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Reflections on the New Year’s Eve Massacre in Alexandria

By now much of the world has heard of the horrific attacks perpetrated against Coptic Orthodox Christians in Alexandria, Egypt. As of the latest count, 21 people are dead and another 170 are injured following an explosion outside the Church of St. Mark and St. Peter, as the New Year’s Eve mass ended and people were filing out into the streets. It is yet unclear if it was a car bomb or the work of a suicide bomber. Various international terrorist groups have claimed responsibility on the internet, and Alexandria Governor Adel Labib claims that foreign hands are behind the massacre. Investigations, however, are ongoing.

In the aftermath of the October 31 attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, al-Qaeda in Iraq issued threats against the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church. They warned that due to the presence of Christian women converts to Islam held in monasteries against their will, attacks would commence if their freedom was not granted. The church denied this report, stating that the women in question, Wafa Constantine and Camilia Shehata, both wives of priests, remained Christians of their own free will. Both women were apparently fleeing bad marriages, disappeared, and Christians raised protests about their abduction. While Wafa officially began the process of conversion to Islam before yielding to church admonition, and Camilia is understood to have released a video confirming her adherence to Christianity, neither has appeared publically since the church intervened in their cases. The Coptic Orthodox Church has strict regulations concerning divorce, making allowance only for adultery or conversion to another religion.

While most analysts deny that al-Qaeda has any operational capability in Egypt, there has been intense Muslim protest against the church in certain quarters of the country, especially in Alexandria. This city is known as a stronghold of Salafism, which is a conservative, traditional interpretation of Islam calling for imitation of the Prophet Muhammad and his early companions, as well as reconstruction of society based on the order they created. While not inherently violent, many Salafis recognize Christians as Ahl al-Dhimma, a protected minority which accepts Islamic societal predominance. This was the arrangement for much of Egyptian history, though the modern secular state has disrupted their understanding and crafted equality on the basis of citizenship. Many Christians complain this concept is unevenly applied, but many Salafis see the church’s ‘comeuppance’ as defiance of God’s order. Certainly when Muslim women are prevented from living their faith freely, as they see in the cases of Wafa and Camilia, society has gone wrong.

Certain eyewitnesses in Alexandria have claimed that they heard the cry ‘Haya al-Jihad’ coming from the nearby mosque Sharq al-Madina. The typical closing call from the early morning minaret microphones is ‘Haya al-Salat’, or ‘Come to Prayer’. There is no similar call during the remaining prayer times, making this call to jihad, if accurate, especially chilling.

Rev. Radi Atallah, pastor of the Attarine Evangelical Church in Alexandria, knows nothing about this call, whether it was issued or not. He does report, however, that several non-government affiliated area mosques had preached recently that Muslims should not associate with Christians, a very conservative interpretation of verse 5:51 in the Qur’an:

O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.

This, however, has rarely been the practice in Egypt, where Muslims and Christians have maintained strong bonds for centuries. Sayyid al-Qimni and Muhammad Sacīd al-cAshmāwī, are among the prominent Egyptian intellectuals who declare this verse is taken out of context, and that other verses in the Qur’an establish the basis of respect, cooperation, and friendship between Muslims and Christians. Nevertheless, it is clear that al-Qaeda figures such as Ayman al-Zawahiri utilize such verses in defense of their ideology. Again, though not equivalent with violence, such Salafi thought is noted to be on in the increase in Egypt.

Coptic Orthodox ideology is rarely understood to conjoin with violence, but recent events have demonstrated that the ideals of faith can run up against the tensions and frustrations of reality. Following the massacre in Alexandria Christians rioted in the street outside the church, near the hospital where many victims were taken, and outside the Sharq al-Madina mosque, with some pelting it with stones. Several policemen were also hit with stones. These demonstrations were broken up by security with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The emphasis on rubber bullets is necessary in light of the recent riots in Giza, only one month earlier.  Christians, protesting security interference in their building of a church service center rumored to be converted into a place of worship, exited church grounds en masse and blocked traffic in a major thoroughfare of the area. They also damaged government buildings and vehicles, and sources claim they also threw Molotov cocktails at security forces which had come to subdue the protest. In their efforts live ammunition was used, resulting in the death of two Christian young men and the injury of dozens more. This incident sparked deep Christian resentment against the government, and even Pope Shenouda expressed his discontent by voting for an opposition party candidate in the recent parliamentary elections.

While in the Giza incident Christians were the aggressors against understood government discrimination, a better parallel is found in the Christian reaction to the Nag Hamadi killings which took place at Coptic Christmas on January 6 of this current year. Three Muslim gunmen randomly fired at worshippers exiting mass, killing six and a Muslim policeman stationed outside the church. In response the Christians there took the street and vandalized the local hospital where they believed the bodies of the victims were being mistreated.

Claims of mistreatment are also associated with the massacre in Alexandria. Some sources quoted the hospital public relations director stating that the Red Crescent refused to give blood bags to the victims. Other sources, however, quoted a hospital physician stating that the hospital ran out of blood bags.

The scene is said to be one of sectarian tensions. Christian protestors are quoted as chanting religious slogans, such as “With our body and blood we will defend the cross!” Meanwhile, Muslim groups are quoted as chanting “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great), which is an historic Islamic battle cry. Christians are also said to have attempted to burn down the local mosque. Christians claim that security beat them with batons in response to their chanting.

