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Part 2: A history of discrimination

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Greater affluence


Demographics have accelerated this development. Christians, often better educated and more affluent than their Muslim neighbours, have fewer children. Because the wave of emigration has been going on for decades, many Middle Eastern Christians now have relatives in Europe, North America and Australia who help them emigrate. Their high level of education increases their chances of obtaining visas. Those who leave are primarily members of the elite: doctors, lawyers and engineers.


But there are deeper-seated reasons behind the most recent exodus: the demise of secular movements and the growing influence of political Islam in the Middle East.


It was a Syrian Christian, Michel Aflaq, who founded the nationalist Baath movement in 1940, a career ladder for Iraqi Christians until 2003 and still a political safe haven for many Syrian Christians today. Former Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasser had no qualms about paying homage to the Virgin Mary, who supposedly appeared on a church roof in a Cairo suburb after Egypt's defeat in its 1967 war with Israel. And former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, insisted on sitting in the first row in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity during the annual Christmas service.


But those days are gone. The last prominent Christians -- Chaldean Tariq Aziz, Saddam's foreign minister for many years, and Hanan Ashrawi, Arafat's education minister -- have vanished from the political stage in the Middle East. And since the election victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the bloody power struggles between Sunni and Shiite militias in Iraq, the illusion that Christian politicians could still play an important role in the Arab world is gone once and for all.



Egypt's Coptic Christians, numbering at least 5 million, are by far the Middle East's largest Christian minority. The Coptic Christian Church, which dates back to St. Mark the Evangelist, begins its calendar in 284 A.D., the high point of Roman persecution of Christians. Its spiritual leader is the 83-year-old Pope Shenouda III.


Coptic activists have been complaining about discrimination at the hands of the Egyptian state for years. Yussuf Sidham, editor-in-chief of Watani, a Coptic weekly newspaper, says that unlike the 1970s, there is little open violence between Muslims and Christians today. "Instead," he continues, "we are now struggling against the sick ideas of Islamic fundamentalists. There is an ever-widening gap between liberal and fundamentalist forces."


When Egyptians elected a new parliament in 2005, the ruling National Democratic Party included only two Copts on its list of 444 candidates -- and today only one cabinet member, the finance minister, is a Coptic Christian. Sidham faults the party for promoting this way of thinking. "The party says that candidates were elected because of their religious affiliation. Copts stand less of a chance. So why put forward Copts as candidates in the first place?"


This sort of persecution is nothing new in Egypt. When Napoleon's troops advanced into the Nile delta in 1798 and occupied Egypt, they noticed strange customs. Coptic women were required to wear one blue and one red shoe. The men were permitted to ride on horseback, but only facing backwards. The French quickly realised that the Copts were subjects "de troisième classe" -- third-class citizens. Some continue to feel that way today.


When Christians apply for an identification card in Egypt, they are occasionally registered as Muslims -- without their knowledge. Once the record is official, it can take up to a dozen visits to the relevant government agency to amend the entry.


For decades, obtaining a permit to build a new church in Egypt was a true test of patience for Coptic Christians. Under an archaic Egyptian law from the Ottoman days, no less than the president's approval was required for a project as insignificant as repairing a church roof. Hosni Mubarak, the current president, only abolished the law last year.


Coptic women who work for the government and refuse to wear a headscarf are routinely harassed, as are Coptic men who find themselves working for the wrong company. A 31-year-old employee of a major American software company says that his boss faces daily harassment. His problem, says the employee, is not that he is a poor supervisor, but simply that he is a Copt.


Life is even more difficult for the estimated 100 Egyptian Muslims who convert to Christianity each year. Violence erupted in Alexandria in October 2005 after a play was performed about a Copt who regrets his conversion to Islam. A number of Muslim demonstrators were killed and a church was damaged. Abandoning one's faith is a serious crime in the eyes of most Muslims. But for Christians who want to convert to Islam, the government has even introduced a streamlined procedure. About 1,000 Copts convert to Islam each year.



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