Cairo, Egypt, Oct 23, 2014 / 19:26 pm
While problems still exist, Christians in Egypt feel "much safer" under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former military officer who played a key role in the coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, a Catholic official said.
"The mood has improved considerably. The security situation is getting better. There is greater stability," Father Rafik Greiche, press officer for the Egyptian bishops' conference, told Aid to the Church in Need Oct. 21.
"Christians feel a lot safer. They are going to church without feeling threatened as they did under President Morsi … In all, a more peaceful atmosphere is being created."
A 2011 revolution, part of the Arab Spring, had overthrown Hosni Mubarak, a military officer who had been Egypt's president since 1981. The following year Morsi, of the Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, became the first democratically elected Egyptian president.
"Under the Muslim Brotherhood Molotov cocktails were hurled at churches or graffiti was sprayed on the walls," Fr. Greiche recounted.
On July 3, 2013, Egypt's military ousted Morsi, and in August began a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Violence then spread across the country, with Islamists killing hundreds of people from August to October. Churches were vandalized, burned, and looted, as were the homes and businesses of Christians.
In January, the interim government approved a new constitution, and then el-Sisi won elections in May, which were boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other political groups.
Three journalists from Al Jazeera have been imprisoned in the country since December 2013, accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and of spreading false news; the three have an appeals hearing scheduled for Jan. 1, 2015.
"The number of acts of aggression has fallen to a low level, a minimum," Fr. Greiche explained. "Sometimes there are still inter-religious tensions in some villages. It still happens that jihadists abduct Christian girls. But the situation has nevertheless improved considerably. The problems that exist are only a fraction of those that Christians experienced under Morsi."
He added, though, "That does not mean that there are no incidents whatsoever. There continue to be Muslim-Christian difficulties of the kind we have been familiar with for more than 30 or 40 years."
Fr. Greiche said that el-Sisi has received representatives from both the Orthodox and Catholics, as well as Protestants: "He told them that Christians have every right to have their churches and to pray."
El-Sisi's government is working with Christians "to prepare a law governing the construction of churches," the priest reported. "This is one of our most urgent problems here in Egypt – to-date it has been very difficult to build a new church."
The drafted version of the law, Fr. Greiche said, would allow such symbols as crucifixes to "be mounted visibly on the exterior" and would "also stipulate that the construction of new places of worship is no longer subject to the approval of state security authorities."
"The President himself will no longer himself have to grant permission to build a new church; instead this will be the responsibility of the provincial governor. If the latter has no objections after a period of 60 days after a proposal is submitted, the work can proceed."
The proposed legislation, however, "is in limbo, as the country currently has no Parliament that could pass such a law."
Fr. Greiche said parliamentary elections "are due to take place at year's end," but he fears that Islamists will play a major role in the new legislative body.
"The problem is that the civilian parties are very weak and lacking direction. They also don't have much backing. The Islamists will probably not have a majority, but they could form a substantial minority that is capable of upholding or delaying the passing of legislation."
Egyptian Christians, he said, are threatened both by "jihadists based in neighbouring Libya, who are sending weaponry into Egypt" and by those on the Sinai Peninsula.
The priest added that when the Islamic State began to drive Christians from Mosul, "not a word was heard initially from the Sunni Al-Azhar University, for example."
It was only when Copts gathered in Cairo and appealed to the university – the highest authority in Sunni Islam – to condemn the violence that "the school actually did publish a statement."
"Unfortunately, the curriculum of the university and that of the schools managed by Al-Azhar feature many aspects that are pretty much in line with ISIS transgressions," Fr. Greiche said.
"Fundamental changes must be made because such teachings have a big effect on people's thinking."