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Who Will Defend Christians in Egypt?

ICC Note

“we’re already seeing that the minorities, particularly the Copts, are at increased risk to extremist attacks.”

By Geffrey P. Johnston
03/25/2011 Egypt (Whig Standard)-Canada and the United States recently dispatched their top diplomats to Cairo to assist Egypt in making the transition to democracy. And judging from escalating sectarian tensions in the Muslim-majority nation, the governing military elite, which assumed power after President Hosni Mubarak was ousted by a populist revolution, needs all the help it can get.

During last winter’s people power demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the democratic uprising, Christians and Muslims peacefully coexisted as they demanded the end of Mubarak’s 30 year dictatorial reign.

Since then, the promise of Christian-Muslim unity has given way to religiously-motivated attacks on Egypt’s large Coptic Christian community, which is estimated to have ten million members.

There is a real danger that Egypt’s reform process could be derailed by the violence.

On March 16th, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met separately with interim Egyptian Prime Minister Essan Sharaf to discuss the transition process.

While both diplomats spoke in general terms about the importance of human rights, they missed the chance to publicly chide the transitional regime for failing to stem the rising tide of violence against the Copts.

For decades, the Egyptian government has openly persecuted Christians. For example, says Bashir, the country’s security services have interfered in Coptic affairs, obstructing the basic maintenance of churches and blocking building permits for new churches.

In the aftermath of the bloody New Year’s Day bombing of a Coptic church at Alexandria, Egypt, which killed 23 people, Canada’s Coptic community, which has itself been threatened with violence by al Qaida, publicly demanded that Egypt protect their co-religionists.

“Unfortunately, the situation is quickly getting worse,” says a Canadian Coptic activist, who cannot be identified in order to protect loved ones still living in Egypt.

Speaking at a press conference in Cairo, Cannon said that he had been told that Egypt’s security apparatus was “possibly 60% of what it was a month ago.”

While necessary for the advancement of democracy in Egypt, the dismantling of the oppressive security apparatus is creating a power vacuum, in which extremists flourish.

Another Coptic church was destroyed by a Muslim mob just south of Cairo earlier this month. When Copts took to the streets to protest, 13 were killed in clashes with large Muslim mobs and security forces.

During her meeting with Prime Minister Sharaf, Clinton pledged (U. S.) $90 million in economic assistance for Egypt.

To Bashir’s way of thinking, the Obama administration should have a say in how that money is spent. He says that the administration should insist that Egypt provide “protection for Copts and their places of worship in key areas.”

During his Cairo mission, Cannon also offered transitional assistance, pledging (Can.) $11 million for economic and democratic development initiatives in Egypt and the Middle East-North Africa region.

However, Canadian assistance for Egypt should be contingent upon Cairo cracking down on sectarian violence and swiftly prosecuting perpetrators of religiously- motivated crimes.

In his press conference, Cannon revealed that Egyptian officials pressured him to lift Canada’s travel advisory for Egypt. It seems Egypt is anxious to restore its once lucrative tourism industry.

Cannon responded to the request by telling his Egyptian hosts that “our travel advisory will follow the same rhythm” as their efforts to dismantle the country’s security apparatus.

The foreign affairs minister should have gone even further, insisting that Canada would only lift the advisory if the government launched initiatives to promote religious tolerance across Egypt.

Last Saturday, Egyptians voted in a hasty national referendum on modest constitutional amendments put forward by the military government, without meaningful input from civil society.

To prevent Egypt’s democratic reform movement from being sidelined by the military or extremists, Canada and the U.S. should help Egypt establish a citizens’ or constituent assembly to draft a new constitution and a robust bill of rights, guaranteeing freedom of religion.

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