Egyptian Christians are open targets for attack as radical groups advocate discrimination, bigotry, and violence.

In Egypt, the Islamic fundamentalist movement has been growing for 20 years, leaving in its turbulent wake many victims among the state security apparatus, vocal secularists, and advocates for moderation within the government. Yet it is Coptic Christians who are increasingly the focus of violent attacks, religious bigotry, and blatant discrimination.

Ethnic Copts are descendants of the indigenous inhabitants of the Nile Valley, before the Muslim conquest of A.D. 642. Copts are traditionally Christian, and the largest Christian group, the 5 million-member Coptic Orthodox Church, which represents 10 percent of Egypt’s population, traces its traditions to the gospel writer Saint Mark in the first century.

“Islamic extremists killed at least 27 Copts, robbed and murdered Coptic shopowners and burned scores of Copt-owned properties, including several churches,” the U.S. State Department noted in its 1992 human-rights report on Egypt. “The government does not always prevent attacks and does little to correct nonviolent forms of discrimination—including its own.”

Copts driven out

The new “Islamized climate,” contends Rifaat Said, chairman of the Egyptian Committee for National Unity and secretary-general of the opposition Tagammu party, is primarily the result of intentional policies of the government in its formal dealings with the Copts.

The elimination of Copts from high-level posts in the government, security police, diplomatic corps, military, and the public sector was among the offenses Said enumerated.

At the same time, while extremists continue to burn churches and shops owned by Christians, the government still requires a presidential decree in order to build or even repair a church. Reportedly, Prime Minister Atef Sidky promised Coptic Orthodox officials the coveted permit for their Shandawil, Sohag, church. Yet, three years later, they are still waiting.

On the harsher side, Islamic militants are specifically targeting Egyptian Christians and intellectuals for “deliberate extermination,” according to a September 1992 report by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR).

Violent assaults

Nowhere has this vicious method been clearer than in the province of Asyut, where Coptic victims, including children, have been murdered. On April 14, 1992, Badr Abdullah, 41, was killed in the daytime on the streets of Asyut.

On different occasions, three individuals were beaten with iron bars in Manshiyat Nasr, Deirut. The perpetrators purposely broke both legs and the right arm, leaving compound fractures. Much of the blame for these attacks is leveled at groups such as the militant Islamic group al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya.

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Last May, 13 Copts were massacred in Deirut, a pastoral town of Asyut. Some had refused to pay the “protection money” demanded by Muslim militants, and some were simply Christians, according to village spokesman Riyad Masood.

Subsequently, the EOHR issued a press release stating it had sent urgent warnings to the Interior Ministry, imploring immediate intervention in Deirut. Because their warnings went unheeded, the EOHR declared the government an accomplice to the crime.

Attacks on tourists

When al-Gamma al-Islamiyya militants began last fall to target foreign tourists—causing an alarming dip in Egypt’s lucrative tourism industry—the government began labeling the “militant Muslim” antagonists as “terrorists.” Interior Minister Abdul Halim Moussa’s decision to uproot them has led to hundreds of arrests since November in the Asyut region as well as the huge Ibaba slum district of Cairo.

Now, a nervous peace reigns along the 100-kilometer stretch from Minya to Asyut and in Imbaba. Both areas are patrolled by heavily armed security police. “This is a temporary quiet,” said Yousuf Naim of the Church of God in Manshiyat Nasr, “while they regroup to strike again.”

The villagers’ lingering fears are not unfounded. On January 4, a village mayor, Isaac Ibrahim Hanna, was shot to death by militants in front of his home in nearby Hanna township. On the same day, human-rights lawyer Fikri Habib confirmed reports that two Coptic pharmacists in the same township were wounded by hand grenades thrown into their pharmacies.

“The police are doing all they can,” said Masood, “but they can’t protect us in the fields or the back streets.”

Climate of extremism

Even so, for most the distinction between government-sponsored extremism and that of the “terrorists” remains blurred. Moderate Muslim intellectuals and Christians agree that the “extremist climate” has virtually taken control of Egyptian television and radio, as well as the school system.

According to Said, the “Islamized” groups have infiltrated the ranks of educational institutions, focusing especially on Dar al-Ulum, which provides the schools with Arabic instructors, who also teach the required religion class to Muslims.

Antoun Sidhom, publisher of Watani, a Christian weekly, claims the exam for students in the Arabic language class includes the question: “What do you do when you get up in the morning?”

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Sidhom said the officially correct answer is: “I recite the Qur’an.” But if Coptic children answer that they do not recite the Qur’an, he said, “they are marked as having failed the question.”

Christianity defamed

Referring to the state-controlled media, one senior official of the Coptic Orthodox Church remarked, “Christianity is defamed on prime-time television, and we have no means of responding. They always quote Qur’anic texts like ‘The religion of God is Islam,’ ” he said, “instead of ones like ‘The people of the Book [Bible] are the closest people to you [Muslims].’ ”

Imbaba Christians report that despite the recent roundup of Islamic extremists, local mosques are still leading their believers in chants against Christianity, all broadcast on the streets within earshot of government troops: “O God, may you bring their houses to ruin.” “Amen.” “O God, make their children orphans.” “Amen.”

According to Chief Justice Said Al-Ashmawy, by law any Muslim who converts to another religion is to have his wife, children, and inheritance taken away.

“Christianity without the cross isn’t Christianity,” Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church said regarding how the church is responding to the mounting persecution. In effect, any efforts by the church to seek justice and protection from the state seem to be fruitless. But as moderate leader Said wrote a few weeks earlier in the opposition weekly Al-Ahali, all Egyptians must put a stop to the divisive policies of discrimination “before Egypt breaks apart.”

By Warren Cofsky,

News Network International in Cairo.

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