Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Military Activity at Egyptian Monasteries – Part Two

Monastery of Saint Bishoy, Egypt
Image via Wikipedia

For Part One, which outlines the story in its broad strokes, please click here.

Contextual Information

The details of the stories above, not all of which have been confirmed, raise the following questions:

  • Why were the monks in these monasteries in such fear while they lived in relative isolation?
  • Was this fear justified?
  • Might the monks have been attempting a land grab, no matter their level of fear?
  • Was the army response fitting with its traditional conduct?

While other questions may be posed and deserve attention as well, information is available to provide perspective on these issues. The following section will address the general threat recently issued by al-Qaeda against the Monastery of St. Bishoy, the security situation in the desert following the withdrawal of police, previous efforts by monasteries to create ‘facts on the ground’ in order to expand their lands or erect buildings, and the subsequent response of the army.

Al-Qaeda and the Monasteries

In the fall of 2010, following an attack on a church in Baghdad, al-Qaeda issued a warning to the Copts of Egypt. This community in particular was threatened due to the understanding that the church was holding Coptic women converts to Islam against their will within the desert monasteries. Specifically, Wafa Costantine and Camilia Shehata were wives of priests who, in the case of Costantine, took initial steps to convert, and in the case of Shehata, allegedly appeared in photographs wearing a hijab.  Following church intervention these were turned over by the state to ecclesiastic authorities, and have not been seen publically since. Wide protests were held by Muslims in Egypt, and though no one outside the church knows their whereabouts, it was believed they were being held in one of monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun.

Though Egypt rallied around the church in its condemnation of the al-Qaeda threat, on New Year’s Eve there was a horrific bombing at a church in Alexandria in which twenty-three people died. Such a brazen attack was not fitting with the usual troubles that surface during internal sectarian tensions, and though many elements of the bombing remain unclear, the Egyptian authorities fingered a Gaza-based al-Qaeda offshoot as the culprit. Again, Egyptian Christians and Muslims demonstrated their solidarity in response, but the fulfillment of the earlier warning put the Copts on alert.

Then, on January 14 there was an incident at the Monastery of the Syrian. The personal vehicle of Bishop Mattias, head of the monastery, exploded in the garage after having been parked for an hour. Damages were limited to the car and the immediate area, no one was hurt, and the monastery chose to downplay what happened. Media coverage was minor, and the report was that the car exploded due to a leakage of gas.

The German Coptic engineer, however, investigated matters and ran a computer simulation of the event. He noted that the fuel necessary to run the car was different than published reports, and that an idle car would lack the necessary spark for combustion. Furthermore, even if it were to occur, it would cause an implosion, yet the pictures which reveal the damage clearly indicated to him evidence of a bomb.

Was this the work of al-Qaeda, or related to the suspected presence of captive converts to Islam? No one knows. Even if the engineer is mistaken, it represented another reminder of the general threat under which the monasteries existed. Certainly, after the withdrawal of police forces from the country in general and the monastery in particular, great fear on the part of the monks is understandable.

The Security Situation

While fear is justified, did it need to be amplified to the point of erecting new walls for security? More directly, had monasteries come under attack by criminal or sectarian elements in the days following the withdrawal of police? Evidence is inconclusive because it is incomplete. Yet there are reports which discourage the reader from over-generalizing the state of chaos imagined in the absence of police forces.

Most looting took place in the major cities, as would be expected. Some of it, however, expanded to the desert regions in search of antiquities. The German Coptic engineer reports that on February 28 the Pharaonic pyramids of Sakkara were raided by men with machine guns. Certainly this is indicative of instability that would worry any Egyptian anywhere.

Yet the general atmosphere between Muslims and Christians was highly positive even in the absence of security. Leaders from both communities celebrated that during the demonstration period and afterwards, the churches of Egypt – left unguarded – remained safe. It is true that during the period of lawlessness some took advantage of blood feuds across religious lines. One Christian family was slaughtered a year after a Christian man was discovered in illicit relations with a Muslim woman. Yet this type of violence affected the Egyptian population as a whole, and was not directed against the Christian community at large.[1]

In fact, evidence at the St. Macarius Monastery in Wadi al-Natrun, not far from St. Bishoy, indicates quite the opposite. Following the outbreak from the prison of Wadi al-Natrun, 31 escapees scaled the walls of the monastery, and requested food and drink. This was given freely, as the monastery offers all visitors, and then they were asked to leave, and they complied. There was no violence, no compulsion, and though the intrusion and trespassing were surly worrisome to the monks, the incident revealed only an example of hospitality, even to criminals.

