- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

Longstanding religious tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians erupted last month with the approach of the third round of Egypt’s first judicially supervised parliamentary elections, which began this week. This round of elections has held special importance for Egypt’s Coptic Christian community, with two Copts running on the National Democratic Party ticket in a predominately Sunni Muslim country.

Several weeks before the vote, though, a massive riot ripped through Alexandria, with instigators using religious differences as a facade for what many believe to be a shameful political attack. Maher Khella, one of the two Coptic candidates, announced his withdrawal in order to prevent more violence. Mr. Khella said he believes the riots at St. George’s church were not about the release of DVDs that “insulted” the Islamic faith, but rather about the elections.

The violence, which began Oct. 14, is the bloodiest since January 2000, when an argument between a Coptic shopkeeper and a Muslim customer exploded into gunfights and other battles that resulted in the death of 23 people, mostly Copts. The Alexandria riots began over the distribution of DVDs of a play called “I Was Blind but Now I See,” performed at St. George’s church in 2003. Egyptian Muslims protested outside of the church, saying the DVDs encouraged “anti-Islamic” sentiments. Coptic Pope Shenouda III quickly denied these accusations. Three people were killed and a nun stabbed in remonstration of the distribution of these DVDs.

Demonstrators also burned copies of the Bible and threw rocks at the church, damaging the building. Political leaders and security officials believe that the DVDs were distributed by Islamic extremists in an effort to tarnish the image of Coptic candidates who are running for Alexandria’s impoverished Ghorbal constituency. The Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, denied altogether any insults that may be connected to the DVDs and urged Egyptians to ignore the rumors. He noted that some political affiliates are trying to cause sectarian tensions in order to produce electoral propaganda.

Islamic leaders have demanded an apology from the Copts. The Coptic Church in turn released a statement on Oct. 29 condemning the defamation of Islam and the belittling of their Muslim brethren. However, the Coptic Pope has not issued an official apology and has canceled a trip to Alexandria for his annual Ramadan fast-breaking meal because of the violence. Coptic community leader Kamil Sediq stated that there would be no official apology because the Copts had “nothing to apologize for” and they do not want this incident to become a precedent for impending outbursts. Mr. Sediq warned that the riots could spread to Cairo and other provinces but that Copts should not retaliate.

Fearful Copts in northern Egypt have closed their shops and remained at home following the violent demonstrations. Father Yohanna Naseef told the press that Copts’ shops and cars were destroyed during the riots. In addition, an Egyptian newspaper has published threats against the pope. These fears are not without merit. Tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians are a part of the country’s history. These tensions have often led to violent outbursts like the protests in Alexandria.

Copts account for about 10 percent of the Egyptian population today. They trace their ancestry back to the pre-Arabs who were converted to Christianity by Saint Mark in 1 A.D. Today, Muslim Arabs control much of the government, exerting their influence over the Coptic community through decrees that prohibit certain actions. Coptic males are prohibited from marrying Muslim females by civil and religious law. Non-Muslims must obtain a permit in order to build a place of worship, while Muslims face no restrictions when building mosques. Throughout the last 20 years, tensions between the Muslims and Copts have escalated due to a wave of Islamic fundamentalism.

While the differences in their religions are great, Copts and Muslims have the same racial characteristics and features. They wear the same clothes, eat the same types of food and shop at the same places. From the outside looking in, the two groups are one and the same, especially since the Egyptian Constitution calls for equality before the law.

Yet, because of the strong Islamic control over the government, many law-enforcement officials are Muslim and many Copts complain of religious discrimination. Since Copts and Muslims must have their religious affiliation stamped on their papers, discrimination happens easily. Copts feel this unfairness every day. Government-controlled media outlets openly portray these prejudices.

Copts have difficulty obtaining prestigious jobs and getting promotions. School admission is difficult, especially at institutions that are publicly funded, and curriculums exclude Coptic culture and accomplishments in Egyptian history. Access to the national parliament exists and, as proven by the two Coptic candidates, is possible, but the road to Copts getting fair representation in government is littered with many obstacles.

Riots such as the recent one in Alexandria do not occur very often. Nevertheless, tensions are continuously high and at the point of eruption. The United States must no longer ignore the suffering of the Coptic people. Congress must act to help Egypt’s Coptic minority in the face of religious persecution by condemning acts of intolerance and sending a strong message to the Egyptian government that discrimination based on religion will not stand.

Kathryn Cameron Porter is the President of the Leadership Council for Human Rights.

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