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Although Christians and Muslims joined in protests against Mubarak, shown here in Cairo's Tahrir Square this past February, violence against the Copts escalated soon after the regime fell. (Alfred Yaghobzadeh)

A New Crisis for Egypt's Copts

The toppling of Egypt's government has led to a renewal of violence against the nation's Christian minority

Christian leaders are understandably divided over Egypt’s incipient democratic process. Some fear it will open the way for further discrimination against Copts; others say that it will encourage Islamists to moderate their views. There is similar disagreement about the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Christians cheered the rapid reconstruction of the three burned churches in Cairo and Sol. “They really fulfilled this commitment graciously,” Youssef Sidhom told me. And the military government has advocated a Unified Law for Places of Worship, which would remove strictures that make building a church in Egypt nearly impossible. But Sidhom says that some members of the council have cozied up to Islamic fundamentalists and the justice system has fallen short. The Copt whose ear was severed was persuaded by local government officials to drop the case. And none of those who destroyed the church in Sol have been arrested.

Sheik Mahmoud Yusuf Beheiri, 60, a Muslim community leader who lives a few blocks from the Church of St. Mina and St. George in Sol, defended the decision not to pursue the culprits, saying that doing so “would create even more hatred between people. Also, the number was so big that this would not be practical. Also, they were just crazy youth.” Beheiri told me he had sheltered some two dozen Christians whose homes were being looted, adding that he hoped he had set an example in the town. “Religious figures have a big role now,” he said. “Sheiks have to educate their youth, priests have to educate their youth, on how relationships between Muslims and Christians should be. This is the best way to prevent this from happening again.”

Down the street, in his airless office at the church, Father Basili Saad Basilios, 44, who is St. Mina and St. George’s priest, sounded less optimistic. The church burning, he said, wasn’t the first act of violence against Christians in the town. In 2000, the Copt who founded the church was shot by Muslim attackers; his murder was never solved. “If it were an isolated case, I wouldn’t have had Pampers full of excrement thrown at me on the street,” he told me. Still, he said he would “turn the other cheek” and carry on. Basilios’s predecessor as head priest couldn’t muster the same resolve. The day after the church was burned, Basilios said, he fled to Cairo, vowing never to return.

Joshua Hammer is based in Berlin. Photographer Alfred Yaghobzadeh is working on a project documenting the Copts.

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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