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July 19, 2013

Egypt's Copts Welcome Government Change

by Sharon Behn

Clouds of flies cover piles of trash stuffed into homes and filling the alleyways, buzzing in the midday heat. A woman leans out of her second story window, and deliberately drops a black plastic bag filled with trash that splats onto the ground below. The smell rising from every corner of this slum in the middle of Cairo is enough to tell you where you are: Garbage City.
 
The majority of people who live and work here, picking through mounds of trash with their hands to salvage what is recyclable, are Egypt's minority Coptic Christians. For decades, the Coptic community has been discriminated against, making it difficult for many to break out of this cycle of poverty. The fuel and power shortages and inflation of the past year have hit them hard.
 
Local shop owners say business has been bad, they have had trouble buying merchandise, and the security situation has been unstable. But they say the discrimination they felt under recently ousted Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi hit them even harder.
 
On the edge of the slum, through a large gate, is a huge open-air Coptic church carved out of cliffs of stone. Giant carvings of the life of Christ decorate the cliff walls. Coptic priest, Father Samaan, sat in a small underground room at the foot of the cliffs, and told VOA that life under Morsi had been hard.

“Justice did not exist,” he said. “Egypt was full of thugs, there was chaos, robberies, people were kidnapped.”

But there was more than that. Coptic churches were attacked, and Christians killed. Father Samaan said there was discrimination across the board, with Christians unable to get government jobs.
 


Under Morsi, Christians were too afraid to speak out, said Iskander Thabet, a local businessman. “Now things are completely different than during the past year,” he said. “Then we lived in great fear, horror, we were worried. We were scared to say we were Christian, or anything else. They would talk badly about our sisters, wives or daughters because we dress differently. What we went through was very difficult,” said Thabet.
 
But sectarian violence has increased dramatically in Egypt in the past few weeks, with Copts again as the major target. The Muslim Brotherhood has blamed the Copts, among others, for supporting the military's ouster of Morsi on July 3.

Erin Evers of Human Rights Watch in Cairo, said Copts are now being attacked for both being Christian and because they are seen as the most obvious opponents to Morsi.
 
Evers said while the Copts have not fared well for decades in Egypt, HRW is concerned by the spike in sectarian incidents in the past couple of weeks.

“It's really just happening across Egypt. It's not a matter of really being concentrated in the south or the north. It's just in cities all over Egypt, in five different cities so far. In some of the instances it is really clear that it is pro-Morsi supporters who are carrying out the attacks and in [some] instances it's not clear at all.”
 
Evers said that the country still has a strong sense of Egyptian nationalism. But she added that as the political fabric of Egypt starts to come apart under the pressure of constant demonstrations and lawlessness, xenophobia is growing.
 
Despite that, pharmacy student Hanat, wearing jeans and a ponytail, said as a Copt she feels a deep sense of relief that the Islamists are no longer in power, and welcomes the military's overthrow of Morsi.
 
“Now that the army is on our side, we feel safer; we feel that Egypt has been returned to us, that we have our strength back, everything. I feel like I had been tied, and now I am free. Egypt will be returned to us,” Hanat said.
 
Father Samaan, while sharing the hope among many Copts that life will improve under a new government, said concrete steps have to be taken to end discrimination. First, he said, any new constitution should be a secular one, and second, any reference to religion should be removed from the national identity cards.
 
“We are still praying that this great Egypt, this country they call the mother of the world, will become a model of non-discrimination for the world, where religion is for God alone and the homeland is for everyone,” he said.
 
Men coming to visit Father Samaan approach him respectfully, kissing his hand and asking for his blessing. He is a community elder to whom his followers listen. Their hope is that Egypt's new leadership will do the same.