Maspero: Moving Toward a Standoff?

Fr. Mattias Nasr, at the Maspero press conference

Yesterday while visiting the Copts at Maspero, Ramy Kamel, General Coordinator of the Maspero Youth Union, beamed with a smile on his face. ‘The sit-in will end tomorrow. They have agreed to our demands.’

Today I saw Kamel again, sitting dejectedly on the sidewalk. ‘There is one church that is not yet opened. They agreed to it, but Salafis are blockading it. If we can’t trust the government to follow through on their demands due to Islamic opposition, what can we do moving forward?’

In a previous report I wrote more comprehensively about the demands of the MYU, but in negotiation it came down to this: Originally, the MYU requested 250 closed churches to be reopened, and that their arrested colleagues from their first sit-in be released. The government stated the opening of 16 churches was possible, and agreed to retry the Copts (and their Muslim colleagues) in custody.

The MYU then agreed to suspend the sit-in provided the sixteen churches were opened within a week, and three churches opened immediately. The St. Yu’annis Church in Beni Mazar did open, and priests and people entered to conduct officially licensed prayers. The bishopric church in Maghagha was approved, but there was a minor official who seemed to be holding things up, but the MYU did not seem overly concerned about problems there.

The issue, it came down to, concerned the Holy Virgin and St. Abram Church in Ain Shams. Agreement was given to open it, but then it was announced Salafis had surrounded the church to prevent it from happening.

This information was provided by Fr. Mattias Nasr, spokesman for the MYU, during a press conference announced earlier in the day. From the expectations of Rami Kamel and others, Copts had begun disassembling their tents, taking down their banners, and cleaning up the area. Now, all was in question again.

Remains of disassembled tents and banners at Maspero

Many press personnel came in expectation of a closing word that the sit-in was over. The crowd of Copts, however, would have none of this talk, and shouted down the preliminary speakers, including George Ishaq of Kefaya, a veteran reform activist from years before the revolution. He and others spoke of the political compromises necessary in securing rights, especially when 80% of their demands had been met. Not only did the people declare they weren’t leaving – many MYU organizers led them in chanting from the stage. It was a rather disjointed scene.

Fr. Mattias quieted the crowd, and stated that no, the sit-in is not suspended, not until each of the promised three churches are opened.

With this announcement the press conference ended, but information was still coming in real time. The MYU announced over the loudspeaker only a quarter hour later that the promise given to open the Ain Shams Church was oral; the sit-in would continue at least until it was signed and sealed on paper.

I left the area and tried to find my way to the Holy Virgin and St. Abram Church in Ain Shams, which is located on the metro line in northeast Cairo. I learned the church was in an area called Ezbet Atif, and hoped I could find my way from there.

One of the advantages of most Muslim women in Egypt wearing the hijab is that if you are looking for a Christian, you can usually identify their bare-headed women. This woman and her son did not know where the church was, but did bring me to one nearby where surely someone could direct me better.

They did, and helped arrange transportation in a tuk-tuk, a three wheel vehicle operating like a taxi but in crowded city streets.

In my imagination Ain Shams was an urban area, but locating the church in Ezbet Atif reminded me of perhaps a more rural area outside the city. In learning that Salafis were blockading the church, I imagined a ring of people holding their ground in an open area, and that I might be able to speak to someone on the edge to gain their perspective.

As the tuk-tuk driver weaved his way through Ain Shams, I realized the area was even more urban than I imagined. Streets were narrow and crowded; this was a low income area where I had little experience, and stuck out like a sore thumb. Yet along the way the driver told me that Muslims and Christians are one people, and that all get along. He did not know much about the closed church, but he had heard the rumors of the army getting involved somewhere in the area.

I asked him about Salafis. I told him, yes, I’ve lived here a while now, and I know that Muslims and Christians have good relations. But people are saying that Salafis, at least some of them, are making trouble. Do you know of their activity here?

