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'We are at a breaking point': Egyptian Christians speak out about violence and discrimination

Posted September 20

Difficulties for Egypt's Christian minority persist, with a recent New York Times story diving deep into the country's sectarian strife.

While the outlet quoted Imam Mahmoud Gomaa, a Muslim cleric appointed to keep the peace between Christians and Muslims in and around Minya, Egypt, as saying that everything is going well in the region, not everyone agrees.

Anba Makarios, a local bishop with the Coptic Orthodox Church, told The New York Times that Christians still face a difficult — and dangerous — situation in Minya, where attacks and assaults reportedly routinely unfold.

"We are at a breaking point," Makarios said. "People can’t put up with any more of this."

The faith leaders' comments come as Tawadros II, pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, is reportedly taking a more measured approach while trying to work with the Egyptian government to keep calm.

While Christian persecution in Egypt is certainly not a new phenomenon, problems for the religious minority reportedly ramped up after former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted and Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi was elected in 2012. That's when church attacks among other incidents intensified.

Later, the Copts ended up supporting Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — Egypt's current president — when he overthrew Morsi. While el-Sisi has taken some steps that have granted him favor with Christians, concern has abounded.

As the Economist noted, el-Sisi became the first Egyptian president to attend Christmas mass at a cathedral in Cairo, telling the audience, "We're all Egyptians." He returned there in 2016 and pledged to restore homes and houses of worship that had been destroyed.

Still, some are disenchanted, saying that attacks and assaults on Christians reportedly haven't ended, with the Times noting that houses have been burned and churches have been sprayed with graffiti.

Additionally, attacks have unfolded on the street. Consider that the Rev. Rafael Moussa, 46, was shot and killed in El Arish by a gunman while standing outside of a car repair shop in June — an act allegedly carried out by the Islamic State.

Another of the more widely covered incidents involved a 70-year-old Christian woman who was reportedly stripped and beaten by a mob after rumors spread that a Christian man and Muslim woman were having an affair.

It was reported at the time that the woman who was stripped and beaten was the mother of the Christian man. That man, according to a statement from Makarios, had reportedly told police about threats before the incident, but received no assistance from authorities, The Associated Press reported.

"No one did anything and the police took no pre-emptive or security measures in anticipation of the attacks," Makarios said. "We are not living in a jungle or a tribal society. It's incorrect for anyone to declare himself judge, police and ruler."

That was a breaking point for the community, Makarios told the Times, saying that officials didn't own up to the incident nor did they apologize. He's since been speaking out about the inequality.

Church construction, too, has also been a point of contention, with Christians claiming that the government hasn't allowed for permits to build new houses of worship — a dynamic that is possibly fueled by fears over potential protests by conservative Muslims, The Associated Press reported.

According to the Economist, there are 108,395 mosques in Egypt compared to only 2,869 churches. Around 40 percent of the population in Minya is Christian; that's higher and more concentrated than the 10 percent of the overall population in Egypt that is Christian, though that, too, is a significant proportion.

The Egyptian government recently passed a law outlining the rules churches must follow before constructing new houses of worship, with some citing fears that it could further curtail Christians' rights.

While some see the new regulations as problematic, others view them as a compromise. Under the law, Christians will need to apply to local authorities if they want to build a church; the resulting building will need to be "appropriate" in size to the size of the local Christian community.

But there are other controversial provisions, including the notion that officials will consider the "preservation of security and public order" in approving applications.

Other signs also point to ongoing tensions. In August, three dozen Egyptian Christians showed up in downtown Cairo to demand that they not be treated like second-class citizens, as the AP reported.

The U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for 2015 noted that, according to human rights groups, religious minorities "face significant threats of sectarian violence" in Egypt. The report also mentioned opposition to church construction as being of concern to U.S. officials.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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