x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Egypt's Christians unafraid to tackle Morsi

After living quietly in the shadow of the country's Muslim majority, Egypt's Christian population has begun to speak out against the sway Islamists now hold in government. Youssef Hamza reports

Two years after millions of Egyptians staged nationwide protests that forced Hosni Mubarak to step down, the country's Christian minority has embraced a proactive approach in its drive to win full rights, abandoning decades, perhaps even centuries, of an almost pacifist policy that avoided confrontation with authorities and the Muslim majority.

The new approach was in evidence recently when mourners in the main Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo chanted slogans against Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, calling on him to step down. Others shouted "hold your head high, you are a Copt".

Two days later, the patriarch of Egypt's Christian Copts took the unprecedented step of directly criticising Mr Morsi, blasting his handling of a weekend of sectarian violence that left seven Christians and one Muslim dead. There was even a hint of contempt in Pope Tawadros II's criticism of Egypt's first freely elected president.

But the change of tack carries risks for Christians living in a country where Islamists, including hardliners with radical views on non-Muslims, have risen to power. Some of the more extreme Islamists make no secret of their wish to see Christians formally reduced to second-class citizens.

Egypt's Christians have long suffered from discrimination in the mainly Muslim country but the two have coexisted generally peacefully. Under Hosni Mubarak's 29-year rule, attacks on Christians were few due to his repeated crackdowns on hardline Islamists, although a bomb killed Coptic worshippers just weeks before the 2011 uprising against his rule broke out. In the absence of a strong police force since the revolt, attacks have become more frequent.

Significantly, Pope Tawadros, enthroned in November, has declared that the church will stay above the political fray. He, however, has made it clear he will not stop Christians from taking part in politics. As Christians played a part in the 2011 revolution that ousted Mubarak, he has argued, then they too should benefit from the windfall of freedoms it has brought to the country.

The latest bout of sectarian violence began on April 6 when a swastika was painted on the wall of a religious Muslim institute in a town north of Cairo. Muslims in the town were insulted and even though the swastika painters were later found to be Muslim, the town's Muslims sought retribution. Six people, including at least five Christians, were killed in the violence that followed.

A day later, thousands of Christians gathered in St Mark's Cathedral in central Cairo to mourn the dead. It took the nation by surprise as mourners, including women, went into a frenzy of anti-government chants, calling on Mr Morsi to step down and criticising his Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which the president hails.

"This is our country, we will not leave it," they chanted defiantly in angry scenes carried live by TV networks.

Later, hundreds of Christians stepped out of the cathedral to march against what many of them see as the failure by authorities to protect their community. They were almost immediately set upon by a mob, thought to be made up of local residents, who showered them with firebombs, rocks and birdshot.

The Christians ran back inside the cathedral for cover. When police arrived, witnesses said they fired tear gas inside the cathedral complex and stood by as the Muslim mob continued its attack. Two Copts were killed.

Two days later, Pope Tawadros pulled off a surprise that shocked Egyptians just as much as the fatal clashes did. In a tone that was both confident and contemptuous, he berated the Egyptian leader for not honouring his promise to protect the cathedral and for failing to revive a body with a mandate to promote equality among Egyptians.

"Enough already of formations, committees and groups and whatever else," he said. "We want action not words and, let me say this, there are many names and committees but there is no action on the ground."

All of Mr Morsi's Christian advisers quit late last year over what they called the president's failure to consult with them on major policies, including his decrees, since rescinded, to give himself near-absolute powers. The advisers had been appointed in honour of Mr Morsi's campaign pledges of inclusion, but many of them later complained that they were sidelined from the start.

Christians make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's 90-million population. They have long complained of discrimination although they have generally coexisted peacefully with the Muslim majority.

Attacks on Christians, however, have risen in recent years and saw a dramatic surge since Mubarak's was ousted. The Christians say that a failure to prosecute the culprits in most cases has created the impression that a political cover exists for attacking Christians, their places of worship and businesses.

But the Christians are hitting back, and their new, feisty attitude is coming at a time when disenchantment with Mr Morsi's nine-month-old rule is rising over his perceived failure to tackle any of the major problems plaguing Egypt, such as economic hardship and a surge in crime.

Christian leaders have also spoken out against a statement issued by a senior Morsi adviser blaming the Christians for starting the violence at the cathedral. An Islamist parliamanterian last week delivered a thinly veiled threat to the church, counselling it to rein in what he called its "hardline" rhetoric and called on the leaders of the church to bring its angry youths under control.

The comments led to a walkout by the few Christians in the legislature.


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