Egypt's Christians on the ropes

Sunday, August 05, 2012 |  Ryan Jones

The writing was on the wall. When Egypt's pro-democracy revolution was hijacked by Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, many warned that Egypt's ancient Christian community was in danger.

Despite escalating anti-Christian violence during and following the toppling of the former regime, the rising Islamists insisted that Christians would be respected in the new Egypt, and much of the international community believed them.

But with the unveiling of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's new cabinet last week, it became clear that Egypt's Christians would not enjoy increased influence, and would instead be shoved further into the corner.

During its presidential and parliamentary election campaigns, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood promised to give Christians fair representation. But despite increasing the size of the government to 35 ministerial posts, only a single portfolio was given to a Christian.

During the reign of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's Christians had always controlled at least two ministries in the 30-portfolio government.

"We had expected an increase of [Christian] representation in the new government, especially after increasing the number of portfolios to 35," said Archbishop Pachomius, acting leader of the Egyptian Coptic Church, in an interview with the independent newspaper Al-Shorouk.

Pachomius told another newspaper that the post given to the Copts was only "half a ministry," and reiterated concerns in his community that the rise of the Islamists in Egypt would lead to less freedom for Christians.

Even more concerning is that the government's snubbing of Christians and the expected further implementation of Sharia Law (which would further relegate Christians to dhimmi - or second-class - status) has emboldened those who would seek to physically harm Christians.

In fact, the same day Morsi took office, a Muslim mob in a village south of Cairo drove out the local Christian inhabitants over a dispute between a local Christian businessman and a Muslim client that turned violent. Morsi insisted the incident was an isolated one, but Pachomius responded that "there is clear persecution of Copts as of late."

The government's failure to hold accountable any of the Muslim attackers only bolstered fears of a clear bias against Christians, as did a court decision last week to continue holding a Coptic man in detention for "defaming Islam."

Bishoy Kamil Gergis was arrested after a Muslim accused him of insulting Islam and its prophet Mohammed by posting negative opinions on Facebook. The court is expected to charge Gergis under Article 98(f) of Egypt's Penal Code, which forbids using "religion in propagating...extreme ideas for the purpose of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion or a sect following it, or damaging national unity."

While there are very obvious problems inherent in the law when it comes to freedom of expressions, its wording was intended to protect the adherents of all faiths. In practice, it has been wielded by Muslims as a weapon against Christians, with the complicity of Egypt's government. And with the Muslim Brotherhood in power, Egypt's Christians are right to worry that such persecution will escalate.

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