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Persecution forcing Christians out of Egypt

Christians in the Middle East: further sectarian protests in Egypt and fears of mass emigration by Coptic Christians from the country.

report by Just Journalism

Copts in EgyptEGYPTIAN
daily Al Masry Al Youm reports extensively on sectarian tensions in Egypt, while increased fears of mass Christian emigration from the country receive coverage in the British media.

Recent reports appeared in the Egyptian press that Governor Emad Mikhail, of the Qena Governorate in Egypt, was standing down following days of protest since his appointment on Friday. These protests were predominantly sectarian in nature, as Mikhail is a Christian and protesters objected to being ruled by a non-Muslim. A media round-up in today’s Al Masry Al Youm, an Egyptian daily, suggests that he has indeed now resigned.

Mass protests by Muslims in Qena threatened to paralyse the town, with demonstrators occupying government buildings and blocking railroads. Protesters had refused to end their demonstrations until the Christian governor was removed. An Associated Press article appearing in Haaretz yesterday described the motivation of the protesters, who were ‘insisting the new governor won’t properly implement Islamic law.’ The article also quotes local resident Wafy Nasr on wider sectarian tensions in Qena:

‘tensions were so high that the local Christian residents had to stay inside and couldn’t go to church to celebrate Palm Sunday.’

The intensity of the protests in Qena today provoked the British Foreign Office to change its travel advice on Egypt, stating that it advises against ‘all but essential travel’ to Qena:

‘There have been protests, some violent, in the southern Egyptian city of Qena and its surrounding districts.’

Another article, also appearing in Al Masry Al Youm, suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups were organising forces behind the protests:

‘Since Friday, Qena has been the scene of widespread demonstrations, organized by Salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, protesting the selection of a Christian governor.’

These sectarian protests come at a time of increased tensions for Christians in Egypt. Today news has emerged of further violence between the Muslim majority and the Coptic minority. Following the erection of a speed bump outside the home of a Coptic homeowner, which was objected to by a local Muslim family, the ensuing gun-fight left two people dead and two others injured. Al Masry Al Youm reports that:

‘The clashes renewed as both families attended the funeral of the victims. Dozens smashed Christian-owned stores, and four Christian houses at the nearby Fekriya village were set on fire, covering the village with pillows of smoke.’

Alongside this, there are also increasing reports of high numbers of Coptic Christians applying to leave Egypt, based on fears of increased sectarian strife and the growing power of hard-line Islamism in the country. Al Masry Al Youm’s ‘Fearing Islamists and chaos, some Christians opt to flee’, by Alastair Beach, explains:

‘Since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in February, many Coptic Christians have begun making plans to leave the country, fearing instability and the rising power of Islamist political groups.’

Beach reports that lawyers who specialise in working with Coptic Christians have received ‘hundreds’ of calls from Copts wanting to leave Egypt. Naguib Gabriel, a Coptic lawyer and head of the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights, has said that his office is receiving ‘at least 70 calls per week from people wanting to know how they can emigrate’. Gabriel says that people want to leave as ‘the risks of staying here are too great’. He continued:

‘We’re at a crossroads… Many Christians are afraid of the future because of the fanatics in the mosques.’

He adds:

‘“The issues now are worse than in the past,” said Gabriel. “In the past there were problems, but there were long periods between them. But after the revolution, every day we are seeing new things.”’

These fears of Coptic Christians leaving Egypt en-masse were picked up this weekend by The Daily Telegraph. In ‘Radical Islamist groups gaining stranglehold in Egypt’, Damien McElroy writes:

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic movement and the founder of Hamas, has set up a network of political parties around the country that eclipse the following of the middle class activists that overthrew the regime. On the extreme fringe of the Brotherhood, Islamic groups linked to al-Qeada are organising from the mosques to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the dictatorship.

‘As hardliners compete for street power, Egypt’s Christians – who make up 10 per cent of the population – are emigrating in growing numbers.

‘Al-Masry al-Youm, an Egyptian newspaper, reported last week that the Canadian embassy had been swamped by visa requests from Coptic Christians.’
The plight of Christians in the Middle East was also featured in a comment article that appeared in The Guardian. Gerald Butt’s ‘Fears for the Middle East’s Christians in the wake of the Arab Spring’, explains that ongoing revolutions ‘may further weaken Christianity’s presence in the region’. He argues:

‘With the president gone, the shackles are off. Among those exploiting this freedom are Egypt’s fundamentalist Islamic groups – the Muslim Brotherhood, Gama’a al-Islamiya and others.’

Butt also quotes Coptic lawyer Naguib Gabriel, while discussing the plight of Copts in Egypt:

‘not surprisingly, Coptic Christians are suspicious. Naguib Gobraiel, a lawyer for the Coptic Church, believes the Muslim Brothers are seeking “to delude people and make them think that their paradigm is not fundamentalist but conforms with the values of citizenship”.’

After discussing the difficulties facing Christians across the Middle East, including in Lebanon where ‘the growing power of the Shia Hezbollah organisation is challenging the Sunni establishment and the increasingly nervous Christians’, Butt concludes:

‘The most tempting option for Christians, under these circumstances, would be an air ticket out’.

Just Journalism, 21/04/2011

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