Egypt’s Christians start new year with hopes and fears

Two days before the Coptic Christmas, an Egyptian bomb disposal expert was killed as he tried to defuse three bombs near a church in eastern Cairo.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Christian worshippers attend Orthodox Christmas mass and the inauguration of the Cathedral of the Nativity, January 6. (AFP)
High hopes. Christian worshippers attend Orthodox Christmas mass and the inauguration of the Cathedral of the Nativity, January 6. (AFP)

CAIRO - Despite fears, Egypt’s Christian minority, who make up almost 10% of the country’s population, has high hopes that 2019 will be free from the problems of recent years.

Coptic Christians celebrated Christmas on January 7 despite the threat of terrorism and as Egypt’s security services appear to be gaining an upper hand over extremists.

Two days before the Coptic Christmas, an Egyptian bomb disposal expert was killed as he tried to defuse three bombs near a church in eastern Cairo. The bombs apparently were planned to go off while dozens of Christians gathered to prepare for Christmas Eve mass.

“Attacks in the past made the Christians feel especially targeted,” said Christian activist Naguib Gabriel. “The spectre of terrorism is still there and state institutions need to work hard to bring it to a total end.”

Egypt’s Christian community has been targeted by Islamist extremists, particularly because of their strong support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Islamic State-affiliated militants targeted Christians in the Sinai Peninsula, leading them to leave the area en masse in early 2017. Groups with ties to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood have also been implicated in anti-Christian rhetoric and attacks against churches.

Sisi’s administration is fighting back. On Christmas Eve, Sisi inaugurated the Middle East’s largest cathedral in Cairo’s new administrative capital in what many have said represents an important gesture of support and solidarity.

Covering 63,000 sq.metres, construction of the Cathedral of the Nativity was ordered by Sisi in January 2017. Sisi was among hundreds of dignitaries attending Christmas Eve mass January 6 at the cathedral.

“This is an important moment in our history,” Sisi said at the event, which was televised nationwide. “We are one and we will remain one,” he added, referring to Christian and Muslim unity.

Coptic Pope Tawadros II highlighted the change in stance between current and previous Egyptian administrations. He contrasted the construction of the cathedral under Sisi to dozens of church fires set by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in 2013.

“On this day, we see you have fulfilled this promise and here we are witnessing a great opening on this grand occasion,” Tawadros said.

Christians are not getting mere lip service from Sisi, who has made protecting Egypt’s Copts one of the hallmarks of his presidency. Under Sisi, Egypt’s parliament has authorised and legitimised the construction of hundreds of previously unlicensed churches.

In December, Sisi also formed a group to work to prevent sectarian violence and apply the law to attacks against the Christians.

These are all developments, the Christians say, that give them hope and a feeling of empowerment.

“The current administration does its best to make the Christians feel equal to their Muslim compatriots,” said Father Polis Halim, spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church. “The rights given Christians in the past four years are unprecedented in the history of our country.”

Copts, however, have outstanding issues they want addressed. This includes, Halim said, that the legalisation of the churches will move ahead at a faster pace.

The panel formed as part of 2016 legislation for the legalisation of churches has received requests for the licensing of more than 3,000 churches that were constructed without permits.

Christians also expressed fears that the lack of real reform of the educational curriculum, especially involving Egypt’s oldest university al-Azhar, could nurture the next generation of extremists.

Sisi is battling al-Azhar — the highest Sunni authority in Egypt — over reforming religious discourse in the country, with the president favouring a more modernised approach.

Ahead of Christmas, there were nationwide debates about whether Muslims should congratulate Christians on Christmas. The debates were led by ultra-orthodox Salafists who advised followers not to congratulate Christians regarding their holiday. Such scenes had been common during the season.

“Religious reform is essential for boosting citizenship rights,” Halim said. “The education curriculum must renounce violence and back the rights of minorities, not the opposite.”

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