Egypt’s Coptic Christians wary of future

Egyptian Coptic priests pass a nun on a street in Jerusalem's Old City. (Flash 90)


ALEXANDRIA, Egypt—Nearly a year since the New Year’s Eve bombing of a Coptic church in the heart of this northern Egyptian city killed 23, restoration work is slow going.

A memorial entrance hall was dedicated a few weeks ago to honor the victims of the worst violence against Egypt’s Christian minority in a decade. But no one has been arrested for taking part in the bombing, Ayman Shahada, a longtime worshiper at Saints Church, says with a bitter smile. The bomb exploded right after the midnight Mass, which was attended by nearly 1,000 people.

The estimated 10 million Copts in Egypt—they are the largest religious minority in the country—are by and large convinced that emissaries of the Mubarak regime were responsible for the explosion at the entrance to the church. Shahada, for instance, says the regime wanted to incite ethnic tension to distract Egyptians from their difficult lives. It didn’t work, he explains, adding the Copts have good relations with the Muslims—”except maybe the Salafists.” Shahada says God punished Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted a month later, in February.

But even if they can claim God’s protection, the Copts realize that with Islamist influence on the rise in the post-Mubarak shake-up, they are in a very vulnerable position.

Coptic leader Hani Boutros, who runs an engineering company, says his coreligionists are worried that some Egyptian officials affiliated with the Mubarak regime may keep creating instability in a bid to get back into power. They are also concerned about the rise of the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, says Boutros.

The Copts are widely discriminated against, he notes. They are generally not appointed to high government office, even though they are, generally speaking, more educated than the average Egyptian. They also do not usually receive permission to build new churches, Boutros adds.

Many Copts took part in the initial mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that led to the overthrow of Mubarak. But even then, some said there was at least a degree of stability while the government was in place, and warned that the Copts would be the first to suffer if Egypt devolved into chaos.

Then came additional attacks on the indigenous Christian sect.

In early October, a church was burned down in the southern Egyptian city of Aswan—and when hundreds of Copts held a protest rally in Cairo, armored military police vehicles trampled marchers, killing 28 and wounding more than 300. The army also arrested many Coptic activists across the country, and a Coptic-owned television station was shut down on military order.

Boutros insists the Copts are as Egyptian as any of their compatriots.

“The revolution gave us an opportunity to get rights, and we must be very careful now not to lose this opportunity,” he explains. “We must switch over very quickly to a civilian government. That is the only thing that can guarantee our rights.”

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