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Christians in Egypt: The humiliation continues

Camillo Ballin and Francesco Strazzari

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The following is an interview published in the latest edition of "Il Regno," the biweekly of the Sacred Heart congregation of Bologna. The man interviewed is a Coptic Orthodox Christian, the director of a Cairo weekly. The picture he paints of the condition of Christians in Egypt -- usually classified among the "moderate" Arab countries -- fully confirms what was more generally described by "La Civiltą Cattolica."

An interview with Youssef Sidhom, director of "Watani"

CAIRO -- Youssef Sidhom is the director of the weekly "Watani" ("My Homeland"). Founded in 1958 by his father, Antoun Sidhom, it has always published news and commentary on the Church and Christianity, themes completely overlooked by all the other Egyptian newspapers. Many believe it to be a newspaper of the Coptic Orthodox Church, but that's not true. It is independent, and has no particular relationship with that Church, nor does it receive financial support from it. [...]

What are the main problems of the Christians in Egypt?

"The most striking problem is the extreme difficulty in receiving permission to build a church. Current legislation offers all of the incentives for the construction of mosques, but it poses almost insurmountable obstacles to the construction of churches. In 1934, the undersecretary for the minister of the interior, Muhammad al-'Azabi, made ten conditions for giving permission for the construction of a church, and those conditions are still valid. Let's cite a few of them: a church must not be built on farm land; it must not be close to a mosque or monument; if it is to be constructed in a zone in which Muslims also live, one must first obtain their permission; there must be a sufficient number of Christians in the area; there must not be other churches nearby; police permission must be obtained if there are bridges or canals of the Nile near or if there is a railroad; the signature of the president of the republic must be obtained. All these conditions cause insurmountable difficulties. In fact, more than ten years can go by while waiting for police permission, and in the meantime mosques are hurriedly erected in the vicinity of the area where the church was meant to be, and the project stumbles against another prohibition. Moreover, it is not specified how many Christians there must be for them to have the right to a church. If, for example, there are 1,500, the government can say that that's not a sufficient number, when a hundred would be enough to fill one of our churches."

But hasn't President Mubarak facilitated the granting of these permissions by delegating the matter to the provincial prefects?

"Yes, he allowed the permits to be given by the provincial prefects, and a year later he ruled that they can also be given by the territory's local authority. But this delegated authority only regards the permits to repair and restructure the churches. The permission to construct a new church is still the sole prerogative of the president of the republic. [...] This discrimination in the matter of the construction of churches leads Christians to the bitter conviction that the state considers them second-class citizens. For the state, a Christian is a kafir, an infidel, he doesn't know the true religion or have the true faith, so it's not worth it to listen to him. In Egypt we live with humiliating discrimination on religious grounds." [...]

Does the discrimination regard only the construction of churches, or other aspects of social life for Christians in Egypt as well?

"It regards our entire life. There's discrimination in state offices. According to the constitution, the president must be a Muslim. The Islamic religion is the foundation of Egyptian legislation. Today, no Christian can be prime minister, even though there have been Christian prime ministers in the past. Of the thirty-two ministers, only two are Christians: the finance minister and the minister of the environment. No city or village mayor can be a Christian. The high posts in the military, the police, and the presidential guard are filled only with Muslims. There are hundreds of persons in the diplomatic corps, but only two or three Christians. No Christian can attain high office in the tribunals. According to the law, two witnesses are necessary to justify a sentence, but if one of them is Christian, the judge may refuse his testimony because it comes from an infidel. The rectors of the universities must be Muslim. [...] In any office, the career of a Muslim who has just arrived will advance beyond that of a Christian who has been in his post for years. In the 2000 elections, the al-Watani party, which dominates politics in the country, listed only three Christians among 888 candidates. A Christian may not teach Arabic, because this material is linked to the teaching of the Islamic religion. Discrimination is at work even on our identity card, where the religion of one's father is shown."

And in case of divorce?

"The law provides that the children should remain with their mother. But if the father wants to divorce because he has become a Muslim, which happens frequently, the judge rules that the children should remain on the side that has the true faith, meaning the father. So children born to Christians grow up in a completely Muslim family."

"Is changing religions permitted?"

"Anyone who becomes Muslim is welcomed with big parties. They change his identity card very quickly; he is helped in his job, with his house, etc. But if a Muslim wants to become Christian, they not only seek to dissuade him by any means, but his very life is in danger. I believe that every day there are Egyptians who change religions, but it's impossible to know how many. Al-Ahzar would willingly publish the statistics, which would be a sign of victory and glory, but the Church could never make a choice like this, because it would bring about many tragedies. In any case, there is a ruling by the tribunal that establishes that if an Egyptian is born non-Muslim, becomes Muslim, and then wants to return to his original faith, he may do it. But a Muslim by birth may never change religions, on pain of exclusion from his inheritance and from the society to which he belongs -- with danger to his own safety."

(Interview by Camillo Ballin and Francesco Strazzari)

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