Mohammed Morsi's victory in Egypt's presidential election raises new fears over the future of religious freedom amongst the country's Coptic Christian minority.
Having called for unity and declared that “we are all equal in rights”, one of the biggest tests of Egypt’s new democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, will be how he seeks to protect the rights of minority faiths – in particular, Christians.
Since the fall of Mubarak’s government, Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who comprise roughly 10% of the country’s population, have found themselves under attack from Islamic extremists, with church buildings facing destruction and believers themselves facing death.
Little wonder, then, that the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood victory led Kurt J. Werthmuller – a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom – to tell Christian Today that:
“A Morsi presidency would give more license to the Muslim Brotherhood to institute conservative Islamist policies in the country, and this would without a doubt make life more restrictive and discriminatory toward the Coptic Christian minority.”
Whilst much of the world has cautiously welcomed Egypt’s democratic expression, the prospect of an Islamic regime calling for closer ties with Iran – which in turn declared the results in Egypt as an “Islamic awaking” – will raise fears for the safety of Egypt’s minority Christians, the rhetoric of unity notwithstanding.
Faced with this potentially difficult situation, what should the West – so vocal in calling for Mubarak to go – do in response?
Many, particularly in the United States, have called for a less compromising approach towards Egypt’s fledging democracy. In December, Congress moved to impose a moratorium on American aid commitments to Egypt ($1.3 billion in security assistance, and $250 million in economic assistance) until the Secretary of State could:
“…certify that Egypt is abiding by a 1979 peace treaty with Israel and that military rulers are supporting the transition to civilian government with free and fair elections and ‘implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law’.”
For Naguib Sawiris, a Coptic business tycoon who had been vocal in his opposition to the Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt, it is now time for the new President to live up to the rhetoric on unity in actions, not just words. He told the private Egyptian TV channel, CBC:
“There are fears of imposing an Islamic state … where Christians don’t have the same rights.”
Morsi “is required to prove the opposite”, he suggested. “We don’t want speeches or promises, but in the coming period, it is about taking action. … He was not our choice but we are accepting it is a democratic choice.”
• Should we be concerned about Egypt’s new president? 25 June 2012
• As order breaks down in Syria, its Christians suffer the consequences 7 February 2012
• Egypt – a new dawn or a sunset on religious freedom? 23 November 2011
• Egypt’s violent military crackdown threatens dream of democracy 21 November 2011
• The West must stand up for religious freedoms in Egypt 10 May 2011
Whether Coptic Christians in Egypt look at the changes now underway as a threat or, as some would suggest, an opportunity, the West has a responsibility to jealously guard those rights to religious freedom that, in part, the Arab spring was supposed to be about.
Having supported uprisings in both Egypt and Libya, it would be morally bankrupt if we now turned a blind eye to threats to liberty in those nations.