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The Insanity of a Travel Ban to Siwa

The temple of Jupiter Amun, whose oracle proclaimed Alexander the Great to be a god.

In defiance of his own nation’s restrictions, Cornelis Hulsman not only went to Siwa, he invited international student interns, Egyptian nationals, media professionals, and just about everyone else in Egypt to travel with him.

“Western travel advice to Siwa is insane,” said Hulsman, the Dutch deputy head of the Center for Arab West Understanding (CAWU). “We are taking this trip to make a statement. You say it is unsafe, we’ll show you it is safe.”

On the surface, insanity might look a lot like prudence. Siwa, an oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, is only 50-70 kilometers from the porous border with Libya. Last year in the Bahariya Oasis, 400 kilometers southeast, eight Mexican tourists were killed accidentally by an Egyptian army hunting for militants. In Sinai on the opposite border, an Islamist insurgency continues to plague the peninsula, with terrorist attacks sporadically spilling over into the mainland. And in broader context, Russia and Britain have restricted flights to Egypt after a Russian airliner crashed in the Sinai desert on October 31, 2015, with responsibility claimed by the Islamic State.

Many nations have responded by issuing various travel restrictions to Egypt in general, and CAWU has compiled a complete list. But The Netherlands, France, and Canada have specifically included Siwa, and Hulsman believes this is preposterous. The successful return of his trip of 29 suggest he may be right. So also do the daily and nightly buses departing from Cairo.

Off the beaten path of traditional Egyptian tourism, Siwa’s remoteness has always been the chief hindrance preventing development of the sector. Ten hours is required to move from Cairo to the North Coast, over to Marsa Matrouh, and then 300 kilometers south through barren and desolate desert.

But compared to Alexander the Great’s eight day journey in 331 BC it is practically instantaneous. Modern day travelers can see the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter Amun, whose oracle declared Alexander a god and blessed him in conquest of the world. They can also visit natural hot springs and sand baths, as well as mingle among the only Berber culture indigenous to Egypt. The Siwan people have guarded their independence for centuries and still speak their own language.

Hulsman has looked for opportunities to link CAWU’s internship program with local organizations such as the Desert Research Center. ‘Amr ‘Abd al-Hamīd, head of the DRC in Marsa Matrouh, told him the government has been cutting funding. But universities in countries applying a travel ban to Siwa are prohibited from sending students to restricted area. Interns on Hulsman’s trip went in their personal capacity, not as part of his official program.

But normal tourists are scared off on their own. One issue is insurance, explained Muhammad Hassan, the owner of Siwa Shali Resort, with 36 years of experience in the tourism industry. If anything goes wrong, whether terrorism or a simple car accident, a policy will not be honored if the tourist went against his own nation’s warning. Egyptian insurance is available, says Hulsman, but would the average tourist know how to find it?

At the height of the Egyptian tourism boom in 2010 and before the Arab Spring, 30,000 international tourists spent part of their summer in Egyptian Mediterranean resorts, Hassan said. Eight thousand of these chose to continue on to Siwa. But by 2015 traffic dried up almost entirely, and only an estimated 300 foreigners visited Siwa from abroad. In 2016, no one.

“When you issue warnings like this, you are waging war against our primary economic sector,” Hassan said. “You harm not the government, but the people, who then get angry with the government. I’m not being political, I’m just a businessman.”

There is no military or police authorization needed to reach Siwa, Hassan noted, though several checkpoints are set up between Marsa Matrouh and Siwa to check identification. But to go into the desert on a safari to surf the dues needs three. He first secures license from military intelligence, border patrol, and the local police before dispatching any tourist.

And the military is in constant surveillance of the desert area between Siwa and Libya, Hassan said. Terrorists go where the land is empty, which might be a problem further south. He has no problem with a travel restriction issued for Jilf al-Kabīr in southwest Egypt, for example, where Libya, Chad, and Sudan come together.

Hulsman also noted the different security atmosphere in Siwa. Apart for the normal tourist policeman assigned to the bus, there was no police convoy. Traveling to Upper Egypt, however, he has had vehicles travel in front or behind.

Similar was the on the ground experience. In Upper Egypt police ask that any large group be kept together, as easier to secure. But the foreigners and Egyptians alike freely roamed the grounds during an annual Sufi festival in Siwa, chatting with locals and wandering off with them. The security apparatus is much more relaxed there than elsewhere, Hulsman said, confident in the area’s safety.

