Overcoming Extremism in Egypt

A senior Catholic bishop in Egypt reeling from the shock of a fatal attack on Christmas Eve Mass-goers has said tackling unemployment and poor education are crucial in the struggle against growing religious intolerance.

Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina stressed the faithful’s “shock” after seven people were killed in a drive-by shooting outside a Coptic Orthodox church in central Egypt.

Worshippers in Naj Hammadi, 40 miles from Luxor city, came under fire just before midnight on Wednesday, Jan. 6th, after Mass on Christmas Eve. Those who died included six male worshippers and a security guard at the church.

The shooting was reportedly sparked by allegations that a Christian man had raped a 12-year-old Muslim girl, an incident which sparked riots in November lasting several days.

It comes as human rights watch organizations increasingly point to a rise in anti-Christian attitudes in Egypt.

In Persecuted and Forgotten?, its report on the persecuted and oppressed Church, Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) explained that extremism was worsening in the country and gaining influence in society.

Speaking from Egypt in an interview Friday, Jan 8th, with ACN, Bishop Aziz stressed that unemployment and “ignorance” were fueling extremism.

Bishop Aziz, whose Catholic Coptic diocese of Guizeh is just south of the capital, Cairo, said, “It is very clear that extremism comes from ignorance and also a lack of jobs. We have to educate our people, many of whom are very ignorant.”

The bishop continued, saying, “We have to help them to understand how to live and how to cooperate with others and not look only at religion and race. If we want to grow, we must work together.”

He said the West needs to lend support to improve schools and other education institutions in the country.

The Egyptian government says unemployment is almost 10 percent and other reports claim that a fifth of the country’s 80-million population lives on less than $1 a day.

The bishop underlined the need to respect the Church’s place in society. He said, “We ask for more tolerance and more understanding of differences in society.”

Bishop Aziz also said, “We Christians are part of Egypt. We live in this country and we are as much Egyptians as anyone else. The fact that we are Christian makes no difference.”

Some reports put the number of Christians in Egypt at between eight and 10 million in a country of 80 million – the largest in the Middle East. But Bishop Aziz said Christians are sometimes made to feel like strangers in their own home.

He stressed that the fundamentalists posed a threat to more moderate Muslims as well as Christians. He said, “Extremist action of this kind affects Muslims, too. They, too, are damaged by these people.”

The bishop was hopeful of improved inter-religious relations. He said, “Of course, when incidents like this happen, we become worried. But we need to remember that we have lived together with Muslims for many centuries. Looking at our history gives us confidence in overcoming such problems.”

Asked to comment on the fundamentalists and their motives, the bishop said, “We do not know exactly where support for these extremists comes from. Although there are extremists within the country, they may receive support from outside.”

Aid to the Church in Need gave over $520,000 to help the Catholic Church in Egypt in 2008.

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