Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Coptic Christians killed in ugly sign for hopes of Egyptian democracy

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Violent clashes between Coptic Christians and Egyptian Security forces on Sunday have killed at least 26 people mostly Christian and injured over 300 people. The clashes mark the worst violence in Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

It started when thousands of Copts protested outside a state television station over the September 30 burning of a church in Aswan and demanded that the military sack the governor of Aswan, who had backed the burning and blamed the Copts for provoking it. It was also a protest against the role of state media inciting violence against Coptic Christians. When clashes broke out between protestors and security forces, some Muslims tried to support the Copts and joined in the call for the resignation of the military council's chairman, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi. However, security forces were later joined by Muslim groups who attacked the Copts. According to the Associated Press, state television called on viewers to rush to the army's rescue, "casting the Christians as a mob seeking to undermine unity between the people and the military".

Video footage appears to show armoured vehicles running down Coptic protestors.

Coptic Christians represents about 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people. There are widespread concerns that the military is failing to protect the Coptic Christians in a post-revolutionary Egypt that has seen the rise of Islamism and sectarian strife. An editorial in the Australian writes:

"The ruling military council is either powerless or unwilling to do anything about it. The appalling violence now being seen on the streets of Cairo, after an attempt by the Christian Copts to protest against an attack by Muslim radicals on a church in Aswan province, is both a product of those tensions and a manifestation of the Christians' loss of faith in the feckless junta."

Raymond Ibrahim, a Coptic Christian and an Islam-specialist at the Middle East Forum writes that the clashes highlight the growing influence of Islamism in post revolutionary Egypt:

"What clearer sign that Egypt is turning rabidly Islamist than the fact that hardly a few weeks go by without a church being destroyed, or without protesting Christians being attacked and slaughtered by the military?"

Ibrahim also writes of a growing campaign by Islamist extremists to destroy or restrict churches in Egypt, which they have been able to do with impunity in many cases:

"Aware that they are untouchable, at least when it comes to making infidel Christians miserable, anti-Christian Muslims have a simple strategy: destroy churches, even if one at a time, safe in the knowledge that, not only will they not be prosecuted, but Egypt's military and security apparatus will punish the infidel victims should they dare to protest."

The violence has been internationally condemned including by Australia where there are approximately 70,000 Coptic Christians. A joint statement by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd was released yesterday, it reads:

"The Australian Government today expressed its deep concern at the violence and resulting loss of life and injuries that took place in Cairo overnight... Last night's violence follows an increase in sectarian tensions and violence affecting Coptic Christians in recent months, including attacks on churches. The Government calls for calm and for clear respect for religious freedoms, human rights and the rule of law..."

According to the Age, the leader of Australia's Coptic Christians, Bishop Anba Suriel called for Australia to expel the Egyptian Ambassador, Omar Metwally Mohamed over the attacks on the Copts in Egypt. Bishop Suriel said that the Ambassador was trying to silence discussion:

"he [the Egyptian Ambassador] was not happy that I went on Insight on SBS and made strong comments. They want us to keep everything quiet. But Egypt has failed dismally to protect Christians - we keep getting the same rhetoric, but not solutions and we are fed up."

The violent clashes highlight that Egypt is not living up to the uprising's promise of freedom and tolerance but rather is replete with growing Islamism and sectarian strife.

Meanwhile, the efforts to organise elections for November are looking increasingly chaotic and potentially violent, with all major parties now opposing the plans and schedule for polling being organised by the military rulers, according to former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel

It is now looking increasingly possible that Egypt's future is less likely to be shaped by a liberal "Arab spring" than by an Islamic awakening that is threatening to the lives and security of Coptic Christians, as well as to other minorities.

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