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Assault on the Church of St. George: Dissecting Media Reporting in Sarsena, Fayoum

Photo of a brick thrown through the window, reportedly taken from inside St. George Church, by a woman who snuck a camera past security.
Photo of a brick thrown through the window, reportedly taken from inside St. George Church, by a woman who snuck a camera past security.

From my latest article in Arab West Report:

In Egypt, sectarian conflict can be dizzying. When news breaks it explodes – Muslim mobs, churches burned, priests attacked. When the news crests it collapses – Muslim denials, church agreement, security clampdown. Only when the news settles can the situation be understood – however incomplete, contradictory, and subject to enduring confusion.

The recent incident at the Church of St. George in Sarsena, Fayoum, approximately 100 kilometers southwest of Cairo, contains all the above elements.

This is a somewhat lengthy report, but the basic summary (disputed) is this: A church in a small village was bothersome to its Muslim neighbor. Perhaps this was because the priest was looking to expand the building, perhaps because of the noise of the mass, perhaps because he simply did not want a church as a neighbor.

During a priest-arranged reconciliation session between the two, the family of the neighbor appears to have attacked the church with stones and handmade firebombs. During a second reconciliation session to settle this development, the attack began again. Eventually, the church agreed to a number of restrictions on its noise and future expansion, but was allowed to remain on it current plot of land.

This is the basic summary. The full report shows how this understanding developed, wading through the different versions which circulated in the media, including the denial of the local bishop that anything happened at all. The report also includes testimony from researchers who visited the village firsthand, as well as the account of the local priest.

Here is the conclusion:

At this point it is important to recall Allam’s editorial. Exaggeration and sensationalism do not serve the Coptic cause, let alone the cause of justice. Initial reports of hundreds of attackers, thrust from the mosque, recall the worst examples of sectarian tension since the revolution. As the reality appears much simpler, though still serious, media attention prompted immediate denial from the church.

The church denial now casts all in suspicion. Fr. Dimyadios appears a crusading priest. Nader Shukry appears an activist first, a journalist second. Coptic-focused news outlets appear more bent on discrediting Muslims than on reporting truth. Even the mostly corroborating testimony of the judicious EIPR appears doubtful – are they making a mountain of a molehill in service of their distaste for Islamist governance?

Of course, all the above may be true, even if only in degree. But EIPR’s Ibrahim states why this case is relevant, even in its less than exaggerated details.

“The law must apply to all,” he said. “The customary, traditional solution is only a temporary solution.

“Letting go of your rights through reconciliation sessions only provides encouragement to those who transgress, and shows Christians are less than full citizens.”

That is, unless nothing happened at all. Such is sectarian tension in Egypt.

Please click here to read the full report.


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