I have just returned from an investigation into the situation of the Church in Egypt organised by the interdenominational human rights organisation, the Jubilee Campaign. It follows the massacre in May last year, of 13 Christians living in Daryut, a town in Upper Egypt. The carnage has persisted in the intervening months, with Islamic fundamentalists turning their guns on moderate non-compliant Muslims, secularists, academics, security officers and most recently, Government Ministers. The violence which began with attacks on the country’s estimated 10 million Coptic Christian minority, has led to around 700 casualties and 200 deaths between June 1992 and June 1993.
Egypt’s Christians are in an unenviable position. The evangelist, St. Mark first brought the Gospel to Alexandria 2000 years ago and he suffered a martyr’s death for his pains. Despite endless persecution the Church in Egypt has been integrated into society, with Muslim and Christian co-existing and living alongside one another. It will be hard for the fundamentalists to undo the relationship overnight but I have no doubt that by trying to face two ways at once, the Egyptian Government have allowed the growth of intolerance and violence. Inertia in the face of the penetration of the education system and media by fanatical elements, and indecisiveness, when the fighting began, have had the effect of aggravating the situation. In addition, low level officials simply ignore the rule of law when it suits them and the State shies away from confronting them or creating more pluralistic structures.
To add to an already tense atmosphere, there have been several cases of incitement of religious hatred by fiery Muslim preachers. At the trial of the murderer of a leading secular Muslim dissident, Sheikh Mohammed al-Ghazali stated that the presence of an apostate in the community constituted a threat to the nation and should be terminated. The Grand Imam of Al Azhar, during an hour long discussion, stated that it is simply not possible for a Muslim to abandon or change their religion. Once a Muslim always a Muslim. Sheikh Muhammad Mitwalli Al-Sharawi has described Christians as infidels (a murderously loaded word in Islamic society), and Omar Abdel Kefi – a tele-evangelist – told Muslims not to greet or acknowledge Christians in greeting. To their credit the authorities responded to this by marching its perpetrator down to see the Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, and making him shake his hand. There has, however, been no public retraction, and books and tapes containing harangues against Christianity are in plentiful supply in Cairo. It is hardly surprising that Coptic Orthodox priests have been pelted with stones and verbally abused by school children on the street. Children brought up in this climate know no better.
Converts from Islam to Christianity are in the most difficult position of all. They are not allowed to change their religion on their identity cards or other personal documents which has serious implications with regard to marriage and inheritance laws. They are also often subjected to regular harassment by the State and private individuals. The case of Hanaan Assofti is one example of this. A twenty-six year old convert from Islam to Christianity, she was arrested by Egyptian State Security Officers on 10 october 1992 at Cairo International Airport when she attempted to leave the country to seek asylum and join her fiance in Europe. Police told her father that she had intended to leave for Europe, where Christians would employ her as a prostitute. the woman’s parents were advised that she should not be permitted to leave home without an escort for a period of one year. She has been regularly beaten by family members who are trying to convert her back to Islam. The Egyptian Government should deal strictly with those who persecute converts whether they be private individuals or their own security forces and try to offer them better protection. One way of doing the latter would be to allow them to change their religion on their documents so it would be more difficult for others to detect that they are converts from Islam to Christianity.
The Ottoman Decrees were imposed by the Turks regulating the repair or building of churches. Centuries later a Presidential decree from the office of President Mubarak is needed before modest alterations are made. Permission is slow in coming though frequently given. Officials at the Ministry of Religious Affairs say that this is because the laws are “in abeyance”. But the reality is different. When churches undertake repairs with the necessary fiat they are likely to find local officials on their backs. I have evidence of churches subsequently demolished or closed and others, such as Cairo’s ancient Hanging church, damaged in last year’s earthquake, left unrepaired and in imminent danger of collapse. Apart from the spiritual issues involved this is cultural vandalism.The repeal of the Ottoman Decrees – and the removal of officials who belligerently refuse to allow schools, churches, hospitals, orphanages and social centres to be constructed or repaired – would send positive and welcome signals to a community which has felt besieged.
More protection is needed for the Copts who are particularly vulnerable because of their minority status. The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) had given the Interior Ministry three warnings of the impending attack on Christians in Daryut. The warnings went unheeded. You can raise all the above issues with the Egyptian Ambassador in London by writing a polite but firm letter to His Excellency, The Ambassador, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt, 26 South Audley Street, London W1Y 8EL.