He did not know exactly, but did speak against Salafis as pursuing their individual interest as opposed to that of the nation at large. They are troublemakers, he stated, and may well be being paid to be troublemakers.

Eventually we reached the location, or at least what appeared to be from the commotion. We drove past five or six riot police with shields and batons, walking steadily toward the area but seemingly without strict instructions. The tuk-tuk then could progress no further due to the crowd; when he asked to continue to take me to the church he was told this was impossible; prayer rugs had been lain on the ground, filling the street.

My visit was very short, so any statements must be couched in utmost caution. The carefree tuk-tuk driver suddenly became very concerned for my safety, urging me to get back in so as to take me back to the other church. Why? I asked; he said he would explain along the way.

There was a crowd, and there was tension. But I saw little potential for violence and no sign of the military (though it was possible they were there). When the tuk-tuk initially stopped, a bearded youth in jeans and a button-down shirt took my hand, sensing me immediately to be a journalist.

‘You want to see the church? Come with me. Look. There is no church. There is only a mosque, and the people are praying here. The Christians are trying to make problems, that is all.’

I admit I saw no church. Certainly not the type of church I imagined, that could be surrounded in blockade. The narrow street had all buildings tightly aligned, several stories tall. There was no steeple raised above them, but it was entirely possible one of the buildings was the closed Holy Virgin and St. Abram Church. After all, it was not time for prayers; why would so many people be in the area? Usually only Friday prayers will bring the excess of worshippers that require prayer mats laid on the streets. Today was Thursday.

The youth who took my hand was friendly, and spoke to me in English. I felt comfortable moving forward, but the tuk-tuk driver was not. I pulled away from the youth to pay the driver, but he insisted I get back in the vehicle and move away. Now, I was getting uncomfortable, but around me all seemed calm. Better to trust the local voice, I thought, and we drove away unhampered.

The driver explained that the group there would not be friendly to anyone seeking to photograph the church. I tried to ask him what made him so startled, but I think he misunderstood my question. ‘I am not scared,’ he said. ‘I could leave you there and drive away and be fine, but I am scared for you. They have laid down their prayer mats to fill the street, so that no one can enter the church. They mean business.’

I was very disappointed; thankful for an honest Egyptian guide, but again wondering about principles. I wrote earlier about hesitations in joining the Salafi crowd that protested the killing of bin Laden at the US Embassy. All there was calm also, just like in this crowd, assembled to make their point known, but people all the same. I was approaching seeking information; I have trust in myself to behave in honorable ways, giving honor to all around. I wanted not just their statement; I wanted their trust. Who will go to them and win this, when so many reject them?

Besides, the one who grabbed my hand to lead me wanted me to see the truth, at least his version of it. ‘Don’t be scared,’ he said, seeking to be reassuring. Quickly scanning the crowd, the majority of people seemed to be ordinary lower class Egyptians, not Salafis. These, it is said and is generally true, grow long beards and wear white robes and sandals. They could well have been there, but I did not see them.

Certainly the wise voice is to trust those around you. Time will permit later for learning and relationships. On the way back a Muslim woman in hijab got in the tuk-tuk as well, and my presence as a foreigner sparked conversation between the three of us.

She did not know the area exactly, but did verify there was a church there. Closed or not closed she wasn’t sure, but spoke of their being a problem between steeple and minaret. Specifically, Muslims believed the church would ring its bells during the Islamic call to prayer. This was the only information she had to offer, besides affirming that yes, in general, Muslims and Christians had fine relationships as neighbors. Many of her best friends, she said, were Christians.

We arrived back and I offered the driver double fare, for going and returning. He asked if I had change. ‘We agreed on the price’, he said, ‘I took you back out of concern, not for fare.’ I gave him a bit extra, and thanked him for his help.

Again, my impressions were far too brief to be substantiated. I may well have been on the wrong street. Yet much of this story seems wrong all over.

