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Umraniyya through the Eyes of the Church

On November 23, 2010, clashes erupted between security forces and Christian demonstrators at the construction site of a church service building in Umraniyya, Giza, just outside of Cairo. The protests began when authorities halted the construction process of a building which was rumored to be transformed into an unauthorized church. The protests were subdued by a show of force resulting in the death of two Christian protestors and the injury of dozens, including security personnel. The clashes attracted national attention, and as with many sectarian incidents, adduced differing interpretations.

This paper will focus on the interpretation of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The official church television channel ‘Aghabi’ devoted the bulk of two episodes of Nabd al-Kanisa (Heartbeat of the Church) to special reporting on the Umraniyya incident. Nabd al-Kanisa is hosted by Shenouda Victor, and describes itself as ‘the official church voice’, bringing ‘the truth from the church to you’. The first episode aired on November 26, and the second a week later on December 3. Supervision for the programming is provided by Bishop Armiya, secretary to Pope Shenouda III.

Reporting on episode one lasted about thirty minutes, twenty of which consisted of an interview with Bishop Theodosius, General Bishop of the Churches in Giza. The rest of the time provided video footage from the scene, clips from Pope Shenouda’s weekly meeting in which he answered questions about the incident, and commentary from the host. Episode two was devoted entirely to Umraniyya, with over an hour of video footage, statements from eyewitnesses, a survey of media coverage, and further commentary. The following will provide the presented summary of events:

The Official Church Perspective

Four years ago the church purchased the land on which the building in question stands. Though there were some complications at that time, the permissions were given to build a church service building, and Bishop Theodosius explicitly denied that there were Muslim-Christian tensions in the area over the issue. Then, in 2009 the church received official license to construct a service building. He also emphasized, though, that many of the common people in Giza cannot differentiate between a service building and a church, and assumed the building was to be a church, as it was on church property. Incidentally, this particular building had no distinguishing church characteristics such as crosses or domes.

Construction proceeded normally, until a violation was recorded and a work stop order given by the local Umraniyya district authorities. The violation concerned a second staircase, anterior to the building, which was not approved in the original blueprints. The bishop questioned why, with building violations all over the city, should an extra safety measure stop the whole project. A local Muslim was also filmed stating the original issue concerned only this secondary staircase.

When the work stop order was issued the workers and craftsmen began their protest. The program emphasized that it was composed of Christians and Muslims together, depicting one holding a sign stating, “I am a Muslim and I refuse the persecution of Copts.”

When the bulldozers came it was interpreted as a threat to destroy work on the building. The workers then, according to the bishop, quickly constructed a dome on the building to give it the appearance of sanctity.

They hoped that demolition workers would respect work done on a building with a ‘churchy’ appearance. During this time the protest began to swell. Certain vehicles from the district government entered the premises to investigate, but were attacked and had their windows smashed in. The bishop emphasized, though, that many of the people there were unknown to the church, and church officials immediately apologized for the damage and offered to replace the car.

As the protest continued, certain of the church priests went to visit the governor, with whom the church, it was stated, had good relations. They returned with a decision of the governor to turn the building into a church as soon as the proper papers were presented to him. The announcement of this decision to the protestors was met with great applause. Footage shown captured the enthusiasm.

That evening, November 22, however, security started to assemble. Dozens of policemen cordoned off the area, and also perched above on an overpass. Early the next morning, the order was given to attack. The bishop stated that he doesn’t know who issued this order. Tear gas was employed, and live ammunition was used. Rocks were thrown, both by protesters and by security. Chaos ensued, and everyone dispersed. Police began arresting the protestors, and eyewitnesses claimed they went around yelling, “You have ‘Christian’ on your identity card? Get in!” Over 100 people were taken into custody. Video and pictures captured that several of these were handcuffed to their beds in the hospital while being treated for their wounds. Two of the wounded later died.

Analysis and Questions

The above sequence of events was culled largely from the interview with Bishop Theodosius. Five eyewitnesses also presented testimony, but none of their names were given, and three were given in silhouette. For one of these, an eye patch – presumably from the attacks – was visible in the black and white profile. In addition, three priests provided brief statements, and official church press releases were read, addressed to the president, parliament, and others. In addition, three different newspaper articles were read, selected from al-Masry al-Youm, al-Uyun, and Nahdat Masr.

Music played a central role in the presentation of images and video. During scenes of violence it was presented in staccato, ominously highlighting shots of police firing tear gas or throwing rocks. During the aftermath of events the music shifted into quieter, mourning melodies, audible against the backdrop of bloody victims or hospitalized patients.

Coverage on the program revolved around three themes:

First, this was not a sectarian conflict. Christians and Muslims worked together in building the church, and protested together when the stop work order was given. Given the preponderance of sectarian issues in recent weeks, and also against the backdrop of elections widely believed to be fraudulent, the program emphasized this was an issue between government and people, not between Muslim and Christian.

Second, this was initiated by security, responding to administrative matters with disproportionate violence. Rumors about changing the building into a church were based only on popular misunderstandings, and violations in the agreed upon blueprints were necessary for safety reasons. A telling segment on the program offered video footage of police violence under the heading ‘for every action…’ followed by scenes of protesters throwing rocks with the heading of ‘there is a reaction’. The main question, however, asked but unanswered, is why such violence was necessary. Even had there been countless violations, could the situation not have been handled differently?

Third, this is a matter to be solved by President Mubarak. Bishop Theodosius stated his confidence in the wisdom of political leadership to solve this crisis. The building under construction displayed large banners with an image of the president, following the governor’s decision to initiate a procedure to license it as a church. One of the anonymous eyewitnesses also dramatically expressed his desire to see President Mubarak’s intervention, stating the president enjoyed ‘all respect, esteem, and love.’

