The plight of the Copts

Even among the persecuted Copts, national pride, it appears, can be dearer than life itself.

Car Bomb Egypt 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Car Bomb Egypt 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The plight of Egypt’s ancient Coptic community seems to be going from bad to worse. On Saturday, just after midnight, as worshipers emerged from a New Year’s mass at Alexandria’s Saints Church, a powerful explosion, probably from a suicide bomber, killed at least 21 and wounded around 100.
President Hosni Mubarak, who denounced the attack, said it was the work of a foreign terrorist group. However, Copts, who took to the streets and rioted to protest the attack, claimed Muslim Egyptians were behind the explosion. Preliminary investigations found that the explosives for the bomb, which had been filled with nails and ball bearings, had been made locally.
At least two instances of blatant incitement proceeded the attack, not including the foreboding precedent from a year ago in which eight Copts were gunned down by Islamists as they left Church following Christmas mass.
Last month, a threat appeared on the website of an al- Qaida-affiliated terrorist group called the Islamic State of Iraq, which claimed responsibility for an attack on a Syrian Catholic church in October that killed about 60 people. The group vowed to attack a Coptic church for holding two Coptic women who had allegedly converted to Islam.
In September, meanwhile, Al-Jazeera TV broadcast a two-hour program called Without Limits that accused the Coptic Church of hiding Israeli weapons and ammunition in monasteries and churches, purportedly in preparation for a war “against the Muslims” that would lead to the creation of an autonomous Coptic state.
The only evidence mustered to support these claims was an incident in mid-August, in which the son of a priest in Port Said was falsely accused of smuggling weapons from Israel. The contraband turned out to be Chinese-made fireworks. Nevertheless, the man is being held by Egypt’s immensely powerful State Security.
MUCH HAS changed since Egypt’s 1919 revolution – when a green banner was waved bearing a crescent and cross, symbolizing that both Muslim and Christian communities led the nationalist movement against British occupation. In recent decades, Egypt’s secular ruling elite has acquiesced to or even encouraged an Islamization process that appeases the increasingly religious masses.
By orchestrating this Islamization process, the Mubarak regime neutralizes criticism from Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic extremists calling for further concessions to Islamic dictates. As a result, the old secular nationalism of the Wafd party or Nasserism, that blurred sectarian differences, is gradually being replaced by a decidedly Islamic-based nationalism, which has made life tough for the Copts.
In state schools, textbooks represent Egypt as an exclusively Muslim state and include anti-Christian texts. In the summer of 2008, the Egyptian doctors syndicate, which, like other professional organizations, has increasingly been taken over by Muslim Brotherhood activists, banned all organ transplants between Muslims and Copts on the grounds that “society would not tolerate organ donations across religious boundaries.”
In the recent parliamentary elections, Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million populace, were almost completely marginalized, along with the Muslim Brotherhood and Wafd parties.
Just days before the elections, clashes broke out between riot police and the Coptic community in Cairo, after the government halted construction of a staircase for a Coptic church. The riots ended with two Copts dead, dozens injured and 156 arrested, with most facing charges that carry possible maximum life sentences.
The Copts’ future is growing increasingly uncertain.
Rumors of widespread vote-rigging in the elections led the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd parties to pull out before the second round of voting. This has resulted in a severe blow to the regime’s legitimacy and it might complicate the ailing Mubarak’s transfer of leadership to his son Gamal.
But it is not clear whether this will benefit the Copts.
Indeed, it may be that the regime will resort to further discriminatory measures against them to appease Islamists and deflect criticism.
There is relatively little that the West can do to help.
A Copt was widely lauded recently in the Egyptian press for vowing that he would rather die at the hands of his Muslim brethren than accept American protection.
Even among the persecuted Copts, national pride, it appears, can be dearer than life itself.