Thursday 24 January 2013

Statement by His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom on the eve of the January 2011 uprising and in response to the recent escalation of violence against Christians in Egypt.

The uprising in Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011 inspired the world as it saw Egyptians standing side-by-side in an effort to reclaim their national identity. There was hope for a new Egypt, one that could offer its people the freedom and responsibility of equal citizenship while no longer focusing on their religious or political stance. In my statement this time last year, I remember commenting that it was ‘indeed a turning point in Egypt's contemporary history. It is a time at which there can still be positive reform and the building of a new nation that is cohesive, and instills a sense of citizenship, ownership and responsibility into every Egyptian; ceasing to focus on the person's religious or political stance, but more on his or her contribution and accountability to a single nation state and equality before the law.’ It is unfortunate however, that two years down the line we have not seen sufficient signs of this transformation, and we still witness the marginalisation and alienation of many, Christians and Muslims alike, within Egyptian society, while repeatedly witnessing others committing crimes and not being brought to justice.

Indicative of this, is that over the last two weeks, violent incidents and targeted attacks on Christians in Egypt have escalated once again. Last week, in Fayoum, a hall and Sunday school building under construction, was destroyed by thousands emerging from a nearby Mosque after Friday prayers, reportedly justifying their actions by claims that the building would be used as a church. Security forces arrived after the building was completely destroyed, and to date no arrests have been made.

In a separate incident, on 18 January 2013, thousands of Muslim protestors in Qena attacked eight Coptic homes and businesses, torching Coptic-owned pharmacies and vehicles. A Cross was destroyed and property within the church of Abu Fam was damaged. These attacks came as a result of unqualified and now falsified rumours that a Christian man committed a sexual assault against a 6 year old Muslim girl. To safeguard its parishioners, the church was forced to cancel its Epiphany service so as not to subject them to unnecessary risk. As of yet, again, no charges have been made.

In a third incident, in Beba, Upper Egypt, a church building was forcibly taken over by a criminal gang, and converted into a drugs den after they had sold its contents. In this case once again, there was no intervention by local security forces.

Based on these three occurrences in the space of two weeks, we call for proper investigation into any acts of violence against individuals, groups, or communities, and the protection of places of worship, to ensure that there are no further attacks of this kind.

In light of these events, it is equally disturbing to see the unbalanced response in the recent reported court ruling, convicting a mother and her seven children to 15 years incarceration. The family that had converted back to Christianity from Islam, was reportedly found in possession of allegedly falsified documents. Unlike the aforementioned incidents in which no convictions have been made, the verdict handed down in the case Nadia Mohamed Ali and her children is, to say the least, severe. While we do not condone the falsification of official documents, it is worth clarifying, by way of explanation and not justification, that if the right process were in place to allow Egyptian citizens to freely choose their faith as regularly claimed, there would be no need for this practice.

It is stated on numerous occasions that there is ‘no compulsion in Islam’ and that Egyptians are free to choose their religion. On that basis, we ask for Nadia Mohamed Ali, her family, and all those involved in the case to be released from prison. Following on from this, and in considering the intensity of severe challenges facing Christians, and in line with the movement towards greater democracy, cohesion, and citizenship, we call for the serious consideration of the removal of one’s religion from official personal identification cards, so as to facilitate the treatment of all Egyptian citizens equally.

As we approach the second anniversary of the uprising in Tahrir Square, it is unfortunate that these incidents are by no means isolated. They are merely the latest in a continuous stream of discriminatory decisions facing Egyptians, Christians and Muslims alike, who wish to be treated equally, regardless of their religious or political beliefs. That said, we call upon Egypt’s government, judiciary, and officials to respect ‘freedom of belief and practicing religions’, as set out in President Mohammed Morsi’s news conference in Cairo last week.

Considering the significant sacrifice that has been presented over the past two years, even leading to the loss of life, it is time for Egypt to emerge out of the pattern of discriminatory practice, and take on its new identity of a promised democracy that the January 2011 uprising sought to establish.

We pray for the communities in Fayoum, Qena, and Beba while also praying for Nadia, her children, those involved in this case, and all those in a similar predicament who are in prison, facing imprisonment, or being victimised for merely desiring to exercise their God-given right to practice their chosen faith. We also pray for peace and safety on the streets of Egypt over these coming days, that there be no more injury, bloodshed, or mourning, and that the spirit of hope and resilience lives on in the hearts of those who desire positive reform and freedom.