Published through Wazala.
Isolation. That is one way of describing the way Egyptian Christians have historically interacted with their society. Isolation has been used as a way of keeping the peace and of avoiding conflict. Over the years this isolation has come as a response to real and repeated offenses and discrimination. There have been many contributing factors to this isolation, including the church leadership itself, the late Pope Shenouda III, and many other political complexities. However, another large contributor has been different sectors of society. Unintentionally, each sector of society has indirectly supported a further isolation of Christians in Egypt.
On the one hand, the Christians, who are very aware of the problems they are suffering from, have kept quiet. Yes, there have been some protests over the years and an increase since the 2011 uprisings, but one thing I have noticed is that most persecution or discrimination is unknown to society. Days after the event we will hear about something in Upper Egypt or we will find an obscure news site that is recording the event (or more like just a headline). While growing up I noticed this at a microlevel. Even though my siblings and I had been exposed to many different cultures and ethnicities growing up, I did notice that beginning from the time I was in middle school, I always hung out at church, with church friends, and we never changed that, ever. While I did have international friends at school, my church experience was exclusively church friends. By the time I went to the States for college, I realized that I had no Muslim friends, except a few neighbors that we would visit occasionally. It didn’t seem right but it was only after I moved back to Egypt to start working that I finally started connecting with Muslims at a more personal level.
Through this growing interaction with Muslims, mainly colleagues at work in the beginning, I began to learn something very important. I was often one of the first Christians to openly express my faith in front of them. Many of them did not know anything about the Christian faith and especially not their struggle. Their deficit in knowledge prevented them from asking; to say it simply, they were clueless. Over the past four years, since moving back, I have seen this among many of the non-Christians I have interacted with. I have oftentimes heard people openly deny that Christians have any disadvantage in society. Some would go so far and claim that there is a freedom of religion, even that Muslims can change their religion away from Islam. Others strongly believe that the country is not based on even a lax form of Sharia (Islamic) law, but instead a secular French civil law. These claims of course are far from the truth. In many cases, if there are things that are permitted legally, they would prohibited by society instead. Through this denial and simply a lack of curiosity, many Christians have been further alienated.
After the start of the uprisings here in 2011, I got involved in activism in various ways and really experienced different parts of the Egyptian culture that I had not been exposed to before, namely the secular Egypt. As my involvement in activism grew, I came to notice that I was one of few Christians in the political movement I was in at the time, and one of few Christians that I noticed and interacted with in protests or marches. However, in many ways I was actually one of the few religious in the group. I started missing more and more church services because meetings were always during that time, and before I knew it, I didn’t have many Christian friends anymore. Where I had been isolated from the non-Christian society growing up, now I found myself isolated from the Christians themselves.
Among this specific upper echelon of society, the activists and liberals, a strange form of unity developed between the different religious factions. Many of them called for unity despite their religious backgrounds, even though many of them were non-practicing, atheist, or agnostic. I fully support separating the state and religion, but this unity seemed to me to instead be a denial of a very real division that existed in society. Religious sectarianism is a divide in society that will destroy any political advances we gain. Sooner or later, as the year moved on, we began to witness more and more sectarian related violence. It became clear that this unity was not representative of the whole society. In fact, through our silence on the issue of sectarian injustices, we inadvertently supported the acts of violence against the Christian minority group and the isolation they were being further burrowed into.
It is clear that all of the major factions of society have aided in this isolation that Christians have lived in for the past years. However, this status quo is not useful for the Church or any one group in society. History has taught us that a country that is divided on sectarian lines will not see an end to violence. It is in our country’s benefit to fill these gaps with a genuine unity and tolerance of each other. Not one solution exists, but a good place to start is to discuss openly the reality of the situation. Allowing Christians to express their struggle, and giving Muslims a space to listen and to respond is a first step to genuine dialogue and reconciliation.