Fr. Ruiess related the incident after receiving the news by telephone in the presence of Cornelis Hulsman on January 31. Fr. Ruiess resides at the Monastery of St. Anthony along the Red Sea coast, not far from the previously described Monastery of St. Paul. Hulsman was staying at this monastery while traveling with a group of European Christians, including four clergy, before the demonstrations began, and continued the tour in Upper Egypt despite the lack of security suffered in the country. The events at St. Macarius being known in St. Anthony indicate they were known also at St. Paul, for Hulsman relates that there were frequent contacts in these days between the neighboring monasteries. Hulsman stayed at both sites from January 30 – February 2, and describes that until this time there were no attacks on either monastery, or elsewhere in Upper Egypt, as confirmed by the numerous priests and laypeople with whom he conversed.

Later that day, the story of the escapees at St. Macarius was confirmed by Fr. Basilius, earlier described, a monk resident at the monastery, through a phone call by Hulsman. He also refuted rumors going around, passed on to Hulsman by expatriate Copts in Europe, that thousands of escaped prisoners had attacked the monastery.[2] There is no evidence of any monastery in all of Egypt which suffered damage during the period of general instability.

Were these three monasteries in question, then, justified in building new walls to protect themselves from lawlessness? This question must be left open for now, especially since the answer lies only in the heart of those involved. While fear was understandable, and precaution is always wise, and al-Qaeda related threats were in the air, general reporting about the danger faced appears to have been exaggerated. Perhaps the monasteries were justified in building the walls; were they then justified in resisting demolition?

Creating Facts on the Ground

In general, the Egyptian government suffers from an inability to extend the rule of law throughout its vast territory, much of which is desert. This is specifically seen in the area of land registration. As the population explodes upon limited arable land, citizens accede to the temptation to simply secure territory through traditional means, claiming land and building upon it even though their ownership would officially be in question, and without the necessary permits. Often unable to prevent such action, and appreciating the benefit of developed desert territories, the government frequently overlooks the means of acquisition and accepts the building / development as ‘facts on the ground’ which demonstrate ownership.

In general, Egyptian Christians suffer from an inequitable policy governing the building of churches. New construction has to be approved at least at the level of the governor, and the process of obtaining permits can be long with no certainty of approval. As a consequence, many Christians have resorted to a strategy of circumventing the law by building their church structure as quickly as possible, banking on the fact that the government would not risk local and international outrage should they destroy a place of worship. Again, ‘facts on the ground’ can establish reality, as Bishop Marcos of Shubra al-Khayma has related.[3] Interestingly, this strategy is employed equally by Muslims and Christians,[4] though Christians are usually in greater recourse since permits for mosques face fewer restrictions.

Documented Examples

The Christian strategy of creating facts on the ground has been documented by Arab West Report. A comprehensive survey of church building details many such examples,[5] and the case of the Abu Fana Monastery in Upper Egypt demonstrates how some monks also may seek the expansion of their grounds.[6] This next section, however, will focus on two examples: first, the Monastery of St. Anthony,[7] described above, and second, the Patmos Monastery, established by Bishop Butrus.[8]

The Monastery of St. Anthony is situated in barren, desert, mountainous land near the Red Sea coast. It is an environment suitable for ascetic monasticism far from the bustle of life. Likely in effort to preserve their sanctuary, in 2003 the monks built a wall encompassing much desert land owned by the government. This expanse was suitable neither for agricultural development nor for personal meditation, as it lay under the desert sun, lacking the historically favored caves of Coptic hermits.

Shortly thereafter the governor of the area sent bulldozers to demolish the wall, as it was built illegally on state property. The monks prepared for this with cameras and videos, and circulated the operation internationally among Coptic communities abroad. Though the governor was angry, the ensuing controversy led to negotiations in which the monastery purchased the land from the government.

The Patmos Monastery is located near the Cairo-Suez road, and was established on land Bishop Butrus bought through family members for the stated purpose of agricultural development. The monastery he created in actuality, however, was located adjacent to an army camp. In December 1996 the army issued a warning, and then returned to destroy the walls and building which were constructed without permit. The bishop complained that the military could have pursued legal action against the project, so that the matter be settled in court. Legal procedures in Egypt, however, are long and complicated, and certainly the military represents its own culture of dealing with problems. Like many Egyptians, they are more likely to resort to force to achieve their objectives, even, and perhaps especially, when they believe themselves to be in the right.

Bishop Butrus’ response cemented Coptic strategy oft-repeated, pursued in imitation by the monks of St. Anthony. He sought international media attention. In the ensuing controversy he won not only the right to establish the monastery, but also compensation to rebuild the demolished structures. Furthermore, the media attention helped with fundraising in order to further develop the monastery. Though disputes continued through the years with the military, each time the monastery was able to assert its claims.

