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NEW YORK CITY (BP)–The shooting deaths of six Coptic Christians in Egypt on Coptic Christmas Eve (Jan. 6) is fueling efforts to publicize and protest what Copts describe as persecution and violence typically met by inaction by the Egyptian government.
Rallies were scheduled today, Jan. 19, at the United Nations at noon and at the Egyptian Mission in New York at 2 p.m., according to Coptic advocacy website www.freecopt.net.
A demonstration at the White House is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 22, followed by one near 10 Downing Street, the office and home of Great Britain’s prime minister, on Jan. 23, according to freecopt.net.
To date, rallies have been held in such cities as Los Angeles, Dallas, Tampa and Nashville; Paris, France; and Sydney and Melbourne, Australia.
In Egypt, protests have been waged in Cairo and in the city of Nag Hammadi (also rendered Nagaa Hamady) where the drive-by shootings took place. Gunmen riddled a shopping area with machine gun fire just before midnight, killing two Coptic Christians. They subsequently fired into worshippers emerging from a Coptic church after midnight Mass, killing four. The church’s Muslim guard also was slain. Fifteen individuals were wounded, according to various reports.
Three suspects were arrested by security forces two days later near Nag Hammadi, about 40 miles from southern Egypt’s largest city, Luxor.
Coptic Christians, whose ancestors embraced Christianity in the first century, comprise the vast majority of Egypt’s Christian minority, which often is estimated at 8 million people, though some Coptic sources say their number is 12 million, among Egypt’s overall population of 78 million.
Egypt’s Copts are the last sizable Christian population in the Middle East. An estimated 2 million Coptic Christians live in other countries.
The U.S. Department of State, in a religious freedom report on Egypt released in October, said the constitution there provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites but, in practice, the government places restrictions on such rights.
State Department officials have raised concerns with the Egyptian government about ongoing discrimination Christians face in building and maintaining church properties as well as the government’s harsh treatment of Muslim citizens who convert to other faiths.
“The government continued to sponsor ‘reconciliation sessions’ following sectarian attacks that generally obviate the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes against Copts and preclude their recourse to the judicial system for restitution,” the State Department report said. “In conjunction with reconciliation sessions, the courts sometimes gave lenient sentences to the perpetrators.”
Detailed in the report were several cases of persecution of Coptic Christians by the Egyptian government, including “an increasingly prevalent pattern of governmental authorities detaining Copts following sectarian attacks and either holding them without charges or threatening false charges and police records.”
The detentions, the State Department said, “serve as a tool to blackmail Coptic authorities to desist from calling for official action to prosecute the perpetrators, and to dissuade the victims and/or their families from seeking recourse in the judicial system for restitution of damages.”
In Nag Hammadi, “instead of the usual joyous Christmas festivities, mourners filled the streets in a heartbreaking funeral procession for the victims on Christmas day, the youngest being only 19,” Caroline L. Doss, a New York-based attorney and Coptic advocate, said in a Jan. 11 news release announcing the protests in New York City.
Doss stated that the Nag Hammadi attack was “in retaliation to the churches’ refusal to participate in government-sponsored forced reconciliation sessions after a November 2009 attack by Muslims on Coptic properties.” A regional government official, however, said the attack was “a crime committed by a thug and does not have anything to do with Islam.” The New York Times, meanwhile, reported that Egypt’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that the killings may have been an act of revenge following accusations last November that a man identified as a Christian had raped a 12-year-old Muslim girl.
“People deal with each other now as Muslims or Christians, not as Egyptians,” Gamal Asaad, a Coptic intellectual and former member of Parliament, lamented to The Times. “There is a prevailing atmosphere of sectarianism and religious incitement which has led to this behavior.”
“Attacks against Copts in Egypt have increased in recent years due to the government’s lack of prosecution of crimes against Copts by Muslims,” Poss asserted. “We demand the Egyptian government start prosecuting Muslim perpetrators of crimes against Copts, so we may begin to see a flicker of justice for Copts in Egypt.”
Magdi Khalil, a Coptic writer living in America, noted in a Jan. 19 news release, “The climate of hatred is deeply entrenched in Egypt’s mosques, the Egyptian media and the Egyptian educational system. Very seldom are killers of Copts apprehended, and when arrested, they are often released for lack of evidence, or given a very light sentence.”
Khalil said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has held office since 1981, “turns a blind eye to what happens to the Coptic citizens of his country. This seems to be an attempt at appeasing the Islamists to strengthen his hold on power and pass it on to his son.”
One Coptic advocacy organization, the Coptic Assembly of America, has launched an online campaign enlisting people to sign a letter to President Obama “reminding him that religious freedoms is a cornerstone of American foreign policy and should be protected around the world.”
Recounting the Christmas Eve shootings, the online letter to Obama states, “This was not a solitary event — in the last 9 months alone, other sectarian attacks in Dmas Meet Ghamr, Dayrout, Al-Tayeba, Hawasliya, Farshout, and Dier Mawas resulted in more murders, Coptic businesses and homes being burned, and the forced migration of Copts from their homes. In all these cases the Egyptian government has continued its pattern of denial and refusal to prosecute the perpetrators.
“Your administration has been completely silent on this massacre, despite the over 1,000 newspaper articles written in English and the protests of thousands of Copts all around the world. Pope Benedict and the Italian Foreign Minister have both spoken out, yet America — supposedly the leader of the free world, and the premier advocate for human rights — stays quiet.”
Referencing the president’s speech at Cairo University in June 2009, the letter continues, “… you said that ‘People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind, heart, and soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it is being challenged in many different ways. Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld — whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt…. Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it.’ … President Obama, please lead by example and show the world that your actions will and do follow your rhetoric.”
Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press; Erin Roach is BP’s staff writer.