Egypt's show of tolerance

Egyptian Coptic Christians grieve for victims of a New Year's Day church bombing.
Egyptian Coptic Christians grieve for victims of a New Year's Day church bombing. (Tarek Fawzy)
Saturday, January 8, 2011

THE COPTIC Christian Christmas passed peacefully in Egypt on Thursday night and Friday, thanks in part to the efforts of the country's moderate Muslims. Thousands turned out to help protect churches following the horrific New Year's Day suicide bombing at a Mass in Alexandria that killed at least 23 people. Prominent Muslims, including President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal, attended Christmas Eve services; the country's most senior Muslim leader, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, has led the way in condemning the attack and calling for tolerance.

These praiseworthy actions, however, do not change two underlying realities: Religious discrimination and violence have been steadily growing in Egypt, and Mr. Mubarak's autocratic regime has worsened the situation through its heavy-handed repression and failure to prosecute those who persecute Christians.

The broader problem is well summarized in the latest report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal government agency that keeps Egypt on its watch list. "Serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, as well as disfavored Muslims, remain widespread in Egypt," it said in May. "Over the past year, there was an upsurge in violence targeting Coptic Orthodox Christians. The government has not taken sufficient steps to halt the repression of and discrimination against Christian and other religious believers or, in many cases, punish those responsible for violence or other severe violations of religious freedom." A major case in point is a drive-by shooting after a Mass last Christmas Eve in the southern city of Nag Hammadi, for which no one has been tried.

Mr. Mubarak appeared on national television after the Alexandria attack and claimed that "foreign hands" were responsible for the bombing. The state-run press rushed to point a finger at al-Qaeda. But authorities have so far produced no evidence to back that claim; on the contrary, the deputy interior minister said that the attack was carried out with "locally made explosives," and the prosecutor general conceded Thursday that investigators had yet to identify a suspect.

Meanwhile, the regime is busy doing the one thing it is good at: brutalizing opposition activists who had nothing to do with the attack. On Monday there were demonstrations in Cairo's Shubra neighborhood to protest the treatment of Copts that were joined by liberal Muslims who belong to nonviolent dissident movements. According to Egyptian human rights groups, security forces separated Copts from Muslims and then went after the Muslim activists, eight of whom were arrested. They were subsequently beaten in a police station and charged with numerous crimes; a hasty trial has been scheduled for next week. On Wednesday, a fundamentalist preacher was allegedly tortured to death in Alexandria after being arrested by security forces investigating the bombing, according to reports Friday by two Egyptian Web sites.

This kind of repression has intensified in the past several years of Mr. Mubarak's 29-year rule, which is one reason that sectarian tensions in Egypt are growing worse rather than better. A show of tolerance on Christmas won't change that record; only genuine political reform will make Egypt a safer place for religious minorities.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company