Two days ago the Coptic community of Egypt witnessed a unique event. On Sunday, February 14, Valentine’s Day, a rally was organized downtown by over two hundred Coptic participants in protest over the Nag Hamadi killings on Christmas Eve and the subsequent handling of the case by the government. Here below is an email which described the event with illuminating pictures (the text is from the email except for translations):
(translation: Shame on Egypt for what is happening to Egyptian Copts)
Pictures .. 200 Christians demonstrated in Tahrir Square
Sunday, February 14th, 2010 – 17:43
More than 200 Christians today in Tahrir Square, led by the Liberal Party of Egypt and the Copts of Egypt and the Center for a million of human rights, and demanded an end to attacks on the Copts.
The demonstrators chanted slogans against Abd al-Rahim al-Ghoul, MP and accused of being behind the crime of Nag Hammadi.For his part, he said Hani Jazeeri Chairman of the Movement “Copts of Egypt to” go to the People‘s note was provided by Dr. Fathi Sorour, Speaker of the People, calling for the adoption of discussion of the bill Uniform Building places of worship in the current session and cancel meetings of peace and the rule of martial law and bring the perpetrators to the actual trials fair and accountability form of political and public leaders and security events in the Nag Hammadi and other sectarian incidents.
(translation: The traditional reconciliation sessions govern us with a rule of iron)
(translation: The Million Center for Human Rights – No to violence among the children of one homeland… No to forcing the Copts to vacate their homes… No to traditional reconciliation sessions…)
(translation: Shame on all of Egypt for what is happening to Egyptian Copts)
(translation of the black sign with white letters in the previous pictures: No to pressures from security)
There are many factors here which need brief explanation. Notice first the tattoos on this man’s arm, and in other pictures. Nearly all Copts tattoo a simple cross on their right wrist or hand, but this man’s tattoo is very elaborate, with also a picture of a Christian saint. It is expressive of a deep identity allegiance to Coptic Christianity.
MP Abd al-Rahim al-Ghul is a local politician in Nag Hamadi which was not supported in the previous election cycle by the bishop, resulting in the Christian vote going to his opponent who then won the election. Furthermore, after he denied any relationship with the alleged killer who gunned down the Christians exiting the church, a photo surfaced in which he was pictured standing side-by-side with him. It is important to note that the investigations continue but the trial of the alleged killer has not yet begun.
Reconciliation sessions are a traditional way of adjudicating disputes outside the rule of the law. While innocent in and of themselves, many Copts feel that previous incidents like Nag Hamadi have been ‘solved’ through these ‘reconciliation’ sessions which have been forced upon them by the security forces. In many cases though compensation has been paid by the government to victims the criminals who attacked Christian homes or churches have gone free. In defense of the government it is often difficult to establish guilt in a mass action, and therefore criminal proceedings are difficult.
The uniform bill for building houses of worship is a legislative proposal to stipulate the same regulations and freedoms for both mosque and church construction. Currently, while there is great freedom and simple regulations for building a mosque, it requires the permission of the governor to build, expand, or repair a church. Human rights activists of both religions have called for this bill, and a recent survey by Watani International, a Christian owned daily newspaper, declares that 60% of MPs support the bill as currently drafted, while a further 29% support it with some reservations. Nevertheless, the issue has stalled, and in light of the Nag Hamadi incidents the government has promised to revisit the bill in next year’s legislative session.
Focusing on the demonstration itself, however, there are interesting points to note. Official permits for demonstrations are rare given in Egypt, though demonstrations can begin and have an effect without quick putdown by the government. As is seen in the pictures the police are standing guard, but obviously not breaking up the proceedings. It is unknown, though unlikely, that permission for this demonstration was received beforehand, but prior warning may have been given to secure a police presence, or else security became aware through monitoring the public online organizational activity. Later information revealed that the demonstration proceeded from Tahrir (Liberation) Square, which is the center of downtown Cairo, to the nearby Parliament building, but upon the movement of the demonstration the crowd was dispersed by the authorities.
