A new grassroots movement among the Coptic Diaspora was established in Washington this past weekend. Almost 100 Coptic Christian community organizers from around the globe gathered to discuss religious freedom in the Middle East and future lobbying efforts for the rights of Egypt’s Coptic people.
Coptic Solidarity’s mission is to empower Copts in Egypt to help them achieve citizenship rights and equality under a secular constitution and laws.
As a young Canadian Copt, I’ve enjoyed religious freedoms that Christians in Egypt can only dream about. In Canada, it can be difficult to imagine life where religious freedom does not apply to all religions. In Egypt, the minority Christian population, composed primarily of Coptic Orthodox people, experiences systemic discrimination and prejudice.
The Coptic Orthodox Church — which has its roots in Egypt — is the largest Christian sect in the country, accounting for eight to 12 per cent of the population. With a smaller following in other Middle East countries and the Diaspora, there are 15 million believers worldwide.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians endure abductions, forced marriages and conversions of young Coptic women, gross underrepresentation in government, and converts to the faith regularly suffer legal battles to receive necessary identity cards.
Presently, the building or repairing of churches necessitates special permits requiring the signature of Egypt’s president, often slowing down the process. The government discriminates against Christians in public sector hiring and bars Christian students from attending the publicly funded Al-Azhar University as well as Arabic teaching training programs.
On Jan. 6, Coptic Christmas Eve, eight Coptics were murdered in a drive-by shooting outside a church in the Upper Egypt town of Nag Hammady. The massacre was followed by weeks of tension between Muslims and Copts. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reported that local authorities were making random arrests of Coptic individuals, and that some were tortured. The trial of the three Muslim men accused of these murders has since been postponed three times, leaving Copts feeling justice will not be served.
Christian persecution in Egypt dates back hundreds of years, and is tied to the struggle of religious domination in the country. Egypt had a mainly Christian population until the Muslim conquest in AD 639 and by the end of the 12th century, Islam became the predominant religion.
Egypt’s constitution supports protection of religious groups or individuals, including freedom to practice one’s religion. But, the country’s disregard of these rights is well documented by the U.S. Department of State, whose 2009 report on religious freedom outlines numerous human rights abuses against Christians, and states that government authorities sometimes fail to uphold the law.
Coptic Orthodox Christians in the Diaspora have been lobbying and mobilizing for Coptic rights in their respective countries for years. Coptic Solidarity is an initiative to unite these efforts from countries including Canada, the U.S., Australia and Britain.
Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, one which believers and non-believers alike need to fiercely protect.
It is my hope that not only will Coptic Solidarity be embraced by the Coptic people and those familiar with oppression, but by the larger international community as well.
By Jacky Habib