Sunday, November 28, 2010

Violence Against Egyptian Christians Raises Concerns

By Judith Sudilovsky
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Monday, November 29, 2010

JERUSALEM (CNS) — Episodes of violence in Egypt that left Christian houses and businesses burned and ransacked have raised concerns among Egypt's Christian community, said a Christian worker.

The Nov. 28 elections have been seen as a possible reason for the increased violence, said the Christian, who asked that his name not be used for his safety.

"The situation is confusing. At the same time, we will (soon) have elections, and many harmful activities are taking place. The government wants to reduce the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that is provoking some people to attack Christians," he told Catholic News Service.

Christians "have started to be worried. People feel something wrong in the air. They are taking more care, being more reserved, and avoiding contacts with Muslims," he said.

"It is not a very safe or healthy attitude toward each other," he added. "We want to overcome this. If it continues this way, it can be catastrophic."

Christians, mostly Orthodox, make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 83 million—predominantly Muslim —population.

In a Nov. 18 report published in Washington, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed concern that incitement to violence in Egyptian media and government-funded mosques is contributing to increasing sectarian tensions between Muslims and Christians in advance of parliamentary elections.

The Christian worker noted that there has been a governmental crackdown on the candidates of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood party, whose candidates now run on Independent tickets. Banning the Brotherhood has been seen as a pro-Christian move rather than as a political maneuver by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to maintain power.

"They don't understand the other aspect of the situation, which is that the government wants to maintain its power and does not want the Brotherhood to get into parliament. It is not a concern about Christians and Muslims, but something very egotistical (for the government)," the Christian worker said.

Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is the world's oldest and largest Islamic political group and is the largest opposition group in many Arab countries, including Egypt. An Islamist revivalist movement, it seeks to implement strict Islamic law as the sole rule of law. Though officially it opposes the use of violence to achieve its goals—except in specific instances, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the Egyptian government has accused the movement of several violent campaigns throughout the years.

The Christian worker noted that the attacks were reserved to a few specific villages in Upper Egypt, a region south of Cairo. According to the Christian victims, the perpetrators have come from outside their villages, he said, adding that sometimes the attacks were for nonreligious reasons such as tensions between a Muslim man and a Christian woman.

"Something activates the people from outside the village," the worker said. "There is not enough security. Kind of aggressive people are coming from outside the village. They are provoked by people and they come," to the villages where the Christians are.

He refused to discuss specifics, but said, "We hope it will not turn into something like it was in Baghdad."

He said that although relations between Christians and Muslims in the villages are "gentle," the al-Qaida siege of a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad—58 people were killed during the siege and attempted military rescue—has frightened the Christian community.

Egyptian Christian churches are currently under heavy police security, he added.

The large majority of Egyptian Muslims are opposed to the violent attacks against Christians, said the Christian worker. According to media reports, several Egyptian nongovernmental organizations have come out strongly against the most recent attack, Nov. 15.

Jason Belanger, country representative in Egypt for the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services, said the recent attacks are part of the ongoing underlying tension that already existed in Upper Egypt. He said that last January, seven Christians were killed as they left their church following the Orthodox Christmas liturgy. The incident was said to be in retaliation for the rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man.

"In Upper Egypt, you don't have the density of people (as in Cairo) and they don't have as much interaction with each other," said Belanger, noting that often other issues are involved in the conflicts. "There are land issues, water issues. There are a lot of grievances and resentment between people and they don't like to have interaction with each other. There is fighting over resources, and the religious issue is one aspect of it."

Belanger, who is based in Cairo, said he has been monitoring the situation closely but was unable to get firsthand information from several priests in Upper Egypt because they were "very uncomfortable" discussing the issue with him on the phone.

"Coptic Christians feel intimidated, like they are a minority and are made to feel like they are a minority, especially in Upper Egypt," said Belanger. "They go about (for) days living underground. Many times they do not feel comfortable leaving their homes."

The real challenge, he said, is to bring people together and build on their feelings of Egyptian national pride rather than on religious affiliation.

"Getting people to sit down and talk to each other—that is the very aspect of community work which needs to be focused on," he said.

In the past, CRS has worked with partner organizations on a micro-financing program that helped provide an opportunity for Muslim and Christian women to share their struggles and challenges, said Belanger.

He said CRS is in the process of coordinating with Caritas Egypt to cooperate on community development programs in Upper Egypt. These include literacy, health and micro-financing programs, as well as bringing together Christian and Muslim residents.

However, he said he believed more direct dialogue type of groups were needed to counter the violent attacks, and this idea was being discussed with the Egyptian branch of Caritas, the church's charitable agency.

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