The perspective of the church given during the program served effectively to create a narrative of events that makes sense of what happened. Yet, like any perspective, it left out elements potentially detrimental to the narrative. For example:

It is confusing to determine the status of the building. The bishop emphasized it was not originally meant as a church, and that the dome was not built as part of a transformation project. But when exactly was the dome built? The bishop stated it was after the threat of demolition, but other sources indicate it was the building of the dome which sparked the clashes. Furthermore, if the church did not intend it to be a church, why did the governor issue a statement that he would authorize it to become a church? Additionally, columnist and author Hany Labib notes that only the president can issue license for a church building; governors only have the authority to license repairs or reconstruction. How is the narrative affected by this fact?

It is confusing to determine the size of the crowd and their activity. Videos on the program show gathered protesters in the tens, or perhaps hundreds, and it is implied these were composed mainly of the construction workers engaged in building. The only act of violence admitted is the damage done to visiting vehicles. Yet other sources describe up to three thousand protesters. These are described as marching out to block traffic on the busy overpass near the church, and vandalizing government buildings and property. Without gauging the accuracy of these reports, there is no mention of them at all in the program. Yet a crowd this size, engaging in civil disobedience, might well qualify for a large contingent of security to subdue it. Whether or not the security response was warranted, these details cast doubt on the church narrative of innocent protesters being met by government thuggery.

It is confusing to determine the exchange of violence. The program represents the use of live ammunition as flagrant excess of force, but admits to an exchange of stone throwing between the two sides. Yet other sources picture the protesters as hurling Molotov cocktails at police. Hany Labib, however, emphasizes that Molotov cocktails result in conflagration, and there is no evidence of burned damage from the scene, nor reports of fire in the locality. The program contains no scenes of Molotov cocktails; is this because it would do damage to the greater narrative, or because there were none at all? If absent, who is trying to craft a different narrative of Christian weaponry, and why?

Finally, it is confusing to determine the nature of the protests. The program suggests that they emerged randomly, as workers and local residents took issue with government threats to stop their labor. Hundreds of people, however, and certainly thousands if that number is correct, suggests organization of presence. Furthermore, why were there so many so early in the morning? In addition, the protests took place over a few days, and sources indicate they drew attention to their cause by blocking traffic. Again, organization appears likely, but at the least, could not church authorities have stopped the protests had they wished this? Premeditation offers a different perspective on the narrative than spontaneity.

There is also the larger contextual issue of church service buildings themselves. These began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s in reaction to the sectarian crisis at that time. Beginning on university campuses, there was a trend for students to segregate themselves by religion for social activities. As such, the church began providing places for Christian students to congregate. Mirroring also the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood and others, the church expanded the use of service buildings to provide education, training, and material support for Christians throughout the nation. As these buildings do not have the traditional appearance of a church, they tend to be less controversial in society and receive more easily official government authorization. At times, due to the difficulties in church building regulations, they have been transformed into places of worship.

So while aspects of the church presentation require greater research, some of their questions raised do so as well. For example:

  • Why did these building violations attract the attention of the government, when so many go unheeded throughout the city?
  • Why did security assemble in the dark of night, and why did they attack early in the morning?
  • Why would policemen throw stones at protestors, even if provoked (as seen in video footage)?
  • Why was live ammunition used?
  • Why were so many protestors arrested?
  • Is there any relation between these events and the parliamentary elections scheduled five days later?

Answering the questions raised in this text, unfortunately, are beyond the current resources of the AWR office. Raising the questions, however, serves to highlight a consistent theme: Easy answers and polemic accusations rarely reflect the reality of events. Should the government issue clear regulations for building houses of worship? Likely. Does security react with more force than necessary when dealing with protests? Often. Is the loss of life regrettable, and should those responsible be held accountable? Absolutely.

With this program the church, however, is walking a fine line. On the one hand it seeks to portray itself as an innocent sufferer at the hands of an aggressive security force. On the other hand it seeks to reiterate fidelity to the ruling regime on which it depends, it believes, for protection. Toggling between criticism and loyalty, while ignoring worthy considerations of its culpable role, the church risks giving evidence of acting as a state within a state. This is a damaging accusation against it, and the church would do well to work stridently against the perception.

Even Pope Shenouda has undone part of the greater church narrative. During the parliamentary elections he voted for the oppositional Wafd party candidate, signaling his displeasure with the government’s NDP party. With what, however, is uncertain. Is it simply a protest against government handling of the Umraniyya crisis, or reflective of a deeper change in his convictions? In any case, his personal vote and voice always signal more than that of one man, given his developed representation of all things Coptic.

In his response to a question on the Umraniyya crisis during his weekly meeting, Pope Shenouda quoted Colossians 3:21, applying it to the role of government – “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they do not lose heart.” Though questions abound about the role of the church, ‘exasperation’ – with government, with society – accurately describes the condition of many Copts. Will they lose heart? Only they can decide.

While sectarian issues exist, the church does well in emphasizing this particular conflict is not sectarian in nature. Muslims and Christians alike oppose violence, and express shock at the level of aggression meted out in Umraniyya. As such, perhaps the antidote to losing heart can be found in a Muslim voice, highlighted during the program from an article in al-Masry al-Youm. Recalling the Christian values described in the Sermon on the Mount, Fatima Naout wrote: “We pray for all those who practice violence … so that from us the great love of God may be revealed.” In times of exasperation, greater purpose is needed to lift the sufferer from despair to hope. Perhaps a positive commitment to demonstrate God’s values can suffice. There is no loss of heart in love.

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