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Military Activity at Egyptian Monasteries: Aggression or Necessary Action?

Monastery of Saint Bishoy, Egypt
Image via Wikipedia

On January 29, following four days of massive popular demonstrations[1] and the withdrawal of police personnel throughout the country, the military has been deployed on Egyptian soil, keeping the peace and maintaining neutrality during the political crisis. On February 11, following the resignation of President Mubarak, the military command assumed authority to govern the country through a transitional period of political reform toward democratic rule. The conduct of the military has been widely praised in Egypt, and from their initial deployment the demonstrators chanted ‘the people and the army are one hand!’ Politics and governance, however, do not come naturally to the military, and within the past few weeks their conduct, including that in regard to Christians, has come under question.

Beginning on February 23 the military undertook a series of operations to demolish recently constructed walls at three Coptic Orthodox monasteries in three separate locations. This action resulted in a number of Christian injuries and widespread outcry in the Coptic community, both in Egypt and abroad. As with many events that concern religious affairs in Egypt, the accounts are diverse and context is necessary to properly understand what has taken place.

This report will describe the incidents at the monasteries, explore the background events which shed light on the actions of the principles, and critique the reporting of certain agencies which brought the events to public knowledge. It will rely on firsthand testimony of eyewitnesses, details as reported in the press, YouTube footage of the operation, the understanding of expatriate Copts,[2] and previous reporting of Arab West Report. It will seek to demonstrate that fault is shared among all parties, but that each faced substantial difficulties which help make their conduct understandable, though not excusable. Final judgment on motivations, however, is not possible outside the inner workings of each person’s heart.

The Unfolding of Events

The three monasteries in question are St. Bishoy in Wadi al-Natrun, 120 km northwest of Cairo, St. Macarius the Alexandrian in Wadi al-Rayyan near Fayyum, 100 km southwest of Cairo, and St. Paul along the mountainous coast of the Red Sea. Events are best documented for the Monastery of St. Bishoy, and as such, this account will serve as a template for the understanding the three incidents as a whole. Each incident is unique, however, and known details will be integrated into this text.

The General Story

Following the withdrawal of police forces throughout Egypt, a period of lawlessness ensued with widespread rioting and the empting of several state prisons. Accounts differ as to whether prisoners took advantage of the situation and escaped, criminal, Islamist, or Bedouin elements attacked and freed prisoners among their constituency, or government-aligned forces allowed the evacuation of the prisons in order to spread chaos in society and develop antipathy toward the demonstrators. In any event, the violence that followed spread fear throughout the country, including the distant and generally isolated monasteries in question.

In what could be understood as a natural reaction to this fear, the monasteries began to build security walls in defense. Yet these monasteries already have walls around their territories, though not protective of all their lands. Additionally, these new walls were not built on monastery land, but on state land owned by the government.[3] This prompted the military to act, issuing an ultimatum for the walls to be demolished. When the monasteries failed to adhere to the directive, the military conducted the operation itself.

Monks and Coptic Egyptian workers, however, did not stand idly by. Their resistance and protest, though passive, was met by the use of ammunition. The army discharged several rounds into the air, seeking to clear the area in order to begin demolition. Rounds were both of the live and rubber bullet variety, and some struck the Christians in question, causing injury. Eventually military control was established, and bulldozers dismantled the walls.

The YouTube Footage

The account above has been written with an attempt to sanitize the information, so as to provide general facts without controversial commentary. Of course, such presentation itself may lead to controversy, as supporters of either the military or the monasteries may protest at the failure to judge misconduct on either side. Though this will be dealt with later in the text, pro-Coptic reporting and sentiment may be seen through links provided in the footnote below.[4]

These videos were filmed at the Monastery of St. Bishoy. Though some editing is obvious, and necessary, the following YouTube links offer a window to witness the events as they unfolded. Each will be accompanied by a running commentary in the text.

