Bridging Religious Divides and Building a Common Future: Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt

Benjamin MacWilliams, University of Maryland College Park Bringing together youth leaders from the Muslim and Coptic communities in Egypt can begin to address the root causes of educational disparities and threats to communal security for Coptic children.

Introduction

The conflict between Coptic (Copts) Christians and Muslims in Egypt can be traced back to the seventh century.1 Today, Coptic Christians are politically marginalized oftentimes failing to win more than a handful of the 454 seats in the People’s Assembly (Egypt’s Parliament).2 Due to this poor political representation, Copts face obstacles when obtaining ID cards. These Key Facts state ID cards are necessary for • Egyptian Copts are politically disenfranchised, Coptic youth to gain access to winning only one out of 454 seats in the 2005 crucial social services.3 parliamentary elections.9 • Official government policies discriminate against Aside from discrimination in Copts, including previous laws restricting church terms of political represenconstruction and repairs.10 tation and policy, Amnesty • Copts make up around 10% of Egypt’s populaInternational reports, “Egyption, and represent the largest Christian commutian authorities are not doing nity in the Middle East.11 enough to protect...(Copts) or • Coptic-Muslim tensions result in numerous prosecute their attackers.”4 As violent clashes each year, including shootings and a result of law enforcement arsons.12 discrimination, violence against • One-third of Egyptians are younger than 14.13 Copts in the form of shootings, arsons, and other clashes, continues to be an issue of concern.5 Other effects of this discrimination include a lack of employment opportunities, and low admission rates into public universities.6 For Copts under the age of eighteen, the current status quo has an overwhelmingly negative impact on their individual and communal development. Decreased educational opportunities and continued communal violence augment social stratification. Discrimination from political marginalization to slanted educational opportunities continues to threaten Coptic child development.

Analysis

Egypt’s population is remarkably young: the median age is twenty-five, and almost onethird of the population is younger than fourteen.7 As a result, Egypt’s political future, including Coptic-Muslim relations, is in the hands of its youth. If the current generation maintains the status quo, Coptic child development will be stunted. In such a situation, interreligious relations will not improve. But, if young Copts and Muslims are taught to respect one another and live together peacefully, a drastic change is possible. First, young, moderate Egyptian leaders, both Copts and Muslims must understand their inexorably linked past and common future. Remembering their human need of the other, Coptic and Muslim leaders can address issues of discrimination and political disenfranchisement from the ground up. Through educational opportunities and greater

communal safety, the Egyptian youth can positively impact the future of child development. The first step is a youth summit where Coptic and Muslim youth can learn conflict management techniques and build a foundation for future interfaith dialogues and cooperation.

Next Steps

To create positive, long-term change, Coptic and Muslim student leaders must discuss their common history, future and basic human needs in a conflict management workshop whose goal is conflict transformation: to humanize the other religion and to understand their inexorably linked future. The workshop is a starting point to alter Coptic Muslim relations in Egypt. Improved educational opportunities and communal security for Coptic children will ensue. The workshop will engage two local partners, the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS),8 and the American University in Cairo. A source of local knowledge and resources, these partners can identify potential leaders in Coptic and Muslim communities. A more moderate and understanding youth culture leads to a less discriminatory and open society as a whole. The current and future generations Egyptian youth will benefit from these changes. Endnotes

• With one-third of Egypt’s population un• •

Talking Points

der 14, bridging the religious divide at the student will pay long-term dividends Copts and Muslims share common history and Ethnicity – a starting point for building consensus and common ground Engaging with local partners will utilize local knowledge and expertise, laying the groundwork for a successful conflict transformation workshop.

1. David Zeidan, “The Copts—equal, protected or persecuted? The impact of Islamization on Muslim-Christian relations in modern Egypt.” Islam and Christian Muslim Relations. 10.1 (1999): 53-67. 2. Nazih Ayubi, “Political Revival of Islam: The Case of Egypt .” International Journal of Middle East Studies. 12.4 (1980): 481-499. Print. (486). < http://www.jstor.org/pss/163131>. 3. Egypt: Human Rights in Arab Republic of Egypt. 2009. Amnesty International, Web. May 1st, 2010. 4. “Egypt: Egyptian authorities failing to protect religious minorities.”January 12th, 2010. Amnestry International, Web, accessed January 14th, 2010. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/egypt/report-2009>. 5. Michael Binyon, “Copts between the rock of Islamism and a hard place; The oldest Christian community faces harsh new pressures.” Times (London), accessed November 14th, 2009, National ed. Web. 6. “2008 Human Rights Report: Egypt.” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. February 25th, 2009. U.S. State Department, Web, accessed January 21st, 2010 < http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/ nea/119114.htm>. 7. “Africa: Egypt.” The World Factbook. 12 Dec 2009. Central Intelligence Agency, Web, accessed January 10th, 2010. < https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/eg.html>. 8. The Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. Web, accessed January 15th, 2010. ix Ayubi, “Political Revival of Islam: The Case of Egypt .” 9. Ayubi, “Political Revival of Islam: The Case of Egypt .” 10. Binyon, “Copts between the rock of Islamism and a hard place; The oldest Christian community faces harsh new pressures.” < http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article6916192.ece>. 11. “Africa: Egypt.” The World Factbook. 12 Dec 2009. Central Intelligence Agency, Web. 10 Jan 2010. 12. Binyon, “Copts between the rock of Islamism and a hard place; The oldest Christian community faces harsh new pressures.” 13. “Africa: Egypt.” The World Factbook. 12 Dec 2009. Central Intelligence Agency, Web. 10 Jan 2010.

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