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Egypt's Christians wary ahead of crucial election

An Egyptian voter casts his vote in a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, on March 19, 2011 during a referendum on constitutional amendments.

An Egyptian voter casts his vote in a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, on March 19, 2011 during a referendum on constitutional amendments.

Published Nov 22, 2011

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Cairo - As Egypt prepares to elect a new parliament, the country's Christians are concerned about their fate if Islamic fundamentalists become widely empowered in a new Egypt.

Islamists are expected to make sweeping gains at the polls between November 28 and January 10, in the first election since the government of Hosny Mubarak was forced from power in February.

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The Christian minority in the predominantly Muslim country has grievances that stretch back decades and many are sceptical that a new government would not look out for their interests.

“I am particularly concerned that the Salafists will curb religious freedoms, stop the building of churches, and strictly rule the country according to the sharia Islamic law,” said Manal Naggie, a Coptic Christian who works as a pharmacist.

Around 10 per cent of Egypt's 80 million people are Christian. Salafists, ultra-conservative Muslims, are a minority among the Muslim population but appear to be gaining considerable influence.

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“What also worries me is that the state-run media allows Muslim radicals such as Mohammad Amar to tell the public not to elect Christian candidates,” Naggie told dpa.

Amar is a Salafist cleric who recently issued a fatwa, or religious edict, prohibiting votes for Christian, secularist and liberal candidates in the election, saying it would be a “grave sin.”

Many of the Christians who spoke to dpa, argued that they were not the only ones worrying about Islamists coming to power. Their Muslim compatriots and other minorities in Egypt were apprehensive too, they said.

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Muslims and Christians were united during the popular revolt that led to the toppling of Mubarak's repressive regime that had spanned almost three decades. But the rapprochement was short-lived.

Over the past nine months the country has seen some of the worst sectarian violence in decades. In early October, 27 people, most of them Copts, were killed in clashes between the army and protesters in central Cairo.

Many Christians already believe that the prevalent uncertainty in the country under interim military rule puts their status further in jeopardy.

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“We have stopped trusting the Military Council after the army troops attacked peaceful Christian protesters,” said George Wadei, a Christian worker.

For minorities and secular Egyptians alike, the initial hype of the Arab Spring has died down. Islamists have emerged as an influential power following popular revolts that have swept across the Arab world since early 2011.

“The people who now push for an Islamic state in Egypt are not aware that all religious states are doomed,” Christian activist Rami Kamel said.

“Christians must support liberal and secular candidates because a civil state is not only important for Egypt, but for the whole region as well,” Kamel added.

The country's Christians have long complained of being treated like second-class citizens, underrepresented in state institutions and decision-making agencies.

The influential Muslim Brotherhood says it favours a civil state - not a theocracy - with a constitution based on the sharia, or Islamic law.

“The civil state perceived by the Muslim Brotherhood guarantees equal rights for Copts,” Mohammad Morsi, a spokesman for the group, said on state television recently.

The group's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, says it supports the appointment of Copts to top government posts but subscribes to the Islamist view that Christians and women are unfit to be president.

“Although I am a Christian, I am not completely against having a state in Egypt based on the sharia if that is what the majority want and it would guarantee freedom for everyone,” said Mandy Fahmy, an interpreter.

“But this also depends on how the sharia will be implemented,” she added.

Christians from all denominations are struggling to come to terms with the new reality in Egypt, with many doubtful they will be duly represented in the parliament that will emerge at the start of the coming year.

Some experts predict Christian representation of less than 1 per cent. Political parties are fielding very few Christian candidates in the election.

According to Coptic activist Jane Lomil, Christians, having largely been excluded from the political scene over the past 30 years, have come to define themselves as “Christians instead of Egyptians.”

“The question now is whether Egypt's Christian community will re-enter political life as Egyptians and not just Christians.”

In the run-up to the first round of voting in the staggered election, Egyptians were taking stock of their lives and country.

“What you see now in Egypt is a result of 60 years of repressive rule, poor education, and polarization of the people,” said Fahmy.

“I am going to vote for the candidate or the party who can achieve a major renewal in all Egypt. Everything around us is terrible.” - Sapa-dpa

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