Remembering the Christmas ‘Martyrs’ of Nag Hamadi

“Don’t cry for me, mother; to a martyr you’ve given birth. Murderers killed your son, on a night of Christmas mirth.”

These lines of poetry were crafted for the fortieth day memorial service held for the six young Egyptian Christians randomly gunned down while exiting a Coptic Christmas Eve mass, January 6, 2010, in Nag Hamadi, three hundred miles south of Cairo. They reflect the worries of the Christian community of Egypt that their situation as citizens, even in terms of safety, is steadily declining.

The particular use of the word ‘martyr’, however, carries a strong implicit message. It is common in Egypt for both Christians and Muslims to use this word for anyone in their community who dies unnaturally, regardless of cause. Beneath this general usage, though, is a Coptic remembrance of the hundreds of martyrs celebrated daily in the liturgy, who suffered death for their Christian faith. The message is given that these young men were killed for their faith in Christ, and this at the hand of a killer alleged to have cried while firing, “I avenge my Muslim sister!”

The vengeance in question refers to an event two months earlier in a nearby village, where a Christian man is alleged to have raped a 12 year old Muslim girl. This is the opinion of Sheikh Ahmad al-Sayih, retired professor of Islamic doctrine and philosophy at Azhar University, who grew up in a village fifteen miles from Nag Hamadi. While he condemns the murder on Islamic grounds, he sees it as part of the culture of revenge killings for which the area is known. In this understanding, shared by many Muslims, the attack was simply an expression of tribal justice, having nothing to do with sectarian strife.

Amin Makram Ebeid, a retired doctor and Coptic intellectual, disagrees. He sees the incident as part of an unorganized but increasing pattern of sectarian violence against the Christians of Egypt. He doubts the account of rape, as well as the status of the girl as a minor. He states that tribal revenge would be executed only against family members, not random worshippers exiting a church on the holiest of Christian holidays. These considerations indicate the sectarian nature of the crime, and in these matters he echoes the opinions of many Copts.

Governor Magdi Ayoub of Qena, in which Nag Hamadi is located, is the only Copt among the twenty-nine governors of Egypt. Instead of being acclaimed by his religious community, however, he is reviled as being subservient to Muslim interests so as to maintain his post. Though he states that he is an Egyptian governor first and a Copt second, many Copts reject him for failing to address Christian concerns in deference to his position in what is seen as an increasingly Islamic state. Viewing religious discrimination as part and parcel of true Islamic religion, more than a few Copts anticipate further violence as a coming inevitability.

A different explanation is offered by Osama al-Ghazoly, a prominent Egyptian journalist. He agrees that violence in Egypt is increasing, but this is true of society in general, independent of sectarian tension, though it is certainly an aspect of it. He criticizes both Muslims who deny that sectarian violence exists at all, as well as Christians who view it only through this lens. Regardless of the origin, it is only the government which can extend protection to any citizen, Christians included. Copts may do well to criticize the governor’s performance, but not his position.

The Egyptian government is treating the attack as a non-sectarian isolated incident and increased its promotion of national unity. Egyptian society, however, remains divided about the causes and necessary responses to the attacks in Nag Hamadi, though all have categorically denounced the violence. Yet as the interpretations of the killing vary so dramatically between the two communities, the religious divide threatens to grow deeper. As the forty day commemoration service is a shared practice of both Muslims and Christians, and given the mingled blood of the young Christians with the Muslim policeman also killed in the attacks, perhaps this occasion may serve as a reminder that peace and the future of Egypt is built upon both religious communities.

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