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Egyptian Copts pour in to Holy Land for Easter

05 April 2013

ABOUT 4000 Egyptian Christians celebrated Easter in the Holy Land this year, brushing aside the ban on such visits that was in force during the era of the late Pope Shenouda II, and taking a break from what Amnesty International calls the continuing oppression faced by Copts. The number of Christian Egyptians in Jerusalem on Easter Day was up about 40 per cent over last year, reports from Cairo suggest.

Although the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel allows Egyptians to travel to Israel, few do so. Pope Shenouda forbade Copts from setting foot in Israel, because of the continued occupation of Palestinian land. But, since taking office in November 2012, Pope Tawadros II has not explicitly banned travel to Israel - a fact taken by many Copts as a sign that they are free to do so. Others argue, however, that the ban remains until officially rescinded.

While this is a divisive issue for Copts, a more pressing concern is the deterioration of political, social, and economic conditions in Egypt. Amnesty said in a statement last week that there is a continuing pattern of discrimination against Christians. There have been at least five attacks this year alone on churches or affiliated buildings.

In the most recent incident at Wasta, about 70 miles south of Cairo, churchmen were accused by Salafist Muslims of trying to convert a young woman to Christianity. The church denied the accusation. Nevertheless, Amnesty says, Salafists organised protests in the town, shouting slogans such as "Let the Christians die from fear," and "Today your sister, tomorrow your wife."

Local residents told Amnesty that leaflets were distributed at the market, and outside stores owned by Christians, highlighting Muslims' religious duty to stand up against the woman's alleged disappearance. A number of businesses were intimidated and closed. Later, a group of protesters started a fire at a church. Only then did security forces step in.

"Coptic Christians across Egypt face discrimination in law and practice, and have been victims of regular sectarian attacks while authorities systematically look the other way," the Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Amnesty International, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, said. "The authorities' response to the violence has been poor, at best. They have often favoured 'reconciliation' over the prosecution of offenders as a way to address sectarian violence."

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