«From Nasser to Mubarak. How we Copts have been alienated»
A conversation with Ashraf Ramelah (President of Voice of the Copts) 11 January 2011

Mr. Ramelah, did this all begin with Nasser?

In spite of his dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser safeguarded the interests of Muslims to the disadvantage of Copts. The West saw his nationalisation policies as being linked to socialism. It was effectively an operation addressed at targeting the wealth of Christians. Before the 1952 coup d’état, the country’s wealth was in the hands of the Copts and, until they left, in those of the Jews. Then with Sadat and his opening to the Muslim Brotherhood, repression was even harsher. It is sufficient to remember the exile imposed on Pope Shenuda III and massacres such as the one in 1981 in Zawiya el Hamra, where dozens of Copts were burned alive in their homes.

And yet many Muslims and the government too, have firmly condemned the attack in Alexandria…

That is hypocrisy. I think that Pope Shenuda was wrong to allow Mubarak’s son to attend celebrations for the Coptic Christmas. One must not forget that only a few weeks before that attack, the police fired shots against Copts protesting about the ban on building a church in Giza. The local authorities wanted no crosses, bell towers or other architectural elements that might have identified the building as a church. The Copts refused to compromise and in my opinion they did the right thing.

So you see a link between government policies and the New Year’s Eve attack?

The attack in Alexandria did not materialise out of thin air. For some time there have been threats and invitations to attack Copts in Egypt posted on various Arab language extremist websites. Since 1981 the Egyptian government has implemented a law on the state of emergency so as to protect the government from terrorists. Since they seemed unable to even protect those praying in church, they have obviously lost control of the situation.

How are relations between Christians and Muslims now?

They have never been so tense. Before this attack there was an alternating between hatred and love, respect and mistrust. Now matters have worsened because an ever-increasing number of Muslims tend to cut off all relations with Christians. Furthermore, the regime’s press and television channels publish and broadcast programmes containing messages of hatred for Copts.

Do you believe that the Copts have no responsibilities whatsoever in building this wall between the two communities?

I have no doubts that if a Copt could choose where to shop or work he would choose a Christian over a Muslim But that is far from envisaging that our community might do what they did, that seems impossible and in any case I do not think the Egyptian government would allow it.

Are you more a Copt or an Egyptian?

Copt or Egyptian means the same thing. It is a word of Greek origin (aiguptos) that was later Arabized and it means Egyptian. I would say that the Copts are the real Egyptians.

So you claim a Egptianess that belongs exclusively to the Copts?

Copts feel one hundred percent Egyptian. Egyptian Muslims instead consider themselves part of the umma (the Islamic community). A few years ago one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders said he would be prepared to accept an Afghan Muslim as a leader rather than an Egyptian Copt.

In your opinion, would reforms in the secular sense of some aspects of Civil Law, such as marriage, help overcome denominational divisions?

I am sure they would, but reforming marriage laws is not enough. A far broader reform of a cultural nature is needed. Last year I got hold of all the books used in Egyptian primary and middle schools and was amazed by the number of quotations from the Koran they contained. When I went to school during the Sixties the books were very different.

So, nothing promising for Copts on the horizon…

I believe that after a series of massacres and attacks of this kind the Copt community will feel increasingly less protected by a government that does not want to or is unable to control these extremist fringes. In the end the community will become enclosed within itself, feeling less and less part of society.

Translated by Francesca Simmons




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