Sunday, February 6 witnessed a peculiar exhibition amidst the drama unfolding in Tahrir Square. Christian Egyptians publically conducted a prayer service, honoring their fallen co-demonstrators who have died in the effort to topple the Mubarak government. Calling them ‘martyrs’, as is common Egyptian custom to designate all who perish in a cause or as a result of oppression, the opportunity was also used to demonstrate religious cohesion among all protestors. ‘Eid Wahida!’ – ‘One Hand!’ was the most popular chant uttered, exclaiming the essential unity between Muslims and Christians. Within context, a similar chant began when the Egyptian army took to the streets to restore order to society after the disappearance of the police, and was greeted with open arms by the protestors. They cried, ‘The people and the army are one hand.’ No less was the sentiment today confessed along religious lines.
This text was not composed based on first-hand experience, although the author was able to personally witness two days of previous demonstrations. Rather, it is compiled based on nearly eighteen minutes of footage posted on YouTube by the Coptic website Yar3any.com, and an additional two and a half minutes posted by BBC Arabic. It is also bolstered by the first-hand account of Dr. Amin Makram Ebeid, a board member of the Center for Arab West Understanding, which cooperates with Arab West Report.
It is noteworthy to begin by stating that each day’s protests have not been monolithic. Tahrir Square is a large area, and protestors have by necessity grouped together in several ‘stations’, each pressed up against the next. Other protestors ring the square in procession, and the chants that break out in one location soon dissipate into the cries of the next one over. Dr. Ebeid, who went specifically to attend the announced prayer service, had much difficulty finding the right location.
Nevertheless, the YouTube videos demonstrate that the crowd assembled was very sizeable. Christians, despite the Orthodox Church stance against participation, and the statements of Pope Shenouda on state television to end the protests and support President Mubarak, have joined in the thousands from the very beginning. During the service these were accompanied by many Muslims, who stood with their Christian co-demonstrators, holding the Bible and Qur’an aloft together.
This spirit of unity was exhibited by the service leaders. The popular Christian chorus ‘Peace, Peace’ had a line changed from ‘Peace to the people of the Lord in every place’ to ‘Peace to the Egyptian people’. Jesus was addressed as both ‘Yesua al-Masih’ (Jesus the Messiah, in Christian parlance) and ‘Eisa ibn Maryam’ (Eisa, the son of Mary, the preferred Islamic title). Some of the chants were political in nature, including the ubiquitous ‘Irhal’ – Leave! Others emphasized common human rights, proclaiming ‘Life, freedom, and the principles of humanity’, and the nationalistic ‘Egypt for all Egyptians’.
Excerpts from the spoken portions of the service included:
- Egypt is free: Muslims, Christians, and those of no particular faith. Freedom and peace to everyone; we are looking for a civil state.
- Let us pray together for the martyrs, help us to love each other and to love Egypt. Preserve Egypt, and its Muslims and Christians.
- Quoting John 10:10 – I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly. Christianity, Islam, and all religions want this; we are all together, we do not fear each other.
Many of these types of statements led to the repetition of Eid Wahida, Eid Wahida, and the Christians celebrated together with their Muslim partners. One statement, however, led to an odd proclamation. When the speaker proclaimed, ‘We stand with the martyrs, in a spirit of love, chanting for peace, standing for peace’, the crowd erupted in ‘Allahu Akbar’, the typical Muslim chant confessing ‘God is great!’ Apparently, as is possible theologically, both Christians and Muslims asserted this truth.
It seemed that this chant unnerved the service leaders somewhat, and they proceeded to lead the crowd once more in singing the popular Christian chorus, ‘Bless my country’. Other aspects of the service were more distinctively Christian, which did not seem to unnerve the crowd at large. One song declared ‘Son of God, you are our king’, despite the Muslim abhorrence at the thought that God might have a son. A prayer invoked ‘Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’, despite the Muslim belief that Jesus was only a prophet, however elevated. Even so, it seemed the organizers were very careful to be Christian yet not offensive and supportive of the protests. A main line in the sermon quoted I John 4:18, proclaiming, ‘The Gospel says that perfect love casts out all fear; we saw this love on January 25 and on January 28. Let us cast out all our fear in the name of the martyrs’.
Yet even so, Christian principles cannot simply serve the celebrated status quo. At one point the service leaders spoke the Lord’s Prayer, and after each line the people responded ‘Amen’. Upon the conclusion, however, the leader asked for God to forgive President Mubarak, and the people shouted, ‘No, no, no!’ Again, apparently, Christians and Muslims in attendance were united.
