CAIRO — A popular uprising, backed by Egypt’s Army, has deposed the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. As interim President Adly Mansour guides the formation of a new constitution, Egypt’s Christians hope that they will have full inclusion in Egyptian society after enduring some of the worst religious persecution in decades.
Christians make up 10% of Egypt’s 85 million population, and most belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, led by Pope Tawadros II. They have endured decades of religious discrimination from Egypt’s military rulers until the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but they have suffered even more under the Islamist government of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood until the June 30 revolution.
Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for Egypt’s Catholic Conference, spoke with the Register July 6 by telephone from Cairo about the revolution in Egypt, the situation of the Christians and the great hope for the future if Egypt’s technocrats can devise a new constitution that gives full civil rights to Christians and all minorities and relieve the nation’s economic suffering.
Father Rafic, thank you so much for this interview. Can you tell us what is it like on the ground right now in Egypt?
Between two to three days ago, and now, we have a very small group, the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, trying to instill fear in the opposing groups, who are the most creative people of Egypt. They’re using violence or threats. They threw a boy from a building, and this morning a priest was killed.
So there is violence on the ground and bloodletting here and there. But this is not a coup d’etat, as portrayed by the Western media.
What is going on then? A revolution or a coup d’etat?
It is a revolution. Thirty million people went out into the streets refusing this regime, and the army protected these people. A coup d’etat is just the opposite: The officers reverse a government and then rule by themselves. And then maybe the people would support them. This happened before in Egypt in 1952.
But this is not the case today. The people demanded to get rid of this regime, and the army heard the demands of the people.
We’ve heard the Tamarod ["Rebel"] movement sparked the second revolution. They delivered 22 million petitions and led the protests demanding Morsi leave the presidency and the reform of the constitution. Can you tell us more about them?
Much of the movement is made of young people who were in the Jan. 25 revolution. They belong to different groups that made a coalition to re-correct the revolution, because the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of people in the first revolution.
Why are youth so important in this revolution?
More than 60% of the population is young people under 30 years old. They want their future. They want a civil state. They want to put Egypt back as a civilized country in the international community. It’s their future that they want to take back.
Is this conflict in Egypt, then, between moderate Muslims and Christians on the one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists on the other?
No. There are Muslim radicals who are with the rest of the Egyptians, like the Salafists. Long ago, they detached from the Muslim Brotherhood, and they refused to let the Muslim Brotherhood use them as shields. They are with the rest of the people, and they are welcomed to be with us, since they do not use violence, but use democratic ways.
It’s only the Muslim Brotherhood and their partners who are hurt because their president was removed.
How real is the danger of Egypt heading toward civil war like Syria?
We can differ on terminology. A civil war can be whether there are many militant groups killing and making war on each other. But this is not the case in Egypt. The case is that most people want peace, solidarity and love. But there is a small group of Islamist fundamentalists and the Muslim Brotherhood who want to harm and break this solidarity.
We see a lot of anger from Egyptians on the street toward the United States over the Muslim Brotherhood. Can you tell me a little more about that?
The American administration is putting many question marks in front of us. The administration was encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood with money and was giving them political support up to the end. The American ambassador, Anne Patterson, was very much allied to Mohammed Morsi and protecting this regime, even though they knew the Muslim Brotherhood was supporting the jihadists in Sinai and supporting Hamas.
How dramatically did the suffering of Christians increase under the Muslim Brotherhood?
Even under the Mubarak regime, there were sectarian problems. Since the Muslim Brotherhood took over, we’ve had a sectarian problem every day, which is never resolved.
There was no security. They used to kidnap Christian girls to Islamize them or to marry them to very old men. They forced people to move with their families from one village to another. The churches were attacked or burned, like what happened yesterday in Minya. They were just watching and doing nothing. The president [Morsi] and the Muslim Brotherhood accepted that the cathedral of the [Coptic] pope be attacked and did nothing.
So the Christians, like the moderate Muslims, were getting fed up. There were no medicines, no solar [diesel fuel subsidized by the government] and no food. The Egyptian pound was very low. Things were getting more expensive, but nothing to ease the life of the Egyptians! Nothing, nothing!
The people went to revolt against this regime, and 25 to 30 million people were out in the streets. So, it is not a coup d’etat. It is a really a coup of the people.
Are the people rejecting the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious aims and sharia (Islamic law)?
Most of the laws in Egypt have depended on sharia for a very long time. The Christians have no problem with this. We want a ruler who has to be just and does not discriminate.
People get misled and confuse sharia with the [interpretive] tradition of the hard fundamentalists, such as the cutting of hands, stoning someone who has committed adultery and things like that. Sharia is much wider than that.
How did the Muslim Brotherhood change sharia in Egypt?
The Muslim Brotherhood inserted two articles on the interpretation of sharia in the constitution — and thankfully we are constructing a new one now — that opened the door to the most fundamentalist interpretation of sharia and sharia rulings.
What is the role of Christians in this revolution?
Most of the Christians participated very strongly in the Jan. 25 revolution, but especially in this revolution. I am pastor of a parish, and all my parish was on the street during the demonstrations.
What can Christians expect in the future?
Well, they expect to be treated equally as citizens without discrimination. They expect the laws they need (like the "Law of the Family" and the "Law of Building Churches") and a way to participate fully in the political and social life of Egypt. They also expect respect for women, because the Muslim Brotherhood did everything they could to decrease the presence of women in the constitution, the laws, everything. They just wanted women to wear the burqa and stay at home.
Why do Christians need special laws for building churches and for the family?
They law we have now is from the very beginning of the 20th century and does not give Christians the right to build churches unless they have a permit. But this permit never comes.
On the law of the family, we are ruled now by sharia. But the judges don’t know the Christian canon law. They only rule as far as they can, because they don’t have Christian law in their hands for dealing with problems in Christian families: heritage, divorce, annulments and things like that. Problems keep increasing without any ruling.
Has the revolution created greater bonds of solidarity among Egypt’s Christians?
The Christians in the Middle East are under pressure. And when the Church is under pressure, the Christians get united with each other. I think the Christian leaders now have this orientation, this vision.
What kind of solidarity can Christians outside of Egypt show the Church in Egypt?
First of all, please pray for Egypt and the Christians of Egypt. Pray especially that we don’t have more bloodshed. And then, economically, if they can help by money or offering whatever they can give, even their talents, in service of rebuilding the new Egypt.
Register correspondent Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.
Assisting Egyptian Christians:
Caritas Internationalis in Egypt provides a number of social programs on behalf of the Catholic Church, including vocational training, education, medical assistance, micro-financing for start-up business and more.
BLESS (the Bishopric of Public Ecumenical and Social Services) is the official charity of the Coptic Orthodox Church and distributes charitable donations among ten programs: Family Assistance, Medical Assistance, Assistance for People with Disabilities, Education, Housing, Roofing, Outreach, Marriage Expense Assistance, Assistance for the Underdeveloped and Emergency Relief.