Unfortunately, this is a reality lost on many Western governments. Mounir Neamatalla, Siwa’s wealthiest investor and owner of the Adrere Amellal: Desert Ecolodge that welcomed Prince Charles in 2006, is eager to change this. In early October he flew an 80-plus mostly foreign delegation to Siwa, including ten heads and deputy heads of diplomatic missions. But the message has not yet filtered through to decision makers in Western foreign ministries, and the travel restrictions remain.

Not for long, if Hulsman has his way. And now he has 29 more who can attest to his vision.

This article was first published at Arab West Report.

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A New Holy Family Site and the Development of Coptic Tradition

Gebl al-Tayr
Gebl al-Tayr, overlooking the Nile River

From my new article at Arab West Report:

The Holy Family came to Egypt, says the Biblical text. But it is silent on what they did once there. Coptic Orthodox tradition has filled in the details… And now they have one detail more.

The article describes our visit to Gebl al-Tayr, or Mountain of the Bird, which is a Holy Family site recognized by Coptic tradition. The article explores some of this history, which includes an alleged reference to Empress Helena, mother of Constantine.

If some of these details strike the reader as legendary, it must also be remarked that the existence of many Holy Family sites is mentioned in the writings of antiquity. As Egypt became majority Christian prior to the arrival of Islam, these became locations of renown. This does not provide historical confirmation of the Holy Family itinerary, but it does testify to very early narratives upon which ancient churches were naturally constructed.

But other sites are much less certain. Coptic tradition designates the Patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, who presided from 384-412 AD, as source for many locations, which he was believed to have received in a vision from the Virgin Mary. Without impugning the character of clergy or church historians, it is not difficult to imagine the benefit – spiritual or commercial – that a diocese would draw from connection to the ancient tradition. In any case, in Be Thou There, Dr. Stephen Davis chronicles the numerical increase of Holy Family Sites from the fourth century onward.

The article then describes a modern example of this phenomena, in the duelings Asyut monasteries at Deir al-Muharraq and Durunka. But then it returns to Gebal al-Tayr:

Gebl al-Tayr Stairs
The 166 step ascent from the river below

Though this location is part of the ancient Holy Family tradition, on this visit Hulsman noticed an oddity. Approximately 500 meters down the road from the Church of the Holy Virgin, now semi-accessible from above for modern transportation, is excavation work at another part of the mountain.

A Muslim policeman-turned-impromptu-tour guide proudly described it as a recent discovery, understood to be the lodging of the Holy Family upon their return from Upper Egypt. Work had been underway for the last year, he said. Hulsman, a frequent visitor to the area, had neither heard nor seen of this before.

After a simple stairwell decline of around ten meters from the mountain plateau there is a gradual descent into the mouth of what opens into a long, narrow cave. Inside has the beginnings of a rudimentary altar along with icons and candles, and already there is the graffiti of visiting pilgrims. Outside a new church building has been established.

Hulsman remarked that the identification of a cave with the Holy Family fits within longstanding Coptic themes. Being so close to the ancient church, it would be natural for ecclesiastic authorities to imagine Jesus taking refuge there, as tradition indicates he did in caves throughout Egypt.

Walking back to the main site, a local priest standing with villagers stated the discovery was made around five years ago, and that Bishop Paphnotius of Samalut had done the investigations and research to ascertain its antiquity.

Gebl al-Tayr Cave
The new cave, recently discovered and renovated
Gebl al-Tayr Graffiti
Inside there is now an altar, icons, and modern graffiti
The article next moves to describe the modern miracle tradition at the Virgin Mary Church in Maadi, itself a Holy Family site where a Bible is said to have floated down the river and rested at its Nile descent.
It also introduces the character of Dr. Otto Meinardus, a theologian-scholar who once told Hulsman a fascinating anecdote directly related to the topic:

Perhaps in the end it does not matter to local believers. In personal discussions, Hulsman said, Meinardus would use the term ‘pious fraud’ to describe the legendary in Coptic history. In his writings he was more careful to avoid offending church hierarchy, but imagined the process like this.

Somewhere at some time a bishop’s sermon employed an illustration drawn from history, creatively illustrating a Biblical moral. Once popularized, it lodged into local consciousness and became commemorated.

