Egypt: Coptic priest murdered

February 23, 2011

Disturbing news this morning about the stabbing of a Coptic priest in southern Egypt. From the Associated Press:

ASSIUT, Egypt – A Coptic Christian priest has been killed in southern Egypt, triggering street demonstrations by several thousand Christians.

The priest was found dead in his home. A fellow clergyman, Danoub Thabet, says his body had several stab wounds. He says neighbours reported seeing several masked men leaving the apartment and shouting “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” suggesting the killing was motivated by the divide between Egypt’s Muslims and its minority Coptic community.

About 3,000 protesters scuffled with Muslim shop owners Tuesday night and smashed the windows of a police car in the city, Assiut.

Egypt’s religious tension spiked in January when a suicide bomber killed 21 people outside a Coptic church in the port city of Alexandria. Days of protests followed.

I have transcribed some comments from this morning’s Democracy Now broadcast which touch upon this development, as well as upon the important issue of Egyptian constitutional reform:

Sharif Abdel Kouddous: What’s happening now, the next steps, are the rewriting of the Constitution … not rewriting it, but rewriting several articles. So there’s a few issues with both the mandate and the composition of the committee that the Supreme Council appointed to amend the Constitution. In terms of the composition of the committee, it’s an eight-member panel — it’s all men, so there’s no women on the committee, that’s a problem. It’s headed by Tarek al-Bishry, who was a critic of Mubarak, but a very conservative-leaning legal scholar. It’s also got a member of the Muslim Brotherhood on the panel. So some are very concerned that there’s no women on the panel, that it’s conservative — and that there’s no Copts on the panel. Now hundreds if not thousands of Copts have marched…

Amy Goodman: You mean C-O-P-T, “Copt.”

Sharif Abdel Kouddous: Yes, Coptic Christians who make up about 10% of Egypt’s population. They’re calling on — and this is not in the mandate right now — for Article 2 of the Constitution to be removed. Article 2 enshrines that Islamic law forms the basis of jurisprudence in Egypt … so, Sharia law. So, this affects women’s rights, this affects legal rights in a lot of different ways. So they’re arguing about that. What the committee is looking at right now is a lot of these …; the current constitution that we have right now was formed under Anwar Sadat, the president before Mubarak; it was amended three times since then, 1980, 2005, and 2007. The articles that they’re looking at are these latest changes from 2005 and 2007, which really expanded presidential power, consolidated presidential power, made it almost impossible to form an opposition party; you needed something like two-thirds of the People’s Assembly to approve a new party; the People’s Assembly is dominated by Mubarak’s party, so essentially what you’re saying is, you need the ruling party to approve the opposition. Also, presidential term-limits, things like this. So, they’re looking at all of this, and it’s supposed to be coming out soon and there’s going to be a national popular referendum on the changes within two months.

Amy Goodman: I wonder how significant this is: an hour ago AP reported, Sharif, that a Coptic Christian priest … has been killed in southern Egypt, triggering street demonstrations by several thousand Christians. The priest was found dead in his home; a fellow clergyman says his body had several stab wounds; he says several neighbors reported seeing several masked men leaving his apartment, they were shouting “God is great,” Allahu akbar, suggesting the killing was motivated by the divide between Egypt’s Muslims and its minority Coptic community. Who knows if that is true, but this is the latest report.

Sharif Abdel Kouddous: Well, that’s an ominous development. This divide between Muslims and Christians was something that the Mubarak government really played upon; we saw some church bombings; it’s unclear who did them; but what the pro-democracy movement in Tahrir was very proud of was that they stuck together; you would see when, especially after the attack by the Baltige [?] on Wednesday, any time there was prayer, a lot of the Copts would protect the perimeter while Muslims prayed; they would always chant, “Muslim, Christian: we’re all Egyptian.” You would see people marching, holding with, one holding a Koran, the other holding a Bible, marching together. And so, they believe, and many believe, that this divide was something that was caused by the repression of Mubarak’s government. It was fomented; they played upon it to divide people and to keep them apart. And what was really amazing in Tahrir, and amazing across Egypt, was that it was true democracy playing out in Tahrir; this was what democracy was; if you removed all the lies of the Mubarak government, that the Brotherhood will take over, if you removed all these lies that people hated each other, they managed amazingly to … to force Mubark to step down in the face of so much violence and repression. You know, the government started by throwing out the entire central security apparatus, at them; that didn’t work; they tried removing the police force completely and trying this chaos; and we saw these neighborhood patrols pop up, which was really amazing. I mean, the first day I remember walking home from Tahrir, I’m walking home, it’s completely dark, it’s after curfew, 6 p.m., and you’d see, just, bunches of young men, teens to early thirties, forties, standing there with pipes, some of them armed, talking with each other on cellphones to, you know, the next kind of patrol over, protecting their neighborhood from looters.

When Sharif Abdel Kouddous said this morning that there are no Copts on the panel, this surprised me; it goes against what I had heard and read elsewhere. E.g., Richard Spencer, in an article in the Telegraph, posted February 15th, says:

He [Tarek al-Bishry] has selected a committee made up mainly of judges and politicians, including a judge who is a Coptic Christian, but also a former Muslim Brotherhood MP. There are no women.

If Abdel Kouddous is, in fact, correct in his information that no Copt is actually serving on the constitutional committee, this is indeed a disturbing development; it suggests the possibility that the earlier report was given out falsely, to deflect Western attention. But I would want first to be clear about the fact of a Copt’s being or not being on the committee before speculating any further about motives behind the earlier report. Abdel Kouddous, who just returned to New York after spending the past month in Egypt, is generally very well informed about what is going on inside his country; I would be surprised if he is mistaken on this point.

If Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution is not revised to grant full legal equality to Egypt’s Christian population, the country’s much-celebrated revolution will have been to no purpose. Or, rather, the purposes it will serve may turn out to be quite other than what most of the original demonstrators — and most of us who supported the movement towards democracy in that country — had hoped to see.

The news about the sexual assault upon the American reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square on February 11th, the night of Mubarak’s resignation, is also very disturbing.

God help us.

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