(AINA) -- In the last week of July a Coptic rights movement dubbed "Copts for Egypt," using the social network Facebook as platform, called upon all Copts in Egypt to stage a general strike on September 11, which coincides with the Coptic New Year.
In its communiqué, which first appeared on the Facebook site, the group stated the action is meant to express the resentment of all Copts over the Egypt's position on the repeated attacks on the homes and property of Copts because some of them have been used for religious observance.
The group members, wanting to remain anonymous, describe themselves as "Egyptians, pained by the divisions among the Egyptian rows, and being the 'the voice of the voiceless" (the oppressed). Members of the group are Muslims and Christians."
The "Copts for Egypt" movement has asked Copts participating in the strike to stay at home all day on September 11, and if they leave their homes for any reason wear black.
The strike centers around the Copts' demands for the Egyptian government to ratify the unified law for building houses of worship, and to abolish the unofficial "reconciliation sessions," which takes place despite the presence of criminal suspicion, and to bring the perpetrators in sectarian strife to justice.
Many political analysts and human rights organizations argue that the tension between the Muslim and Coptic Egyptian communities is caused primarily by the issue of Christian places of worship.
The latest support for what the Coptic strike is calling for, namely the ratification of the unified law for building houses of worship came on 1st September 2009, from the government-funded National Council of Human Rights (NCHR). The NCHR welcomed a proposal made by some of its members on the possibility of President Mubarak issuing a decree for unified law for building houses of worship, citing Article 147 of the Egyptian Constitution which gives him this right when the People's Assembly is not in session and when society needs such a law. This would be presented to the People's Assembly 15 days after it reconvenes.
In its statement, the NCHR appealed to the President to speed up the issuance of this law since the government had for the fifth year running ignored the draft bills presented to it and disregarded its recommendations to this effect, despite its knowledge of the sectarian tension witnessed in most of the governorates of Egypt.
Soon after its launch, the general strike has had its supporters and detractors. Coptic activists and organizations have openly shown support by officially joining it. Among them were the prominent Attorney Ashraf Edward, Attorney Mamdouh Nakhla, chief of Al Kalema Centre for human rights and Attorney Haney el Gezeiry, head of 'The Million Centre' for human rights.
The organization "Youth Against Discrimination" (YAD), which calls for a secular society, also endorsed the strike. The Egyptian Liberal Party came out on 9/3/2009 in support of the right of the Copts to stage a strike to make known that they also have rights which have to be recognized and "should not be dependent on the good will of leaders or decision-makers."
Al-Masry ElYom independent newspaper reported on 8/8/2009 that the Coptic Church has forbidden Copts to participate in this strike. This was later found out to be untrue. The Coptic Church, which has kept out of the issue, said through Bishop Marcos of Shubra el Kheima Diocese and spokesman for the Church that it is not connected with this strike, as "The church does not get involved in politics." However, no reference was made to prohibition on Copts' participation, as claimed by the newspaper.
El-Bashayer electronic newspaper reported on 8/27/09 that the Coptic Pope Shenouda III was watching closely all what the newspapers are writing about the strike, and a special team is compiling all the relevant news.
The semi-governmental Al-Gomhouriya newspapers came out on 9/30/2009 attacking the strike, calling the group "a bunch of boys and publicity seekers," and the organizer of the strike an "obscure lawyer looking for fame." None of the Coptic personalities interviewed by the reporter, Mohamed Zeineldin, were in support of the strike. Opinions expressed ranged between "a stab in the heart of citizenry," "would lead to more sectarian strife," "harming the Coptic Cause," and "will tarnish the image of Egypt in the eyes of the world." Surprisingly not one supportive opinion was quoted.
Yasser Arafat, an attorney also interviewed by Al-Gomhouriya, warned of the danger of supporting the strike, because it is potentially illegal. Paragraph 98 of the Penal Code, sets a prison term of between six months to five years for anyone "exploiting religion and promoting ideas that would damage national unity."
In a communiqué issued on August 31, the strike organizers said that they will keep their anonymity as "we are not looking for glory; our only goal is the Coptic Cause." Besides, they said they believe the Coptic issue has to be solved from within Egypt, "so that no one can accuse us of being foreign agents, which is the usual accusation thrown at every Copt asking for his right."
Faced with this media antagonism, a member of the group said "They even want to prevent us from using our right of peaceful expression. Is it not better for people to stay at home or wear black instead of holding machine guns and killing the innocent like some other people do?"
Reverend Mattias Nasr, chief editor of the influential Coptic website "Theban Legion" officially endorsed the strike on August 16. "Because we are also Copts for Egypt, we will join forces with you, but in Our Own Way." Reverend Mattias declared September 11 to be a universal day of prayer. Copts of all walks of life are called to join in celebrating Holy Communion, followed by an evening of prayers.
Outspoken and popular, Reverend Morcos Aziz, priest of the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, who is currently residing in USA, gave his support to the general strike. He described it as the exercise of a legitimate right guaranteed by the Constitution and a form of protest against the injustices and abuses of the human rights of the Copts. He went on to warn that the Egyptian government should bear the consequences of what will happen by the explosion of minorities in Egypt. "The government is playing a deaf ear and using the policy of sectarian balances at the expense of minorities, which will lead to increased sectarian problems." He told Copts not to be afraid of "the martyrdom of Christians to end the injustice."
The liberal writer Mahmoud Zohairy believes that the Egyptian government is worried about a Coptic strike, as this would make Christians equal to the rest of the political and social forces in expressing their political and social demands and this poses a danger for the government. "Since the regime got accustomed to using the Christians as a security card at times, and as a political one at others, therefore this would endanger its survival and would ultimately speed up its collapse." In his opinion the number of Christians in Egypt is not as small as rumored, hence the large number of Copts (estimated at 20,000,000 people) could line up in trade unions and associations to create a strong pressure lobby which would enable them to get their rights.
Highlighting the timing of the general strike, the organizers said that in view of the escalating incidents, where churches are being burnt and the suffering of Christians is increasing under the yoke of injustice, so speed and wisdom were required. The most appropriate day for the strike was the Egyptian Coptic New Year.
September 11, which falls this year on a Friday, the official weekly day off in Egypt, makes the strike "symbolic of the suffering and discrimination against Copts which no civilized constitution sanctions, peaceful and legal," said Attorney and Coptic activist Ashraf Edward.
The Coptic New Year is the "Feast of Nayrouz," when martyrs and confessors are commemorated. It is has been celebrated on September 11 of every year since 284 AD, the year Diocletian became Roman Emperor. His reign was marked by torture of Christians to force them to deny their faith, as well as by mass executions, especially in Egypt. The Coptic year is identified by the abbreviation A.M. (for Anno Martyrum or "Year of the Martyrs"). The feast is celebrated by millions of Copts globally every year.
By Mary Abdelmassih