Coptic arrests inflame Egypt's sectarian tensions

Human rights center: 2 detained for "defaming Islam" after they were seen handing out bibles at fair.

copts church egypt (photo credit: Courtesy)
copts church egypt
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The arrests and weeklong detention of two Coptic Christians at the Cairo International Book Fair on February 1 has reignited the seemingly endless tension that continues to grow between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. State security officials arrested Mina 'Adil Shawki and 'Issam Kadees Nassif after they were seen handing out Bibles at the book fair. An Egyptian human rights center said police filed a report against the two men for "defaming Islam." The men, from the Upper Egyptian governorate Assiut, were released from detention on February 5, but their case has many activists in an uproar over the perceived double standards police employ against Christians as compared to their Muslim counterparts. Nagib Gubreil, a Coptic lawyer and head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, told The Media Line that Shawki and Nassif were held on charges of preaching, but that this particular offense is not explicitly stated in the Egyptian Constitution. "So they filed a report against them, accusing them of defaming Islam," says Gubreil, who has been criticized by activists, both Coptic and Muslim, for allegedly exaggerating a number of religious-based controversies. Nuha, a Christian postgraduate student at Cairo University, calls the arrests outrageous, claiming a "double standard" that exists in the treatment of Christians as compared to Muslims. "Almost every day I see tons of Islamic stuff handed out on the streets and the government does nothing, police do nothing. So now, all of a sudden, some Copts pass out some Bibles and they get arrested. It doesn't seem fair to me," she says. The general prosecutor said that a decision to charge the men had "yet to be determined," corroborating Gubreil's details of what occurred. He said that police "had to accuse them of something" in order to hold them. According to reports on a number of Coptic news sites, police claimed the two men had been also distributing CDs from excommunicated priest Zachariah Boutros - known for his outspoken criticisms of Islam - who was removed from the priesthood after constantly attacking Islam from the pulpit of his television program. The show upset many Muslims and Christians. However, online reports of the incident quoted a close source to the two men that denied that any CDs had been disseminated. "They better have been passing out this kind of thing, because I am sure if they were arrested for just [distributing] the Bible then it would show some real problems that this country has," Nuha says. "Because if passing out a holy book can now get someone put behind bars, then surely Christians face a tough time." Gubreil's center, which regularly defends Coptic Egyptians, has reported that both men were denied access to a lawyer and the center itself was barred from seeing them during their detention. Most rights groups in Egypt complain of poor treatment of prisoners and have often called on the government to give them more access to detainees. Preaching is a controversial topic on Egypt's streets. Copts complain of double standards that include allowing Muslims to get away with handing out religiously affiliated materials in the metro rail system, on buses and on the country's streets. "I believe that it is a precautionary procedure from state security," says Ahmad Samih, director of the Cairo-based Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies. "The state carries out arrests like this in order to keep its eye on Christian activists. Preaching and missionary work are considered serious security issues and the government is intent on maintaining control over them in order to avoid sectarian violence," he adds. Both Christians and Muslims are likely to face detention or interrogation for proselytizing, although technically the Egyptian legal code has yet to make it a criminal offense. Despite this legal absence, under the Emergency Law enacted under President Hosni Mubarak's nearly three decades in power, an anti-missionary unit affiliated with the state security apparatus has been established. An American who works at a local church in Cairo says he has known a number of Westerners, Americans included, who have been deported from Egypt for their activities. "They don't say anything or fight against the charges because they know that they were pushing religion. But it was not subversive," according to the source, who would not give his name for fear of arrest or deportation. "How can you have something like that in Egypt when the constitution protects freedom of religion?" Gubreil asks. News of Shawki and Nassif's arrests quickly swept through the Coptic community, resulting in online forums, Web sites and blogs expressing their frustration over what one blogger called "one more brick added to the hatred wall." "Preaching was never a crime, and how could distributing a Bible or two defame Islam?" Gubreil asks. "Copts should be allowed the same rights as Muslims when it comes to preaching." Nuha agrees, saying she has often wondered how long the government would allow this sort of "abuse of power" to take place in a country supposedly "tolerant" of its multiple religious communities. "You know, it is very difficult to understand how security forces are either abusing their power or that the government wants to put down the Christian community. We always hear about how the government is doing so much to be tolerant of both groups, but when this stuff happens it just proves it wrong, again," she says. Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), believes the lack of a proper government response to decades of rising hostilities between the two religious groups has led Egypt to this point. "Due to the increase in sectarian tensions it decreases the government's ability to intervene… because they fear that it might lead to further backlash. So, you see this vicious cycle," he said. In November, a group of Muslim demonstrators took to the street in front of a building bought and converted by Christians into a prayer hall. The building, a former factory that had been abandoned, lies almost directly across the street from a mosque, sparking anger among the Muslim residents. According to reports, after the Christians and the Muslim protesters began to fight, rocks were thrown and two cars burned. Security forces arrested at least eight people in the fray. Permission to open churches is controversial in Egypt, where by law the president must give the final say in the use of a particular space for religious purposes. Rights groups argue that because the president delegates authority in the matter to local officials, Copts have been forced to use illegal places for worship. Many Muslims argue that it is not the idea of having Christian places of worship that bothers them, it is the manner and place where they are established. Muna, 62, asks why a church was set up directly in front of a mosque. "What is the point of that? They [Christians] know that it will create tensions among the population and this sort of in-your-face religion needs to end," she says. Activists argue that the majority of the responsibility for the ongoing violence and anger between Christians and Muslims falls on the government. They claim that arbitrary arrests for seemingly harmless acts such as those at the book fair only continue to heighten the already alarming sectarian tensions in the country. "The government must act, but everyone must understand that this will not solve the situation quickly; it will take time and Egyptians must be willing to make the first move if the country is to move forward," says Bahgat. The Media Line News Agency website.