ANALYSIS: Copts in Egypt and Muslims in the West

CAIRO: Copts calling for equal rights in Egypt and Muslims calling for equal rights in Europe could easily be grouped together under the category of religious minorities struggling for equality. But for some, such a statement would be inaccurate.

For some activists and analysts, these two calls are not comparable. The two groups’ demands and surroundings are worlds apart, they assert. For others, many parallels could be drawn by juxtaposing the two, in spite of the differences.

When asked by Daily News Egypt whether he thought the situation for Muslims in Western Europe and America is similar to that of the Copts in Egypt, President of Voice of the Copts, Ashraf Ramelah replied that the situation was completely different and that "there is no comparing at all."

Copts face discrimination and underrepresentation in Egypt, Ramelah added. Out of the 70 million Egyptian citizens, "there are a few – or no – Copts who become teachers in Egyptian universities, members of Parliament, bank managers or hold other key positions."

There have been many complaints by Egyptians and particularly Copts about the bureaucratic obstacles imposed when petitioning to build and repair churches; such obstacles do not exist for work on mosques. Ramelah expressed his frustration about this to Daily News Egypt, asking, "Since when did people need a license to pray?"

On Aug.11, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a letter sent to American President Barack Obama, petitioning him to address the difficulties that religious minorities face in Egypt.

In the letter, which was sent ahead of President Hosni Mubarak’s visit to the United States, USCIRF also asked Obama to promote freedom of speech in Egypt for both the religious minorities and the Muslim majority in Egypt.

The Voice of the Copts, the National American Coptic Assembly and the American Coptic Union have called upon the members of the Coptic diaspora to protest in a peaceful manner in front of the White House on Tuesday Aug. 18.

Setting the comparison

Kees Hulsman, sociologist and co-founder of the Center for Arab-West Understanding (CAWU), told Daily News Egypt that in the same way that Muslims are becoming more assertive in America, Copts are becoming more assertive in Egypt and that this puts strain on Muslim-Christian ties around the world.

Hulsman added that "Whatever happens in Egypt between Muslim and Christians, will have an effect in the West because these are not domestic issues; they have effects outside of their borders."

Morris Sadek, president of the National American Coptic Assembly, asserts that "Copts in Egypt, the US, and abroad are all part of one body and therefore all have one voice."

Kulsman however, disagrees, pointing out that "This is not the philosophy of many Copts in Egypt; they have many voices, just like Muslims do, so there is no difference between the two communities in that respect."

Amr El-Choubeki of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies spoke about the similarities between the situation of the Coptic minority in Egypt and that of the Muslim minority in Western countries.

Like Copts in Egypt, Muslim minorities in various cities across Europe have repeatedly faced resistance from some members of the community when seeking permission to build mosques.

According to El-Choubeki, there are also several differences, namely that "Muslims in the West feel discriminated against, but it is done by a democratic system and because they are of a different color, religion or have an unusual name." He added that "Arab countries are undemocratic and both non-Muslims and Muslims suffer from bad treatment, not just Copts."

Sadek stated that "In addition to government and assembly positions, media and journalist positions are reserved for Muslims, with Christians actually forbidden and prevented from acquiring these positions."

Similar feelings of discontent were echoed by the Muslim community in France. Faghrab Youssef of the National League of Muslims in France (LNMF) said, "Muslims are still discriminated against when looking for work and housing … simply because they are Muslims."

This sentiment was reiterated by El-Choubeki who notes that "In the West, Muslims are targeted simply for being Muslims and this is very hard because other groups are not targeted in the same way."

Universality of equality

El-Choubeki highlighted the importance of understanding and objectivity with regard to the relationship between religious communities, stating that some Coptic organizations "only support Christians’ rights and insult Islam," adding that "you cannot achieve equal citizenship by insulting the other."

Kulsman also stressed the importance of uniform principles. He believes that religious issues "are not domestic, their effects cross over borders." He added that "If you want justice, you must promote these principles (of equality) for everyone."

Hossam Bahgat, president of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), reiterated the same idea to Daily News Egypt.

"Freedom of religion and belief is a universal value" and that although Muslims in Europe face some violations of this freedom — especially in the form of prejudice and lack of representation the public office and the media — "we can’t generalize and speak of identical situations because the historical backgrounds are different."

Bahgat highlighted the efforts of Egyptian groups that oppose sectarian violence such as Together Before God, a Muslim-Christian collective of concerned citizens trying to uproot religious tensions.

Bahgat also stressed the importance of learning from such groups that overlook religious differences and react to oppression or persecution in a unified way, commenting that "What we need is a combination of effective responses to violence and discrimination as well as grassroots work to prevent violence and promote peaceful coexistence."

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