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March 12, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5675

Egyptian Columnist: Sectarianism In Egypt Marginalizes Christians In Their Homeland

March 12, 2014
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 5675

In a column in the official Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, Egyptian poet Ahmed 'Abd Al-Mu'ti Higazi claims that Christians in Egypt suffer widespread harassment that remains unaddressed by the authorities, and that they are frequently subjected to violence as a result of Muslim incitement. He states that the regime is complicit in anti-Christian violence because, instead of taking effective steps to protect them, it enables the use of a medieval tradition, namely local arbitration committees that are meant to reconcile between Christians and Muslims without the involvement of the court system. Higazi notes that these committees –which today comprise Muslim clerics and representatives of the Christian community and the security forces[1] –do not dispense justice since they tend to favor Muslims.

The following are excerpts from the article.[2]


Ahmed 'Abd Al-Mu'ti Higazi (Image: Al-Ahram, Egypt, December 29, 2009)

"We lie to ourselves when we deny the existence of a sectarianism problem in Egypt, because this problem has [in fact] grown worse in recent decades and has become a violent, charged crisis. We lie to ourselves by denying what is happening right before our eyes and erupting right beneath our feet. We do not look back until the commotion has died down and the arena is clear of the traces of the terrible event. Then we return to our affairs as if nothing happened, or as though it was just a commonplace event or a passing phenomenon that can be waved away with some prewritten statements, false hugs, and sappy smiles. When the events repeat themselves, we also repeat our responses and are [again] surprised, even though it is unsurprising, since we see that some of those who help put out the fire are the same ones who fan it! ...

"The same people who incite Muslims against Christians are those who head the arbitration committees meant to reconcile between two quarreling parties... Except that one party is a majority in the neighborhood or village, and the other party is a minority and must be oppressed somehow, since social relations in Egypt nowadays are not based on justice but rather on power. For several decades now, the prevailing atmosphere in Egypt has not been inclined towards the just, but towards the honorable. This is not honor stemming from historical leadership, unusual talent, rare courage, or costly sacrifice – but rather on the ability to trample and harm others. So... even if the majority is oppressive, it will always be right, and the minority's rights will be denied.

"For several decades, the prevailing atmosphere in Egypt has been akin to a jungle where might is right, and where one may do anything as long as one belongs to the powerful side. In this situation, any reckless boy can impose his will on the weak side and set fire in its midst if it becomes an obstacle. This, since this [boy] is not subject to the law but rather to tradition. What tradition? The same [arbitration] tradition that was common in the middle ages, before we had a state, civil laws, security personnel, courts, and judges.

"According to this tradition, we [Egyptians] are not one nation and is subject to the principle of [shared] nationality, to the constitution [we have just] formed for ourselves, and to the rules that apply to everyone. Rather [we are] two groups or two nations – a victorious one and a humiliated one; a Muslim majority and a minority of dhimmis [non-Muslims living under Muslim rule]. In this situation we are subordinate to rules inherited from the Mamluks and Ottomans.

"It is true that Christians no longer have to wear blue clothing [to distinguish them from Muslims] or pay the jizya tax, and unlike in the past they are allowed to ride horses and camels. But they are still forbidden from renovating their churches due to the Hatt-i humayun which is an Ottoman law enacted in 1856, when Egypt was a province of the Ottoman Empire. This law forbids Christians from building new churches, or renewing or renovating old ones, without the approval of the Sultan, who was [later] replaced by the president of the [Egyptian] republic.

"Thanks to the nationalist movement, Egypt was liberated from the Ottomans and the British and became an independent kingdom and later a civil republic whose constitution explicitly mentions complete freedom of practice. Yet Ottoman law still prevents Egyptian Christians from building their churches, while anyone who trades in the religion [of Islam] can get his hands on state land to build a mosque with four loudspeakers. This is considered a good deed [that will enable him] to join the ruling party and run in the elections without being subject to Ottoman or any other law.

"Even though Christianity has been present in Egypt since the first century CE and was the majority religion in Egypt for a thousand years, and is still the religion of millions of Egyptians, it is like an anonymous and forgotten legacy in our educational system. Coptic culture has no place in history curricula, the Coptic language has no place in language departments, and Copts themselves are banned or nearly banned from their homeland, the homeland of their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers. [This,] since the [public] atmosphere has transformed Egypt from one nation into two sects – a majority, some of whose members have a monopoly on the regime, and a minority with no hold on the regime. This atmosphere causes Christians to be marginalized after they achieved some of their rights in the first half of the previous century. [Since then,] Christians have lost their rights after losing their citizenship and returning [to their inferior status] as part of the culture that was spread by political Islam organizations and [later] adopted by the [Free] Officer Revolution regime in July 1952. This regime revived the ancient Mamluk regime with modern regalia, as though the Mamluks had returned from the Massacre of the Citadel[3] to take vengeance on the modern state that was established on top of the rubble of their departed state.

"As part of this new Mamluk regime we have lost our national unity, our democratic laws, our secular constitution, and our intellectual culture. We have returned – Muslims and dhimmis – to selling our votes for oil and sugar and for promises of reserved seats in paradise. It is only natural that there is no room for Christians among us, neither in this world or the next; it is natural that they have been subject [to harassment] since the 1970's – their churches destroyed, their homes burned, their stores plundered, and their sons and daughters kidnapped. The regime for its part conspires against them and does not defend them because it only defends itself, and there is no escaping a conspiracy between it and those who threaten it, meaning those who run the war against Christians.

"In this state Christians have no choice but to turn to the arbitration committees, which are a bizarre judicial body where the judges are their rivals, such as [clerics] Safwat Higazi, [Muhammad] Heweny and [Abu Ishaq] Hassan. The witnesses in these trials are security personnel, who are not part of these committees in order to enforce the rule of law but only to convince the Christians to leave. Does this solve the problem of sectarianism? No! On the contrary – [this problem] is only growing worse and blowing up [in our faces]. But is there hope to solve it? Yes, when we are rid of the medieval period with its outdated traditions, tyrannical regimes, and arbitration committees, and when we resume our modern awakening."

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 10, 2013.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 22, 2014.

[3] A massacre carried out against the Mamluks by Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali in 1811.

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