Egypt’s Copts feel discrimination, but many afraid to react

A Coptic Egyptian woman attends a service at the Abbassiya cathedral in Cairo on October 12, 2011 to mourn those killed during recent clashes with security forces.

CAIRO — On the Sunday following the Oct. 9 massacre at Maspero, dozens of Coptic Christians sat together chitchatting after Sunday services at St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral.

Four women were standing in front of the main church at the complex hoping to meet Pope Shenouda and speak to him about their problems.

Each of them explained that although none were present at the bloody scene that took 27 lives, they screamed and cried over the death as if the victims were members of their own families. They were relieving pain they have been feeling for long time.

Other random groups of fours and fives were sitting on the stairs each sitting eagerly as if they were waiting for reporters to talk to them.

“We are here waiting to be asked as eyewitnesses to what we saw, each of us is just suffering from maltreatment, Muslims and Christians,” said Samia Ibrahim.

One woman burst out in frustration when asked whether she though that Egyptian Christians are facing the same problems that many other Egyptians suffer from. 

“No, it’s not the same, she said. “There is always a great force of violence when it comes to us. How many protests are there in Egypt and why is it that only our protests were attacked?” asked Raafat Sadek.

Christians in Egypt have long complained about discriminatory treatment but when asked about how they respond to it, they often answer, “It’s all in God’s hands, we can’t do anything about it.” A helpless resignation was present in many of the churchgoers’ answers.

“We want our rights but protests and sit-ins will not help,”said Youssef Gaballah.

Copts must secure special government permission to build churches in Egypt, and that permission is difficult to come by. The destruction of a makeshift community church is what inspired the march to Maspero earlier this month.

There have been other occasional gatherings and sit-ins, but not en masse as many live in fear that if they protest against the mistreatment, they will get more crushed in society.

In general Egypt’s Copts have not been able to organize themselves in a way that could put pressure on the Egyptian government to implement their demands. While interviewing different Copts from various areas in Cairo and Minya, it was easy to draw the conclusion that despite their frustration, few in the Coptic community are ready to join together and take an action to end the discrimination.

“Sometimes I think that we shouldn’t even ask to build churches, all we want to do is just to pray at our homes and that’s it,” said Sameh Ibrahim one of those who were at the cathedral.

Thousands of Copts attended a mass the day after Maspero at the cathedral, mourning their dead. Many screamed furiously once the words “Military Council” were mentioned, as eyewitnesses said that army forces used heavy-handed violence against peaceful protesters who were mainly Copts.

Then they prayed.

The next day during the funeral of four victims, the church’s Holy Synod called on Christians around the world to pray and fast for three days to mourn the martyrs of Sunday’s violence.

Catholic priest Father Paul explain that despite the richness that many Christians are living at, many more live in poverty and primitive conditions, which is why they are worried to take any critical action that could cost them their jobs and lives.

Other priests refused to talk unless the Orthodox Church gives them permission. “We don’t want to say stuff that can fuel unwanted tension,” said Father Yuhanna in one of the villages at Minya governorate in Upper Egypt.

Despite their prayers, Christians in Egypt, mainly Orthodox, live in thorough frustration towards the whole Egyptian society, feeling trapped.

A woman at the Cairo Coptic Hospital caring for her brother injured at Maspero said, “When we protest this is what happens to us.”