Friday, February 12, 2010

Problems on hold:Confounding the Coptic issue

In his recent meeting with the delegation of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Minister of Religious Endowments Hamdi Zaqzouq said that the bill for a unified law for building places of worship would be placed on the agenda of the Egyptian Parliament in its next round. Dr Zaqzouq’s declaration was highly applauded by the Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt’s Parliament) members, but the question which begged an answer was why the delay till the next round, even though the current parliamentary round extends till next July. Five months to go should be ample time to debate the bill, so why the procrastination—given that the bill has been with Parliament for five years now?

Multiple factors strongly call for a unified law for building places of worship. In view of the cumulative build-up of Coptic grievances, and in the aftermath of the Nag Hammadi crime, we cannot afford to delay the implementation of measures to resolve the sectarian problem. The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) said, in its last annual report, that the passage of a unified law for building places of worship would put an end to one of the chief causes of sectarian strife in Egypt. Again, in a declaration it issued in the wake of the Nag Hammadi crime, the NCHR said the passage of the law would be pivotal in ending religious discrimination among Egyptians. Moreover NCHR vice president Kamal Abul-Magd said that delaying the passage of the law would send out an erroneous message that the State was turning a blind eye to religious discrimination and disregarding the resultant sectarian strife.
I was unable to join in the Shura Council members’ applause of Dr Zaqzouq. Frustrated, I was wary about the seriousness of the government in tackling the root of the Coptic problem. Instead of applying prompt measures to reform the sectarian scene, the government has embarked on an attempt to beautify its image before a foreign delegation on an annual visit to Egypt. It is not as though the government is being cornered into a defensive stance, since the Copts in Egypt are far from opting for an internationally-imposed solution to their problem. Muslims and Copts alike have made it clear that Coptic grievances should be resolved inside Egypt, basing on citizenship rights. In this light, the government’s move to delay placing the bill before Parliament to a future round is unfathomable and unjustified.
Dr Zaqzouq said that the law, once passed in the future round, would once and for all end all Coptic complaints about difficulties in building churches. Rifaat al-Said, head of the Tagammu Party’s parliamentary authority in the Shura Council, said that the law would terminate the tensions resulting from official bias against a sector of Egyptians. Mamdouh Qinawi, representative of the free Constitutional Party in the Shura Council, said that the problems of building churches ought to be resolved since there was no alternative to rooting the citizenship rights of Copts. All these and similar declarations make it eminently obvious that Egypt is in dire need for a unified law for building places of worship. Why then place it on the backburner till a future parliamentary round?
This delay on the part of our executive authority may come as no surprise, however, if one is to take a closer look at the Egyptian legislative authority. The parliamentary fact-finding commission to Nag Hammadi issued a dire warning that sectarian crimes are bound to escalate unless prompt measures are taken to contain the inflammatory sectarian scene. But what should Speaker of the Parliament Fathy Sorour say to this? “Muslims and Copts have lived side by side in Egypt ever since Amr Ibn al-Ass conquered Egypt [in the 7th century]. They have continued to share equal rights and duties indiscriminately.” Does Dr Sorour believe that to be a supposedly precise depiction of the reality we are about to embark on reforming? Or is it intentional concealment and embellishment of the facts?
The Speaker of the Shura Council Safwat al-Sharif declared that, under President Mubarak, the Copts have restored ten times as many churches as they did under Mohamed Ali. I admit it was past me to fathom the comparison. Was Mr Sharif implying that Copts are better off now than at any time in history? Or was he implying that the rule of Mubarak could in any way be compared to that of Mohamed Ali who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1840? The absolute irrelevance of the statement suggests the real problem is being discounted. With such messages emanating from the legislative authority, is it any surprise that the executive authority should delay any positive action? The stalling and side tracking of both authorities is obviously confiscating the direly needed reform which the sorry Nag Hammadi incident brought into focus.

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