are disenfranchised. The rise of Islamists and the near-full adoption of the hijab has left Coptic women exposed. While previously, sect-neutral names were common, now names as Mohamed or Girgis prevail.

U.S.A protests for 'persecuted' Christians: Post Mubarak, the climate is rumored to be more hostile to Copts: 'If you hang a cross in your car, they pull you out, smash you to pieces.” Egyptian-Americans marched in solidarity with their fellow Copts. They called for the U.S. to stop giving aid to Egypt's army, which is 'killing Christians.'
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Image 1 of 17: U.S.A protests for 'persecuted' Christians: Post Mubarak, the climate is rumored to be more hostile to Copts: "If you hang a cross in your car, they pull you out, smash you to pieces.” Egyptian-Americans marched in solidarity with their fellow Copts. They called for the U.S. to stop giving aid to Egypt's army, which is "killing Christians."

Kosheh Massacre: Recent Church and Coptic attacks were the deadliest stints of violence against Egypt's Christian minority in a decade, since the Kosheh massacre in 2000 left 21 Copts dead. It should be noted that these attacks invariably kill both religions in the cross-fire.
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Image 1 of 17: Kosheh Massacre: Recent Church and Coptic attacks were the deadliest stints of violence against Egypt's Christian minority in a decade, since the Kosheh massacre in 2000 left 21 Copts dead. It should be noted that these attacks invariably kill both religions in the cross-fire.

Once a majority in Egypt, Copts now make up about 10 percent of the country's 85 million people. They are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Their history dates back 19 centuries and the language used in their liturgy traces back to Pharaoic speech. The name Coptic essentially derives from an ancient term to signify Egypt.
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Image 1 of 17: Once a majority in Egypt, Copts now make up about 10 percent of the country's 85 million people. They are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Their history dates back 19 centuries and the language used in their liturgy traces back to Pharaoic speech. The name Coptic essentially derives from an ancient term to signify Egypt.

Religious fire: 'There are no rules in love and war' unfortunately extends to religious strife: Even houses of God are not immune to the violence. Copts are protesting over events perpetrated by Muslim mobs. A spate of burning Churches has left the Coptic community feeling fragile. Salafists torched churches believed to be illegally constructed.
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Image 1 of 17: Religious fire: 'There are no rules in love and war' unfortunately extends to religious strife: Even houses of God are not immune to the violence. Copts are protesting over events perpetrated by Muslim mobs. A spate of burning Churches has left the Coptic community feeling fragile. Salafists torched churches believed to be illegally constructed.

Coptic Crisis: Now hardly a month passes without sectarian strife — sparked by a Muslim-Christian love affair or bickering over church permits. The Salafis accuse the Copts of spreading Christianity in a 'Muslim' nation, leaving Egypt's ancient Christian community feeling less than welcome, and revealing a paranoid distrust of their country-men.
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Image 1 of 17: Coptic Crisis: Now hardly a month passes without sectarian strife — sparked by a Muslim-Christian love affair or bickering over church permits. The Salafis accuse the Copts of spreading Christianity in a 'Muslim' nation, leaving Egypt's ancient Christian community feeling less than welcome, and revealing a paranoid distrust of their country-men.

Better the devil you know: Post Mubarak, the Copts are feeling more vulnerable than ever. At the back of their minds, the Christian communities are aware of the devastation that befell Iraqi Christians after the fall of Saddam, when over half the Christian population was forced to leave Iraq in a wave of Islamist zeal.
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Image 1 of 17: Better the devil you know: Post Mubarak, the Copts are feeling more vulnerable than ever. At the back of their minds, the Christian communities are aware of the devastation that befell Iraqi Christians after the fall of Saddam, when over half the Christian population was forced to leave Iraq in a wave of Islamist zeal.

United we stand? The Unity flag of Christians & Muslim Egypt, raised jointly during the Jan 25 Revolution leading to the Mubarak ouster, belies a less harmonious story, since emerged. While Copts shared in the optimism of the revolution, with high hopes for change, they still have some way to attaining equal standing to their Muslims 'brothers'.
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Image 1 of 17: United we stand? The Unity flag of Christians & Muslim Egypt, raised jointly during the Jan 25 Revolution leading to the Mubarak ouster, belies a less harmonious story, since emerged. While Copts shared in the optimism of the revolution, with high hopes for change, they still have some way to attaining equal standing to their Muslims 'brothers'.

Christmas for Cairo: Coptic Christmas is celebrated January 7. This year's Christmas of 2012 will be anticipated with a bittersweet trepidation of what awaits them at what is widely recognized as a  'peaceful' time of year for the Christian faith.
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Image 1 of 17: Christmas for Cairo: Coptic Christmas is celebrated January 7. This year's Christmas of 2012 will be anticipated with a bittersweet trepidation of what awaits them at what is widely recognized as a 'peaceful' time of year for the Christian faith.