But beyond imagining, Meinardus was also a one-time practitioner. He was the first to narrate the story of St. Bishoy carrying Jesus disguised as an elderly pilgrim up a mountain, only afterwards to enjoy his epiphany.

The story first appeared in his 1961 book, Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert,  published in Egypt with AUC Press. All texts and icons of this event post-date his book, Hulsman said, and can be seen across Egypt including at the Monastery of St. Bishoy. According to Bishop Marcos of Shubra al-Khayma, the story was not known to the monks of Egypt until they read it in Meinardus’ book, wrote Paul Perry in Jesus in Egypt.

Perry also quotes Meinardus, saying, “That’s how tradition is, Once a story leaves someone’s mouth, it spreads like wildfire.” Though not recorded in the book he told Perry and Hulsman, “Many stories are based on dreams. Why should I not also have dreams?”

The article concludes with a story from Hulsman’s own history, how a heroic uncle morphed in memory into a family saint. Tying all the themes together, it ends with a necessary reflection:

Therefore, let the reader consider the real-time development of tradition in Jabl al-Tayr. For half a century later in Asyut, the church recognizes officially the Monastery of Muharraq as a Holy Family site, while Durunka remains disputed. Even so the latter continues to attract the faithful and is an ever-expanding site of pilgrimage. But more is at stake than simple religious commerce. Only a few verses earlier in the same chapter celebrated in Maadi, Isaiah prophesies there will one day be an altar to the Lord in the middle of Egypt. Asyut roughly qualifies, and only 70 kilometers separate the two sites. Where is the epicenter of God’s promised blessing?

Perhaps to God the details are not important. But to man, the interactions of God in human history are worthy of record. And now in Egypt, there is one more.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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The Ideology and Activism of Ahmed Ashoush, Currently Imprisoned Leader of the Salafi-Jihadis

Ahmed Ashoush
Ahmed Ashoush, Salafi-Jihadi leader

Three years ago I met Ahmed Ashoush at a demonstration in Cairo. He and his fellow Salafi-Jihadis gathered outside the French Embassy to protest against French military intervention in Mali, where an Islamic insurgency was pressing toward the capital. It was a calm but angry affair, with many pictures of Osama bin Laden and chants for the worldwide supremacy of Islam.

A little later Ashoush agreed to an interview. We and three of his colleagues met with Cornelis Hulsman at the Arab West Report office in Maadi, Cairo, and discussed the philosophy behind their movement, their dreams for the future, and the activism to help them get there.

I have previously written about this encounter and the Salafi-Jihadis here, here, here, and here, but for the first time a full transcript of the interview is available. AWR is preparing a book on the post-Arab Spring Islamist movements of Egypt, post-Arab Spring but pre-fall of Morsi. In support of the chapter on Salafi-Jihadism, Jeanne Rizkallah has provided a full translation.

Ahmed Ashoush is currently in prison, convicted for attacking a satellite telecom facility in Maadi.

It was a fascinating interview, and very strange. Almost the entire time Ashoush directed his answers toward his colleagues, and avoided eye contact. This was neither evasive nor shy, but it felt as if he wished to address a friendly audience. But in terms of interaction he was most often direct in providing clear answers to challenging issues, however much resemblance they bore to common Salafi or jihadi themes.

Here is an excerpt, and please click here to read the full transcript at Arab West Report.

JC: With regard to the aspect of administration, would you define Al-Salafiyia al-Jihādiyia as an organization?

AA- No, we do not define ourselves in terms of organizational structures. We are concerned with matters of our faith and religious doctrines. We are now a Da`wa, an open call that invites to all  what is good, enjoining to face the psychological warfare that the United States of America and the western colonialism is raiding against us, to rectify wrong and erroneous terminologies like the words ‘terrorism’  and ‘moderate Islam’.

In fact, the term ‘moderate’ has been used to distort the religious concepts of Islam, and to distort the concepts of real facts, such as the treason practiced by Arab rulers. These terms have been distorted to serve the interests and gains acquired through the American psychological warfare.

Let me cite an example: the number of car types, of airplanes you produce in your country, America if compared with the production in Arab countries, or in Egypt. Who is responsible for the state of underdevelopment the Arab countries are in? Not the peoples but the governments; the politicians, not the common people, are to be held accountable. This state of backwardness is unbearable.

