Egypt’s Christians continue to face worrisome persecution, despite the words and actions of its president to show goodwill to the community, an expert in religious freedom testified to the US Congress on Wednesday.
Egypt has historically has been more tolerant and relaxed towards Christians than its Middle Eastern neighbors, said Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian native and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C.
Although Copts – Egypt’s ethnic Christian group – have been bullied under previous regimes, the persecution there has recently become more personal, Tadros warned.
“What worries me is not just that a government does not allow a church to be built. What really worries me is the fact that normal people – not Islamists, not terrorists – just normal Muslim guys, would form a mob and attack their neighbors. Not people they don’t know: their very neighbors.”
Mob violence against neighbors is especially alarming in a country with a history of Christians and Muslims living together.
Egypt’s current constitution, adopted in January 2014, extended the rights of Christians and Jews to build places of worship, which had been strictly regulated before.
Tadros testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa May 20, on the threats to religious freedom in Egypt.
Mobs have targeted the building of Christian churches and have become more emboldened because of the failure of local authorities to protect Christian citizens. One example Tadros gave in his testimony before Congress illustrated the greatest threats to Copts – mob violence, lack of legal protection, and the impotence of local law enforcement.
Christians in the village of El Galaa have been trying, unsuccessfully, to build a new church since 2004, when they received a permit to do so. Recently they settled for renovating their old church.
But mobs attacked them in January and demanded the church have no external sacred symbols such as crosses or bells, and that its entrance be moved to a side street.
Rather than defending the Christians’ rights to religious freedom, local authorities forced them to have a “reconciliation session” with the Muslim mob, who saw the opportunity to make another demand – the Christians had to issue a public apology in the newspapers for going public with their grievances, and also had to promise not to build another church if their existing church was damaged or destroyed.
The Christians refused, and the mob attacked Christian homes and shops in the village on April 4.
Such stories are typical in today’s Egypt, despite gestures of goodwill from el-Sisi’s administrastion. The president has a “very good working relationship” with Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and has made a public visit to his cathedral. He has spoken out about the need for tolerance among religions.