Egypt confronts legacy of religious segregation

by John L. Allen Jr.

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tThe German-based relief organization “Aid to the Church in Need” is perhaps the most active, and reliable, international body tracking anti-Christian persecution around the world. Recently one of its officials, Roberto Simona, traveled to Egypt to assess the situation facing Christians after the fall of the Mubarak government.

The following is an NCR translation of excerpts from a piece Simona wrote for “Oasis”, a project founded by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, while he was still in Venice, designed to promote Muslim/Christian dialogue and to raise the visibility of the Christian churches of the Middle East.


tFor Christians, the situation produced by the revolution seems to offer a bit of breathing room. Finally, it’s possible to repair a church, or a school belonging to a religious congregation, without having to present an official request addressed to the Presidency of the Republic (which did everything in its power to impede the realization of any project, small or large, which came from a Christian environment.) Spaces have been reclaimed to create projects benefitting people with handicaps, or projects for workers with the aim of forming young people in the occupations demanded by the local market.

It’s important to take advantage of these margins of liberty created by the thawra (“revolution”), because with the upcoming elections this freedom of action could be tossed away.

Projects have also been created designed to invite Muslims to get to know their Christian fellow citizens, with the aim of curing the wound from which Egypt presently suffers: Religious segregation, rooted in a mentality absorbed from infancy, which sees the other only in terms of conversion or exclusion.

In this atmosphere, Christians and Muslims generally avoid one another and don’t trust one another. Christians are afraid above all of being absorbed by a conquering Islam, which reduces them to being second-class citizens. Often the religious authorities deny that Christians are persecuted, but if that’s true, how does one explain the presence of armed guards in front of the churches?

From when the revolution began, Christians have lived in constant fear due to numerous aggressions directed at them in the streets and the abuse of women. One has to admit that this fear is justified, but the collapse of Christians onto themselves is nonetheless dangerous.

Among the numerous challenges facing Egypt, Christians are called to become a community committed to a political project that favors the exercise of citizenship and that contributes to the transformation of the country. It’s a tough challenge, because from the beginning of modern Egypt, from Nasser to Mubarak, citizens have been accustomed to passivity and indifference with regard to a political system entirely controlled by those in power.

Today the thawra finally offers every citizen the possibility to get involved in political activity. Although Christians represent a minority which doesn’t quite reach ten percent of the total population of 80 million inhabitants, they need to show responsibility and imagination facing the threat of fundamentalist Muslim groups. These groups are attempting, with every possible kind of provocation, to confine Christian activity within the walls of the church, as happens in all the Islamic states.

The thawra has increased insecurity in urban neighborhoods and also criminality, of which the Christians are often the victims. But the thawra also constitutes a concrete opportunity to mobilize people in view of the upcoming elections. Dioceses are launching initiatives in this sense; above all, they’re forming leaders who have to make citizens aware of what’s at stake. But time is running out, and the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organized group in the country, certainly doesn’t want other groups to organize for this historic event – which ought to lead to real elections, in which the people can truly make their own choices and propose candidates of different orientations.

In a country in which women are often confined to the home, and in which the patriarchal system is deeply rooted in traditions that suffocate individual initiative – with rates of illiteracy and lack of schooling that reach 60 percent of the population, where the lone concern of the people usually is just to survive – the effort it takes simply to organize a meeting is often titanic. That situation notwithstanding, the church does well to continue in its duty of formation – not homogenization – of consciences, as the Bishop of Minieh recently recalled. This work has been underway for some time in villages and urban neighborhoods, with the aim of asking Christians, above all the young, to come together – to step out of the family circle, into activities and summer camps where they can reflect, debate and share ideas.

The impulse to close in on oneself, on one’s own religious identity and community membership, is as strong among Muslims as it is among Christians. This impulse manifests itself, for instance, in a high number of disabilities that result from marriages among blood relatives. One religious sister in Egypt, who’s worked with handicapped people for more than forty years, explained that these marriages among blood relatives have always been a means of self-preservation for Egypt’s small Catholic Coptic community, which is dispersed across the country.

A change of mentality and openness to the other – which does not mean denying one’s own faith – is the true revolution which Egypt needs.

This is what the church has been trying to promote for decades. According to the emeritus Bishop of Sohag, the church helped give rise to the revolution when it started to ask the faithful to reflect on what kind of society they wanted for their country. The thawra today affords Egyptians liberty of expression, something never before seen in the history of the Republic.

The Arab Spring will be a true thawra, a revolution, if all the currents and forces of the country adhere to the movement which was inaugurated in Tahir Square, by young people of all religious confessions, who were unwilling to renounce the ideals they discovered through the Internet and modern means of communication: the possibility of constructing their own lives, to make their own choices, to express themselves freely, to grow, to travel ...

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