It is good and right for Christians as citizens to seek equal treatment. Let us suppose the church in Ain Shams was closed improperly. Yet before this, it should be mentioned that many churches in Egypt are built sidestepping the law, rather than in accordance with it. Christians rightly complain the law is a discriminatory encumbrance, and yes, many Egyptians sidestep the law when they feel it unjustly works against them. This is only to say that in the protests of Maspero, Copts demanded the rule of law. It could be that, if applied, not only this church but hundreds of others would need to be closed for their original contravention.

Yet put this aside. At the church which helped arrange my tuk-tuk, I asked how many churches were in Ain Shams. The gentleman there did not give me a number, but listed them one after the other, reaching eight or nine. Ain Shams is a very populated area, and I have no figures on the percentage of Christians. Yet it cannot be said they are without a church.

Maspero and Ain Shams seem a world apart. It is right for the Christians there to demand their churches be opened, but at what cost? Must they demand the army now come and evict these protestors, likely using violence against them? The army has promised not to use violence to evict Copts from their sit-in, and Copts rightfully complained when they reportedly met with violence when ending the sit-in the first time. Must the government’s hand be forced to choose?

Copts desire to see the government choose them over the Salafis, as they interpret events since the revolution to be pointedly in favor of Islamist forces over secular ones, and certainly Christian ones. Right or wrong, they want validation. They feel like they have won in Maspero; if the government does not open the Ain Shams church, they will feel betrayed, and mount even more evidence the government is against them.

It would seem there should be a more Christian way. It is wrong that matters have come to a head; it is wrong that the government is forced to adjudicate in the manner. Again, it is right for Coptic citizens to demand; but is it best for Christian believers to do so?

In their defense, the MYU has consistently stated this is a political action on behalf of citizenship, not a sectarian push for particular rights. Yet now that the heart of the issue is the opening of one church, how political does it remain?

If only Christians might go to the various Salafi sheikhs, make relationships, and seek their intervention. Perhaps Copts will say they have tried; indeed, these churches have been closed a long time and Muslim voices are not loud in clamoring for them to open. Yet the manner of argument has often been confrontational. Many Muslims have joined the Maspero protests, yet for the ordinary ones, opening the church now might seem like giving in to demands, not establishing civil rights. That is not the way the MYU wants the issue to be viewed. Sadly, I think it is viewed this way.

Egypt is at odds with itself, and not just on religious issues. Labor groups, even doctors, are making demands, demands that are probably just. How can these work together to satisfy all?

I am afraid the only answer is trust, and that seems to be in short supply. No, no one should be trusted on face value, but as relationships are built, trust can be gained. Perhaps a small party from the MYU can visit the nearest Salafi mosque, and just listen, asking nothing. All the while, let their political action continue.

Politics, though, makes for compromise and betrayal. Relationships make for trust and consensus. It is hard, currently, for Copts to offer this; they feel they have been let down so many times. Faith, however, demands they continue. If they are able, if they can overcome themselves, perhaps they can lead all Egypt forward. May it so be.

Update: Jielis van Baalen, a Dutch journalist friend, visited the area of the Ain Shams church after I left. He did not reach it due to the large crowds, and stated a local café owner pulled him in to the shop concerned for his safety. Jielis reported seeing few police, no army, but many traditional Salafi outfits. Some of those who moved about were armed. Inside the café was a mixed group of Muslims and Christians. They stated their great annoyance at developments, as many of those wandering around were not from the area. Muslims and Christians get along well, they stated. No one had any issue with the church being opened. After a short while, he also decided to leave.

If Jielis is correct, then it would appear the government would have an obligation to defeat armed gangs imposing their will. This is different than local opposition to a church. The government has stated it will not allow anyone to sow sectarian discord, and has labeled the source of such discord to be counterrevolutionary forces, tied to the former regime. If Ain Shams is an example of this, then the words of the government will be put to the test, in this case in honor of their agreement with the MYU.

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