February 28, 2006 No.

Tunisian Reformist Researcher on Discrimination Against Christians in Egypt

Reformist Tunisian researcher Dr. Amel Grami from Manouba University in Tunis is a member of a joint international Muslim-Christian research group. She has published books on various Islamic topics such as freedom of faith in Islam and riddah (relinquishing the Muslim faith) in Islamic thought, as well as many articles in Arabic, French and Italian on reform in Islam, the status of women, and dialogue between Christianity and Islam.

In November 2005, she participated in a conference held in Washington, D.C. for advancing the rights of Copts in Egypt; the conference was also attended by other reformists and human rights activists from across the Arab and Muslim world.

At the conference, she presented a paper which included criticism of the persecution of the Christian Coptic population in Egypt and suggested ways of dealing with the issue. [1]

The following are excerpts:

"A Country's Policy of Discrimination is One of the Most Central Factors in Harming Those of a Different Faith"

"Anyone who examines the persecution, the exclusion, and the marginalization that the Copts have suffered in recent years will find that the rejection of the other who belongs to a different religion has taken many forms - such as revulsion, contempt, defamation, curses, and public difficulty in tolerating the existence of the other. In some cases, the situation has reached the point of revoking the other's right to freedom, to expression, and to existence, and has even [led] to his elimination.

"It is clear that a country's policy of discrimination is one of the most central factors in harming those of a different faith... Whoever follows the words of the senior [Egyptian] officials discovers that they ceaselessly boast about the rules [set out in Koran 9:29] that oblige the ahl al-dhimma to pay jizya [poll tax] 'with willing submission,' and that they never stop praising the contracts that restrict non-Muslims in the areas of housing, external appearance, performance of their religious rituals, and upkeep of their houses of worship. It is no wonder, then, that the laws setting out worship continue to be handled as was customary hundreds of years ago, and that they differentiate between the rights of the 'majority' and the rights of the 'minority'...

"The state's insistence that the construction, renovation, and decoration of churches are activities that require a [government] permit means that the state is incapable of accepting the changes of history and modern culture - including [the principle of] respecting the citizen's right to choose his faith and to worship... It seems that the decision to prevent [free worship] reflects nothing but the desire of the 'majority' to be prominent at the expense of the 'minority' - which is forced to reduce its presence if [this presence] worries, embarrasses, or intimidates [the majority]...

"Accordingly... [the reality in Egypt is] that there are very few churches but many mosques; [Christian] houses of worship tend to be ramshackle, with dim lights and faded colors, in contrast to the lofty mosques that [are built to] seem ever-enduring, since 'Islam,' after all, 'is supreme over others and others are not supreme over it.' Thus, the state controls the physical symbols that express religious identity... The Copts' demand that the state enable them to establish and maintain churches is received [by the Egyptian public] as proof of their desire to compete with the Muslims... [as if] these are pesky demands aimed only at embarrassing members of the regime...

"[But] in a country in which there are monasteries, and in which the voice of the muezzin reverberates along with the sound of the bell calling to prayer, one cannot brandish the motto 'Islam is the solution' or call for the return of the 'Islamic caliphate' - and it is inconceivable for the constitution to set out that the state is Islamic."

"Harassment Has Increased and the Discrimination Between Muslims and Christians has Gotten Worse"

"The second example of the violation of the Copts' religions rights is manifested in religious coercion, that is, in pushing women, particularly underage girls, to convert to Islam under pressure... In this framework, there are cases of young girls abducted and forced to convert to Islam...

"The [Egyptian] state favors one group at the expense of the other, and its various apparatuses have become entangled in acts of violence... Egypt has not managed to be objective [regarding all its citizens], and, like the other Arab countries, it has failed to secure the sovereignty of law and the implementation of social agreement among all [elements of its society]. This is because, in the eyes of the politicians and the decision makers, governing means repression, coercion, and punishment of those who do not obey. This is a clear violation of one of the most important articles of the Human Rights Convention...

"It appears that the state does not recognize an individual's right to enjoy religious freedom that includes not only the right to choose a faith and a religion, but also the right to change his religion - or not to believe at all. Conversion to Islam cannot be by violence, since faith cannot be induced through compulsion and coercion... The state's intervention in the question of faith is proof of its responsibility - whether conscious or unconscious - for spreading [the accusation] of abandoning Islam [riddah, the penalty for which is death]... This means that the expropriation of religious freedom and the persecution and elimination of anyone who is different apply not only to the Copts, but also to Muslims who have a different view of the religion, or who seek to adopt another religion..."

"State Institutions Employ a Policy of 'the Visible and the Hidden'"

"Today, the 'majority' allows an individual who believes in a different religion to have a place in society, but [only] while reminding him that his value is not equal to that of a Muslim, and while constantly giving him the feeling that he is not a useful element [in society] and that he lacks the necessary qualifications. As we know, the required qualifications are not scientific qualifications, but religious ones. [Even] if the official [i.e. state] discourse claims that this is not the case, how [else] can we explain [the fact that] the Copts are being distanced from decision-making posts? And what does it mean when a state does not permit a Copt to hold a high position in society?...

