Coptic Christians in Egypt

by Maureen Fiedler

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About 30 Coptic Christians in Egypt were killed in clashes that involved both the Egyptian military and radical Muslims Oct. 9. This week on Interfaith Voices, I interviewed Thomas Farr, the Director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, about the plight of the Copts, who comprise about 10 percent of the Egyptian population.

According to Farr, this dispute is about far more than the Copts themselves. It involves the very future of religious freedom and democracy in Egypt.

Farr points out that the Copts, an ancient group that traces its lineage back to the apostolic age, are part of the large community of Eastern Orthodox churches, although a few Copts are Catholic.

In recent years, they have been seeking to repair or rebuild old churches, something requires political permission in Egypt. That was the focus of their peaceful demonstration when they were attacked by the Egyptian military, which used heavy vehicles to run some of them over.

Radical Muslims were also involved, but it’s important to know that Muslims in Egypt are quite mixed in their views. Many favor religious freedom and some joined with Christians in the Arab Spring demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Others are just beginning to consider how to fit Islam into the democratic state they want.

A few are very hard liners. Islam in Egypt is very mixed, even within the Muslim Brotherhood.

Farr makes the point -- an important point -- that religious freedom in a country like Egypt is the key to the future of democracy there. And the military in that country, perhaps too comfortable in its power role as a “transitional” government, needs to be pushed not to side with intolerant Egyptians (which it was doing in this case), but to give up power and help create the democracy that Egyptians say they want.

The United States, he says, should be encouraging a rapid transition to an electoral democracy.

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