The incident that took place in the Upper Egyptian city of Naga Hammadi on January 7th, in which six Coptic Christians and one Muslim were killed, brought back to the headlines the strained relationship between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. Copts are the main religious minority in Egypt; they account for about the 15% of the population. During the last three decades, the number of Copts either killed or seriously wounded by Muslim extremists amounts to more than 4000. The pace of the attacks against the Christians is on the increase. Almost every Sunday, groups of Islamist thugs throw stones, burn buildings, and harass worshippers to prevent the Christian community from celebrating mass.
Magdi Khalil, one of the most outspoken activists for the rights of Egyptian Copts, was born in Cairo to a Coptic family. He presently lives between Egypt and Washington, from where he strives to sensitize the West about the persecutions suffered by these Christians in the Middle East. Khalil is the editor of the international edition of Coptic weekly Al Watani, and has recently created in Cairo a research institute for human rights, The Middle East Freedom Forum. Khalil has denounced over and over Islamist violence against Christians and the idleness of the Egyptian government, which does not move a finger to prevent persecutions.
What caused the recent strife between Muslims and Copts?
The Coptic community is under siege. Christians are the victims of continuous attacks from Muslim extremists whose main instigator is the Muslim Brotherhood. The country is being swept by a new wave of Islamist extremism that is spreading rapidly. The recent events in Naga Hammadi speak for themselves.
Also, last November, in Ain Shams, a Cairo suburb, almost fifty Copts were wounded. According to press reports, thousands of Muslims had assaulted a Coptic church, where about 800 devotees were attending the morning mass. Is the situation in Egypt worsening?
Attacks against Copts are increasing. The church in Ain Shams was originally a factory, located in front of a mosque. It took the Coptic community five years to go through the complicated red tape process to obtain the needed permissions for transforming the old factory into a church. In fact, the final decision for building a new church is up to president of Egypt Hosni Mubrak himself. But the day of the inauguration, a group of Islamists surrounded the church, brandishing clubs and shouting slogans. They attacked not only the devotees inside the church but also the shops belonging to Copts in the surrounding area. Unfortunately, Ain Shams is not an isolated case. Egyptian Copts feel unsafe. Those who can afford it, leave the country. But only a few can afford to leave their job and emigrate to the West -- the only place where Copts really feel safe. The situation in Egypt is getting worse, and persecutions against us are similar to what Iraqi Christians are withstanding these days. However, nobody is doing anything, neither for us nor for them.
Is there a particular organization that is leading these attacks?
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood are certainly present among the attackers. But it’s not just that. There are various brands of Islamists and they all share a deep hatred for whatever is not Muslim. All these groups use mosques to deliver sermons against Copts and against women’s rights. Christians and women’s rights are in fact the main targets of fundamentalists.
In Egypt, however, the government controls mosques. How comes that Islamists, whom the government claims to be fighting, are free to spread their propaganda?
As a matter of fact, mosques are not controlled. The regime maintains its own power, but in the streets it is the Islamists who enjoy popular support. In Egypt, Islamists present themselves as the only real alternative to a regime that is despotic and that oppresses the country. Therefore the government has a direct responsibility in the growth of extremism in Egypt.
What does the Egyptian government do to protect you?
Nothing at all. The government is an accomplice in the persecutions against the Christians. Besides, security services intervene only when attacks against Copts are over. To aggravate this situation, there are also legislative restrictions that date back to the Ottoman Empire and that the government insists in maintaining. Like the persistence of the Hamayonic Decree, which requires no less than a presidential permit for the building, renovation - or even a minor repair - of churches. Due to this decree the number of churches is not proportionate to the Coptic population.
In the last few years there have been rumors of a change in the Egyptian leadership due to the age and health conditions of Hosni Mubarak. Do you think this might change the conditions of Copts?
Very unlikely. If Hosni Mubarak manages to designate his son Gamal as the heir to the presidency, he might have the interest to appease the Islamists and try to keep them as quite as possible. The problem is that in every possible scenario for the after-Mubarak era, Islamist extremism has already permeated all the layers of the society and, no matter who will be in charge after Mubarak, he will not have the force and the interest to deal with these elements with authority. Remember that, nowadays, Egypt is the country where even the coach of the national soccer team picks his players among the most fervent Muslim believers.
Do you feel like the West abandoned you?
Yes, the West has definitely abandoned the Christians of the Middle East. I have met many political leaders both in the US and in Europe, and have received plenty of promises, but nothing concrete. Islamists consider us infidels and as being part of the West. For them, we are only spies to get rid of. Until when will the West ignore the massacre that is taking place? Today we are talking about persecutions, but it is not going to take much before it becomes a real genocide.