Former rector of pontifical institute says political atmosphere in Egypt feels like the end of the Ottoman Empire

Police and military officials will not be able to stop demonstrators in Egypt or other countries of North Africa, the former rector of Rome’s Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies has said.

Fr Justo Lacunza Balda said in an email to the Catholic News Service: “Ordinary people cannot tolerate anymore the appalling conditions of human degradation in which they live. They say, ‘Enough is enough’ and believe that they have nothing to lose.

“Therefore, neither the police nor the army will stop people in the Arab countries from demanding freedom and human dignity,” he said.

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The demonstrations began almost a week ago as people took to the streets to protest unemployment, corruption and rising prices.

“Poverty and misery, lack of democracy and human rights are a constant in Egypt, Tunis, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen,” said Fr Lacunza, who served at the Rome institute from 2000 to 2006. “The youth see no future in front of them: no work possibilities, economic crisis, the divide between the filthy rich and the poor, political instability.”

This creates “a fertile ground for religious extremism, anti-government action and widespread violence”.

Fr Lacunza said he was not surprised by street demonstrations in places such as Egypt and Tunisia – where a January revolution brought about the fall of the government of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali – and added that it was “not normal that a head of state remains in power for 30 years”, as was the case with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

“Rulers want to stick to their seat of command at all costs, and democracy, they think, is not what they need. Arrests, imprisonment and persecution are normal against those who demand fundamental changes, civil freedoms and human rights,” he said.

He also expressed concern for Egypt’s Christians, whom he said are discriminated against because they are not Muslim.

Christians in Egypt “suffer intolerance, discrimination and hatred. Their places of worship are attacked and they are the object of sectarian violence,” he said. “This is not new, and it might get worse in the future.

“The political atmosphere of today in Egypt bears a certain resemblance to that of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 19th century,” Fr Lacunza said. “And there came the genocide of the Armenians … Few voices are heard today taking the defence of the Christians, the biggest persecuted group in the world – in Egypt, in majority Muslim states and in Communist-rule countries.”

The same day Father Lacunza wrote to CNS, Pope Benedict XVI met at the Vatican with Oriental Orthodox leaders participating in an official dialogue with Catholics.

Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, Egypt, the co-chairman of the dialogue, thanked Pope Benedict for his prayers for those killed and injured in a bomb blast at a Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt, less than a month earlier. He also praised Mubarak’s commitment to protecting Egyptian Christians, and he told the Pope that hundreds of Muslims came out January 7 – when Copts celebrated Christmas – to show their support for their Christian neighbours.

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