Comment: Egypt's Coptic unrest

The Egyptian government's response to the killing of Coptic Christians confirms that only military withdrawal will allow the country to attain democracy, writes Dr Anthony Billingsley.

The violence in Egypt involving Coptic demonstrators, military units and unidentified thugs shocked the country and rang alarms about prospects for transition to democracy.

Egypt is going through a revolution and it would be naive to expect it to proceed smoothly, without finding a reverse gear. Nevertheless, the violence and the government's response to the killing of the Coptic Christians are of real concern.

The unrest originated from Coptic protests about the burning of a church in Upper Egypt. The arson has been attributed to comments (probably mischievous) by the governor of the region who suggested the church had been illegally built - an invitation for anti-Christian radicals.

Seeds of protest

Violence involving Copts is a continuing problem in Egypt. The Coptic community offers a tempting target to extremist Muslims seeking to provoke unrest around the country. Attacks on churches and disputes about religious practices occur regularly.

Egypt's Copts, who number between 10 and 15 million people out of the country's population of 80 million, have long complained about discrimination in education, employment and senior positions in government and the judiciary.

They resent restrictions on their ability to build new churches or repair old ones. They frequently resort to erecting buildings that are designated as community centres, but which effectively operate as churches. This is a source of tension between communities, especially in more remote regions.

Solidarity

The picture is not entirely bleak. In much of the country, especially in Cairo, Copts and Muslims live side-by-side in relative harmony - even to the point of sharing religious festivities and schools.

After the violence on Sunday, many Muslims demonstrated their support for victims of the attacks. Tahrir Square - the centre of the revolution which overthrew President Hosni Mubarak - played host to impressive displays of Muslim-Christian solidarity.

Communal tension will take time to overcome. In the meantime, it is important that the government demonstrates its determination not to tolerate communal violence, as well as its commitment to equality for all Egyptians.

Read the full article at The Conversation

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