By Dr. Henry Srebrnik – Saint John Telegraph-Journal –

Six members of the United States Congress introduced a nonbinding resolution in the House of Representatives last Dec. 21 titled “Expressing Concern over Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt.”

The resolution says Christians in Egypt are second-class citizens who face discrimination in the public and private sectors, including by the government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

In addition, it asserts, they are being targeted by the Islamic State (IS), particularly in rural Upper Egypt. The resolution called on Cairo “to enact serious and legitimate reforms to ensure Coptic Christians are given the same rights and opportunities as all other Egyptian citizens.”

A memorandum that led to the Congressional document was drafted by a U.S.-based organization called Coptic Solidarity.

Egyptians officials consider the move as American interference in Egyptian affairs. The Egyptian parliament’s foreign affairs committee also responded, stating that it was the Muslim Brotherhood that sought to provoke sectarian conflict in Egypt.

Tarek Radwan, its head, stated on Jan. 22 that the committee’s answer would be presented to Congress, refuting the claims made in the Coptic Solidarity memorandum.

In a rebuke presumably aimed at that organization, Rashwan noted that it was necessary to identify the bodies representing Copts to the international community, and that “the U.S. must differentiate between those who actually represent Copts and those who claim to do so.”

The response went on to identify the Muslim Brotherhood as a primary cause of sectarian strife in Egypt in recent times.

It claimed that the events that brought current President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to office were a response to religious rule that would have turned Egypt into a sectarian state.

 After Mohamed Morsi was ousted as president on July 3, 2013, the Brotherhood targeted Coptic gatherings as punishment for participating in the June 30 Revolution, attacking Coptic places of worship and Christian properties, the response added.

The Egyptian army has since embarked upon rebuilding and renovating as many as 83 churches across Egypt.

On the legislative front, the document notes that Egypt’s 2014 Constitution was passed to prevent the foundation of religious parties and affirm the principle of “citizenship.”

“The law on the Higher Council of the Anti-Discrimination Commission will be discussed soon to ensure that no religious minorities in Egypt face any kind of persecution or discrimination,” the response says, asserting that many Coptic and Christian public figures “now occupy leading positions in state ministries, councils and bodies.”

It concluded by quoting Coptic Pope Tawadros II, who said: “It is better to have a homeland without churches than to have churches without a homeland.”

Hafez Abu Seada, a member of the National Council for Human Rights in Egypt, agreed with the committee’s response regarding Sisi’s support of Copts. At the same time, he believes putting the blame only on the Brotherhood weakened the response, as terrorists ideologically linked to IS and al-Qaeda are involved.

The Copts represent an indigenous tradition. Their self-identity remains nationalistic, but it focuses on Egypt as a nation which transcends differences in religion. This allows Copts to take their place in society next to their fellow-Egyptians, who are Muslims.

So they have usually been careful not to challenge this particular narrative of national unity, which formally included Copts in the Egyptian nation, but which in practice imposed a sort of public invisibility on them.

However, a growing number of activists are seeking a public identity for Copts, a form of the “politics of recognition” outside the cross-and-crescent national unity discourse. Much of this emanates from the Coptic diaspora now living in many western countries.

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Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Photo Credit: Mohamed el-Shahed/Getty Images