Ed Ou for The New York Times
Coptic Christians, many of whom have felt less secure since Egypt's dictator stepped down, held a sit-in May 19 in Cairo
CAIRO — The headline screamed from a venerable liberal newspaper: Coptic
Christians had abducted a young Muslim and tattooed her with a cross.
“Copts kidnap Raghada!”
“They tied me up with ropes, beat me with shoes, shaved my hair,”
Raghada Salem Abdel Fattah, 19, declared, “and forced me to read
Like many similar stories proliferating here since the revolution, Ms.
Abdel Fattah’s kidnapping could not be confirmed. But for members of Egypt’s
Coptic Christian minority, the sensational headline — from a respected
publisher, no less — served to validate their fear that the Egyptian
revolution had made their country less tolerant and more dangerous for
religious minorities. The Arab Spring initially appeared to open a
welcoming door to the dwindling number of Christian Arabs who, after
years of feeling marginalized, eagerly joined the call for democracy and
rule of law. But now many Christians here say they fear that the fall
of the police state has allowed long-simmering tensions to explode,
potentially threatening the character of Egypt, and the region.
“Will Christians have equal rights and full citizenship or not?” asked
Sarkis Naoum, a Christian commentator in Beirut, Lebanon. A surge of
sectarian violence in Cairo — 24 dead, more than 200 wounded and three
churches in flames since President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall — has turned
Christian-Muslim tensions into one of the gravest threats to the
revolution’s stability. But it is also a pivotal test of Egypt’s
tolerance, pluralism and the rule of law. The revolution has empowered
the majority but also opened new questions about the protection of
minority rights like freedom of religion or expression as Islamist
groups step forward to lay out their agendas and test their political
Around the region, Christians are also closely watching events in Syria,
where as in Egypt Christians and other minorities received the
protection of a secular dictator, Bashar al-Assad, now facing his own
“The Copts are the crucial test case,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher
with Human Rights Watch here, adding that facing off against “societal
pressures” may in some ways be ever harder than criticizing a dictator.
“It is the next big battle.”
But so far, there is little encouragement in the debate over how to
address the sectarian strife. Instead of searching for common ground,
all sides are pointing fingers of blame while almost no one is
addressing the underlying reasons for the strife, including a legal
framework that treats Muslims and Christians differently.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the 80 million Egyptians,
say the revolution has plunged them into uncharted territory. Suppressed
or marginalized for six decades here, Islamists entering politics have
rushed to defend an article of the Egyptian Constitution that declares
Egypt a Muslim country that derives its laws from Islam. Christians and
liberals say privately they abhor the provision, which was first added
as a populist gesture by President Anwar el-Sadat. But the article is so
popular among Muslims — and the meaning so vague — that even many
liberals and Christians entering politics are reluctant to speak out
against it, asking at most for slight modifications.
“Our position is that it should stay, but a clause should be added so
that in personal issues non-Muslims are subject to the rules of their
own religion,” said Naguib Sawiris, a secular-minded Christian tycoon
who has started his own liberal party.
He would prefer to remove religion from the laws entirely the way
Western separation of church and state does, he said, but that idea
could not prevail in Egypt. “Islam doesn’t separate them,” he said.
The most common sparks for sectarian violence, however, come from
Egyptian laws dating from the end of the colonial era. One imposes
stricter regulations on building churches than on mosques. Christians
often look to get around the restrictions by constructing “community
centers” with altars and steeples — sometimes provoking Muslim
accusations of deceit and Christian charges of discrimination.
The other statute is one the church supports, although not all its
parishioners agree: it enforces the Coptic Church’s near-total ban on
divorce, even while Egyptian laws on Muslim divorce have grown
Often, Christians who want to divorce convert to Islam — and try, after
the divorce, to convert back. The law has spawned many rumors of
sectarian “kidnappings” to abet or prevent such a conversion for some
Coptic women. The rumors ignite most outbreaks of Muslim-Christian
violence, including at least three riots since the revolution, and many
other controversies. In Ms. Abdel Fattah’s case, the Cairo police said
the account was fabricated, while Ms. Abdel Fattah’s mother said her
daughter was too traumatized to speak to reporters.
But despite widespread recognition of the law’s role as a catalyst of
sectarian violence, the idea that civic law should enforce religious
morals is so deeply embedded here that almost no one is proposing to
alter the rule.
“It is explosive,” said Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian
Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the few groups that advocate
changing the law to at least allow the choice of a civil, nonreligious
When Copts held a weeklong sit-in to demand equal legal treatment, many
who attended nonetheless insisted on the preservation of separate,
binding laws on Christian marriages. “So no one will be able to get
around the religion,” said Yusef George, a 30-year-old businessman. A
spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group,
said it, too, supported the rule.
Some blame their own church for depending too much on Mr. Mubarak. In a
pattern common to Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, Coptic leaders cultivated
the patronage of Egypt’s secular dictator, with Coptic Pope Shenouda III
trading political support for favors and protection. As in Iraq, with
the leader deposed, the Christians felt exposed.
“Coptic rights were reserved to be discussed between Mubarak and the
pope,” said Mona Makram Ebeid, a Coptic scholar and former lawmaker who
suspended her membership in the liberal Wafd party because its newspaper
published the headline about Ms. Abdel Fattah, “and the Copts were left
out of it completely.”
Church leaders, in turn, blame Islamic fundamentalists they say the
revolution has emboldened. “They don’t want any Copts present in Egypt,”
said Father Armia Adly, a spokesman for the church.
The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, has named a Christian as deputy
leader of its new political party. “We are calling for a civil state,”
said Essam el-Erian, a prominent leader of the Brotherhood, adding that
the group hoped to promote laws derived from the elements of Islamic law
common to other great religions, like “freedom of worship and faith,
equality between people, and human rights and human dignity.”
Still, many liberals argue the sectarian conflicts prove Egypt should
establish a permanent “bill of rights” to protect religious and personal
freedoms before holding elections that could give power to an Islamist
majority. It would “remove the sense of angst that exists today in
Egypt,” said a spokeswoman for Mohamed ElBaradei, a liberal presidential