This commentary was published in The Guardian on 08/05/2011
The falseness of this claim was demonstrated by the fact that throughout the 18 days of protests that swept the country until the ousting of Mubarak, and despite the total absence of the police on the streets, there were no reported attacks against any churches or Coptic property.
But we cannot lay all the blame for sectarian tensions on conspiracies alone. Sectarian strife no doubt finds a fertile soil in a population ravaged by poverty and ignorance – the classic breeding grounds of fanaticism and intolerance. The quality of public education in many parts of Egypt was, and unfortunately still is, so poor that it often amounts to non-education.
Worse than non-education is mis-education, where students are intentionally misinformed or have their heads crammed with useless information. Autocratic regimes often use the school history curriculum as a political tool to promote a certain ideology or attack their opponents.
Successive regimes in Egypt did just that. They didn't hesitate to rewrite history according to their single-minded vision of what students should and shouldn't learn. One of the many problems resulting from this policy is that six centuries of Egypt's Christian past have been largely absent from history curricula. It should come as no surprise, then, that few Egyptian Muslims realise that their ancestors worshipped in churches or spoke Coptic.
Sadly, even academic institutions have contributed to this marginalisation. Alexandria University, for example, boasts a Greco-Roman civilisation department while no separate Coptic studies department exists to examine the artistic and cultural productions of that period.
It is the responsibility of all Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, to work towards changing current educational and cultural policies through advocacy and by putting pressure on decision-makers. But the Copts themselves bear a particular responsibility in fighting the stereotypical view of them as passive and uninvolved. They need to make their voices heard and to be visible in the public sphere.
The Coptic population understandably feel threatened by the surge of Islamism in Egypt. Their gut reaction may be to rally against this tide by seeking the protection of their church. But only confusion can result from the blurring of boundaries between religion and politics. The Coptic church, like al-Azhar, should remain a source of spiritual inspiration and moral guidance.
As Egypt strives to establish a system where religion returns to the private sphere, the notion that the church is in a position to take political decisions on behalf of its congregation would erode the very idea of a civil democratic society.
The highly publicised and controversial case of Kamilia Shehata highlights some of the challenges facing the transition to a democratic state that treats all its citizens equally under the protection of the law. A Coptic woman married to a Coptic Orthodox priest, Shehata is reported to have left her husband and converted to Islam, presumably because the Coptic church does not grant divorces except in cases of adultery. Now she has mysteriously disappeared, evaporated like a dewdrop in the morning sun. Nobody knows where she is.
The radical Islamist Salafis allege that she had been abducted by Mubarak's state security and handed over to the church, but the church denies these allegations. The Salafis, who are mute on all other serious infringements against human rights with wider implications, such as the prosecution of civilians in military courts, have decided to fight the Shehata holy war. For months now they have been going on demonstrations almost on a daily basis, calling her their jailed Muslim sister and demanding her release from the church "prison".
The case of Shehata should be a matter for the law to resolve. Freedom of religious belief is a basic human right guaranteed by Egyptian law. It matters little whether she decides to be Christian or Muslim. But she should not be held against her will by any party. It is imperative at this stage that all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian alike, insist that the law be respected and applied to all citizens regardless of their religious affiliations.
The way forward is for Egyptian Copts to participate vigorously in political life. They should do that not as a religious group seeking to solve limited Coptic problems but as Egyptian citizens calling for equality and freedom for all. They must remember that many great Coptic personalities in the first half of the 20th century helped shape Egypt's outlook and contributed to the political and cultural life of the country by engaging in mainstream politics. They can follow in their footsteps by joining political parties, including even the newly established Freedom and Justice party of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Their active participation, along with secularists, liberals and women, will be the most powerful safeguard against any deviation or extremism. Remaining on the sidelines is no longer a feasible or an advisable option for Egypt's Christians.