By Youssef Sidhom – Watani –
Under the title “Contemplations on President’s swearing in”, I wrote last week commenting on the speech President Sisi gave before the House of Representatives on 2 June when he was sworn in for a second term. I cited the President’s description of the Egyptian Coptic Church as a symbol of peace, and how he commended her wisdom and patriotism in dealing with crises. President Sisi praised the Church’s insight in immunising the congregation against the use of violence or practices that tamper with national unity, to retaliate against the terror attacks waged against the Copts by hardline Muslims adamant in opposing the building of churches or reopening closed ones, despite the law. I remarked that the President made no mention of the failure of local administrative and security officials to uphold the law or State prestige, both of which were brought down by the success of these attacks in imposing the will of hardliners.
This appalling situation raises questions that all in authority must heed, starting with President Sisi and through to all executive, political, administrative and security officials. The freedom of worship stipulated by the Constitution applies to every Egyptian, with no exception. All are free to observe their spiritual activities, and to practise prayer and religious rites at all times. Persistent boasting by Egyptian officials and MPs of the Law for Building and Restoring Churches, and the consequent move to legalise unlicensed churches, does not mean that freedom of worship has been secured for Copts. It is self-evident that, unless implemented on the ground, legislation remains ink on paper. No matter how minimal the cases in which the law is violated, they remain flagrant indications of the failure of the State to secure constitutional freedoms, defend citizens, or take a hard line against those who defy the law.
It is not right that, for the sake of saving face, attacks against Copts should be obscured by the media and authorities. At the time when churches are under attack and worship banned by hardliners, officials maintain that prayer is uninterrupted in all churches in Egypt, protected by security. Everyone must realise that attacking a church in the smallest village of Egypt, and terrorising its priest and congregation no matter how small, cannot be offset by the fact that the majority of Copts worship freely and in peace.
State officials must not misinterpret the wisdom and patriotism of Pope Tawadros II who praises and supports the State’s war against terrorism, and the reform and development moves currently underway. He pledges solidarity during the difficult times Egypt is passing through, and attempts to contain the anger of oppressed Copts; but his stance ought not to be exploited to claim that “all’s well” with Copts, and “everything’s as best as ever”.
No particular incident should be highlighted in order to cover up or conceal bitter facts. President Sisi’s love for all Egyptians and the goodwill he indiscriminately extends to Muslims and Copts is no secret. We know that, as head of State, he has taken the unprecedented initiative of visiting St Mark’s Cathedral every Christmas Eve to relay his best wishes to Copts. And we know that it was upon his directives that the exquisitely designed Cathedral of the Nativity of the Christ was built in the New Capital in record time, with the assistance of the engineering department of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The many State endeavours in the interest of Copts are undeniable. But we also know, live through, and report on the occasional, vicious attacks against Copts at the hands of extremist, fundamentalist Islamists who wilfully reject any church in their villages or small towns. This applies to new, fully licensed churches under construction, and to unlicensed de-facto churches in the process of gaining legality under the new law. We might have tolerated such crimes had the authorities been swift to confront them, protect Copts, and take their culprits and perpetrators to justice. In doing so, the law would have been enforced and State dignity defended. But this is not what takes place.
On the ground the State, represented in local administrative and security authorities, overlooks the attacks, the mobbing, and the terror against Copts at the hands of the Muslim hardliners. More often than not, the police arrive at the scene of violence only after the attack is over and the culprits have fled. They then resort to the ploy of arresting a number of Copts and Muslims under the pretext that all were involved in the unrest. At times the Copts would have in no way been involved since, terrified, they would have kept to their homes; at other times they would have been defending their families and homes against the attack. The police not only commit the grave mistake of treating victim and culprit the same, but also use this ploy to force the victims into ‘conciliating’ with their attackers in order for the Copts arrested to be set free. Conciliation is the traditional out-of-court settlement reached by disputing parties, according to which all legal rights are relinquished and detained persons are consequently released. The Copts caught are thus set free, and the Coptic congregation is left to lick its wounds and face the fact that they have been robbed of their constitutional right to freedom of worship; their church has been closed down, in defiance of the law, in order to ‘maintain social peace’.
Does President Sisi grasp the depth of this all-too-familiar grim situation?