The Coptic Christian community in Egypt fears reprisals after angry protesters attacked Western embassies and institutions in revenge for the Innocence of Islam film that portrayed the Prophet Mohammed as a cruel and buffoonish womaniser.
The film’s producer is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a convicted fraudster of Coptic Christian origin. Other backers are also Copts, and the first few minutes of the trailer — which was posted on the internet — includes scenes of violence and vandalism directed at Copts in Egypt while the local security forces look on without intervening.
Coptic bishops and lay leaders in the United States and Egypt have denounced the film, claiming that it does not represent their views. Off the record, however, Egyptian Copts have confirmed that the crude messages of the film reflect the feelings of resentment at the ongoing discrimination and persecution of their community.
Extreme violence and random attacks on Copts in Egypt are not rare. On New Year’s Eve 2011, a bomb went off at the Saints Church in downtown Alexandria, killing 23 worshipers. The culprits have never been arrested and many within the community are convinced that the attack was orchestrated by deposed president Hosni Mubarak’s security services. “Mubarak wanted us to live in fear and to justify the state of emergency in Egypt,” said one member of the church.
Egypt’s Coptic population, the country’s largest religious minority, is estimated to number between seven and 10 million. While officially having equal civil rights, Copts are routinely discriminated against and rarely appointed to senior government positions, and the building of new churches is prohibited.
Although some Copts supported last year’s revolution in Egypt, joining the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, some of the community’s leaders warned that the chaos would lead to more violence against them. Their warnings have been vindicated in a series of attacks on Copt families and churches, carried out mainly by Salafist extremists.
Last October, a church was burned down in the city of Aswan and, when hundreds of Copts held a protest rally in Cairo, the police trampled them with armoured vehicles, killing 28 and wounding over 300. Widespread arrests of Copt activists were also carried out.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which became the largest party in Egypt’s parliament after last year’s elections, promised to ensure full freedom and equality for all faiths.
Following his election in June, President Mohamed Morsi also announced that he would be appointing a Copt deputy.
After protests from Salafist politicians, however, he retracted and instead appointed Copt intellectual Samir Morcos as his “assistant for democratic transition” and one Copt woman to a low-level ministerial post.
“We were here long before the Muslims,” said one Copt businessman in Cairo, who asked not to be named.
“The two oldest communities here were the Jews and the Copts, now all the Jews have left and the Islamists want us gone too.
“The film will only make things worse but they were very bad already before. Perhaps we should ask Israel for political asylum.”