The Obstacle to Religious Tolerance in Egypt

As fireworks lit up the sky in Tahrir Square on Friday, the world rejoiced for the new beginning that awaits the Egyptian people. Though it is not certain what sort of regime will be established and when elections will take place, one thing is for sure: the tyranny of the old regime has seen its final day.

One of many tyrannical elements of the regime was its duplicitous approach to religious conflict. Though former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak attempted to paint himself as a paradigm of stable leadership, his regime, far from encouraging stability, was actually the source of much of the strife it claimed to put down -- all for the purpose of deflecting attention from the regime's obvious failures.

Recent news reports have suggested that Mubarak's regime had orchestrated some of the religious conflict that caused the recent uprisings in Egypt. Al Arabiya News Channel reported that, last Monday, Egypt's general prosecutor began an investigation of the former Interior Minister, Habib El-Adly, for his alleged involvement in the Alexandria New Year's Day church bombing.

El-Adly is being accused by Coptic lawyer Ramzi Mamdouh of organizing "militias of security personnel, former inmates and members of extremists organizations" that bombed the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria on New Year's Day, leaving at least 21 people dead. Mamdouh's complaint was based on press reports about leaked British intelligence documents. These documents purportedly mentioned "El-Adly militias" that would "wreak havoc in the country if the regime is threatened." Now that the regime has lost its power, we can only hope that such "militias," if they exist, will face a similar fate.

Orchestrating chaos seems to be the modus operandi of this past regime. During the demonstrations, the police plotted, or at least intentionally permitted, arson and looting in order to frighten protestors into staying home.

Thus, news of tactics such as El-Adly's "militias" would hardly come as a surprise to those in Egypt dealing with these attacks. In fact, when I visited Cairo in December, I was told time and time again by government and religious officials that religious strife is at least partly a result of governmental machinations. Copts and Baha'is in Egypt firmly hold that the violence and persecution they have faced is as much a result of government action as it is from extremist religious sentiment.

Certainly this is not to say that all of the conflict is a result of government contrivance. Sectarian tension has deep roots in Egypt. But, on the other side of the coin, there has been a real effort between Christians and Muslims to join hands and curtail the conflict that has arisen -- even if it means putting their lives at stake.

Such courage was displayed in the now-famous act of camaraderie on Coptic Christmas Eve when Muslims formed a human shield around Christians celebrating Mass all throughout Egypt. Christians returned the favor during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, protecting Muslims from police while they prayed. Posters with a crescent moon and a cross were also seen, presenting a clear declaration of peace and unity between the religious groups.

Despite the sentiment among citizens that they are equal regardless of religion, oppression of minority religions is enshrined in Egyptian law. While Egypt's Constitution states that the "State shall guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practicing religious rights," its view of such rights is decidedly narrow. Government restriction makes it difficult for Christians to build and even to maintain churches. Indeed, government authorization is required for any church to be built, renovated, or repaired.

Yet attaining government permission is only the first of many roadblocks to starting or maintaining a Christian church in Egypt. Violent attacks, intimidation, and police citing "security concerns" often halt the Christians' attempt to build a place of worship.

On top of making it difficult to start churches, Egyptian law stifles the free speech of religious minorities by criminalizing those who insult "heavenly religions," and silences Muslim public intellectuals who challenge the "official" interpretation of Islam.

While legal reform is certainly in order, and even as religious groups have shown themselves capable of respecting one another, the problem of religious intolerance will never be defeated if the government is secretly planting seeds of strife by contriving attacks in order to fulfill its ulterior motives. The root of the problem lies with those who hold power, and with the end of the old regime there is a chance to begin anew. As a new regime begins to take shape securing religious freedom for all citizens should be a first priority.