Copts protect Muslim countrymen: Tahrir undivided. The iconic image of Christians forming a human shield around Muslim worshippers during Friday prayers to protect them from pro-Mubarak thugs reminds us of a dream still to be realized. Since the ouster, the news is strewn with burning churches & intense violence between Muslim & Christian.
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Image 1 of 17: Copts protect Muslim countrymen: Tahrir undivided. The iconic image of Christians forming a human shield around Muslim worshippers during Friday prayers to protect them from pro-Mubarak thugs reminds us of a dream still to be realized. Since the ouster, the news is strewn with burning churches & intense violence between Muslim & Christian.

Regime-friendly Christians: The head of the Coptic Church is pro-Assad.The fears of Christian minorities across the region mean that just as the Coptic Pope supported Mubarak right up until his fall, whatever Copts' role at Tahrir, so the Syrian Church is supporting the Assad regime, never mind any Christian activists leading the opposition.
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Image 1 of 17: Regime-friendly Christians: The head of the Coptic Church is pro-Assad.The fears of Christian minorities across the region mean that just as the Coptic Pope supported Mubarak right up until his fall, whatever Copts' role at Tahrir, so the Syrian Church is supporting the Assad regime, never mind any Christian activists leading the opposition.

This 'blue-bra'd' girl is the iconic image for Egypt's post-revolution. Her graphic ordeal stands for indiscriminate violence to Muslim & Christian alike at the hands of the army. This veiled protestor was strewn in an undignified state when soldiers rough-handled her. Ripped apart at the seams, she diverted our eyes from the burning Churches.
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Image 1 of 17: This 'blue-bra'd' girl is the iconic image for Egypt's post-revolution. Her graphic ordeal stands for indiscriminate violence to Muslim & Christian alike at the hands of the army. This veiled protestor was strewn in an undignified state when soldiers rough-handled her. Ripped apart at the seams, she diverted our eyes from the burning Churches.

Christians in Egypt are complaining of the after-effects of the Arab Spring. What exactly is their gripe with Egypt's crusade for change?

Has their protest been lost or drowned out by global protests among the world's protest fever?

In amongst all the cacophony of revolution, uprising and protest and the vying for change in the Arab world, there is another story that has at times been neglected. The predicament of the Coptic Christians of Egypt has perhaps been overlooked leading up to Christmas for the Eastern Church.  It could be that the Coptic protest that stole the headlines of October-November been drowned out by global uprisings that include now Russia and beyond?  Or perhaps their Christian appeal has been muted in the din of a louder chorus within Egypt, as the outrage spun from ‘Tahrir Girl’ – a Muslim treated badly.

Their cause has received substantial coverage and attention over the last few months, when their troubles, heretowith simmering away for years, reached boiling point. But is this vulnerable community in Egypt going to be swept aside once again when 2011- the year of Egyptian change- comes to a close?

Now, more than ever before, no one can say their fears are unfounded, as the future looks Muslim with Islamist parties taking the lead in Egypt's first round of elections at least.

It’s not all in their heads

An Egyptian brand of the minority complex and fear of persecution has been validated by the sprees of violence seen against the Copts in recent months, culminating in a bloody clash between protesters and army forces in Cairo that left 27 dead.

Many fear that the power vacuum left after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak is giving Muslim extremists free reign to burn churches and attack Coptic homes in the worst violence this community has been subjected to in decades.

While they had been realistically steeling themselves against the possible eventuality of Muslim governance in recent years, aware of a growing Muslim zeal, they did not expect to be targeted so soon after a successful revolution that united all in people victory.

They took contingency steps to create dialogue between the two faiths, knowing that they as Copts would have to learn to live with the Islamists and reach an accommodation with a political grouping they have long feared.

The Arab Spring, could mark the onset of a Christian dark age for the flailing faithful of the Middle East. In any eventuality, there is still a lot of work to be done post-revolution for Egypt’s Copts.

Recently, the Coptic church declared three days of mourning for those killed in Christian clashes with the Army, and lashed out at authorities for allowing repeated attacks on Christians with impunity.

However recent events - specifically the brutal force used against protestors including a young veiled woman left in a compromising state of undress -  may suggest positively (but tragically) that the violence is non-sectarian, not discriminating men from women or different creeds.

Copts aren’t the only ones with grievances against thuggish Egyptian man-handling by the army. But during their festive season, approaching Christmas and the New Year, they may be forgiven for feeling less than secure.

 

 

 

 

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