To return to the three monasteries whose walls were demolished in recent days, it would be improper to accuse their monks of attempting a land grab by creating facts on the ground. At the same time, context suggests that this has been a strategy used by Coptic monasteries in the past, and pause should be given before insisting the walls were built solely for defense of the community during times of fear.

Would monks be troublemakers? Perhaps this is not the right word. Monks are often single-minded and independent, dedicated to the pursuit of God as they understand this. Like many Egyptians, many maintain a mistrust of government, even as they withdraw from the world. Further context, however, demonstrates that of the three monasteries of this report, one may deserve the reputation of being a troublemaker. At the least, its independent and uncompromising spirit may be noted.

Fr. Alisha and the Monastery of St. Macarius the Alexandrian

The Monastery of St. Macarius the Alexandrian is located in Wadi al-Rayyan near Fayyum, and was established by Fr. Alisha in 1998.[9] He chose the location in devotion to his spiritual hero, Matta al-Miskeen, who resided with his disciples in the area in the 1950s and 60s, before being ordered to rebuild the then-decaying Monastery of St. Macarius in Wadi al-Natrun. Today, the Monastery of St. Macarius in Wadi al-Natrun is a thriving community with over 100 monks in residence. One such monk, Fr. Basilius described above, relates its opposition to the efforts of Fr. Alisha. There is no relation between the two communities; indeed, the Monastery of St. Macarius the Alexandrian is not recognized by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

One reason for the opposition of the Wadi al-Natrun monastery is that they wish to preserve the cave dwellings inhabited by their spiritual father Matta al-Miskeen in their original state. Yet the spiritual son of Fr. Alisha, Amir Milad, stated, ‘I suspect that he does not want to work under the authority of either the Monastery of Macarius or Pope Shenouda. He does not want to be told how the monks should live, what rules to follow.’ The new monastic community now boasts 15 monks, all consecrated without proper authorization by Fr. Alisha. He has developed relations with Copts in Germany, and through donations has invested over US$ 10 million in making suitable cells in the local caves, and in construction of a massive church building.

One further contextual piece of information is necessary, this one more relevant than all that has preceded it. In the 1950s Fr. Matta al-Miskeen lived in the wilderness, troubling no one, building nothing. Fr. Alisha is in the same wilderness, but today that land is designated as part of the National Park Authority. Every building constructed has been done without permit, and he has additionally employed several Christian workers originally from the city of Minia in Upper Egypt. The monastery is an expanding community, without license from the church, at odds with the government park service on which it has established itself illegally.

Since 1998 Fr. Alisha has been able to create facts on the ground without violent opposition from the authorities. On this occasion, however, the army proceeded to demolish the newly constructed wall. Again, it is impossible to know the monastery’s intention, and the accusation of a land grab cannot be substantiated over and against the desire for protection in times of instability. At the very least, however, given the history of the monastery, the question does deserve to be raised.

Army Conduct

It was mentioned above that the army pattern of issuing a warning and then returning to accomplish its task fits within its modus operandi. As such, the method in which it demolished the walls recently constructed by the three monasteries does not suggest any form of anti-Christian behavior. Even so, did their manner reflect anti-Christian sentiment, in particular with the violence and force employed to achieve their ends? Additionally, if the monasteries had requested official protection, why did the military not station at least a soldier or two in front of the gate?

This question was posed by Cornelis Hulsman to a diplomat in the Egyptian Embassy in The Hague. The diplomat asked that his name not be used in any official report, but even so, he provided little information. Basically, he referred to the statement of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, referenced above. This worked in line with the tenor of that statement itself: Provide no clarification. The army is not used to governance or politics; therefore, it says as little as possible.

At the same time the diplomat surmised a few reasons why there could be at least slight tension between the army and the church. One, unlike with the government, there has been no dialogue between the two parties. Whereas President Mubarak and Pope Shenouda maintained a relationship and channels of communication, the army has remained silent, as it has with many. Furthermore, it was not until after the incidents at the three monasteries that the church in its three Christian denominations issued on February 25 declaring loyalty to the current military rulers, while promoting the ideal of a civil state.[10]

Two, reflective of the above, Christians have been slow to embrace the revolution. The diplomat believed that in all only three bishops[11] visited Tahrir Square, while many Muslim imams were present throughout the demonstrations. Though Christians participated as individuals in the uprising, which never revealed a religious character, church leadership was clear in counseling its community not to get involved.

