On Monday, American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton voiced concerns about religious freedom in Egypt. Reacting to Clinton’s statements, Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, stated; “Non-Muslims in Egypt receive equal rights to Muslims in terms of freedom of worship and public freedoms.” In fact many public figures seek to deny the existence of a sectarian problem at all. Yet since 27 July, clashes have been ongoing in Dahshour, a village in Giza. In a sadly familiar pattern and particularly reminiscent of the violence in al-Kosheh in 2000, a dispute between a Christian and a Muslim customer erupted into wide-scale violence between Muslims and Christians. Some media reports claim that at least 100 Coptic Christian families have now fled in fear after the dispute escalated to an attack on Christian homes, businesses and places of worship. So far one person has died in the fighting.
Since Egypt’s uprising in January 2011, there has been a clear surge in attacks on Christians and churches. In most cases the police have failed to intervene until violence has already taken hold. In the burning down of two churches in Imbaba in May 2011, 15 people died. In a report prepared by the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights, it was recorded that security services stood by as the attack began. Also the idea of pushing Copts out of their homes is one that appears to have become acceptable. After a dispute involving a Christian family and a Muslim family in Amriya earlier this year, a ‘reconciliation meeting’ was held. The decision of the meeting was that the Christian family should leave the town.
Such reconciliation meetings had become the norm, with both former president Mubarak and the late head of the Coptic Orthodox Church Pope Shenouda III, relying on them to halt a given violent incident. The meetings bypassed the use of the legal system and so there has been a failure to thoroughly examine sectarian violence or to provide either justice or accountability. In fact there was a preference not only to use such meetings to avoid discussing the sectarian problem but also to underline the argument that there is no sectarianism at all.
Yet it seems that the failure of the police and the government to be seen to intervene gives free licence to those who would provoke violence against Egypt’s Christians. Christians already had heightened concerns about their status and security due to the increase in attacks on their community and to the victory of Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, in the presidential election in June 2012.
The rule of law must be exercised decisively to show that such violence and sectarian thinking are not tolerated in Egyptian law or society. This post-uprising phase affords Egypt the opportunity to address sectarianism seriously and develop new approaches to meeting the needs of all its citizens and taking a firm stance against religious discrimination. The ability of the government to do this will be a key indicator for the success of the transition to an inclusive and democratic society that seeks to implement social justice for all Egyptians.
Below is a copy of the Coptic Church’s statement on the Dahshour incident: