Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Burning the Church Dome: AWR Investigations in Edfu

The Church Structure in Mari-Nab, Edfu

On Friday, September 30, 2011 a structure purporting to be a church was attacked and destroyed in the village of Mari-Nab, near Edfu, in the governorate of Aswan. Since then there has been much confusion in the media about what took place. Arab West Report editor-in-chief Cornelis Hulsman traveled to the village with Lamis Yahya, a researcher in Coptic affairs, and conducted interviews with Muslim and Christian residents, along with security. This report represents his notes taken and telephoned back to Cairo. A full report will be forthcoming following further research.

Mari-Nab is a large village with a population of over 50,000, but with a very small Christian presence. Muslim testimony estimated no more than 30 Christians in the whole village, while Christian testimony varied from between 30-50 families. Testimony from security personnel estimated 70 Christian people. Christians, along with the church-in-question, all reside in the same area of the village along the banks of the Nile.

The attacked structure used to be the home of the now deceased Muawwad Yusuf, who bequeathed it to his son who is no longer resident in the village. Muslims presented official documents stating the building to be a residence (manzil) and apartment (shiqqa), while Christians presented official documents stating its approval as a church. Christians also offered photos prior to the attack demonstrating the inside of the building functioned as a church, but from the outside there were no signs of distinctive church architecture. Arab West Report obtained copies of all documents and will proceed to investigate further.

The incident developed, it appears, from Christian efforts to modify the external architecture, specifically, by adding domes to the roof of the structure. Fr. Salib, deputy to Bishop Hedra of the Bishopric of Aswan, is responsible for the oversight of Edfu and its villages. He stated negotiations concerning the building have been going on for months, and that Christians have sought to be very accommodating. Christians agreed, for example, not to display any crosses on the building, but Fr. Salib complained that Muslim demands grew more and more strident. Construction of the domes proceeded, beginning during the Muslim month of Ramadan (August 2011).

Following Friday prayers Muslim youths descended on the church and began to destroy the domes. Christian testimony puts their number at around 3000, while security estimated around 1000 youths. Christians provided pictures and video evidence of the attack. Initial Muslim testimony denied these youths to be from the village, claiming they had come from elsewhere. Security sources disagreed, stating they were indeed village youth, and this was corroborated by Sheikh Habib, imam of a mosque in Mari-Nab.

Sheikh Habib, however, denied the youth acted upon instructions of the mosque or village elders. It was noted, though, he appeared to suffer little regret about the destruction.

Both Muslim and Christian testimony relates there has been an absence of government in the village. Cornelis Hulsman confirmed related visual evidence observed in his taxi ride to the village from Edfu, noting there were no checkpoints along the way, as is typical in Upper Egypt.

When the attack proceeded security arrived but stood around the church and allowed the destruction. The head of the security, a general, stated he did not have enough personnel to put a stop to the youths, and he appeared agitated he was required to come for intervention in this area. He felt it was below his status to sit outside Christian houses in a village. Fire engines also did not appear on the scene to douse the flames consuming the building.

There are some reports of damage to Christian properties within the village of Mari-Nab, though the indication is that the Muslim action targeted the church alone. Though restricted in his movements, Hulsman offered his camera to a local Christian to photograph other acts of aggression. Much was inconclusive. One shopkeeper brought evidence that his kiosk/small grocery had been vandalized, but it had not been burned. One Christian complained about the destruction of over 2000 mango trees, but photographs depicted damage against a small, newly planted area. Fr. Salib believed the mango accusation to be an exaggeration. Certainly it is possible that in the melee some youths extended their attack to Christian properties, but it was clear that if they intended to target the entire Christian community the damage would have been far more extensive.

By Friday evening Muslims and Christians came together in a traditional reconciliation session. They agreed, ostensibly, to return to the status quo in the village. This meant that Christian worship could continue in the building, but that the structure should maintain its anonymous appearance. Nevertheless, the purported ‘agreement’ did not hold much weight with Christians, as Fr. Salib later called a lawyer to inquire about legal procedures necessary to affect the desired changes.

Both Muslim and Christian testimony relates that relations between the two groups had been good prior to this incident, but other evidence reveals tensions and discontent. Hulsman met with a Muslim sheikh who referred to local Christians as infidels (kufara’), though such application was rejected by Sheikh Habib. Meanwhile in their ordinary discourse Christians were calling local Muslims ‘arab, signaling their status as Bedouins and not true Egyptians. Similarly, Muslims called local Christians ‘foreigners’ (khawaga), a term often applied to non-Egyptians resident in the country. By observation, Hulsman found both Muslims and Christians to be farmers, traders, and local businessmen, identical in all but religious identity.

Christians were very eager to speak with Hulsman, relating they were afraid and feel they are being targeted by Muslims. They spoke of persecution, though evidence was limited to the restrictions in their ability to build a church. Several inquired about how to emigrate and live abroad.

Muslims denied the above charges, but stated openly they did not want the church in their village, as it would change village identity. They complained also about how Coptic expatriates represent religious affairs in their nation.

The village of Mari-Nab is located 4km away from the nearest formal church building. Village Christians are visited by Fr. Makarious, who is responsible to serve surrounding villages on an itinerant basis.

Many media responses to this incident blamed the attack on ‘Salafis’. In his inquiries, Hulsman found some Muslims politically to favor the Muslim Brotherhood as the best option available. Other Muslims confessed to be Sufis, understood generally as a particularly inclusive and tolerant interpretation of Islam. Residents denied any local representation for the Nour Party, a recently created political party of Salafi orientation. Hulsman found Muslims of the village to be traditional, and certainly conservative. He did not find this attack to be ‘Salafi’, however, in any shape currently advanced in popular media discourse.

All the same, the incident is worrisome, regardless of the original and official license of the building in question. The Arab West Report investigation will continue, with significant questions remaining:

  • Why were local Christians insistent on transforming the external structure of the building?
  • Was this strictly a local initiative or from the greater diocese or church hierarchy?
  • What impact did the lack of security presence have on Christians to begin construction of the domes without community agreement? What impact did it have on the Muslim decision to aggressively end their efforts?
  • What pushed the Muslim youths to gather and attack the structure, on this particular occasion?
  • Was there encouragement, either direct or indirect, from village or religious leadership? Was there influence from outside the area, or Salafi trends in general, such as through satellite television?
  • Where is the mosque of Sheikh Habib located in reference to the church? Are other mosques in closer proximity? From which mosques did the youths exit?
  • What are the details of the reconciliation session, and why did Christians agree to its terms?

The final report will seek to include as much perspective on these questions as possible. For context about this type of incident please review a 2009-10 AWR investigation into a similar attack on a building/church in Ezbet Bushra, near Beni Suef. It is anticipated the final report will also seek to draw conclusions and posit recommendations in the aftermath of the attack.

For now, it will suffice to pose a question to each religious community. For Christians, will you win a church but lose its people? Though it may be possible to legally secure a formal church in the village, will the eventual result be increased tensions, greater emigration, and loss of Christian identity in Upper Egypt?

For Muslims, will you deny a church but scar a people? Though intimidation may be able to limit outward Christian identity, will the end result be social fragmentation, domestic and international approbation, and loss of Islam’s reputation as a tolerant religion in Egypt?

This is a challenging time in Egypt, wisdom is needed on all sides. Wisdom, however, is best built on solid information. It is hoped that continued investigations will illuminate the facts in Mari-Nab, so that agendas on any side are not inappropriately advanced.

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