Christian testimonies of suffering and injury set the stage for this violence. A YouTube video captured inside the church at the time of the blast also shows the chaos that erupted. It is chilling, but noteworthy, to notice the cries of the priests. “Don’t fear, it’s nothing!” was repeated over and over. Finally, at the end, they respond by spontaneously breaking out into religious psalmody.

The priest is understandably trying to calm the crowd, but the refuge in religious worship is symbolic of an earlier age in Coptic negotiation with state and society. During periods of difficulty Copts were encouraged to respond in prayer and quietism. Thoughts turned to God, and perhaps also to the dangers of taking on a majority culture. In recent years many Copts have imitated an overall, though still marginal, Egyptian trend toward activism. The freedom, and perhaps excesses, of Coptic communities abroad have also encouraged Christians to voice their complaints and strive for their political rights. Within this rubric, confrontation has emerged as a viable Christian option. While usually attempted through legitimate channels, the attitude has opened an avenue for frustrations to boil over into violence.

President Mubarak has noted that both Muslims and Christians died in the massacre, and that this gives evidence that terrorism knows no religion. He vows that the perpetrators of this crime will be found and prosecuted, also alluding to the fact that the origin of the crime comes from outside Egypt. Many Copts will likely receive his words as an empty paean asserting national unity in the middle of obvious sectarian tensions. Yet Copts would do well to not give up the cause, and the overall reality, of national unity. After al-Qaeda issued its warning to the Egyptian Church and the government responded quickly to denounce the threat, Pope Shenouda praised God that the effect of the terrorists was to rally all Egyptians together as one people. Though the government failed in its promise despite measures to bolster security should not result in the wholesale dismissal of the social contract.

The universal human constitution is to cry for justice. This is an unassailable pillar of civilization, that law is respected and lawbreakers punished. Yet at times like this, people of faith must supersede the desire for justice with the cry for love. Justice must not be neglected, and Christians have worthy fears they may once again be disappointed. The mob attacks in al-Koshh in 2000 resulted in 21 deaths, but only the lightest of sentences were meted when individual culprits could not be adequately identified. Furthermore, the trial of the three accused in the Nag Hamadi killings are still awaiting trial one year later, after multiple postponements. Will justice come in Alexandria? If so, who will receive it?

The cry for love demands pause. If this is the work of a foreign infiltrator then there is no direct comment on Egypt’s sectarian issues. If it was a sole Egyptian influenced by al-Qaeda rhetoric then the larger community is to be excused. Regardless, many in the Muslim community have immediately expressed their condolences, with Nagwa Raouf, professor at Cairo University, even apologizing on behalf of her co-religionists. A Muslim, in all likelihood, is guilty. Some Muslims may have been accomplices. Many Muslims may hold an ideology which contributed to the atmosphere of tension in Alexandria. But most Muslims decry violence in the name of their religion, and more generally in the name of humanity. A cry for love must include justice, but it must carefully differentiate.

A cry for love must also seek reconciliation and unity. A fine example of this is demonstrated by Rev. Atallah, who in addition to his pastoral work is a member of the Alexandria Intercultural Dialogue Committee, and the local parliamentary committee on conflict resolution and crisis. In response to the attacks he met with his dialogue group and issued a statement condemning the massacre, urging reconciliation, and petitioning for a clear law against religious discrimination. Furthermore, the group announced the following six steps it would take in light of the incident:

1.       All imams and Muslim leaders in the city are invited to attend the funeral.

2.       A group has been formed to visit the injured in the hospital

3.       The families of those killed or injured will be consulted for any financial support needed in the wake of their suffering and the losses incurred

4.       University leaders will be asked to lead blood donation campaigns

5.       The governor will be asked to designate a citywide moment of silence to honor the slain

6.       On January 26 the first of monthly meetings will be held to unite Muslims and Christians in changing the sectarian climate of Alexandria. Currently, 35 people, including journalists, religious leaders, and young people are committed to attend.

Steps like these are necessary, and provide opportunity for moderate, peace loving people of both faiths to use this tragedy for good and knit relationships of cooperation that will marginalize extremism. May it be that the monthly meetings will create further good ideas to promote understanding and national unity.

Yet the cry for love must not stop there. While many Salafis can likely participate with full sincerity in condemning the massacre and binding together with Christians in dialogue, others will not. The imams, for example, who were recently preaching non-friendship with Christians will likely remain venomous. Average Muslims under their tutelage may condemn the violence but harbor animosity against Christians or Christianity, or even the secular developments of the nation. Somehow, these must be engaged. They will not come to meetings; people of faith must go to them. And when they go, they must go in full commitment to love, to understand, to bless, and to do good. Efforts to change their mindset must be wholly secondary. Perhaps the dialogue groups can consider how.

Yet these Muslims are not the only ones harboring resentment. Christians, too, must be engaged with this cry for love. Many of them have chosen the path of violence in response to their victimization. Those they have harmed, including moderate leaders of their own faith, must treat them with the same patience and commitment necessary for hard-line Salafis. They must walk with them through the difficulties of forgiveness.

This is a monumental, perhaps superhuman task. But in times of crisis the choices are clear. Members of both faiths will shrink back into their own communities and assumptions about the other, or, less negatively but equally futilely curse the darkness that is encompassing them as they band together with interreligious friends. Or else they may find the only meaning possible in suffering, which is the hope of redemption. It is the cry for love that can prevent a heart-hardening emphasis on justice and seek the freedom of those enslaved by violence and its various ideologies. Justice is necessary; interreligious friendship is vital. But love expressed tangibly to the least deserving is transformational.

May Alexandria receive this hope.

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