Egypt: Fears replace Christians' high expectations

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013 photo, an Egyptian Coptic Christian sits in the Mar Girgis, or St.George, Monastery, south of the ancient city of Luxor, Egypt. There is no sign of the hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims who normally flock here every November for the week-long festival of Mar Girgis. The government canceled the festival, fearing it would be a target for Islamic militants who have stepped up attacks since the July 3 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Manu Brabo, Associated Press

MAR GIRGIS MONASTERY, Egypt — There is no sign of the hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims who flock here every November. No tattoo artists inscribing crosses on the wrists of babies or images of saints on the arms of young men. No stalls selling crosses, icons or pillows embroidered with portraits of patriarchs.

The only noise disturbing the quiet of the Monastery of Mar Girgis these days is the call for prayers blaring from the nearby mosque.

The week-long festival of Mar Girgis, or St. George, has been held here annually for more than a century, attracting as many as 2 million pilgrims from across Egypt to one of the biggest and most exuberant events of the year for Orthodox Coptic Christians.

This year, however, the government canceled the festival, fearing it would be a target for Islamic militants who have stepped up attacks since the July 3 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

The cancellation — along with those of two similar festivals the past few months — has fed Christians' fears that they are not benefiting as they had hoped from publicly supporting the military's removal of Morsi. Their worst fear, some say, is the discrimination against them will endure.

Christian activists have been pushing for solid gains after the removal of Islamists from power. They want the revised constitution to clearly state that all Egyptians are equal and to remove draconian restrictions placed on the construction and restoration of churches. They also want an end to the illegal but routine practice of denying Christians top positions in the military, security services, academia and the judiciary. Many seek a set quota for Christians in parliament to ensure a proportionate representation for the community.

So far, however, they appear to have gotten no stronger language in the constitution protecting their rights, as the 50-member panel drawing up amendments to the mainly Islamist-drafted charter passed under Morsi begins to put together a final draft.

"The Copts have paid a high price since Jan. 25 and until now," said Maher Shoukri, a Christian activist, referring to the start of the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

"The Copts must reap the fruits of the revolution and feel the change," said Shoukri, from the Christian-led rights group, the Association of Maspero Youth.

Egypt's Christian minority, about 10 percent of the population of some 90 million, long has complained of discrimination.

The Coptic Orthodox Church, to which most of them belong, has done away with its customary caution about involvement in politics when Pope Tawadros II publicly supported Morsi's ouster. On July 3, the pope stood with Egypt's top Muslim cleric behind military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi when he announced Morsi's ouster.

Since then, Christians have been hit by a backlash from Islamists. Mobs torched, looted or destroyed at least 40 churches across Egypt. Tawadros has been vilified in graffiti painted over church walls and Christian homes and businesses.

Kidnapping Christians for ransom has seen a dramatic rise in areas south of Cairo, particularly Minya, home to the highest percentage of Christians in any of the nation's 27 provinces. Activists report a rise in Christians leaving the country, and even some churches have advertisements offering help in getting visas abroad.

Now some Christians feel their church was used to give the coup the appearance of inclusiveness. They complain that the new order in Egypt has failed in its first test — protecting Christians — underscored by the cancellation of the Mar Girgis festival.

"Christians are deluding themselves into believing that their safety lies with the military," said Nirvana Mamdouh, a Christian activist.

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