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Report: Egypt

Egypt's Coptic Christians are politically divided

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Sharm el-Sheikh, 15 March 2015.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Sharm el-Sheikh, 15 March 2015. Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Egypt's Christian community have often bared the brunt of political and sectarian tensions following the 2011 revolution. Christians in Egypt are said to number at least 10 million. But even taking a census of this number is seen as politically divisive.


Many Coptic Christians left Egypt under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, the ouster of the Brotherhood in 2013 and the return of a military-backed government has divided the Christian community.

Egypt's elections were postponed indefinitely in March. But the country is still preparing for elections - as some say Egypt's church is becoming increasingly political.

Father Paul Halim is a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church at St Marks Cathedral in Azbakeya. He argues that the Church is just focused on spiritual matters. "Our Church doesn't care about the election, or about politics," he said.

But Father Halim also says that the Church has publicly backed former defense minister, now President Abdel-Fatah al Sisi: "The Church supports Sisi?" he asked. "No- the Church supports the Egyptian public. All of the people in our country support Sisi. And the Church supports the people, who support Sisi."

In what many see as an unprecedented move, the Coptic Pope Tawadros II has openly aligned himself with the Sisi. He has labelled him a "hero", and the saviour of Egypt's Christian community following a year of rule by the Muslim Brotherhood.

But as the country prepares for parliamentary elections, not everyone in the community welcomes this public support for the government.

"My decision from day one is that I represent myself through the public not through the Church, not by being a Christian but by being an Egyptian," says Shahir George, ia member of the Egypt Freedom party, and a Coptic Christian.

George says he is opposed to the Church playing such a heavy political role, saying that "whatever position the Church wants to take should be representative of the Church and its leadership, not representative of the Christian community at large."

George says that there are groups of activists who say they are formed to represent the interests of the Coptic community. "Plus there are the other groups who belong to the democratic camp as myself and others, and these groups are very resistant to join the upcoming elections because we feel the overall environment is not so encouraging for us to join elections."

Parties and groups on the left, like the Egypt Freedom Party, have chosen to abstain from the election because they say their conditions for democracy haven't been met. They say the government is ignoring their demands for reform in favour of human rights, and instead is shutting down dissent.

Timothy Kaldas is a political analyst and a professor of politics at Cairo University. "Christians are split in much the same way as many other groups within Egypt," he says. "You have old leftist families you have young leftist youth, you have entrepreneurs and businesspeople who have more capitalist and freemarket leaning, you're going to have general social conservatism, much like the rest of the population. So, I mean, not a lot of people prone to support radical social change of any description."

Kaldas says that the Church has become a kind of political lobbyist on behalf of Christians in Egypt. He argues that its new pro-government position could be a move to protect its members:

"If the Church didn't express its loyalty to Sisi or didn't express its loyalty to the post-coup government, there's probably a fear within the Church that that could result in more hardship for Christians in Egypt."

Even with all the delays, there are fears that Egypt's next parliament, whenever it finally arrives, will simply be a rubber stamp to President Sisi's decrees. With the Christian community still concerned about their safety, their support for Sisi is likely to stay the course.

The result is that business as usual for this next parliament could be exactly what Egypt's Christians want.

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