By Ben Gilbert
Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million. And they say they're treated unfairly for decades by the majority Muslim population. Now they're demanding equal treatment in any new Egyptian government.
When the Coptic Christian Shahedin Church in Helwan province south of Cairo was burned down last month during a feud between Christians and Muslims, it set off a firestorm in Egypt's Coptic community. Egyptian newspaper publisher Youssef Sidhoum, a Coptic Christian, said the act was unprecedented.
"We have a long bitter history of attacking churches over last three decades , but never a church destroyed to the ground, and it triggered anger throughout Copts," Sidhoum said.
Copts blocked roads in Cairo and other cities. Then, clashes broke out in a poor suburb of the capital. Thirteen people died — mostly Christians – and dozens were wounded.
The protests spurred more Copts to stage a sit-in near the Egyptian State TV headquarters chanting, "This is the corrupt media." They claim the government-run media ignored, or distorted, their pleas for justice. A teacher named Wael Wadee-Ayer carried a cross, and said the army wasn't doing enough to protect Christians.
"The Muslims destroy our churches, and shoot our people, and the army was with them, shooting on our people," Ayer said. "We want the church rebuilt in the same place, and we also want to be full citizen[s], have the same rights, and we feel that we are in our country — we want a new constitution."
Article 2 of Egypt's constitution says the official state religion is Islam, and the laws will be guided by Sharia. But it also says all citizens should be treated fairly — though clearly they are not. Christians have a much harder time building or expanding a church than Muslims do a mosque. It's nearly impossible for a Muslim to convert to Christianity, but the state facilitates Christian converts to Islam. And, human rights groups say, Christians are underrepresented in government, police, the army and in regional councils.
Not all Egyptian Muslims agree with the current treatment of Coptic Christians. The same day as the protest at state television, a Coptic Priest and Muslim Cleric stood on stage together on Tahrir square. The cleric said "the Prophet Mohammad instructed Muslims to protect the Coptic community in Egypt."
The next day, the army said it would rebuild the church that had been burned. Officials also vowed to prosecute those responsible, although that hasn't happened yet. Newspaper publisher Youssef Sidhoum said the old regime ignored growing sectarian tensions for the past decade. And no one's ever been prosecuted for attacks on Copts or churches.
The government merely formed so-called "reconciliation councils" that laid equal blame on both sides. Sidhoum said this in essence forces the victim to accept the aggressor.
Sidhoum is concerned that the current timeline for parliamentary elections in Egypt will allow Islamists to get more than their fair share of power in a new government, and to create laws even more unfair to Copts.
But for now, he's ok with Article 2, which he said is part of his fellow Egyptian's "Muslim identity." What he really wants is for parliament to pass a law that makes building a church as easy as building a mosque.
Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Center for Personal Rights, said the sectarian tensions that flared up last month seem to have dissipated, for now. But having seen Muslims and Christians join together to bring down the former regime, he's optimistic his countrymen have more in common than the religious differences that divide them.
"Because it's not just about democratic government but also democratic society that respects religious freedoms, personal freedoms of all individuals," Bahgat said.