Coptic Christians fear rise of Islamists on eve of presidential elections

May 12, 2012

A year after an attack by ultraconservative Muslims raised the spectre of a wave of religious strife in Egypt, the Christian churches in Cairo’s Imbaba district have been repaired, with sturdy wooden rafters, fresh paint and portraits of the Virgin Mary and Jesus ready to be hung anew. But the deep wounds from those attacks and ensuing clashes, which left 12 dead, cannot be painted over.

Coptic Christians, whose forefathers lived in Egypt before the arrival of Islam, had hoped that the 2011 uprising that ousted authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak would give them equal rights.

Instead, things have worsened. Egypt’s Christians have been the victims of threats and dramatic violence, and they fear the ascendance of political Islam.

With landmark elections set to begin May 23, many of the country’s Christians fear that the next president could turn Egypt into a conservative Islamic state that does not have room for their community of at least 8.5 million.

Under Mubarak, Christians complained they were treated like second-class citizens — forced to get special permission to build churches, and subjected to hate crimes that went unpunished.

But now, with the race shaping up as a choice between Islamists and former members of Mubarak’s government, most Christians are rallying behind the latter — despite past persecution.

Some are attracted to former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, a Mubarak-era minister who has advocated a separation of religion and state.

Other Christians are rallying behind Ahmed Shafiq, the last premier who served under Mubarak, even though he is derided by revolutionaries as a symbol of the corruption and oppression of the former regime.

In addition to the attacks on churches, Christians have been terrified by other acts of aggression. Ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafists are accused of slicing off a Christian man’s ear over accusations that he rented his apartment to prostitutes. Coptic families in Alexandria were displaced over a rumor that a Coptic man and a Muslim woman were romantically involved.

Christians also have encountered problems with the military. Last year, military forces cracked down on peaceful Christian protests, running over demonstrators with armored vehicles as state television anchors called on “honorable” Egyptians to protect the military. Nonetheless, some Copts are so fearful of a restrictive Muslim government that they hope the generals will intervene to stop an Islamist from becoming president.

In Imbaba, where garbage is heaped along unpaved roads and children play on broken jungle gyms, George Gamal, a Christian, said he wanted Shafiq for president.

“If religion is mixed with politics, this country will be destroyed,” the 50-year-old shop owner said. “It will be an Islamic emirate.”

The fact that the leading Islamist candidates have promised not to impose a discriminatory version of Islamic law did not reassure him.

People stopped in to buy eggs and juice from him as he chatted politics with Waleed Fawaz, a rickshaw driver.

“People need to know that an Islamist president will lead to civil war. This is our country, too,” Fawaz said.

In the dusty offices of El Watani, a Coptic Christian weekly newspapers, editor Yousef Sidhom said the country’s religious tensions were exacerbated by Christians’ increasing isolation in recent decades.

Despite making up at least 10 percent of the population, they were barred from being in the president’s administrative intelligence force, he said, and have a miniscule role in other major institutions. In the new 508-member parliament, there are only seven Coptic Christians.

Faced with decades of discriminatory policies, Christians withdrew into their churches and clubs, he said.

“The church itself played a role in keeping this sick situation,” he said, rather than working to increase integration and resolve problems of discrimination.

In January 2011, that isolation seemed to end. Christians joined the anti-government protests. Muslims and Christians wore Christian crosses and Muslim crescents intertwined around their necks and an aura of unity descended over Tahrir Square, the center of the revolt.

“Copts enthusiastically flocked to Tahrir and all major squares to revolt against Mubarak,” Sidhom said. “But no one ever imagined how strong and fierce political Islam would come back.”

While Egyptians expected the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood to do well in parliamentary elections, many were shocked by the roughly 25 percent of seats the Salafists won.

Sidhom said he hopes that the Islamists will pay at the polls for their track record so far. The Muslim Brotherhood has lost popularity by breaking its promise not to field a candidate for president, and for doing little to alleviate problems of unemployment and crime. As for the more conservative Salafists, some leaders have floated the idea of forcing women to wear veils, and one parliamentarian advocated banning English in schools, drawing severe criticism from a wide swath of Egyptian society.

Some Christians say they could live with a victory by presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, an Islamist who is seen as more moderate than Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi. Aboul Fotouh has said he would support a law that wouldn’t require official permission for the building of churches or mosques. He has also said Copts and women should be allowed to run for president.

But when ultraconservative Salafists endorsed him, many Copts withdrew their support.

Amir Dous, an upper-class Coptic Christian, struggles with his choice for president every day. He protested in Tahrir Square last year with his wife, and now looks at the 13 presidential candidates with dismay.

Some days he thinks he’ll choose Moussa, even though he does not represent revolutionary change. Moussa has sworn to serve only one term if he’s elected president, and the four years could give floundering liberals time to organize, Dous said. Other days he favors Aboul Fotouh, whom he believes would protect minority rights and the goals of the revolution.

Then there are days when he thinks he might just leave Egypt if the country becomes more Islamically conservative.

“It scares me that maybe we could become Iran,” he said. “We as educated people came out with the revolution and supported it and promised the poor people things would get better. I have the means to leave, but I will leave those people behind, stabbing them in back.”

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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