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News from Newark:
The Fourth International Coptic Conference Convenes in New Jersey

By Sally Bishai


June 19th marked the first day of the Fourth International Coptic Conference. The event was attended by many great thinkers and writers, both "Middle Eastern" and American, both "Coptic" and not.

In fact, one of the discussions swirling about during the coffee breaks was “What is a Copt, anyway?”

As you know, I have explored this question many times in my writings, but it was certainly thought-provoking to hear so many different explanations.

For example, some suggested that all Egyptians are (for the most part) Copts, while others maintained that only Egyptian Christians deserve such an honor. Still others narrowed their use of the word to denote those of the Coptic Orthodox faith. And in an interview with Dr. Ahmed Sobhy Mansour (who very graciously took the time to talk to my camera, along with many other dear and learned people during my three-day stay in Newark), the scholar informed me that he thought the word referred to the religion of our forefathers, the ancient Egyptians.

Interesting viewpoints, all, but I must confess that I am no closer to having formed an opinion on the matter than I was last week.

As I mentioned two seconds ago, the conference was held in Newark, New Jersey, and hosted by Copts United and the International Christian Union. The shindig had previously been slated to take place at the United Nations Building in New York, but got shifted to the Holiday Inn in New Jersey for security reasons.

The wide range of speakers did a great job covering their respective issues; these distinguished guests included conference staples Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Father Keith Roderick, and Dr. Wafaa Sultan, as well as a Rabbi, a Bishop, and Daniel Pipes.

Other visible attendees included Dr. Gihad Ouda (political scientist, author, and mega-nice guy), Engineer Cameel Halim and Dr. Mounir Dawoud (who hosted the conference), and the unmistakable, electronically-transmitted presence of Conference Chairman and the dear Father of the Coptic cause, Engineer Adly Abadir Youssef.

Two speeches that stood out to me were Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s (which posited that the problem in Egypt is dictatorship) and Daniel Pipes’ (which mentioned reciprocity, among other things). And, of course, my own, which was a five-minute rhapsody about solidarity despite differences, and the strength of unity.

The title of this celebration of unity—“Religious Freedom of Christian Minorities in the Middle East”—was fitting, letting attendees know that the conference wasn’t just about Copts or even Egyptians in general. In fact, the Conference Resolutions actually included a whole section about “The Lebanese Issue.”

Speaking of the Resolutions, let’s have a look at the ones that were decided upon this time around.

The Coptic Issue

First: Declaring the Coptic movement in the Diaspora and in Egypt – that represent no less than fifteen million according to international estimates- as a national and public peaceful movement against the aggression and despotism practiced by the ruling regime with its corrupt institutions.

Second: To work towards the amendment of the second article of the constitution and to eliminate the phrase “Islam is the religion of the state” and to affirm the Egyptian identity.

Third: To work- through all available peaceful means- to stop the persecution and the physical elimination of the Copts, to stop the repeated massacres and attacks on churches, and to bring the assailants to a re-trial after their acquittal as a result of the non-Independence of the judiciary system and the interference of the executive authorities in the previous trials such as in Al Kosheh and elsewhere.

Fourth: To seriously and decisively confront- with all legal means –the extremist and fanatic groups that facilitate and incite and engage in the forced conversion and luring of Christian teenage girls into Islam. Everyone has the right to choose his/her faith on free will and without coercion.

Fifth: The Copts have the right to restitution of their physical and moral rights they were deprived from in addition to the compensation of their harms.

Sixth: To work through all legal means and demand the recognition of the rights of the converts to Christianity in obtaining new identification cards that reflect their Christian identity without bringing them to trial.

Seventh: Change the ideologies that protect and incite…inspired by religious convictions and beliefs.

Eighth: Request an official apology to the Copts from the ruling regime for the injustices committed by the authorities against the Copts.

Ninth: Forming a general secretary of the Coptic movement with subcommittees and work to safeguard funding means to proceed forward with the movement.

Tenth: Warn against the attempted infiltrations of this rising movement by other anti-government movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and the infiltration by the regime and its institution and to not engage in negotiations over the principals of this movement.

Eleventh: This declaration stands until the formation of the general secretary that will be established within 90 days of this date.

Twelfth: Lifting the restriction imposed by the state on building and renovating churches.

Moving on, the Resolutions for “The Lebanese Issue” are as follows:

First: Disarming all factions and militias, especially the Palestinian and the Shiite Hezbollah, and limit arms only to the official state represented by the army and the security forces, and take the necessary safeguards to stop the smuggling of weapons to Lebanon through strict control of its borders and implementing the UN resolution number 1559.

Second: Inaugurating a monitoring of security systems and control of fund transfers that are being illegally smuggled into Lebanon through a joint international – Lebanese system to prevent Lebanon from turning into a conflict ground for the benefit of either the Wahhabi or the Shiite Persian factions or others.

Third: Setting short and long term strategies to stop the rising tide of immigration of Lebanese youth and families by creating an attractive environment for the Lebanese Christians through affirmative actions to counter the demographic imbalance that we referred to in the introduction.

Fourth: Requesting that the international community, especially the United States and the European Union… [would] establish… a supportive fund to provide international assistance and extend a hand to Christians in Lebanon, and the creation of jobs for them, to establish developmental and investing project to accommodate them and reconstruct their affected areas.

Fifth: To review the school curricula throughout all education levels in order to clear it of the inciting materials and to confront all forms of intellectual terrorism either by political, social, or media means along with the reaffirmation of the importance of coexistence between all sects, denominations and religions under a secular and modern state that does not discriminate between its citizens based on religious, sectarian or denominational affiliations.

Sixth: The international community should place strict measures that prohibit the interference of regional forces and neighboring countries in the Middle East in the internal affairs of Lebanon, specially Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, these countries are required to bear their responsibilities in compensating Lebanon for the sabotage and afflictions it suffered from these countries and its interference in Lebanon.

All in all, it was an action-packed 48 hours, and I was glad to attend.

(Check the July issue of www.xculturemag.com for photos of the conference and “Sally Bishai’s 30 Minutes With… Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim,” and stay tuned for the summer 2006 edition of Photo X Quarterly for even more conference coverage.)


* Sally Bishai is author of Mideast Meets West: On Being and Becoming a Modern Arab American and director of Children of Kemet: The Copts, Culture and Democracy of Egypt. Visit her online at http://www.sallybishai.com/

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