Three, there has been general discontent in society concerning the conduct of the church vis-à-vis the state. In 2010 there was a court ruling compelling the church to allow remarriage to its divorcees. After the pope publically made clear he would not abide by the decision, the government intervened and shelved the issue after the church paid a hefty fine of 100,000 LE (approximately US$ 18,000).  In addition, the manner in which Copts have build churches and gained land in the monasteries, described above, has also caused friction in society.[12] Like many others, perhaps the military also disapproves of this conduct, and made it clear it would not tolerate the practice of placing ‘facts on the ground’.

If this is true, has the military been dismantling other ‘facts’ which were quickly created following the breakdown of security? If not, it would appear to be an action directed solely against these Christian efforts. Multiple sources[13] in the Egyptian press, however, describe the elimination of over 2800 encroachments against state owned land or other instances of illegal activity during the period of insecurity.

What then about the level of violence employed? The use of violence should be condemned in any and all circumstances against unarmed civilians. It should also be condemned here. Yet it does not appear that the objective of the army was to use violence; their objective was the simple demolition of the wall. It was only when they met resistance did the conflict occur.

It is unlikely the military was prepared to have to deal with a human shield. To dismiss the blockade they fired shots in the air, fired shots above the level of the head, and apparently, in a very limited proportion in comparison to the rounds fired, some shots struck civilian bodies. Was disproportionate force employed? Likely. Might there have been other ways to end the standoff? Perhaps. Is the military used to negotiations? No. In all, they appear to have sought only the accomplishment of their objective. Had they wished bloodshed, it would have been simple to produce multiple casualties. The military is understood to be a largely secular organization, very resistant to infiltration by extreme Islamist elements. While this possibility cannot be ruled out on the part of a few individual participants, the decisions to move against the three monasteries would have been made and coordinated at a higher level than ‘infiltration’ could have obtained. As for the account of binding the monks at the Monastery of St. Paul, and leaving them after the operation was completed, independent verification would be needed to establish this claim above and beyond the level of rumor.

[1] For further reading on the general atmosphere and the crime described, see AWR 2011, week 5, article 6.

[2] On February 3, Dr. Otmar Oehring of Missio forwarded to Hulsman a copy of an email sent by a German Copt to German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, in which it was reported that thousands of freed prisoners had attacked the monastery. Hulsman again called Fr. Basilius who denied this account, and was very displeased since he found this exaggeration to be dangerous, for it upsets people and makes things worse. Hulsman then wrote the Coptic author of the email who responded in an email on February 5, “The alarm started as one active person of the Coptic community in Germany called me last Monday/Tuesday [January 31 / February 1] and told me about that in detail (severity and that the number is thousands!).  Tuesday this important person called me once again and confirmed this case from another independent person from Egypt, which has very close contact to the monastery.” The email, however, made also clear that the source had not come from the Monastery of St. Macarius itself.

[9] References for the information which follows can be found in AWR 1999, week 7, article 15, AWR 2005, week 23, article 43, and AWR 2005, week 21, article 47.

[11] Though the diplomat stated ‘bishops’, it is likely that the religious figures were priests. Muslims often confuse bishops and priests in media articles, which is understandable as both wear long black robes and are differentiated only by headgear. It would be extremely unlikely, however, that a bishop would travel alone; generally they are accompanied by a number of priests, which would have been noted by the diplomat.

[12] A recent email, circulated among Muslims and was obtained from a Muslim friend of AWR in December 2010, describes the great expanse of land owned by monasteries throughout Egypt, revealing Muslim frustration with Christian complaints about discrimination. To list only one example from this email, the Monastery of St. Macarius in Wadi al-Natrun occupies 11.34 km2 of land, whereas by comparison Vatican City rests upon 0.44 km2 and the mosque of the Azhar only 0.012 km2. This monastery is only one of dozens of such monastic landholdings, many with majestic churches and numerous buildings, factories, and agricultural facilities. The email provides photos of these majestic churches.  The authors of this report respond to this: To be clear, most monastic land has been obtained legally, and these figures have not been independently verified. Nonetheless, the figures help temper the notion of the impossibility for Christians to maintain religious presence in Egypt. The tone of the email also reveals that Muslim frustration with Christian complaints in lieu of these figures can border on the violent. The email was forwarded with an introduction which reads: ‘This report reveals great danger, and we ask God to make those responsible for the protection of our country aware of these strongholds and the widespread power of the church these last thirty years. This fang-toothed power is both domestic and foreign, and its followers resemble the Zionist gangs of Palestine.’ Certainly this introduction represents the opinion of its author only, but that it circulates in Egypt reveals the latent tensions which exist between certain Muslims and Christians.

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