Large numbers of Copts supported the Egyptian revolution, but they
now fear that a recent escalation in violence and discrimination is only
likely to worsen following likely Islamist victories at the polls this
A mass Christian exodus from Egypt, similar to the one that took place in Iraq, seems almost inevitable.
February saw separate brutal attacks against two Coptic monasteries --
the Anba Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun, 110 kilometres north of
Cairo, and the Anba Makarious Al Sakandarie Monastery in Al Fayoum, 130
kilometres south west of the capital.
On March 4, angry crowds
burned down the Coptic church of St Mina and St George - together with
its irreplaceable relics - in the village of Sool, about 30 km from
Then on March 8, a mob armed with guns, clubs, and Molotov
cocktails attacked a group of Copts who were demonstrating against the
Sool church burning in front of the state television broadcasting
building in Cairo.
The Egyptian army, called in to restore order, instead used more violence. Some 13 people were killed and over 100 wounded.
May 7, two more churches were attacked and at least 12 people were
killed and more than 200 wounded in the poor, largely Christian
neighbourhood of Imbaba, in north-west Cairo.
by a rumour of a Muslim woman held captive by Copts, stormed the St Mina
Church, burned the Church of the Virgin Mary to the ground, looted and
vandalised several Christian-owned shops, and threw Molotov cocktails at
an apartment building.
Other attacks have included one on a
Coptic man, Ayman Anwar Mitri, who had his ear cut off by suspected
Islamic extremists in Qena, and there have also been reports of the
kidnapping and rape of Coptic girls.
We believe that Salafists are
to blame for most of these incidents and that the inacton of law
enforcers - not a single person has been convicted in any of the
incidents mentioned above - is allowing the people to do whatever they
I think that some of the country's more radical Islamists,
including Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, MB, are using
violence to establish Egypt's identity as a thoroughly Islamicised and
The Salafists were never interested in political
participation previously, but now they have started playing a more
active role, pushing themselves onto the political scene in a very
vulgar way. They are not as strong as the MB but they are trying to form
an alliance with them.
And at least with the Salafists you get
what you see -- the problem with the MB is that they speak very sweetly
about respecting all religions and people's rights, but there is
absolutely zero trust in them from the Christian communit y, and they
are also criticised fiercely by liberal Muslims.
It is hard to
predict how successful the MB will be in elections later this year. From
listening to their own propaganda , one would imagine they would win 90
per cent of the vote, but experts have put their predicted share as low
as 15 per cent, with a recent poll giving them even less. But the fear
is still there.
The church plays a very powerful role in the daily
lives of Egyptian Christians, although it has so far held out against
any official political participation. But some Copts are getting
involved in liberal political parties, most notably the Free Egyptians
party founded by businessman Naguib Sawiris, and working alongside
On the face of it, people are tolerant, but below
the surface it is very different. You see this on Friday around prayer
time, when the imams often broadcast very anti-Christian messages. This
has been going on forever and the authorities have never done anything
about it. Indeed , Mubarak managed to exploit the fear of Islamic
fundamentalism to get the support of the Christians during his regime.
greatest challenge we face is building a culture of tolerance, and it
may take decades. Copts are worried about the influence that the
Salafists have on previously neutral, but poorly educated Muslim
citizens -- a legacy of Mubarak's decrepit education system. But at the
very least, confronting sectarianism needs to become a priority that
extends beyond the facades of newly-painted churches.
all the Christian sects make up some ten per cent of Egypt's 80 million
population. But the church itself says that there are at least 12
million Christians, and they have very reliable statistics through the
registration of all births and marriages. There are also at least two
million Egyptians Copts resident in the West, and it looks like this
number is going to rise sharply.
After the burning of churches and
other attacks Christians feel in danger. The British-based Copts
website I run has been deluged with enquiries from Egyptian Copts about
how to apply for asylum outside, and Copts have been queuing up at
embassies in Egypt to try and emigrate. In Iraq after the war, at least
50 per cent of the Christians left the country in the face of sectarian
violence. I hope we will not see a repeat of this in Egypt.
By Dr Helmy Guiruis
Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Helmy Guiruis is president of the U nited Kingdom Copts Association and
a member of the Coptic Solidarity Executive Committee.