Securing Peace for Christians in Egypt on Coptic Easter
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(NOTICE) Different Christian denominations in Egypt celebrate Easter on different dates in April. For each of them, it’s a season of sober reflection and joyous celebration. It’s a time of prayer, worship and praise – albeit in markedly different styles – as they commemorate the life-giving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This year, Egyptian Christians boldly attended their churches and cathedrals, despite the looming threat to such a fundamental exercise of religious freedom. Most of the larger churches and cathedrals had armed guards in case of attack by Islamic extremists. This line of defense is not new, and when there have been attacks, it does not go further in mitigating human losses.
Egyptian Christians are courageous, determined, resilient and faithful in the face of threats of repression, hatred and persecution. They not only have Christ as their greatest example, but also a founder in St. Mark the Evangelist, who according to church traditions was brutally martyred by pagans on Easter in April 68 AD. After the martyrdom of the evangelical writer, dozens followed him. in this way for nearly 2,000 years. It is with good reason that the Egyptian church is known as “the church of the martyrs”.
However, with this bold spirit and cultivation of faith, it would be understandable if there was some trepidation as Egyptian Christians contemplated their gatherings as congregations at Easter. It marked the fifth anniversary of the twin suicide bombings that targeted St. George’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Tanta and St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo on Palm Sunday 2017. More than 70 people were killed in the attacks.
In that month alone, a Coptic priest, Father Arsanios Wadeed, was stabbed to death in Alexandria while taking his group of young people on an excursion. Father Wadeed had suffered violent threats at various times during his ministry. Also this month, a Christian woman was kidnapped and forced by her captors to change her religion to Islam and go public with her forced conversion on social media. Amid public outrage, authorities managed to secure his release and return to his family just over a week after his abduction, a welcome result but far too rare for incidents like this.
Egypt is a country of contrasts when it comes to all kinds of human rights, including religious freedom. Despite recent acts of savage inhumanity, many Christians would say this is the freest and most peaceful time they have known. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi presents himself as a defender of the Christian community, which represents around 10% of the population. He made startling statements without any apparent pressure to do so. In October last year he said: “If someone tells me that he or she is not a Muslim, Christian or Jew or that he or she does not believe in religion, I will tell him: ‘You are free to choose.’ It’s hard to overstate the power and controversy of such a statement.
In March, el-Sisi gave a speech at the opening of a housing estate with another comment likely to anger hardliners and hope for less skeptical Christians. Regarding his urbanization program, el-Sisi ordered: “Where there is a mosque…there must also be a church”. Since the passage of a 2016 law on the construction and restoration of churches, more than 2,400 approvals have been granted out of the 3,730 that have been requested.
Despite these positive developments, there remain problematic laws, such as article 98/f of the penal code, which prohibits the “defamation of religions”. It’s another example of the region’s amorphous blasphemy laws – vague enough to be used at will as a stick to beat up minority religious groups. Another example is the ban on Baha’is, which has no place in a civilized society. Peaceful religions should be allowed and allowed to exercise their beliefs freely.
However, many of the most acute challenges and most deplorable violations of religious freedom emanate not from the national government but from local authorities and communities. Even the most progressive proclamations from the top of government are of limited value if these sentiments do not trickle down to those charged with implementing policy and enforcing the law.
If the president is serious about advancing human rights in Egypt, smart programs focused on education and influence must be rolled out. Ensuring robust religious freedom, or equal free exercise, is not just a humane way to treat its citizens – it contributes to thriving societies with more stability and security.
Civil servants, law enforcement officers and other key actors in every governorate of Egypt need to be trained to understand the benefits for all citizens. The imams and ministers who oversee all religious communities in Egypt should be supported so that they are well equipped to dispel concerns about the religious implications of freedom. And schools should be equipped with programs that will ensure more peaceful and civil communities for future generations. This is no small business, but these are the actions needed if there is a genuine desire to achieve change. Egypt is one of the great nations of the world, and it is at a point in its history where it can envision a more dignified, fairer and safer future for all of its citizens.
As Egyptian Christians journeyed to their Easter services, they continued to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors – and their saviour. They trust God. They are not afraid. They endure all hardship and suffering with dignity, and by faith and in God-given strength they will prevail. But Egypt must redouble its efforts to defend its children. He can seize a better future of peace and justice for all if the will is there.
Miles PJ Windsor is Senior Director of Strategy and Campaigns with the Middle East Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute. Miles has over a decade of experience in international affairs and religious freedom, focusing during that time on the Middle East and North Africa.