EGYPT: Coptic pope demands effort to tackle grass-roots sectarian problems
While calling on his fellow Copts to maintain calm despite their frustration and grief over a church bombing that left 25 dead on New Year's Eve, Coptic Pope Shenouda III asked the Egyptian government to address Christians' main complaints.
"We believe in the rule of the law and order but we want equality, and if certain laws can't bring us such equality, then they should be amended," the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church told Egyptian state television on Monday. "I believe that the state has a duty to solve Copts' problems."
Riots have spread across Egypt over the last three days, with thousands of Coptic protesters demanding an end to what they call religious discrimination. Scores of demonstrators and police officers were injured in violent clashes.
"I plead with our sons to calm down," Shenouda said. "We can't prevent people from expressing their sorrow, yet I ask them to express it without violence."
Shenouda's calls to resolve sectarian problems coincide with a statement issued by a coalition of 12 Egyptian human rights organization, which said that the deadly attack should be used by the government as an opportunity to adopt new policies in dealing with the sectarian issue.
"A policy must be based on principles of equality and nondiscrimination among citizens on the basis of religion or belief," the statement said.
"The state itself at times even spreads and adopts disposition of violence in its policies when dealing with religious minorities and even all citizens."
Egypt's Copts, who form the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, amount to 10% of the country's population of 82 million. For years they've lived in relative harmony amid majority Muslims, but in recent years there has been an alarming rise in tensions between the two communities.
Obstacles in granting Christians approvals to build new churches, as opposed to the ease of building new mosques, have long fueled Copts' sense of injustice.
As a result, many Christians resort to illegally transforming houses, villas and social service centers into houses of worship, which upsets neighboring Muslims and has caused violent confrontations in a number of towns in the south of Egypt.
Another source of conflict has been the Egyptian constitution, which was amended by the late President Anwar Sadat to make Islamic Sharia law the only source for legislation.
Also, the rise to fame of a number of Coptic billionaires in recent years, amid the financial woes experienced by the majority of Muslims, have created a feeling of envy and isolation for struggling Muslims.
Muslims who convert to Christianity find it nearly impossible to get new identification cards designating their new faiths, despite a law stating that every Egyptian has the right to adopt his own religion.
Copts have repeatedly stressed their dismay at the government for not acting on the increasing resentment by some Muslim extremists toward Christians, as well as for failing to issue new laws guaranteeing equality in Egypt.
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo
Photo: Clashes between Coptic protesters and police officers on Monday. Credit: Nasser Nasser /Associated Press