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Copping the Copts

"Copping the Copts" Continued...

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

Habib, a 56-year-old resident of Great Britain, lived in Egypt until the age of 26. His great-grandfather was a Coptic priest, and like many other Coptic believers, his Christian roots go back hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years. The evangelist Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in a.d. 43 where it quickly spread. Many Copts claim to be direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians because they avoided intermarriage with Arab Muslims after the Islamic conquest of Egypt in a.d. 639.

During the Roman Empire's persecution of Christians, tens of thousands fled to the desert and monastic orders were formed. Islamic conquests during the 7th century led to desert raiders, so Copts built sheltered and thriving monastic communities; desert sojourners can still visit the Coptic Orthodox monasteries of the Wadi Natroun, but the vast majority of Egypt's Copts now live in villages or Cairo suburbs where arson attacks and unjust court rulings have taken the place of desert raids.

Others have left the country, and it's often the educated and strong-minded who emigrate, Habib said. The weak and vulnerable are left behind. "I am outspoken and I stand up for myself. The fundamentalists don't come to me," the Abaskharion Kellini congregation member said. "The fundamentalists go to the weak people."

At the core of their attacks are concerns about conversions. Although Egypt's constitution doesn't forbid conversion from Islam to Christianity, the second article of the constitution says that Shariah law is the source of legislation, and as a result, most of these converts are denied new ID cards, forced into hiding or worse.

At the same time, Habib points out, article 4-3 states that all citizens are equal regardless of gender or religion. "We would like to apply these articles of the law. We would like to see that equality is really applied in Egypt, and there is an obligation. Egypt is obliged to apply the law. It is the duty of the government," Habib said.

President Barack Obama chose Cairo as the location for his June 4 speech to the Muslim world-a strategic decision given the country's historical role in Israeli-Arab peace making and hopes that Egypt might lead the Arab world in the march against belligerent Iran. During his speech, he mentioned the importance of upholding minority rights, citing Egypt's Copts among others. The region "suffers from a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's," Obama said.

But local believers say it will take more than talk to change the country's spiraling direction, and Habib warns that what happens in Egypt today could happen elsewhere, even in the West, tomorrow.

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