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memri
November 12, 2002 No.
110

Egyptian Christian Copts on Prejudice in Egypt & Saudi Arabia

The leadership of the Egyptian Christian Coptic community has recently begun to express in public positions and complaints in a way uncommon in the past. The leader of Egypt's Coptic community, Patriarch Shinoda III, who in his articles, interviews, and public statements used to stress the "harmony and equality" between Christians and Muslims in the country, now protests the inequality and prejudice against Christians in the Arab world.

Patriarch Shinoda revealed that he had complained to the Egyptian authorities about articles in the government papers Al-Ahram Al-Arabi and Al-Akhbar, that he felt had insulted Christians. He said, "We have a common enemy, Zionism, but fighting it does not mean harming the Torah or the New Testament, and thus losing the Christians in the world… There is no such thing as 'Christian Zionism;' some Christians sympathize with the Jews, and they deviate from Christianity and adopt wrong ideas."

Patriarch Shinoda also discussed the situation of the Copts in Egypt, saying: "All we want is equal relations between the two parts of the [Arab] nation, because often the Christians do not find reasonable space in which to function… No one accepts the American preacher's [Jerry Falwell] attack on Islam in a loathsome manner. Yet I cannot even count the articles, books, and publications attacking Christians in Egypt, and we let these things pass, so as not to start big problems, or even small ones…"

Only 2 Out of 444 in the Egyptian Parliament are Copts
"There is a difference between Egyptian laws and their implementation in practice. The constitution and the laws set out the equality of rights and obligations of Muslims and Christians in Egypt. But in reality the situation is different. For example, out of 444 candidates elected to parliament, only three [Christians] have succeeded [in being elected], one of whom was fired because he held another citizenship in addition to his Egyptian citizenship. Don't the Christians have a right to be properly represented in parliament...? The same goes for the representation of the Copts in the unions and popular councils."[1]

Coptic leaders and journalists criticizing "Christian Zionism" or "Christianity in the West" are not a new phenomenon.[2] However, Patriarch Shinoda's statements concerning the inequality of Egypt's Copts, and his reference to "proper political representation" in particular, were very unusual.

The Copt weekly Watani recently ran an editorial criticizing the treatment of Christians in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world in general. In an article titled "The Emigration of Arab Christians - A Steady Hemorrhage," Watani editor Youssef Sidhom wrote: "… [There is a] contradiction between the official [Arab] stance on the citizenship rights accorded to all the sons and daughters of the same country, regardless of their religious identity, and the everyday practice whereby these rights are denied. Where citizens of 'the other religion' are concerned, the written laws, rules, and regulations which stipulate equal rights for all are at a total discord with reality that breeds a host of grievances and afflictions. The resentment towards the other religious identity casts gloomy shades on our region, and prevails on all levels, starting with the local and regional political, cultural, and media spheres, and extending to tint our interaction with global events. This deplorable state of affairs - openly discussed in private conversation - is intentionally ignored by the media and the political arena…"[3]

Christians in Saudi Arabia
In his article, Sidhom wrote of the reactions he had received to an article by Saudi Prince Talal bin Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Sa'ud, published in early 2002 in Watani (as well as in other papers identified with Christian communities across the Arab world, such as the Lebanese Al-Nahar). In the article, Prince Talal called upon Christians in the Arab world not to emigrate to the West. One response was sent to Al-Watani by an Egyptian who had returned from Saudi Arabia. He sought to stress the difference between what Prince Talal wrote and what reality was like:

"If the steady migration of Arab Christians from their homelands is ever to be stemmed, the real reasons that drive them away in the first instance should be revealed. The climate of inequality and continuous harassment that plagues their everyday lives is a well-known reality that can no longer be denied or cloaked in flowery rhetoric. I am an Egyptian who left Egypt in pursuit of a better livelihood. I worked in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE. Whereas I was welcomed and accepted by most of the people of these countries, I was met with bitter hate and fanaticism against anything or anybody Christian in Saudi Arabia. Saudi hate does not stop at harassing Christians and chasing them [even] outside the Saudi Kingdom at the least indication of their religious identity. It extends to adopting active policies to export the hate to all neighboring countries. I list here a few examples:"

  • "Saudi customs list of contraband material includes - in addition to drugs, liquor, pornographic material and the like - anything in the shape of the cross, even if only in decorative formations, as well as any Christian books, pictures, or publications."
  • "A Greek young man who went to Saudi Arabia for business was harassed at Jeddah airport by the customs official who pulled off a cross pendant he wore about his neck and threw it violently in the waste basket."
  • "A European woman married to a Palestinian Muslim carried in her luggage an icon of the Holy Virgin that had been given to her as a child by her grandmother. Her luggage was searched, the icon confiscated and thrown into the waste basket."
  • "A Christian who was walking in the street in Jeddah was stopped by the Mutawa'ah [the Muslim Religious Police] and asked why he was not at the mosque for afternoon prayers. Upon replying that he was Christian, the Mutawi' [policeman] cried out 'A'udhu Billah' [I seek Allah's protection!] and spat on the Christian's face."
  • "On a television programme that provides religious counseling [fatwa] a viewer asked the counseling Sheikh if he could travel to Egypt to hand an item he had in safekeeping over to a Christian friend's family. The Sheikh reprimanded the viewer for having a Christian friend in the first place - Muslims were not permitted to take Christian friends. He then went on to advise the viewer to keep the item in question for himself, since all possessions of kuffaar [non-believers] were the rightful property of Muslims."
  • "The same Sheikh was asked for advice by a Saudi student who was leaving to the U.S to study, and feared for his virtue. The Sheikh advised him to marry an American as soon as he arrived to the U.S., on condition that he would not have any babies by that 'wife,' then divorce her once his scholarship was over and he was ready to head back home."
  • "Anyone found in possession of a Bible or known to have met with others in Christian prayer meetings is arrested, questioned, and deported."[4]

Coptic Criticism of Egyptian Government's Remarks about State Department Report on Religious Freedom
In the previous issue of Watani, columnist Sameh Fawzi had criticized the Egyptian government press's quoting only the words of praise to Egypt from the 2002 U.S. State Department report on religious freedom in Egypt and disregarding the criticism that it included:

"The government press does not know that by employing this method it does damage to Egypt and presents its journalists as ignorant [people] who do not know English - or as who collaborate with the government in distorting the consciousness of the masses who do not have the opportunity to read these reports. As one who belongs to those who call for transparency, I present parts of the report that were not published in the government papers:"

"There is still governmental discrimination against non-Muslims. No Christian can hold the position of governor, university president, or faculty dean. [Only] a small number of Christians hold top police posts. The government pays the salaries of the Muslim imams, but not of Christian clerics. Al-Azhar University does not accept Christian students, even though it is funded by both Muslim and Christian taxpayers. The procedures for building a church are much more lengthy [than the procedures for building a mosque]… The security forces have prevented church construction even though building permits were obtained. The government has failed to take resolute stands or decisions against the violation of religious freedom by non-government or local elements."

"These are some of the things that were not mentioned in the government press, which praised the report and presented it as the government's character reference …"[5]


[1] Al-Hayat (London), October 20, 2002.

[2] For more on this issue, see Arab Christian Clergymen Against Western Christians, Jews, and Israel.

[3] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), January 29, 2002.

[4] Watani (Egypt), October 27, 2002. Sidhom's articles are published in Arabic and English in the international edition of Watani. The above translation is taken from the English version.

[5] Watani (Egypt), October 20, 2002. Cited in Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 22, 2002.