Egypt's Copts are worried

As Egyptians prepare to vote Wednesday and Thursday, one community that is especially nervous is the Coptic Christians.

The Coptic Church dates back 19 centuries and is based on the teachings of St. Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century A.D.  Copts comprise around ten per cent of the Egyptian population, but the rise of Islamist parties since the revolution has created great insecurity.

Samia Sidhom, managing editor of Watani newspaper, which serves Egypt's Coptic Christian community. (Trudy Rubin / Staff)

“At the beginning, there were a lot of hopes (in the revolution)” I was told by Samia Sidhom, managing editor of Watani, a newspaper started by her father and now edited by her brother.  Copts flocked to Tahrir Square, and in one famous scene, surrounded Muslim protesters to protect them while they prayed.  

“We thought the revolution would solve our grievances,” Sidhom said, referring to the community’s difficulties in getting permits to open new churches, and attacks on their places of worship by extremists. One particularly terrible incident was the bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed 21 people just before the Tahrir Square revolt began.

“It took a lot of people by surprise that Islamists were able to take advantage of the revolution,” she went on, sitting in a cramped office with old computers and furniture, not far from Tahrir Square, as she worked on the next issue of the weekly.  She reeled off a list of churches that have been burned down since the revolution.   Some of them were rebuilt by the Egyptian military, including a large church I visited in the Imbaba neighborhood. There was also a particularly a brutal attack on peaceful Coptic demonstrators in Cairo that occurred last March, in which the army was involved.

Copts are fearful that a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi, would mean the application of sharia law, and greater discrimination against Copts – including the closing of unlicensed churches.  Many Copts live in small rural villages where Christians and Muslims have gotten along for centuries.  But that harmony can be easily upset, when outsiders, or younger villagers who have become radicalized, travel to  villages and incite against Christians.  And that trend Sidhom fears, could accelerate if an Islamist becomes president.

Most Copts are voting for secular candidates  such as former foreign minister Amr Moussa or former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. “There is a feeling that democracy has been a disaster for us,” Sidhom said.