"The various state institutions employ a policy of 'the visible and the hidden.' Publicly, they imply that the state does not reject the Copts - that it condemns their persecution and never stops submitting important recommendations to all apparatuses on how to handle the crisis wisely. And indeed, in recent years the media has highlighted some [Coptic] history that in the past had been marginalized. Various works of art have stressed the coexistence that once prevailed between Muslims and Christians, and the scope of the Copts' contribution to the national struggle has been revealed. The number of encounters between Pope Shenouda III... and the official Islamic establishment represented by the sheikh of Al-Azhar has doubled, and political statements have multiplied regarding the fraternal relations that prevail between the members of both religions, and regarding the realization of national unity in Egypt.

"But anyone who follows the events and the facts of daily life has noticed what the official discourse hides. Harassment has increased and the discrimination between Muslims and Christians has gotten worse... The state has not lifted a finger [to stop] the escalation in the discourse of the extremists, who support the Islamist movements and control the various institutions - particularly the media institutions..."

"A Not Inconsiderable Number of Copts... Would Rather Submit to the Powerful Regime Than Fight it"

"Whether the Copts admit that they are being persecuted, deny it, or downplay the importance of the attacks against them, there is no doubt that fundamental human rights are being violated in Egypt and in other Arab countries, just as persecution of 'minorities' is a fact of life that cannot be denied - even if some Copts claim that they are satisfied with their situation and that they are against 'escalating [the struggle].' But isn't [their very] insistence on concealing the religious discrimination [against them] a sign of the restrictions and pressure that they are subject to, and [a sign of] the threats that they receive so that they will not reveal this local secret? Isn't the downplaying of the incidents in which churches were looted and destroyed, and Christian blood was spilled, evidence of the siege against 'the minority?'

"Feebleness, fear, and a sense of oppression and helplessness have infiltrated the souls of a not inconsiderable number of Copts, and they would rather remain silent than reveal the secret. They would rather submit to the powerful regime than fight it. This oppression has led them to accept the deeds of the ruling class, and to submit to the reality that is accepted as 'natural' in the society of the majority...

"The Copts are divided in opinion not [only] with regard to the appropriate time to deal with this matter, but also with regard to the [appropriate] way of defending [themselves],... and with regard to terminology: Is it permissible to talk of 'persecution,' 'discrimination,' and 'violation [of rights],' or is it necessary to use expressions like 'being ignored' and 'neglected' by the state, or '[the state] turns a blind eye?' Similarly, they disagree on the methods of struggle against discrimination... and whether the issue of the Copts should be presented as a problem of a 'minority that is persecuted and besieged' or else considered within the broader framework of the lack of democracy in Egypt and the violation of fundamental human rights?..."

"Defense of Religious Freedom Cannot Be Isolated From Defense of the Rest of the Fundamental Freedoms"

"Defense of religious freedom cannot be isolated from defense of the rest of the fundamental freedoms. It is important that every person in society, regardless of gender, color, race, and religion, enjoy the rights he deserves - such as the right to freedom, to respect, and to protection of his physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing... The common denominator that must unite all levels of society is citizenship. Some of the backbones of citizenship are: equality in rights and obligations, and equality of all before the law... [Likewise,] one of the merits of the democratic state is that it does not consider people according to their faith, and does not assess them according to their affiliation with one religion or another, or according to their piousness. The goal that the state must pursue is for the individual to be capable of playing an active role in society while maintaining mutual constructive relations with others..."

Suggestions for Solving the Problem of Discrimination Against Christians in Egypt

In summary, Dr. Grami stated: "Global and local circumstances no longer allow the situation to continue as it is... and even though some elements have objected to raising the Coptic issue at the present time, public debate on this most sensitive Egyptian issue cannot be put off any longer."

Dr. Grami added that there is already public discourse regarding a number of practical solutions to the problem, and enumerated some of them: "Building a truly democratic government in which rule of law will prevail instead of tribal rule, in which national and human affiliation will replace the focus on religious affiliation, with a separation between religion and state; changing the constitution and the laws so that they guarantee full equality for all...; implementing social justice by providing work opportunities and through [fair] distribution of resources among all [citizens]...; encouraging modern education... and curricula capable of developing a critical sense...; ending the hegemony of the religious establishment in all areas of life...; opposing the extremist religious movements that carry out acts of coercion and violence and do not respect freedom of religion; discarding the criteria of religious affiliation in order to establish a collective awareness that can unite the efforts of all in the service of the homeland... ; and reexamining the foundations for the operation of the media... The media establishment must spread the values of modernity and reflect the wealth of the cultural system..."

[1] This is the second report in MEMRI's recently launched project: North African Reformist Thinkers. For more, see the first report of the series: "French Moroccan Progressive Author on 'The New Islamic Thinkers,'" French Moroccan Progressive Author on ‘The New Islamic Thinkers’.