It is Christmas today for Coptic Christians, who still work to the old Julian calendar. But it is not a time for celebration. The lights on their Christmas trees have been switched off in mourning for the 21 people who died when a church in Alexandria was bombed by Islamist extremists on New Year's Day. More than 70,000 police and conscripts are guarding Egyptian churches for Christmas Mass.
The situation is complex as well as tense. Egypt's ancient Christian minority – about 10 per cent of the population – feels neglected and oppressed. The violence is the worst in a decade but tensions have been simmering for three decades, with disputes about church-building, divorce and religious conversions. Six Christians were killed last Christmas Eve. In recent months, radicalised Islamists have been holding venomous weekly anti-Christian demonstrations. Christian youths have been protesting on the streets.
The government, anxious not to offend the Muslim majority, has ignored or colluded in all of this. To act as a counterweight to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which is the main political opposition, the pro-Western regime of Hosni Mubarak tacitly allowed the growth of a non-political Muslim group known as the Salafis, who imported Wahabi ideologies from the Arabian peninsula. But more extreme Salafi elements have now made common cause with al-Qa'ida. The group which threatened the church in Alexandria has links with the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq, which massacred 68 Christians in a church in Baghdad in October.
Disentangling religion and politics here will be a long and sophisticated process. Greater pluralism is needed in Egypt, but care must be taken in a country where, as with Iraq and Pakistan, democracy is tainted with tribal and sectarian loyalties. A shift towards civil institutions separated from religious ones is needed. The building of mosques and churches must be treated more even-handedly. The electoral system must give Copts more equal political representation. Above all, Egyptian law must treat all citizens equally, regardless of religion. The present approach is not working.Reuse content