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Sectarian tensions are somebody's fault
Sectarian tensions are somebody's fault
On Orthodox Christmas day, six Copts were killed while coming out of churches in Nagaa Hammadi. The horrific crime, committed by three Egyptian Muslims, is a wakeup call. It should alert us all to the dangers of growing sectarian tensions in this country and to the horror that sectarian hatred can reap.
Friday, February 26,2010 21:31
by Amr Hamzawy Carnegie Endowment
 The past few years saw a steady rise in the rate of incidents and sectarian confrontations in Egypt. According to Egyptian human rights centres, two sectarian incidents happen on average every month.
 
The sorry mix of legal and bureaucratic restrictions on the building and maintenance of churches, restrictions that violate religious freedom, is one reason for our sectarian troubles, but it is not the only one. Private satellite stations have also done much to encourage sectarian hatred. As social tensions grow, the values of civil citizenry diminish and extremism grows stronger.
 
Often, television broadcasts are used to spread pathetic rumours about sectarian grievances, real and imagined. Lurid stories of rape and illicit sexual relations, of abduction and forced conversions, are blown out of proportion as Muslims are blamed for hurting Christians and Christians are vilified for returning the disfavour.
 
The state is a major culprit in this messy scene. The government may have enacted a barrage of constitutional and legal reforms aimed to ensure religious freedom in recent years, but it hasn't gone far enough. We still have laws that discriminate among Egyptians according to their religious affiliation. We still have laws that hinder the building and maintenance of churches. And we still have laws that interfere with the right to change one's religion.
 
Add to this the fact that some official administrative agencies -- especially in the countryside -- think nothing of discriminating against Coptic citizens. Other government departments often fail to prosecute the perpetrators of sectarian violence with the full force of law. Instead, they rely on partial measures and improvised solutions to counter acts of intolerance.
 
So far, we have not come out with a comprehensive political programme aimed to increase the ratio of Christian representation in legislative bodies to an acceptable level, a level that reflects their actual presence in the country. Instead of addressing such serious matters, the government does little apart from regurgitating the same babble about civil citizenry.
 
The government keeps telling us that this country has a cohesive national fabric and an unassailable history of national unity. It keeps singing the praises of the unity of "the two elements of the nation". And on occasion it parades Muslim and Christian clerics together, to show us that everything is under control. Often such shows of religious coexistence are mounted right after a horrendous sectarian attack has been committed.
 
The government does not seem concerned or alarmed at the failure of its strategies or the loss of its credibility amongst most citizens. And yet, the state is not the only one to blame. In this country, the general public has been reluctant to rein in sectarian tensions. Social passiveness, flawed legislation and a hesitant government have all contributed to the current situation.
 
With the exception of human rights groups, many civil and religion organisations follow the same path taken by the government, thus failing to react firmly to sectarian violence and restraining themselves to verbal disapproval. One cannot see much of an attempt in this country to end discrimination against Copts or establish full equality amongst all citizens in religious matters.
 
Then there is a deplorable tendency, across the sectarian divide, to place religious affiliation above the bonds of citizenry. It is through this narrow perspective that people regard others, whether Muslims or Christians, in an exclusivist manner. It is through this flawed viewpoint that people turn their back on their fellow citizens and desire to live in a place of religious "purity".
 
It is this phenomenon that empties civil citizenry of all meaning. It is such conduct that undermines our tradition of religious tolerance and coexistence. It is this quest for religious purity, which started in the 1970s and continued through the efforts of various religious and educational groups, that is scuttling our boat. Our trouble emanates from an indecisive state, an incendiary media, and a failure of civil institutions to stand up for the equal rights of all. Under such circumstances, sectarian violence finds justification and religious hatred finds a cause.
 
The tendency for exclusion and the quest for religious purity are no longer confined to certain sectors of Muslims in this country. Even the Copts are now catching on. And yet it is the Muslim majority that is primarily responsible for intolerance, simply because it is within the power of this majority to break the vicious circle of inequity.
 
Like other religious and ethnic minorities everywhere, the Copts have a stake in national unity. The Copts have a desire to coexist with the Muslim majority, simply because this is their best guarantee for peace and stability. When the Copts retreat inside their shell, it is only in reaction to signs of intolerance around them.
 
To break the cycle, the Muslims need to revive the country's old tradition of enlightened civil and religious rights. The Muslims need to encourage civil society, educational organisations and the media to stay on track. What we have now is a societal environment in which sectarian exclusion and tensions have become the norm. Unless we want the Copts to live in fear or leave the country, we need to change things.
 
We cannot afford to remain passive about sectarian tensions, nor can we afford to alienate and exclude people on the basis of their religious affiliation. This country is not about religious "purity". It is about the good old slogan of "religion is for God and country is for all".
 
tags: Sectarian Tensions / Orthodox / Copts / Egyptian Muslims / Egyptian Human Rights / Christians / Churches
Posted in Copts  
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