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A barometer of religious intolerance

By Benjamin Balint

2/5/2010 Egypt (Haaretz) – ” Egypt resembles an iceberg,” the late Coptic-Egyptian writer Louis Awad once wrote. “One-eighth is above sea level. Seven-eighths are submerged in the depths. One-eighth of our lives takes place in the light of the 20th century, seven-eighths in medieval darkness.”

There is no surer measure of Egypt ‘s transforming identity over the last half century than its treatment of its Coptic Christian minority, which comprises about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million citizens. As Egypt becomes less Arab and more Islamic, removing itself ever farther from former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s brand of left-leaning secular nationalism (not to speak of the liberal cosmopolitanism that prevailed from the 1920s through the revolution of 1952), the latest signs from the banks of the Nile are anything but auspicious.

As recently as January 15, at least 20 leading bloggers and democracy activists were arrested and held for one day by Egyptian authorities, reportedly charged with “illegal assembling and causing unrest.” The group of Coptic Christian and Muslim activists had traveled to the southern Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi to pay their condolences to the families of six Coptic teenage worshipers gunned down as they left midnight mass on January 7, Coptic Christmas. This is the same town where a priceless collection of 46 fourth-century treatises (“The Gnostic Gospels”), written in Coptic – an idiom descended directly from the language of the pharaohs – was discovered in an earthenware jar in 1945.

Both the violence and the official response are part of a pattern of escalating tensions between Muslims and Copts, who are increasingly marginalized, persecuted and vilified as outsiders. Indeed, January’s violence has decades of tragic precedents, reaching back to June 1981, when 22 Coptic citizens were burned inside their homes during riots in the village of El-Zawia El-Hamra.

Although no community can claim to be more native or authentically “Egyptian” than the Copts, whose culture dates back to antiquity, in moments of crisis, it seems, the country’s Muslims instinctively turn on the Copts – even when the crisis has little to do with that Arabic-speaking Christian community. In 1952, for example, demonstrators against the British occupation of the Canal Zone in Suez massacred a number of Copts. Just before the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, an ominous slogan could be heard in Cairo : “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.”

Finally, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when news arrived in Cairo that Israeli forces had crossed the canal, a rumor ascribed the Egyptian forces’ failure to the treachery of a Coptic officer. To this day, every so often, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition Islamist movement, seeks to bar Copts from senior army, police and government positions, on the grounds that they represent a fifth column. (The Brotherhood, which won 20 percent of the 454 parliamentary seats in the last election in 2005, has just chosen a new, hard-line leader, Mohammed Badie.)

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