US Mistaking Islamists for Victims, Egypt’s Christians Say

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This article appeared in LIGNET, August 20, 2013

Security / Middle East and North Africa

SITUATION REPORT

church-(1)Scores of churches and church-run institutions were attacked, looted and destroyed over the past week in violence between supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Egypt’s interim military government. Christian leaders have pledged their full support for the government and security forces, but U.S. and EU policies appear to be disregarding the concerns of Egypt’s Christian minority, putting peace prospects in jeopardy.

Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of the Egyptian population, and have played a key role in the development of Egyptian culture and civilization. A new government will need their support to gain legitimacy and re-establish peace in the land.

Background

In a frenzy of violence on Aug. 14 and 15, Islamist mobs destroyed and looted 38 churches mainly in the Minya and Assiut provinces of Upper Egypt, according to the Justice and Peace Commission of Egypt’s Catholic patriarchs and bishops.The commission said another 28 churches were partially burned, seven schools were attacked, and property belonging to Coptic Christians was seized including 58 houses, 85 businesses and 16 pharmacies.

Other Egyptian sources say churches and Christian institutions in nearly half of Egypt’s 27 provinces were targeted for attack.In an Aug. 18 statement, the commission said the violence was carried out by “armed terrorist groups” as “collective punishment” for Christian participation in the national movements that led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 and the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July of this year.

The military unseated the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi regime in consultation with a council that included Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, president of Al Azhar University. Morsi was deposed after months of fuel shortages and power outages in addition to general discontent with the hard-line Islamist direction the Egyptian government was taking.In a public message posted on Facebook, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, said its supporters were behind the torching of churches. “Pope [Tawadros] participated in the toppling of the first elected Islamist President,” the message said. “The Pope is trying to remove the Islamic identity in Egypt … and after all this you ask why Churches are being torched … for every action there is a consequence.”

The past week’s violence, which has cost more than 750 mostly Muslim lives, followed a military crackdown on Egyptians protesting the unseating of Morsi.

Government and church leaders, most notably Pope Tawadros, have singled out members of the Muslim Brotherhood for inciting the violence. Supporters of the Coptics, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, say they have been scapegoated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists since the unseating of Morsi. Some observers have noted they have suffered from poor protection by security forces as well.

But talk of a sectarian conflict is being played down. Addressing international leaders, Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak said on Aug. 19: “what is happening in Egypt now is not a political struggle between different factions, but a war against terrorism.”

Like Pope Tawadros, Sedrak rejected any attempt by outside forces “to interfere in the internal affairs of Egypt, or to influence its sovereign decisions, whatever the direction might be.” Tawadros firmly backs the interim government as does Sedrak, who pledged his “free, strong and conscious support” to the military and security forces. The patriarch also stressed that Muslims also have been victims of attacks by angry mobs and made a point of thanking those who, at the cost of their own lives, protected Christians from harm.

Tawadros and Sedrak condemned some media coverage for misrepresenting facts surrounding attacks on Christians in Egypt, and many there were said to be angered by the perceived pro-Brotherhood response of the United States and European Union to the violence. One Coptic activist, quoted by the Assyrian International News Agency, took issue with the “almost daily” statements coming from Washington and Brussels that threaten to take action against Egypt’s interim government and military.

They portray the Muslim Brotherhood “as victims,” the Coptic activist said, but fail to mention the destruction of churches and Christian institutions by Islamist mobs. The Brotherhood, he said, hoisted the black al-Qaeda flag atop a church in Sohag, Egypt, and three churches in the town of Minya were seized and turned into mosques and Friday prayers were held inside them. These events were not widely reported.

Analysis

Egypt’s Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, but tens of thousands have fled the country since the end of the Mubarak government. Having faced centuries of marginalization and discrimination, they are now increasingly worried in the face of growing Islamist violence. The perceived unwillingness of the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties to engage in the search for a political solution in Egypt makes Christians understandably pessimistic about prospects for peace.

And yet Christians have long played a key role in developing Egyptian culture and could be important figures in achieving peace and reconciliation there. Such efforts will require the support of the international community, but critics say that by criticizing the interim government, victimizing the Muslim Brotherhood and cutting aid budgets to Egypt, Washington and Brussels are actually reducing the chances for peace. Worse, they may even be increasing the chances of turning the violence in Egypt into a full-fledged sectarian conflict.

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