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Egypt's Copts, who celebrate Christmas Eve on Thursday just days after a deadly attack on one of their churches, feel
Copts find that their efforts to climb political and social ladder frustrated in Egypt.
By Mona Salem - CAIRO
marginalised in a country whose Christian roots date back to the religion's early days.
The head of the Coptic church, Pope Shenuda III, expressed the despair of his beleaguered people by saying after Saturday's bombing in Alexandria that "everyone in Egypt must enjoy full rights of citizenship, without discrimination."
Copts account for up to 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million and are the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
And Egypt's Christian past dates back to the first century. Tradition holds that the new faith was brought by the evangelist Saint Mark, himself later martyred by being dragged through the streets of Alexandria with a rope around his neck.
But while their presence in the country predates the rise of Islam by more than five centuries, Copts find that their efforts to climb the political and social ladder are frustrated in a country dominated by Muslims.
For many the symbol of this discrimination lies in a law that dates back to Ottoman rule, which restricts the building of new churches or even renovating old ones in a land where Islam is the state religion.
Shenuda implicitly called on the authorities this week to review the legislation which is more restrictive than for the construction of mosques.
"In some countries, when a law is found to be harmful to some citizens, it is amended or a new one is adopted," he said in an interview on Egyptian state television on Monday.
The law stipulates that Copts must obtain a presidential decree to construct new religious buildings and must satisfy numerous conditions before permission is granted.
Veteran Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has delegated those powers to provincial governors, who must obtain a green-light from the security services before they can grant Copts a licence.
In November, rare bloody clashes erupted in Cairo's Talibiya district between Coptic protesters and police over the refusal of local authorities to allow them to turn a community centre into a church.
Two demonstrators were killed and dozens wounded, while more than 160 were arrested, including children as young as nine years old.
"Procedures to build a church are lengthy while Muslims can go ahead and build a mosque without any prior permit," political analyst Mostafa Kamel el-Sayyed said.
But for Legal Affairs Minister Mufid Shehab the time is not ripe to look into the controversial law.
"When we speak of the problems of the Copts, we should not link them to what happened in Alexandria," he told parliament on Monday.
"It is wrong to say that this law is the reason for the current tensions," Shehab added.
Saturday's bombing in Alexandria, which authorities say they believe was carried out by an Al-Qaeda-linked suicide bomber, killed 21 people and wounded 79 others as worshippers emerged from New Year Eve's mass.
Hours after the killings Mubarak appeared on state television to denounce the "blind terrorism" which he said "does not differentiate between Copts and Muslims."
"All of Egypt is targeted," the president said, pledging to find the culprits and punish them.
But difference exists between Copts and Egypt's mostly Muslim population, said Seyyed, who noted that the Copts are under-represented in certain state offices.
This is perceived as an "unwritten" form of discrimination, said the political analyst.
"You cannot fine a single Coptic university dean or head of faculty in Egypt's state universities," he said.
In politics as well Christians are under-represented and practically hold no position whatsoever in the hierarchy of the formidable security services.
Only three Copts, including Finance Minister Yusef Boutros-Ghali, were elected during November's legislative elections for the 508-seat parliament. Mubarak, who is allowed to name another 10 MPs, appointed another seven Copts.
Nor is the picture rosy on the social and cultural front, according to Sayyed, who points mainly to discrimination in education.
"School programmes also illustrate the discrimination facing Copts, particularly history curricula, which ignore the Coptic period of Egypt's history," he said.
Copts were present in Egypt before the Muslim conquest in the 7th century.
Family and Population Minister Mushira Khattab has recently acknowledged that a problem exists and has proposed that "changes be made in the arabic language and history curricula of schools in order to bolster the notion of citizenship."