Arabs outside of Egypt have remarked about the substantially greater freedom enjoyed here than in other nations of the region. As such, as a political event, does this rally speak well of Egypt? Obviously, it is protesting the conduct of the government in the handling of the Nag Hamadi case, but in allowing the at least temporary gathering does this indicate a growing allowance for freedom of expression?
At the same time, it is noteworthy that only three newspapers covered this event. While this could be understandable by the government newspapers this is odd for the party press and independent dailies. These often carry a moderated anti-government message in the selection and presentation of the news. Why would this event not receive their attention?
This question is more significant given the unprecedented nature of the demonstration. While the Western reader is likely accustomed to every interest group holding protests here and there, not only is such demonstration rare in Egypt in general, it is almost unheard of among the Christians. The demonstrations which do occur are almost exclusively held on church property. Expatriate Copts in America, Europe, and Australia often hold demonstrations abroad, seeking to pressure the governments of their adopted countries to pressure the Egyptian government in turn. In general these efforts are not appreciated by Coptic Orthodox Church leadership, which seeks to cultivate a positive relationship with the government, which is very critical of outside interference in its affairs. Nevertheless, individual Copts often look with longing at the freedom enjoyed by their oversees compatriots, and revel in the criticism leveled at a government which is increasing viewed as being ‘Islamic’ or at least discriminatory against Christian interests. For the first time, it seems, Christians in Egypt have adopted these methods locally.
It is an open question to consider if this is a positive or negative development for local Christians. On the one hand, they are taking an active role in the political process, carefully navigating the uncertain allowance of the government to publicly air their complaints. By all indications the demonstration was peaceful. Furthermore, it is an internal and not international response. The protest was joined by local human rights organizations and organized by an opposition political party. The demonstration reveals a growing sphere of civil society participation to be enjoyed by many, if not all, and Christians are among those benefiting. This appears to be a positive development for both Egypt and its Christian community.
On the other hand, is this the best method for airing Christian grievances? In all indications the activity was political; should this be the domain of church-related issues? Furthermore, though the demonstration was peaceful, it was not full of peace. Notice the faces and postures of the demonstrators. These are angry and confrontational, and the slogans are provocative, anti-government in implication if not in direct formulation. Is this proper Christian behavior?
The Christian is here faced with his dual identity as members both of a state, in which he or she enjoys the common rights of citizens, and members of a religion, in which he or she is called to high standards of conduct in preference to the interests of others over his own, and is chiefly called to represent God and Jesus over earthly concerns. While it is good and beneficial, most Christians agree, for Christians to participate actively in the affairs of this world, most Christians also agree the manner of this participation must be regulated by the teachings of Jesus and other Scriptures.
It is difficult to imagine a public demonstration of protest which does not protest, or an angry litany of complaint which is not angry. This demonstration straddles the line between the rights of a citizen and the responsibilities of a Christian. It is difficult to know the balance. It is a negotiation Egyptian Christians have been involved in for some time, but now face a new field of application; may God give them grace. Concerns of the government and the Muslim majority also play a substantial role in their choices; no activity is conducted in a vacuum. These choices will provoke reactions and consequences which could go in any number of directions. Wisdom is called for, with prayerful consideration. Or, perhaps there has been too much prayer already – now is the time to act!
Biblical examples are multifaceted. Christians can find examples of prayerful resignation to circumstances, pious submission to government, astute political maneuvering, decisive claiming of rights, and zealous upheaval of the status quo. Which, if any, of these options is best for the Christians of Egypt? Which is best for the nation as a whole? Who should make this decision? Can various groups answer the question differently? What are the consequences of each? What are the potential benefits? Which best cements the rights of citizens? Which best testifies to the love of God?
May God grant Egypt his blessing, and its citizens his wisdom.