Abu Sefein church fire: The Sisi regime doesn't care about Egypt's Christians
For almost 2000 years, Egypt has maintained a strong Christian connection and identity. According to the gospels, it was to the safe haven of Egypt that the Holy Family fled to keep the new-born Jesus safe when Herod the Great carried out the massacre of the innocents. Arguably the earliest church was established by Saint Mark in Alexandria in AD 42, what is today known as the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Despite the arrival of Islam in the 7th century, Egypt remained a majority Christian country until after the 10th century and currently maintains the largest Christian population in the Middle East and North Africa, comprising as much as 15% of Egypt’s 103 million-strong population.
Gone, however, are the days when Egypt can boast of the genuine historic mutual co-existence between Muslims and Christians as lawfully legitimate equals. The Sisi regime would like the world to believe that the devastating fire that ripped through the Abu Sefein Church in Imbaba less than two weeks ago, killing 41 people, including 18 children, was simply a natural ‘tragedy’ that can be briefly mourned and then buried away. But there is a darker aspect to the fire that goes beyond tragedy and touches upon sectarian criminality.
''In 2016, the Sisi regime sought to pay lip service to this injustice against Christians by introducing a law that devolved the power to authorise the building of churches to local governors. But all the law does is devolve injustice – governors can deny the right to build churches without the need to justify their decision, while Christians have no way to appeal the decision.''
In Egypt, if new churches need to be built or old ones need to be renovated, Christians were required by law to receive presidential approval to do so. This law, which dates back to the rule of the Ottoman empire, had been used to restrict the safe construction of churches in Egypt, while the interior ministry, during the rule of the British, added even more restrictive criteria for church construction.
With Egypt’s overall population rising exponentially, this has led to a situation where Christians in Egypt were forced to simply accept dilapidated and thus dangerous churches, or build ‘illegal’ ones, where often funds were low and so corners, when it comes to health and safety, were cut.
In 2016, the Sisi regime sought to pay lip service to this injustice against Christians by introducing a law that devolved the power to authorise the building of churches to local governors. But all the law does is devolve injustice – governors can deny the right to build churches without the need to justify their decision, while Christians have no way to appeal the decision.
Christians still find themselves locked in a system that is designed to ensure that their communities remain stunted and beholden to the state, even if it’s through Sisi’s loyalist governors.
The Abu Sefein fire was one of several that have happened in Coptic churches, including three fires just one week later in Alexandria, Minya and Asyut. In these cases, no one was harmed, but while foul play cannot be ruled out, most human rights organisations and Christians themselves have connected the fires to the sectarian laws that have made these churches ripe for disaster.
It is often reported that Christians in Egypt overwhelmingly support Sisi, and there is certainly some truth in this, but the dynamic of such support must be understood. The relationship is not based on ‘tolerance and equality’ as the Sisi regime would rather absurdly have us believe, it is far more akin to a mafia protection racket.
One of the foundational myths of Sisi’s rule was that he was the only thing that stood between Christians (and, indeed, all other Egyptians) and oblivion at the hands of the alleged Islamist barbarism of the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, in the run up to the coup that removed the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi from power, the Sisi-loyal and controlled security forces were said to have deliberately let Islamists attack Christians, allowing the coupists to falsely blame it on the non-violent Brotherhood and Morsi.
The lives of Christians don’t matter to the Sisi regime at all. Squeezing support from Christians allows Sisi to masquerade as a bastion of tolerance and secularism to his Western backers – despite the maintenance of these sectarian laws that are putting millions of Christian lives at risk on a daily basis.
There’s perhaps no better an example of how quickly the mask of regime’s tolerance can slip whenever Christians step out of line than in 2011, months after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, when thousands of Christians and their Muslim allies, marched to hold a peaceful sit-in at the Maspero television building. The protest had been prompted by the burning of a church in Upper Egypt and the demand was simply equal rights for all Egyptians and the proper protection of Christians. But the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), seething at the site of Christians embracing the new democratic trajectory of the country, opened fire and slaughtered 29 protesters, injuring hundreds of others.
That massacre at Maspero is the true face of the Egyptian regime when it comes to Christians or, indeed, any other minority that dares to defy its rule. Tolerance only exists if there is obedience, but even then such ‘tolerance’ is undermined by endemic sectarianism – at Abu Sefein, just over a week ago, as so many were burning to death, it took Egyptian authorities over 90 minutes to respond, while attacks on Christians are often seemingly allowed to happen and then denied by authorities.
True progress would be one single streamlined law, based on need, on the building and renovation of all religious buildings regardless of faith. However, as with everything else in Egypt, Sisi seeks to preserve the status quo no matter the human cost, whether you’re a Christian a Muslim or neither. With Christians, the salt in the wound is that Sisi and his mouthpieces claim to be their ultimate protectors.
As Maspero and now Abu Sefein demonstrate, their alleged protectors can very quickly become their murderers.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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