Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Although they have been persecuted for decades, Egyptian Coptic Christians are fed up with being treated as second class citizens in Islamic countries after the latest round of violence against them, a Coptic Christian leader in England said.
A U.S. human rights group says the U.S. government should use its leverage on behalf of Christian freedom in Egypt.
A man attacked worshipers in four Coptic Churches in the Egyptian city of Alexandria last Friday during Orthodox Palm Sunday weekend services, killing one Christian and wounding about a dozen others.
Egyptian authorities quickly arrested one man and issued a statement saying that the churches had been attacked by someone they described as "mentally unstable."
The attack has sparked protests both inside Egypt as well as in Washington, and it also has produced calls for the U.S. and international community to pressure the Egypt government and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to protect the Christian minority and give them full rights.
"The Copts in Egypt are fed up with the situation," said Dr. Helmy Guirguis, president of the U.K. Coptic Association. "The Coptic clergy decided to stand up and not to bow their heads down anymore," he said.
They will not accept things as they did in the past; and with the help of the Internet and mass communications, the news cannot be hidden anymore. At the same time, Coptic Christian leaders and others from West have banded together to call attention to the persecution of the Christians in Egypt, Guiruis said in a telephone interview.
(American Jewish leaders from the Reform Jewish Movement also have condemned the latest violence.)
Officially, Egypt is a Muslim country governed by legislation drawn from strict Islamic shari'a law.
An estimated 8-10 percent of Egypt's 72 million citizens are Christian. Christians estimate that they represent at least 15 percent of the population, most of them are Orthodox Coptic Christians.
But Christians are treated like Dhimmis, or second-class citizens, in an Islamic society, said Guirguis.
For example, they need a presidential decree to build a church. There is only one elected Christian legislator in the 444-seat parliament and Christians are otherwise barred from occupying high-level positions. They also are portrayed as "infidels" by the state-owned media and educational curriculum, something that fuels Islamic fanaticism, Guirguis said.
According to Guirguis, the prominent Egyptian Human Rights advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim has documented 55 major attacks on Copts since President Mubarak came to power in 1981.
In one of the most recent incidents, three people were killed in violence last October when thousands of Muslim protestors looted and burned Christian-owned businesses after the circulation of a DVD said to be insulting to Islam.
The U.K. Coptic Association called on the British government, the United Nations and all human rights groups to develop a strategy for protecting Christians and other minorities in Egypt.
Guirguis said it is important for the international community and particularly the U.S. to exert pressure on Egypt to guarantee the human rights and equality of all its citizens. Egypt is the second highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
"Cosmetic" changes that don't deal with the root of the problem would only make the situation worse, he said.
The U.S. condemned last Friday's attack and urged the Egyptian government to defuse the situation and provide adequate security for places of worship.
But the Washington-based Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom (CRF) said the U.S. is not doing enough.
The U.S. has tremendous leverage in terms of funding if it chooses to use it, said Nina Shea, director of CRF. "Too often the State Department has failed to speak up," Shea said in a telephone interview on Friday.
Shea described the Egyptian system as one where justice has been denied to Christians in the past. Six years ago, 20 Christians were killed in sectarian violence but no Muslim was convicted of murder, she said.
"It is a powerful signal that the Christian minority [can be] attacked [and] abused with impunity in Egypt," Shea said.
According to the State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for 2005, "in some areas, there were improvements in the [Egyptian] Government's respect for religious freedom; however, there continued to be abuses and restrictions."
"It is important for the U.S. government to tie aid to Egypt and create benchmarks for [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak" in the areas of religious freedom and freedom of speech, said Shea.
The recent Egyptian presidential elections didn't solve the problems in that country, she said.
But there is currently a window of opportunity that could allow more moderate voices to be heard there, Shea added. If that opportunity is not taken now, she warned, in five years the Islamic system may become more powerful and the situation could become even worse.
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