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No lights on the Coptic Christmas tree

2011 January 6
by Paul Vallely

It is Christmas today for Coptic Christians, who still work to the old Julian calendar. But it is not a time for celebration. The lights on their Christmas trees have been switched off in mourning for the 21 people who died when a church was bombed in Alexandria on New Year’s day. This is a worrying development, and not just in Egypt where 70,000 police and conscripts are guarding churches for Christmas mass.

Several weeks before the attack a website linked to Al-Qaeda published the addresses of Coptic churches it said should be attacked. The church in Alexandra was named, as were several in Holland, France and Britain. Alongside videos on how to build a bomb was the instruction to “blow up the churches while they are celebrating Christmas”.

The situation is complex as well as tense. Egypt’s ancient Christian minority, around 10 per cent of the population, feels neglected and oppressed. The violence is the worst for in a decade but tensions have been simmering – with disputes over church building, divorce and religious conversions – for three decades. Six Christians were killed last Christmas Eve. In recent months radicalised Islamists have been holding venomous weekly anti-Christian demonstrations. Christian youths have been protesting on the streets five nights.

The government, anxious not to offend the Muslim majority, has ignored, or colluded in, all this. To act as a counterweight to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood which is main political opposition to the autocratic regime of President Mubarak, the pro-Western Mubarak regime tacitly allowed the growth of a non-political Muslim groups known as the salafis, who imported Wahabi ideologies from the Arabian Peninsula.  But more extreme salafi elements have now made common cause with al-Qaida. The group which threatened the church in Alexandria has links with the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq faction which massacred 68 Christians in a church in Baghdad in October.

Disentangling religion and politics here will be a long and sophisticated process. Greater pluralism is needed in Egypt, but care must be taken in a country where, as with Iraq and Pakistan, democracy is tainted with tribal and sectarian loyalties. A shift towards civil institutions separated from religious ones is needed. The building of mosques and churches must be treated more even-handedly. The electoral system must give Copts more equal political representation. Above all Egyptian law must treat all citizens equally, regardless of religion. The present approach is not working.

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