Egypt’s Coptic Christians to shun Islamists in next week’s presidential vote

May 16, 2012

(Members of the Egyptian Coptic denomination Christian take part in the Eastern and Orthodox Church's Good Friday procession in the Old City of Jerusalem April 13, 2012. REUTERS/Nir Elias )

Egypt’s Coptic Christians complained of discrimination under Hosni Mubarak but fear it may get worse if an Islamist takes his place in next week’s presidential election.

Long-suppressed Islamists already dominate parliament. Islamist contenders for the presidency say Christians, who form about a tenth of Egypt’s 82 million mostly Muslim people, will not be sidelined, but mistrustful Copts will not vote for them.

The single biggest Coptic grievance and the source of most sectarian violence in Egypt is legislation that makes it easy to build a mosque but hard to construct or even repair a church.

A new mosque needs only a permit from the local district. A church needs extra paper work and the president himself must sign off, a task Mubarak eventually delegated to city governors.

Coptic voter Medhat Malak hopes those discriminatory rules will be changed if his choice for president wins – Mubarak’s last prime minister and former military commander Ahmed Shafiq.

He worries that an Islamist head of state would make life more uncomfortable for Copts, who blame ultra-orthodox Salafi Muslims for a surge of attacks on churches since Mubarak’s overthrow in a popular uprising 15 months ago.

“Islamist policies on Christians are vague. It is possible they would restrict our freedoms to gain popularity among strict Muslims at our expense,” said Malak, 33, whose Cairo church has been the centre of a row over whether it has a proper license.

A senior Orthodox Coptic church official said 6 million Copts are among the 50 million eligible voters who go to the polls on May 23 and 24 and again next month in a run-off if no candidate scores more than 50 percent in the first round.

If Christians voted as a bloc – which may not happen – they could help swing an unpredictable race whose main contenders are either Islamists or men who served under Mubarak at some time.

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