Last Updated: Tue Nov 30, 2010 11:00 am (KSA) 08:00 am (GMT)

More than religious harmony at stake

Manal Abdul Aziz

It is the weakness of the State and its neglect of the law, which has started to be reflected in the behaviour of the public, Muslims and Copts alike.

They are taking the lead and enforce the law their own way.

One could easily come to this conclusion by following the growing tension that permeated the entire society before yesterday’s parliamentary elections.

Though this article is being written some days ahead of the polls, a major threat of violence and street conflicts will likely be experienced in different parts of the country on Election Day itself.

Some people might attribute these violent events to the fierce competition between candidates of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the opposition, mainly the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

I personally believe that the public is quite angry about the poor performance of the NDP Government and therefore inclined to express its fury whenever there is a chance.

Actually, the Copts also experience this general feeling of injustice, but because they are a minority they attribute it to discrimination and believe they are being specifically targeted by State authorities.

The Copts in general and those of the Orthodox Church in particular
are fully aware of the State’s weakness.

The Government seems to be busy with strengthening its political position to remain in power by sacrificing democracy, social stability and even the rule of law.

Therefore the Copts, backed by some external powers that keep accusing the Egyptian Government of adopting discriminatory policies against the Coptic minority, decided to force their will on the State in a different way.

Last week’s incident was just the latest example. Hundreds of Copts challenged the police, who stopped the construction of an unlicensed Church in the Omraneya area of Giza.

The media portrayed the event as an example of suppression
and injustice, while in fact it was just blackmail of the State of this
particularly sensitive time, when the whole world expects the Egyptian
Government to conduct transparent democratic elections.

The Orthodox Church requested a building permit for a service centre in Omraneya, and the Giza Governor approved the building plan some months ago.

However, while work was about to be completed, the Giza authorities found out that the building was being turned into a church. The Governor ordered the suspension of construction for violating
the permit.

Instead of debating the issue with the authorities, the clergymen asked local Christians to meet on the building site and finish the top floor at night.

The Governor called on police to enforce the suspension of construction until the dispute was settled.

Early on Wednesday morning, hundreds of young Copts headed to the Giza Governorate building in Haram Street and threw stones to express their opposition.

The clashes ended with one fatality and many injuries on both sides, including senior officers of the Giza Security Department.

A second seriously injured copt died later in hospital.

Some might excuse the Orthodox Church for using such tricks to overcome the administrative obstacles that hinder the building of more churches.

But the matter could be settled legally if the Government had referred the law on the construction of places of worship to the Parliament.

One could also excuse the Christian citizens for being misguided by their religious leaders over the building permit in an area with a relatively big Coptic population.

It is no secret that building violations, particularly on residential construction sites in arable areas, are more frequent during elections, as the authorities seem more lenient and don’t want to anger the public.

Generally speaking, no one should have the right to prevent people from having access to places of worship in their local area.

However, in a country where most of the population is concentrated
on one fifth of its total territory, land is precious and places of worship
should be carefully planned and co-ordinated, based on actual need, and not become an expression of power struggles.

Wanting to build more churches than needed is only one facet in the challenge the Orthodox Church seems to present to State and Muslim society.

Senior clergymen have made it a habit to lash out at Muslims; one even said they were mere guests in the country, in reference to the old claim that the Egyptian Christians are the original inhabitants of Egypt, and Muslims the offspring of Arab invaders.

Although Archbishop Bishoi’s statement created uproar, Pope Shenoda III, the top Coptic cleric, never criticised his close advisor
and assistant.

Another important example of the Coptic Church’s power over the State is the former’s insistence on dealing with the Christians as its subjects rather than as Egyptian citizens, who enjoy the same rights and duties as other Egyptians.

The only way to prevent the escalation of tension is to restore the power of the State and the rule of law over all citizens.

*Published in the EGYPTIAN GAZETTE on Nov. 29, 2010.

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