Video One

The video begins with a monk standing between a soldier and a monastery worker in an effort to prevent the soldier from hitting the worker. The reason for his anger is not clear. Five armored personnel carriers are seen with armed soldiers as well as a group of soldiers discussing with a group of Christians, including the monk described above. Meanwhile an officer is seen giving the armored cars instructions to move into position. At 1:16 shooting starts. It appears that officers had given Christians instructions to leave the area which they probably refused to do. The situation becomes chaotic. A number of Christians start running away while others remain. At 2:20 one sees the building material and the newly constructed gate. A man comes from the gate to the cameraman, carrying a wounded young man, apparently hit by a bullet. At 2:28 a civilian sits on the ground as two soldiers with batons stand beside him. A few seconds later, one of the soldiers beats him with his baton. At 3:00 a tank is seen demolishing a wall. At 3:20 a soldier (or officer?) with a gun, sitting on top of a tank, gives instructions to soldiers on the ground.  Shooting has been continuous since it started. At 4:20 the military armored car runs into the metal gate. Copts realize that the gate will be destroyed and start chanting ‘Kyrie Eleison’, translated ‘Lord have mercy’. For a moment there is no shooting, but there is no indication this was because of the chanting. At 4:50 two armored vehicles hit the two concrete pillars of the gate. The chanting stops. At 4:58 a shout is heard, probably a soldier or officer, saying ‘Tahya Masr’, translated ‘Long live Egypt!’ At 5:26 soldiers are seen damaging the nameplate of the monastery, and later the chanting of Kyrie Eleison is heard again. The film shows vehicles and soldiers near the destroyed objects but the soldiers do not progress forward. It seems their task of destroying walls and the gate was accomplished. At 6:40 a soldier is seen cutting at a tree. The producer of the film narrates that the army even cuts trees, but this does not appear to be a fair comment.  If one watches carefully the solder is cutting barbed wire which had been nailed to this tree. At 7:07 the sign with the name of the monastery is shown, riddled with bullet holes. A priest shows empty bullet casings, a clear proof that the army had been shooting. Other priests show additional empty bullet casings and say these must be collected as proof. At 7:40 there is depicted a young man who points to a wound in his belly. At the conclusion the army moves out.

Video Two

This video opens with a red Toyota, the shooting of guns, and at a distance of perhaps a hundred meters a view of the wall and gate built near a line of trees. During the shooting a priest walks calmly across the street, apparently unafraid of the shooting as it was not directed towards him or the cameraman. At 0:28 two civilians, one apparently wounded, come running from the wall that is being destroyed. A military armored car moves toward the wall. At 0:48 a young man throws stones at the soldiers but he is much too far away to hit anyone. At 1:06 a man comes from the gate to the cameraman, carrying a wounded monastery worker, apparently hit by a bullet. Shooting continues to be heard until 1:23, with images of young civilian men, some throwing stones. At 1:28 while the wall is being torn down an older monk approaches the young men and instructs them to leave. The language he uses indicates he did not want them to be there. They do not leave, but instead argue with the priest. Shots are heard sporadically, but gunfire is no longer constant as it was earlier. Soldiers on foot destroy to wall with ease, revealing it to have been built rapidly and with poor quality. At 2:03 a young man, probably wounded, walks towards the camera crying as soldiers destroy the wall. At 2:30 a young monk is videoed filming the soldiers. At 2:55 there is more stone throwing from a distance. At 3:21 gunshots are heard again, perhaps because some young men had come too close to the soldiers. No one, however, runs from the location of gunfire. At 4:00 and afterwards a military vehicle destroys a wall close to the gate, as some watch on, others throw stones, but no one is running away. At 7:20 a car is heard honking, drives in the direction of the gate, and receives a bleeding young man carried by others. At 8:20 the door of the gate is forced open by soldiers, and a few seconds later much shooting is heard. The film ends with a quotation from the Gospel, in which Jesus tells his followers, ‘In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.’

Commentary

This footage accompanied several reports which decried the conduct of the army. Some of these reports will be analyzed more closely later in the text. Certainly the incident involved violence, which has not been characteristic of military behavior since they assumed responsibility for the country. Why then did it occur now? How should this be interpreted? These questions will be addressed as the text continues, but for now, a few observations are necessary:

  • The wall destroyed was a recent construction, and the scope of military action did not move beyond its demolition, certainly not to the monastery proper, which is never in view.
  • While gunfire was frequent, it appears to be localized at the point of demolition. From here young men are seen to be running, while elsewhere they stand around undisturbed.
  • Some people were certainly injured in the altercation, and at least one person was beaten.
  • Monks appeared to be working to prevent clashes between soldiers and workers.

