By Martin Surridge – Just a couple weeks before the revolution in Egypt inspired the Middle East and captured the attention of the world, we posted a link to an article that explained how Egypt’s Coptic Christian community was calling for more religious freedom after attacks on churches in Nag Hamadi and Alexandria left 29 people dead. Few could have predicted the events that followed–the further loss of life, historic protests in Tahrir Square, and the eventual overthrow of Mubarak’s government. And while the lack of religious liberty in Egypt was relatively under-reported during the uprising, looking back it is hard to argue that it didn’t play a role in exacerbating tensions in the North African nation.
This is Article18-RLTV’s weekly blog specifically dedicated to religious liberty issues in other countries around the world. Each week, we focus on a different nation, and the struggles facing one of its religious communities. This week: Egypt, a much-changed and still-fragile nation, possibly on the path to some form of democracy, featuring an interview with a young Egyptian man named Milad, a 30 year-old Christian currently living in Lebanon.
During the first few weeks of writing this blog I contemplated writing an entry on Egypt, profiling the religious issues of the revolution, which some say may rival the American Revolution in terms of its stakes and potential significance, but it just seemed that there was nothing to say that hadn’t already been said on television and radio, nothing to write that hadn’t already been written in the newspapers, news websites, and magazines. However, now that the international coverage has shifted from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, Syria, and Japan, it seems an appropriate time to revisit this important story and examine the impact the Egyptian uprising might have on religious liberty in the future.
I first met Milad about ten years ago. I distinctly remember his fondness for Jay-Z and times when he used to rap the hip-hop star’s lyrics while we ate lunch together. He describes himself as a practicing Christian, and is studying business in Lebanon. During the revolution in Egypt, which was greatly aided by the use of social media, I would see Milad’s status updates on Facebook and RSVPs to protests organized online. He was not in Egypt during the uprising, but instead remained in Lebanon, because, as he put it, “there was no other choice.” He declined to explain the situation further, but simply suggested that the rest of his personal details regarding education, residency, and travel be omitted for the sake of safety and anonymity.
I asked Milad what concerns him about the future of his country, about his experiences as a Christian in Egypt, and the issue of religious freedom.
“I have had a lot of negative experiences which made me want to travel out of my country,” said Milad, a native of Cairo. “When you go to apply for a job, they look at your religion before they even start and sometimes because of your name you will be rejected even before the interview.”
Milad repeatedly stated how the Egyptian government emphasized the equality of Muslims and Christians under law, but despite the images of Muslim-Christian solidarity during the protests, in practice, such equality was anything but.
“There is no freedom of religion,” Milad told us. “We can’t build a church easily; it will take years, but if you want to build a mosque, the government will even supply you with money.”
This young Christian’s chief concern? “That Egypt will go the wrong direction and become another Iran. No one knows where Egypt is going. The extreme Muslims are getting in control now, which is really scary for us as Egyptians and Christians.”
One of those extremist groups are the Salafists, who some claim are responsible for several attacks in the region, including Wednesday’s explosion near the iconic pyramids of Giza. It appears that the Salafist groups, who, according to the BBC, “have a strict interpretation of the Koran and believe in creating an Islamic state governed by Sharia law,” are trying to gain support for a more radical and violent Islam in the midst of a power vacuum over the battle for Egypt’s future. Another concern for many in post-revolution Egypt is the power and influence amassed by the Muslim Brotherhood–a group so complex and diverse that few are truly able to understand its ambition and motivation. The nation’s political uncertainty is a concern not just for mainstream Muslim and the political establishment, but also for Christians like Milad.
“There are a lot of religious fanatics that came into the picture,” Milad said. “When Mubarak was in power we didn’t see these extremist Muslims, [but] now they came [out] openly. They make hate speeches about Christians. I was happy that the country will be more free, but now I am afraid that it will [become] another Iran. They have already burned a church and kidnapped Christian girls. The country it is not in a safe condition now. I might be too harsh but that is the truth.”
Milad’s outlook may not be overly optimistic, and perhaps understandably so, but it is clear that he wishes for nothing more than a peaceful tolerant Egypt, where the nation’s millions of Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups can coexist.
“It does not matter for me what religion you are,” he said. “We should love each other as human beings.”