Their Pope Dead, Egypt’s Copts Fear Worse Times

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Cairo

The death of Pope Shenouda, who led Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church for  40 years, has increased fears among Copts that they will face persecution  and discrimination as Islamic parties become more powerful.

Hundreds of thousands of mourners, many crying, packed the streets  around St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo Tuesday as they waited to file past  the body of Pope Shenouda dressed in ceremonial robes and sitting in the  papal chair. Ashraf, a 26-year-old blacksmith, standing beside the outer  wall of the Cathedral, said that “the very existence of Shenouda made us feel protected.”

A tired-looking woman, sitting on the edge of the  pavement and holding a child, who would not give her name, said “I wish I  could get in to see the body. Of course, I feel worse that our protector has  gone. God knows what is going to happen.”

Egypt’s Copts, estimated to number 10-12 million, complain that they are  treated as second class citizens and denied top jobs. They had hoped  that the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last year would reduce  discrimination, but they now fear that their condition may worsen as the  Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalist Salafi movement, which  together have 70 per cent of the seats in the newly elected parliament,   gain greater influence.

Pope Shenouda, who was 88 years old, was famous as a cautious Coptic  leader, all powerful within his community, who for four decades had dealt  with the Egyptian government. Born in Assiut in upper Egypt, he was  generally careful to give support to President Mubarak. He was briefly  stripped of his temporal powers by President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

His successor, to be chosen by a synod of bishops, is unlikely to  be  unable to exercise the same authority in defense of Egypt’s embattled  Christian minority. The bishops will choose three candidates whose names  are written down on pieces of paper and placed in a bag, but the final  choice is made by a blindfold boy who picks one of the names.

There have been a series of violent attacks on Copts and their churches  over the last year. In fighting between Copts and Muslims in the central  Cairo slum of Imbaba last year, 15 people were killed, 242 injured and the  Virgin Church burned out. A demonstration by Copts last October saw 27  people killed, many of them by a security vehicle driven at full tilt into the  crowd.

“In the last week alone we have had a school teacher in upper Egypt  sentenced to six years in prison for allegedly insulting the Prophet,” says  Ihab Aziz, president of the Coptic American Friendship Society who lives in  Cairo. “A priest was given six months for violating the building code. Copts  are being targeted and defamed without state action.”

Mr Aziz says that the number of Copts in Egypt is 15-16 million out of a  total Egyptian population of 85 million, but that the state has pretended  the number is smaller and has refused to release official census figures.  The opening of new churches without official permission has been a  constant source of friction and violence.

The Copts fear the fall of President Mubarak may open the door to the  imposition of Sharia law and to sectarian persecution. They fear that Egypt  will become more like Saudi Arabia and Sudan and they will share the fate  of the Iraqi Christians, many of whom have been forced to flee. Mr Aziz  says that Copts are asking “what benefits were there from this  revolution?” He adds that some 200,000 Egyptian Christians have sought  visas to the US in the last year as a first step to immigration.

Islamic parties have issued condolences over the death of Sheikh  Shenoudah, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.  But the Copts are suspicious that a new constitution will be more Islamic  than before.  Mounir Yehia, 54, an agricultural engineer who had been a  student of Pope Shenouda at the Coptic Divinity School, said “we have  been suffering in this country for the past 1,400 years, and not only last  year or the 30 years before that. The death of Pope Shenouda will have a  further negative effect on our lives and on Egypt in general.”

Other Egyptians are more optimistic. Marie Daniel, 41, a Coptic activist  whose sister Mina was killed in a demonstration last October, says “The  Islamists are exposed after coming to parliament and now the Egyptians  know the reality. I am not worried because Egyptians would not accept  any biased or discriminatory government either in parliament or the  presidency.”

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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