 

Other Information Unique to Each Monastery

The Monastery of St. Bishoy

Information provided on the Monastery of St. Bishoy is primarily gained from Fr. Timon al-Suriyani,[5] a monk in residence. It is supplemented by reports from Fr. Basilius,[6] a monk from the nearby Monastery of St. Macarius, also located in Wadi al-Natrun. Hani Labib, managing director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translations, provided further investigations. The text also relies on public statements issued by the monastery[7] and the armed forces,[8] putting forth their version of events.

According to the monastery statement, the wall in question was constructed following the withdrawal of police, and after an official request to the military for protection. When the military responded, ‘Protect yourselves!’ the monastery proceeded to build the wall on land previously sought for purchase from the state. This construction proceeded within sight and hearing of local military personnel.

When the army arrived to demolish the wall, monks and workers ‘emerged to see what was happening to their monastery’. They were met by seven armored vehicles, military police vehicles, and at least 150 soldiers who fired ‘an enormous quantity of ammunition, live, blanks, and rubber, and two RPG projectiles used for military training’. This resulted in one monk being injured, and four workers sustaining ‘penetrative injuries, including shots and gashes’. Among these four ‘one had his spleen removed and another his right kidney, which had three shots in it’. Two monks and three workers were arrested, following an incident in which ‘the monks were treated with the utmost violence, insults, and bad language’.

The monastery statement also makes it clear it believes this action to be untypical ‘of the mannerisms of the valiant armed forces responsible for protecting the nation’, and therefore appeals

to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is responsible for the safety of all Egyptians, to investigate this insulting crime that does not fit with the honor of the Egyptian military, which we trust to the utmost and support completely. The monastery asks the honorable council to speedily release the monks and other persons still detained with them.

These were set free after a few days.

Fr. Timon adds a few more details to the narrative. The new walls (plural) were constructed on two sides of the monastery, ½ km out from the existing walls. The first week of February the army came to investigate, and they returned a week later to request the walls be torn down, since, they said, the police would soon return to provide protection. The monastery did not comply. Then, on February 19 at 10am, the army returned and began demolishing walls without negotiation. They followed this up on February 23,[9] the day in question, with seven armored vehicles and at least 50 soldiers. After about 90 minutes the walls and gate were leveled, and seven monks and workers were injured in the altercation.

According to some reports, the soldiers were said to have shouted ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and ‘Victory!’ as they fired their rounds and destroyed the wall. They quoted Fr. Hemanot Ava Bishoy, who stated, ‘The army was shocked to see the monks standing there praying, ‘Lord have mercy’ without running away. This is what really upset them.’ Fr. Timon[10] refutes this accusation, having seen no shock from soldiers at the monks’ prayer, nor heard any utter such cries. He also adds details to the accounts of the injured. The two youths critically injured (one was a worker, and the other a monastery visitor) while they rushed to the walls following the ringing of the church bells by the monks. One monk was running (not stated why), and then fell and broke his leg. Another monk received a superficial wound from a rubber bullet, and two others were detained in the hospital due to a herniated disc condition and high blood pressure.

Fr. Basilius adds the confirmation that the wall was built upon state land, but also a significant detail: The monks and workers made a human shield in defense of the wall. The activities of the monastery were later described as ‘unwise’ by Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Following the outcry, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces put out an official statement in which they declared they undertook no aggression against the monastery and that their action was limited to the demolition of ‘a number of walls that were built on the road and on state-owned land without legal justification’. Furthermore they stated they had ‘absolutely no intention to demolish the monastery, out of our belief in the freedom and sanctity of Egyptians’ places of worship’.

Final investigations by Hani Labib revealed that though the monastery stated it has previously sought to purchase the land in question, some sources say since as long ago as 1992, there is no documentation to prove this claim. He also discovered that the public prosecutor, Abd al-Majid Mahmud, transferred the case to the military judiciary.

