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Leading Copts shun Clinton as talks fuel unease over future

20 July 2012


Dialogue: Hillary Clinton meets Mohammed Morsi, in Cairo last Saturday

Dialogue: Hillary Clinton meets Mohammed Morsi, in Cairo last Saturday

A DECISION by six prominent Egyptian Copts, including two churchmen, to boycott a meeting with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, during her recent visit to Cairo, highlighted the unease felt by the country's Christian minority at the recent turn of political events there.

The Copts' protest arose from Mrs Clinton's talks with the newly elected President Mohammed Morsi, and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders.

Those who stayed away from the meeting with Mrs Clinton - four businessmen and political activists, and two priests - accused the United States and the international community of favouring Islamists in Egypt at the expense of Christians and secularists. A number of Copts also joined in demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria, to protest at the visit by the US Secretary of State.

In general, Copts, like other Egyptians, have been watching political events since the election of Mr Morsi with trepidation. The decision by the new President to overrule the ruling military council and recall parliament raised fears of a confrontation between Islamists and their supporters on the one side, and the army and the constitutional court on the other.

Until this stand-off, and others, are resolved, and a new cabinet is in place, Copts will have little idea about what the future might hold. But, in the immediate aftermath of the elections, Christian leaders in the country said that they had taken heart from reassurances made to them by President Morsi that minorities had nothing to fear from Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Anxiety about possible changes to the constitution which would give greater weight to Islamic sharia, and about Islamists' imposing restrictions on Christians and secularists, were voiced when the Muslim Brotherhood swept to victory in the parliamentary elections earlier this year.

But President Morsi summoned Christian leaders to assure them about their future. One of those who met the President was the President-Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Bishop in Egypt, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis.

Bishop Anis said that he "came out of the 35-minute meeting very encouraged. I must say that this initiative of the President carries in itself the desire to assure Christians that he will be the President of all Egyptians."

Bishop Anis said that the Christian leaders who were invited to see President Morsi "were received with a warm welcome".

The refusal of the Egyptian authorities over recent decades to grant licences to Copts and others to build new places of worship has constituted one of the main grievances of the Christian communities. Copts, in particular, also complain of being denied the opportunities in public life that are available to Muslims.

In his first public speech after being declared the winner of the presidential run-off, President Morsi was at pains to stress that he regarded all Egyptians as equals, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Such assurances have gone some way to allaying fears of both Christians and secular Egyptians, but there are still suspicions that Islamist influence will permeate society. One of the toughest challenges for the new President will be to curb demands from hardline Salafists for a crackdown on symbols of liberalism, such as the sale of alcohol, and women's freedom to dress as they please.

As a columnist in the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, said, the Muslim Brotherhood's "religious ideology remains at odds with a wide spectrum of intellectuals. So to what extent is Morsi capable of respecting the cultural freedoms that existed during the Mubarak era?"

Furthermore, if he does seek to respect those values, he is "likely to stir up the radical wing within the Brotherhood, as well as the Salafi groups, which will target whatever they deem to be a vice. What will Morsi do then? Will he send the police to arrest his comrades in the Freedom and Justice Party, or will he let everyone express themselves however they please?"

In the weeks ahead, Egyptians of all creeds and backgrounds will be keenly awaiting the answer to questions such as these, when life eventually settles down under the first freely elected presidency in the country's history.

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