After cathedral clash, Copts doubt future in Egypt
After cathedral clash, Copts doubt future in Egypt
By Ulf Laessing
CAIRO | Thu Apr 11, 2013
(Reuters) - When Egyptian Christian Kerollos Maher watched on television
as petrol bombs and rocks rained on Cairo's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral he
had only one thought - emigration.
"Egypt is no longer my country," said the 24-year-old construction
worker, standing in the courtyard of the country's largest cathedral
where one Copt and one Muslim died in sectarian clashes this week.
"The situation of Christians is worsening from day to day. I've given up
hope that things will improve," he said.
Christians, who make up a tenth of Egypt's 84 million people, have been
worrying about the rise of militant Islamists since the fall of
President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
But after days of fighting at the cathedral and a town outside Cairo
killing eight - the worst sectarian strife since Islamist President
Mohamed Mursi was elected in June - many Copts now question whether they
have a future in Egypt.
An angry young fringe of a community that has lived in Egypt since the
earliest days of Christianity may also be turning to violence.
"The attack on the cathedral was the crossing of a red line," said
Michael Sanouel, a 23-year old technician in a steel plant. Sanouel
rushed to the cathedral "to defend it" when he heard about the clashes
that lasted more than five hours.
"I have been looking for a while for a job abroad, in Italy or Germany,"
he said, standing next to a piece of charred wood from a tree hit by a
petrol bomb hurled over the compound wall.
"I have two children but I don't want them to grow up under a Muslim
Brotherhood regime," said Sanouel, who slept in the cathedral compound
like dozens of others after the clashes, ready to defend it if more
The trouble flared after a funeral on Sunday of four Copts shot dead
last week in the town of El Khusus, north of Cairo.
President Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies were quick to condemn
the sectarian violence, the latest turmoil to hit a post-Mubarak Egypt
beset by political and economic crisis.
Mursi said the cathedral attack was like an attack on himself but in a
rare rebuke, the Coptic Orthodox Pope, Tawadros II, said Christians were
tired of promises.
"The president assured us personally that he would do everything to
protect the cathedral... but in reality this was not the case," Tawadros
told a private TV station when he called in to a live talk show. "We
have seen enough committees being formed. We want action, not words."
Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic newspaper al-Watani said the pope,
elected in November, had chosen strong words because Christians inside
the cathedral felt police had abandoned them by withdrawing when the
"There is an absence of the state and the rule of law and the violence
at the cathedral proves that," he said.
Police had not stopped attackers throwing petrol bombs and firing
bird-shot from neighboring houses into the cathedral compound. Live TV
footage showed an almost motionless police cordon while clashes raged
for several hours.
The interior ministry said Christians started the trouble by torching
some cars after the funeral, angering neighbors, an account confirmed by
a Reuters reporter at the scene.
Copts have long complained of discrimination in the job market, before
the law and in getting permits to build churches.
Now they say they were better off under Mubarak, who used to jail
Islamists, although 23 people died in a bomb attack on a church in
Alexandria shortly before his overthrow. Many Copts believe Muslim
radicals want to eradicate Christianity, whose roots in Egypt predate
the Islamic era.
Some Copts were dismayed that Mursi did not attend the installation of
the new pope or Coptic Christmas ceremonies.
Samir Morcos was the president's only Christian aide until he resigned
in November when Mursi gave himself greater powers. "Some people want to
destroy our state," Morcos told Reuters. "The situation has become very
Christians acknowledge that some of their grievances such as access to
government jobs are shared by many Muslims struggling to make ends meet
in a country rife with corruption and poverty.
But some fear life for Copts will worsen as the Brotherhood extends its
control to a growing number of state institutions.
"We are in state of depression," said Father Metuas Nasr, a priest who
said he had abandoned his church outside Cairo after repeated attacks
from hardline Islamists. "The Brotherhood is now taking over all state
institutions. We don't have a (neutral) police anymore as you could see
at the clashes.
There is no official data but church officials say many Copts have left
the country since Mubarak's overthrow.
"I know so many people who have left or plan to go," said Peter
el-Naggar, a church activist and lawyer.
Western diplomats said that while their countries do not record the
religion of visa-seekers, anecdotal evidence suggests a high percentage
of those who had left since 2011 are Copts.
The most high-profile departure was billionaire Naguib Sawiris, who
settled in Europe after infuriating Muslims by tweeting a cartoon of
Mickey and Minnie Mouse in Islamic dress.
Compounding their misfortunes, some wealthier Egyptian Copts
traditionally deposited their savings across the Mediterranean in Cyprus
for safe-keeping, a senior diplomat said.
They may now face large losses since accounts with more than 100,000
euros in the island's two biggest banks will suffer a "haircut" to help
pay for bailing the country out.
The sectarian strife is a sharp contrast to the harmonious images of the
anti-Mubarak revolt in Cairo's Tahrir Square, when Copts formed
protective cordons around Muslims at prayer and Muslims brandished the
Koran and the Bible.
Many moderate and liberal Muslims attended the cathedral's funeral
service and others were quick to come the next day after to show their
solidarity and denounce Mursi and the Brotherhood.
"The attack is unacceptable to me," said Ahmed Sharif, a Muslim. "For
me, the Coptic Cathedral is a symbol of Egypt like al-Azhar," he said,
referring to the highest Muslim authority.
Sidhom, the Coptic editor, said that while some Christians might be
planning to leave the vast majority would stay to confront the
Brotherhood in upcoming parliamentary elections. "I am one of those who
want to stay and fight back," he said.
In last June's presidential poll, many Copts voted for Mubarak's last
premier, Ahmed Shafiq, who came a close second.
Many now hope moderate Muslims fed up with queues at fuel stations,
power cuts and a rise in crime will turn against the Brotherhood at the
polls, which could take place in October.
But their hopes could be dashed if the weak and fragmented opposition
fails to unite or sticks to threats of a boycott.
"I feel frustrated (with the liberal opposition)," Sidhom said. "I hope
that... they would wisely reconsider their position and take steps to
participate in the elections."
If the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Salafist parties gain the
upper hand, some church activists have few illusions that their youth
will also become more radical.
Some Copts are ready to resort to violence. A Reuters reporter saw two
young men with guns and a crate of petrol bombs on the roof of the
cathedral during the clashes.
A day after the clashes, the mood was still tense at the cathedral
compound which also houses a theological institute, a nuns' home and a
tailor for religious vestments.
Officials kept the doors closed - not just for protection but also to
stop angry young Copts arriving as rumors of more violence swirled around.
"We want to get in," shouted a group of young men, banging at the door.
Some showed cross tattoos on their hands but a guard told them: "Nobody
is allowed in today."
(Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Paul Taylor and David Stamp)