Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Egypt's Christians seek to be heard in election

CAIRO/ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (Reuters) - Coptic Christians are trying to make their voices heard in Muslim-majority Egypt's parliamentary election, fearing Islamists could sweep in and deepen their sense of marginalization.

Egypt's Christians are reeling from a spate of attacks on churches since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February that they blame on Islamists. An October protest over one such attack led to clashes with military police in which 25 people were killed.

This has deepened a feeling of isolation in a community that makes up about a tenth of a population of 80 million and whose roots in Egypt pre-date the emergence of Islam.

Fady Badie, like many Egyptians, voted for the first time in this week's parliamentary vote, seen as meaningful unlike the rigged polls of Mubarak's time. But one of his main concerns was to dilute the Islamist vote and voice his other worries.

"For sure Copts are afraid of this prospect (of Islamists in parliament). We have problems with the military council (of rulers), problems with Islamists and, now this year, we have found we even have problems with the general public," he said, speaking during voting in the Cairo suburb of Maadi.

"If the democratic process is challenged and what happened in Iran happens in Egypt, then I will start really worrying," he said, adding that he was choosing the Egyptian Bloc alliance, which includes a party co-founded by a Christian billionaire.

The alliance that includes the Free Egyptians party of prominent Christian telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris is a popular choice among Christians and some liberal-leaning Muslims who are equally concerned by the rise of Islamists.

But the Bloc has drawn unwelcome attention. Supporters blame Islamists for what they say is a smear campaign to deter any Muslim voters from choosing it because of images posted on Facebook saying it is: "The voice for the Egyptian church."


It reflects growing sectarian tensions in a nation where rights groups say flare-ups between Muslim and Christian communities that were increasingly common before Mubarak's ouster have now erupted into even more deadly violence.

One concern for Christians is that Islamists will dominate the parliament that will pick an assembly to write a new constitution, in which they might enshrine Islamic laws.

"They are specifically concerned about that because they have been victims of continuous attempts to give Egypt an Islamic-flavored legislation," said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Orthodox Coptic newspaper al-Watani.

"They are skeptical about what will be their fate under any Islamic majority in our parliament," he said.

Christians, who span Egypt's social scale from the poorest to the richest, have been galvanized to vote in a bid to secure a liberal-leaning parliament that will address their grievances and counter a rising tide of Islamists.

"Even if defeating the Islamic wing is far fetched, at least the Islamic wing will not end up with an overwhelming majority in the parliament," said Sidhom.

Ordinary Christians long grumbled that Mubarak failed to address their longstanding complaints of discrimination, laws that made it easier to build a mosque than a church, or exclusion from senior jobs in state institutions.

The state always denied any discrimination as does the new ruling military council.

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