Since the overthrow of President Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Christians feel more secure but the tensions between the denominations have not disappeared. This was the view expressed by Greek-Catholic priest Rafik Greiche. Fr Greiche is responsible for public relations of the Egyptians Bishops’ Conference. He was interviewed recently by Oliver Maksan of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Oliver Maksan: In August last year churches were burning in Egypt when Islamists took revenge for the overthrow of President Morsi. What has happened for Egypt’s Christians under the new head of state, President Sisi?
Father Rafik Greiche: The mood has improved considerably. The security situation is getting better. There is greater stability. All Egyptians are enthusiastic about economic projects such as the extension of the Suez Canal. Christians feel a lot safer. They are going to church without feeling threatened as they did under President Morsi. Under the Muslim Brotherhood Molotov cocktails were hurled at churches or graffiti was sprayed on the walls. In all, a more peaceful atmosphere is being created.
Oliver Maksan: Does this mean that there are no more Islamist attacks against Christians?
Father Rafik Greiche: Well, this has all fallen to a low level, a minimum. Sometimes there are still denominational tensions in some villages. It also still happens that jihadists abduct Christian girls. But the situation has nevertheless improved considerably. The problems that exist are only one tenth of those that we Christians experienced under Morsi. But, as I said, that does not mean that there are no incidents whatsoever. There continue to be denominational difficulties of the kind we have been familiar with over 30 or 40 years.
Oliver Maksan: Is President Sisi receptive to the problems of Christians?
Father Rafik Greiche: He received all the bishops, from the Orthodox and from the Catholic and Protestant Churches. He told them that the Christians had every right to have their churches and to pray. His government is working with the Churches to prepare a law governing the building of churches. This is one of our most urgent problems here in Egypt. To date it has been very difficult to build a new church.
This draft envisages that Christian symbols such as crucifixes and bells may be mounted visibly on the exterior. Furthermore it is intended, according to the draft, that the construction is no longer subject to the approval of the security authorities. The President himself will no longer decide on permission to build a new church, but instead this will be the responsibility of the provincial governor. If the latter has no objections after a period of 60 days, the Christians will be able to start construction.
But this law is at present having to wait in line. At the present time we don’t have a parliament in Egypt which can pass it. So we have to wait until after the parliamentary elections. These will be held at the turn of the year. So generally everything’s in the air at the moment.
Oliver Maksan: Do you think that the Islamists could again play a major role in the new parliament?
Father Rafik Greiche: Yes, I’m afraid so. The problem is that the civilian parties are very weak and are not following a clear course. They also don’t have much backing. The Islamists will probably not have a majority, but they could form a substantial minority which will hold things up or delay them.
Oliver Maksan: In Syria and Iraq Christians are being persecuted by organisations like ISIS. Do Egyptian Christians also feel threatened by this, or is ISIS a long way away?
Father Rafik Greiche: No, we also feel under threat. Of course not in the same way as the Christians in Iraq and Syria, where the threat is a direct one. We are afraid of the jihadists located in our neighbouring country Libya. And from there they are sending weapons. Jihadists are also located on the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. So there is a jihadist presence in the west and east of Egypt.
Oliver Maksan: Do you have the impression that the Muslim authorities in Egypt adequately condemn groups like ISIS?
Father Rafik Greiche: Well, when ISIS started to drive Christians out of Mosul in the summer, not a word was heard initially from the Sunni Al-Azhar University, for example. The Copts then gathered in front of the Vatican Embassy here in Cairo and appealed to the Al-Azhar University to condemn the incident. Shortly afterwards they actually did publish a statement. But that’s not the only issue. Unfortunately the curriculum of the University and that of the schools managed by Al-Azhar contain many things which are not that different from what ISIS does. Changes must be made here because this is what impresses itself on people’s thinking.
This interview has been republished with permission from the website of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.