At this point it will be fair to introduce the service leader. He was Dr. Hany Kharrat, a psychologist and an elder in the Anglican Church. The flavor of the meeting was fully evangelical, lacking the gravity of the Orthodox mass, as well as its identifiable priestly leadership with its black robes and long beards. Instead, the service employed a guitar and was led by youth, representative of the makeup of the protests in general. It resembled a revival meeting in its fervor and participation. Yet it insisted on speaking on behalf of all Christians in Egypt, as Dr. Kharrat insisted, ‘All denominations of Egyptian Christians have come to share with you and to pray with you’.
This is less clear in conversation with official leadership. The bishop of the Anglican Church in Egypt is Bishop Mounir Anis, also a board member of CAWU. He has also taken a cautious approach to the protests, stating that most Christians fear that extremist elements will take these peaceful demonstrations in ultimately untoward directions. Instead of shouting slogans, he has encouraged his people to pray, which they have done in abundance. He believes people should be gracious to President Mubarak, though he supports a civilized transfer of authority. Otherwise, there might be chaos.
Rev. Radi Atallah is an evangelical pastor in Alexandria, who has worked extensively with local Muslims to secure dialogue and understanding, especially following the bombing in his city on New Year’s Eve. He also expressed concern that the protests were the organizational work of the Muslim Brotherhood, and worried they could go down a wrong path. Even so, he encouraged individual Christians to follow their conscience concerning participation. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Committee for Peace and Justice, associated with the Council of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops, has stated that these peaceful demonstrations are as important as the nonviolent resistance of Gandhi in India and as the emancipation of American slaves. Ezzet Boules, a Coptic Orthodox activist living in Switzerland, believes that if Christians shy away from participation, it will lead only to their further isolation from society. Church efforts to prevent this, he believes, are counterproductive.
As such, the absence of Coptic Orthodox official representation at the Tahrir prayer service is noteworthy, especially given Bishop Anis’s comments that some were present at the pro-Mubarak rallies organized on behalf of the government. What should be made of their abstention?
The Coptic Orthodox Church represents the vast majority of Christians in Egypt, who represent perhaps 6-8% of the overall population. Since sectarian troubles began plaguing Copts in the 1970s, Pope Shenouda has taken a leadership role in speaking on behalf of the Christian community, seeking to secure its political rights and its protection against extremist Muslim elements. Though the relationship has been wobbly, Pope Shenouda has largely succeeded in crafting a positive political stance vis-à-vis the government of President Mubarak.
Having molded Coptic opinion behind his leadership, however, Pope Shenouda has faced accusations of turning the church into ‘a state within a state’, while President Mubarak has been accused of allowing the inflammation of sectarian tension when necessary to achieve political goals, either against the church or in larger society. Whether or not these opinions have merit, they do not mask the essential reality that all groups in society depend on the power of the state for police protection and preservation of order. Neither do they mask the Biblical reality that calls Christians to ‘honor the king’.
Therefore, though the reasons and motivations behind abstention may be many, it may be true that Pope Shenouda early on expressed sentiments similar to Hillary Clinton when she declared the Egyptian government to be ‘stable’, and when Vice-President Joe Biden declared President Mubarak to be a longstanding ally. Inertia in relationships is difficult to overcome. Falling on the wrong side of the state could be a great miscalculation.
Yet as a hierarchical organization, the Coptic Orthodox Church is built upon obedience and respect for the positions of its pope and bishops. In this regard some bishops have condemned the ‘spirit of insurgency’ that is pitted in some quarters against Pope Shenouda. The spontaneous and widespread Christian riots following the bombing of the church in Alexandria was interpreted by some as church leadership losing its grip on its youth. Youth participation in the Tahrir protests may rightly be seen as a second blow. Whether or not the Coptic Orthodox Church is right or wrong in its decision to abstain from the demonstrations, on February 6 they yielded ground to the evangelicals.
Long term, and even short term, this should not be understood as a significant challenge to Orthodox hegemony in Egypt. Although occasional flare-ups occur between the leaders of the Christian denominations, many ordinary Egyptian Christians dismiss the importance of distinctions. For these, when Christians represent less than 10% of the population, insistence on doctrinal divisions takes on less importance. They will not deny the specifics of their peculiar creed, but they will also not shy away from cross-participation in different congregations, and especially not from warm individual relationships of respect. A Christian, they believe, is a Christian.
