Good Friday, a holy day for Christians around the world, is turning out to be a bad day for Egyptian Christians.
Thousands of Muslims gathered to protest the appointment of a Coptic Christian governor in the Qena province this week. This incident comes amid a campaign of discrimination and violence targeting Egypt’s Christian community, which makes up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population.
Egypt has a long history of sectarian violence and discriminatory practices against religious minorities, especially Coptic Christians. This past year alone, dozens of Christians have been murdered, hundreds have been injured, and churches and homes have been destroyed in attacks by Islamic extremists. A bombing at a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve claimed the lives of 13 Christians and injured many others. In March, nine Christians were killed, over 150 were injured, and eight homes and a monastery were set on fire when a group of Copts were protesting against religious discrimination near Cairo. A church in the village of Sool was attacked and completely destroyed last month after a local Muslim leader incited violence against the residing Coptic community. What’s worse, Egypt’s transition to a new government is still in danger of being overshadowed by Islamist sentiment.
Religious liberty must be a priority in political discourse if Egypt is to establish a genuine democracy. Last month, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces banned the formation of religion-based political parties. This is good news for religious minorities, but the Egyptian constitution still states that Islam is the official religion of Egypt and that matters of jurisprudence are subject to Sharia law. Unfortunately, those who would use Islam to promote non-democratic ideas will exploit Sharia for their political benefit. This will dim the hopes of millions of Egyptians—Muslims and Christians alike—who want to preserve freedom and consolidate a stable democracy.
Last month, the nation approved a constitutional referendum that limits the power of the president and established a rapid timetable for elections. However, the referendum gives an illusion of progress; it’s simply bad news for Egyptians who want a total transformation of the political status quo. The Muslim Brotherhood and members of the ruling National Democratic Party were the main supporters of the military-backed referendum. The new amendments give an advantage to these well-organized and well-financed groups over newly established democratic political parties. This is likely to lead to political setbacks for liberal democrats, secular pluralists, and especially religious minorities.
Opponents of this referendum, including the Copts, condemn its ability to foster a truly democratic system of government that protects religious liberty. Elections alone cannot produce a democratic society or enforce a democratic government. A government system cannot become democratic if it remains in the hands of those who wish to exclude the diverse interests and voices of people who called for transformation in the first place.
The Coptic Christian community, along with other religious minorities, deserves to live in a society that upholds religious liberty as foundational to a democratic government. Elections for Parliament members and the office of the president will be held this September. This means that opposition groups have less than six months to organize and campaign for viable leaders. Egyptians must demand a secular state that fosters a civil society based on religious liberty. The cry for religious liberty must be louder. For Coptic Christians, it’s a matter of life and death.
Calandra Vargas is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation.