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Fear, not hope, occupies minds of Egypt’s religious scholars

The Alexandria bombing which left at least 23 Copts dead while they emerged from New Year’s mass at the church of St. Peter and St. Mark left many religious scholars concerned about the future of inter-faith co-existence among Egypt’s different religious sects.

In the southern city of Naga Hammadi, where six Christians were killed in a drive-by shooting while they were celebrating Coptic Christmas on 6 January 2010, Coptic priests said they are worried about the safety of their community.  

“Fear is a strong feeling among Copts,” said Bishop Kirollos of the Naga Hammadi Diocese.

Kirollos blames the government for not doing enough to address Coptic demands.   

“As long as the state is not willing to treat both Muslims and Christian on the basis of equality, then there will always be tension and contempt between the two sides,” he said.

Copts, who constitute around 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million, have complained in recent decades of the government’s reluctance to give them permits to build new churches. They have also said that Copts are not allowed to be employed in high-profile public positions.

Father Botros Fahim, Patriarchal Vicar for the Catholic Copts, was more optimistic about the future, especially if various Christians’ demands are met.

“We have one life together and one future together,” said Fahim, adding that the current solidarity between Muslims and Christians expressed in the wake of Saturday’s attack is an encouraging sign for a better future.  

Fahim stressed the importance of education and media to reduce inter-faith tension. 

According to him, the educational system must be restructured to account for the values of tolerance and peaceful co-existence.

“We need to employ a learning system in which we educate our children to respect and accept one another and look positively at each other. We need to raise open-minded children to build a moderate and healthy society,” he said.

As for the media, Fahim said, objective and diversified coverage about Egypt’s various sects should be pursued.   

Some Muslim scholars, on the other hand, blame Coptic bodies for perpetuating sectarian tension in the country.

“The roots of the [sectarian] problem will remain,” said Sheikh Khaled Abdel-Moati, a member of the radical Sunni Association of Islamic Scholars. “Copts living abroad have been antagonizing the West against us. They are using the power of the West to allow Americans and other Western countries to interfere in Egypt,” he said.

Abdel-Moati’s remarks echoed other Islamist intellectuals who have traditionally accused members of religious minorities of seeking international backing for their causes.  

Egypt’s tiny Shia minority have also voiced concerns about what they believe as the state’s hesitancy to end discrimination, especially in the building of mosques, against its members.

“Societies do not change by themselves; they need an uplifting power, an impetus and willingness to change,” said Ahmed Rasim al-Nafees, a Shia Sheikh and a professor at Mansoura University.

Al-Nafees also points to regional dynamics that affect the conditions of Egyptian Shias.  

“Shias in Egypt have faced and will face the same fate as Copts; the only difference is that our situation is linked to the general situation in the region. We are connected to what happens in Iraq and Iran, so whenever a problem occurs there, an attack on the Shias in Egypt takes place,” he said.

Egyptian authorities have been recently complaining about Tehran’s increasing regional hegemony in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.    

Some experts believe that inter-faith tension should be contextualized within the broader phenomenon of the state’s search for legitimacy.   

“Within the context of rising religiosity in Egypt, authorities turned religion into an ideology, motivating [Islamic] scholars to justify the conduct of authority through religion,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, a political sociology researcher at the government-run Middle East Studies Center.

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