In Tahrir, this has been extended to assert that a Christian, like a Muslim, is an Egyptian. What does this mean for the widespread fear that these demonstrations bear an Islamic stamp that will marginalize Christians in the end? Bishop Anis reflected the testimony that over time the composition of the protests has changed, and that some groups are trying to ‘take advantage of the youth’. Is this the case?
During the protests on February 1, the March of a Million, I witnessed one of the changes. As compared to the demonstrations on January 28, the Day of Rage, there was this time a large contingent of Muslim sheikhs, distinguishable by their deep crimson fez. Between 30 and 50 such individuals grouped themselves together in a section of the square, and led those around them in chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’ and calls for the implementation of God’s law (sharia). Yet they declared at the same time that this was a demonstration representing all of Egypt, and that God’s law grants freedom to Muslim, Christian, and non-religious alike. A sign upheld celebrated the fact that since the protests began, not one church in all of Egypt had been attacked.
After Islamic prayers there was a pause, and I sat down to discuss their message with Sheikh Mukhtar, one of the primary chant leaders. He is an employee of the Ministry of Endowments, which oversees mosques and religious establishments in Egypt. His particular position is as a ‘caller’ to Islam, that is, to full practice of Muslim religious requirements.
His testimony reflected anger at the government and its corruptions. He called for the deposing of all figures appointed by the government, including the Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, the highest Muslim religious authority in Egypt. He bore no malice whatsoever toward Christians or non-practicing Muslims, but, emboldened by the successes of the demonstrations, now desired to take part. As an Egyptian, no matter an Islamist, he wished to display his share. He recognized, though, that leadership was in the hands of the youth, and he was a latecomer.
I asked him about his chanting of ‘Allahu Akbar’. I confessed that many either through ignorance or willful distortion seek to disfigure the Islamist position, especially in reference to these protests and this chant. Yet all the same, Allahu Akbar is an Islamic cry. If he was insisting that these demonstrations were Egyptian, and not Muslim, why employ it? Would it not only serve to confuse Westerners and scare Egyptian Christians? Would this not be against your own interests?
His reply initially suggested that he had never considered such a question. Among Muslims, the Allahu Akbar cry is near-instinctual, and does not necessarily convey a call to jihad. When there is a cause to rally behind, however, it is jihadic in all positive senses (and at times negative as well), and comes quickly to their lips.
Upon reflection, though, he stated that in this situation Allahu Akbar does not express a sense of belonging to a particular creed. Rather, it is a challenging directive against the government. It is meant to state deep, religious dissatisfaction against a power believed to have violated the Islamic principles of justice, equity, and good governance. Besides, in its meaning, he stated, a Christian should not disagree. God is great. Apparently, at the February 6 prayer service, many Christians agreed, and cried Allahu Akbar all the same.
The impression received across the board is that protestors are eager, even desperate, for validation. They know their movement is subject to suspicion, criticism, and accusation – certainly from the government but also from Western liberal supposed allies who fear an Islamist imprint. For the past several decades religion has been a dividing point between Muslims and Christians. Many, however, have insisted these difficulties are invented or engineered, not reflecting the essential national unity that exists between the two groups. Among the makeup of Tahrir protestors, this certainly reflects their reality.
Yet they go forward to make certain this message is heard. When Muslims bow during their prayer times, Christians have encircled them to offer protection. Now, when Christians conduct a prayer service, Muslims participate freely. Has protection been necessary? Yes, but have attacks been immanent? No. Are such sentiments sincere? Yes. Are they meant to be a picture representation before the outside world, and therefore at least partially staged? Perhaps. Should they be criticized for this? No. Should the outside world consider its guilt in assuming religious relations are bad, therefore making these exhibitions necessary? Probably.
What does all of this mean for the uprising? What does it mean for Christian participation? As throughout Egyptian society, opinions are divided. The question now appears to be congealing into a discussion for the long haul. Protestors have established control over Tahrir Square, and the government is in negotiations over demands and concessions. The atmosphere, only a few days earlier a war zone, is now conducive to church services. Things change rapidly, and wisdom is necessary. Will good come about, and if so, who should define it? What should a Christian do? What should an Egyptian do? These are monumental, historical days for a six thousand year old civilization. Rarely does life have such weight. When it does, what is demanded?
Perhaps the Western reader’s life does not bear such weight at the moment, but allow your mind to process the questions as if you shared in the Egyptian experience. How should you think? Who should you support? How should you pray?
We do not share in their struggles, but we share in their humanity. Where does the good of all lie?