The Monastery of St. Macarius the Alexandrian

Information gained from the military operation against the newly constructed wall at the Monastery of St. Macarius the Alexandrian is taken primarily from the report of the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). In a first article they related the incident at St. Bishoy, and referenced that the army had also visited St. Macarius the Alexandrian, in reference to their wall. This was built due to the attacks of thugs and Bedouins following the withdrawal of police forces, resulting in the injury of six monks. At that time the monastery was given the 48 hour ultimatum to demolish their wall. In a second article they describe the incident itself, when the army returned, demolished the wall, but in addition destroyed a room of the actual monastery and confiscated building materials.[11] During the operation one monk was shot and ten suffered injury while beaten by batons.

While we were not able to obtain other sources to verify, supplement, or contradict this account, there is highly relevant contextual background information which will be described later.

The Monastery of St. Paul

Information provided about the Monastery of St. Paul is gained from reporting by the agencies whose links have been noted above, but also from a German Coptic engineer[12] (who prefers not to be mentioned by name) who relates the news story as received from Free Christian Radio. Contextual background information was received by a visit to the monastery by Cornelis Hulsman on January 30, before the military operation, and will be described later.

Following the withdrawal of police forces, a catering car on its way to the monastery was stopped by escaped prisoners. While one person was killed, the second was able to escape and make his way into the monastery. Upon receiving news, the monks responded to this threat by constructing a wall and posting at the gate two or three monks with cell phones.

According to the engineer’s testimony, recalling the radio report, the army arrived later and stayed one week at the guesthouse of the monastery. The general himself stayed in the residence of the bishop. While undertaking the demolition of the wall, the army then bound the hands of the monks on guard, make them to lie face down, and then left them in this position while they left. One of these monks had been ill, and did not survive the ordeal.

Thereafter, the engineer was able to speak directly with Fr. Ya‘qūb, a monk from the Monastery of St. Paul, who was visiting Germany. The monk confirmed the story as the engineer recalled from the radio report, except for the detail of the monk dying. He also related that after demolishing the wall, the army recognized the legitimacy for the monastery to have a control gate, which they then allowed to be built in the same location.[13]

We were not able to obtain other sources to verify, supplement, or contradict this account.

note: Part Two to this report, describing contextual information to these incidents, will be posted next.

[1] Demonstrations began on Police Day, January 25, continued the next two days, and then greatly increased in number on Friday, January 28, as Egyptians exited their mosques, proceeded toward Tahrir Square and centers of town in many other Egyptian cities.

[2] As will be seen within the report, expatriate Copts often find their Egypt-based colleagues to downplay the severity of sectarian events. Conversely, many domestic Copts believe that their colleagues in the West exaggerate their claims. This report recognizes the legitimacy of their diverse opinions, but will weight most strongly the sources which are closer to the events in question, and therefore, within Egypt. This draft text has been seen by Dr. Mourad Lotfih in Germany. He his comments have proved valuable but where they conflicted with local Coptic witnesses we favored the opinions of local sources.

[3] Some suggest that the new walls were built partially on monastery land and partially on state land. While possible, no sources close to the event have been found in our investigation to substantiate this claim.

[5] His testimony is published in AWR 2011, week 8, article 17.

[6] His testimony was obtained through email correspondence with Cornelis Hulsman, editor-in-chief of AWR, February 28, 2011. Hulsman and Fr. Basilius are long time personal friends. As a consequence Fr. Basilius has been willing to comment on issues for AWR, and he has always proven to be very reliable.

[9] The timeline of military visits does not match their pattern of issuing an ultimatum and then returning to accomplish the job in one setting. While there is no necessary reason to doubt the accuracy of the dates provided by Fr. Timon, we were unable to reach him again to confirm these details.

[10] Information gained through phone call of Hani Labib with Fr. Timon, February 23, 2011.

[11] The actual monastery is built on the location where Father Matta al-Miskeen stayed with his first followers in the 1950s. Father Alisha started building here in the second half of the 1990s.

[12] Testimony gained through telephone calls and email correspondence with Cornelis Hulsman.

[13] According to email correspondence with Cornelis Hulsman, March 8, 2011.

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