Egyptian Government Official in Charge of Muslim-Christian Peace says, ‘Everything Is Good’, but Christians say They Feel Besieged

A Mass for Coptic Christians in Ismailia, Egypt, on July 24 at the site of a chapel that was burned during clashes in the city. (Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
A Mass for Coptic Christians in Ismailia, Egypt, on July 24 at the site of a chapel that was burned during clashes in the city. (Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

The Egyptian government has appointed Imam Mahmoud Gomaa, a Muslim cleric, to keep the peace between Christians and Muslims in this corner of upper Egypt. “Everything is good,” he insisted in an interview, citing Christian participation in his official peace-building initiative.

But just a few hours later, the local bishop, Makarios, offered a very different view. “I have nothing to do with Mahmoud Gomaa,” he said.

Once again, Egyptian Christians are feeling under siege, at least in Minya, a city on the banks of the Nile where about 40 percent of the population is Christian. And once again, Christian leaders are divided over how to respond.

At the highest levels of the Coptic Orthodox Church, there is an effort to not make waves and to work with the central government to present an image of unity and calm. After a series of attacks on Copts this summer, the Coptic pope, Tawadros II, pleaded with his followers in the United States not to go ahead with planned demonstrations outside the White House intended to bring international attention to the violence.

“Please, for Christ’s sake, avoid this behavior,” he said.

But in Minya, where violence against Christians often flares, local Coptic leaders are reluctant to go along.

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

Egypt’s Christian community, an estimated 10 percent of the population, has long had a symbiotic relationship with the state. The government provided security in an increasingly hostile environment, and the Christian leadership helped present a face of tolerance and religious freedom to the West.

That compact frayed badly in the waning years of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency and seemed to come undone altogether after he was toppled from power and an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was elected. Attacks on churches, led by Islamist youths, surged.

So when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general turned president, ousted Mr. Morsi in 2013, the Coptic Church was among his staunchest supporters. When Mr. Sisi attended Coptic Christmas services in January 2015, he was cheered enthusiastically as the first Egyptian leader to do so.

Yet the limits of that support have became evident in Minya, where Christians continue to suffer violence and humiliation. Houses have been burned, Copts attacked on the streets and hate graffiti written on the walls of some churches. In all, Coptic officials have counted 37 attacks in the past three years, not including some 300 others right after Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were ousted from power in 2013.

The turning point for local Copts came in May when an older Christian woman was stripped naked by a mob, which had been incited by reports that the woman’s son was having an affair with a Muslim.

“After that woman was stripped, we couldn’t be quiet, not after that,” Bishop Makarios said. What especially angered Copts, he added, “is that officials came out denying the incident.”

“Had they apologized or said they would follow it up, it would be different, but this was an insult to Egypt and the women of Egypt,” he said.

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SOURCE: The New York Times