Intimidation and incitements targeting Christians in Egypt are on the rise, according to a Coptic human rights group.
And, as Egypt enters into a volatile period of political changes, U.S.-based Coptic Solidarity fears that the “blatant” incitements could eventually degenerate into wholesale violence against Copts and their spiritual leaders.
“Above and beyond the never-ending and routine scenario of violence, discrimination, alienation, and persecution the Copts have endured, there has been an alarming upsurge of significant anti-Coptic activities over the recent weeks,” the rights group reported this past Thursday.
Among the incidents include a series of “wild demonstrations" – the latest on Oct. 8 – in Cairo and other cities demanding the delivery of a Coptic priest’s wife, who demonstrators insist had converted to Islam. Despite “vehement affirmations” that the conversion rumors are baseless, leaders of the demonstrations have vowed to carry on with more mob outbursts and “other daring means” until the woman is handed over.
In another recent incident, an Islamic book publisher printed a "forged Bible" that the Coptic Church said amounted to blasphemy and religious intolerance.
The owner of the Islamic Enlightenment Publishing House, Abuislam Abdullah, wrote in the introduction of the publication that the goal of printing the text was to “prove” there are multiple versions of the Bible and that Christians had “forged theirs.”
In a statement, Abdullah also said the version of the Bible his company published was written before the Book of Genesis.
The Coptic Church, in response, demanded the publishing house take the book off the shelves and said it would consider taking legal action if the company did not remove the text from publication. It called the book “extremely offensive.”
Notably, however, such ridicule of Christian and Jewish holy books has been “systematically” taking place, noted Coptic Solidarity.
Meanwhile, even passing remarks remotely critical of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, are denounced as blasphemous.
Last month, the Coptic Orthodox Church’s second highest ranking cleric was cited in the Egyptian media for wondering about the time frame for the revelation of the Quranic verses disputing the divine nature of Jesus Christ.
Bishop Bishoy reportedly said these verses were inserted by one of the Prophet Muhammad's successors after his death – a statement that sparked outrage as Muslims believe that Muhammad received all verses through the Archangel Gabriel during his lifetime and that they are the immutable word of God.
The bishop also reportedly said "Muslims are only guests" in the country, though Coptic Pope Shenouda III later blamed the press for possibly misquoting Bishoy as Coptic Christians make up around 6 to 10 percent of the country's 80 million people.
After the bishop’s remarks were made known, thousands of Muslims demonstrated and the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, a formal state body headed by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, strongly condemned the remarks in question.
The council further took the opportunity to point out that "Egypt was, according to its constitution, an Islamic State" and that "the citizenship rights of non-Muslims were conditional on their abiding by the Islamic Identity of the State."
The council’s statement, Coptic Solidarity noted, “revers[es] modern progress and downgrad[es] the Copts to their formerly historical status of mere Dhimmis – suppressed and humbled non-Muslims living under the will of Islam.”
“Such thinly veiled menace further risks making the Copts a religiously-sanctioned target of more persecution and violence,” the human rights group noted.
In light of these and other developments, Coptic Solidarity rebuked the “usually intrusive Egyptian authorities” for remaining silent and accused them of possibly “trying to use Islamic radicalism as a means to channel against the Copts the escalating social discontent in the country.”
“Coptic Solidarity made the point to hold the Egyptian authorities and political leadership fully responsible, and demand that effective measures be taken immediately to abate this dangerous tide,” it concluded.
Although Egypt's Muslims and Copts have generally lived in peace, tensions are on the rise over the construction of new churches and reported cases of conversions.
Since 2002, Egypt has been on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s “Watch List” for its serious religious freedom violations, including widespread problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities.
While small, Egypt’s Coptic population stands as the largest Christian community in the Middle East and is also among the oldest. The Apostle Mark reportedly founded the Coptic Church in the first century when he brought Christianity to Egypt. Muslims brought Islam to Egypt six centuries later, after which the country gradually came to be predominantly Muslim.
Today, 90 percent of Egypt's population is Muslim.