When we in the Muslim world want to defend our nations, we import arms and ammunition from the West; when we want to cure illnesses, we have to import medication; when we need medical treatment, we seek a medical doctor from Europe. Who is to be held accountable for all these detrimental situations? A serious crime of betrayal of this nation has been committed, and the Arab rulers should be punished now on the ground, and in the process of history.

Our peoples are not aware of these facts. We will place these realities before them.

JC: How do you perceive the change of Egypt from within?

AA – Our major concern now is to achieve a change in thought and mentality.  Our struggle as Salafi Jihādis is to first change the Egyptian mentality that has been strongly afflicted by the corrupt media structure, the treacherous liberal politics that had succeeded to systematically distort the people’s thought.

Our goal is to bring back the authenticity of [Islamic] thought to the people, to disclose the truth, to revive in them the power of their belief. The Egyptian common people need to identify and define what is good for them, and around who they want to coalesce; with Islam, or with America, or with Russia? With the rulers or with the non-ruling?

This dynamic battle is crucial for us. We are fighting the mentality of colonization, of abduction that has been imposed by both the American and European occupations. We are combating Muslims, Arabs, and Egyptians that had linked their existence and interests to the European oppressor.

JC: How would you classify your activities?

AA – We have a number of activities. We also publish books and articles; we organize lectures, meetings, and mass appearances. We are active on a number of levels, however, we work under oppression, and we are still forced into a position of weakness, and after so many years spent in prisons, we do not have the financial means.

All our resources, the financial as well as the physical ones, have been destroyed. But we do not succumb. The Salafi Jihādi is a warrior who rather dies on the battlefield rather than on his bed deprived of self-determination. To die in striving to raise the banner of Allah until victory is much better than to live in submissive compliance.



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Q&A with an Expert in Customary Reconciliation Sessions

This article was first published at Arab West Report.

Hamdi Abdel Fattah
Sheikh Hamdi Abd al-Fattah

For many Christians in Egypt, customary reconciliation sessions (CRS) represent one of the most visceral symbols of discrimination against their community. Existing outside the scope of formal law and justice, CRS offer a quick alternative to the lengthy judicial process as village elders and religious leaders decide matters of guilt, innocence, and punishment.

In some cases, however, punishment against Copts has been collective. In others, the only guilt is in breaking local custom, not law. At times, Muslims guilty of crimes have been ‘reconciled’. And often the CRS is conducted in the presence of police, lending the appearance of state legitimacy to proceedings.

But does this description characterize the CRS in its entirety?

In 2010 Arab West Report conducted a major study into the practice, entitled Social Reconciliation: Pre- and Post-Conflict in the Egyptian Setting. Using a case study from Izbat Bushra, it examined the factors behind and efficacy of this common practice.

In July 2015, AWR investigated a CRS with Georgetown University PhD candidate Matthew Anderson which drove a Christian family from their village in Kafr Darwish. Matthew’s report was published on January 14 and can be found here. In November, 2015 AWR translated a document supplied by a CRS practitioner, Sheikh Hamdi Abd al-Fattah of Maghagha, detailing the proscribed penalties for various offenses.

And on January 16, 2016, AWR returned to Maghagha to allow Sheikh Hamdi to field questions from a collection of interested Egyptians and foreign residents. The session was held in a church in the village of Qufada, where Fr. Yu’annis maintains a strong friendship and CRS cooperation with Sheikh Hamdi.

The following is a summary of the questions asked of the sheikh and the answers he provided.

CRS can be compared to the origins of English common law. Do you find it to be widely practiced in Egypt because of social and cultural acceptance?

Yes, this is correct. CRS is completely different from the judiciary system in terms of speed, but it is like it in terms of Muslims and Christians being equal before the law. But in Upper Egypt people respect our traditional customs more than the law, and fear the punishment of the CRS more than the judiciary. Our proceedings help contain problems before they spread, whether they are between Muslims, Christians, or one of each party.

What is your background as a CRS practitioner?

I have studied Shari’a, obtained a diploma in international arbitration from Cairo University, and am a consultant with the International Arbitration Association and a member in the Egyptian Committee for Customary Arbitration.

How did the rulings in the translated document come to be agreed upon?

Most were the judgments given in actual cases, but others were decided by local sheikhs in order to help prevent these cases from occurring in reality.

Why are all the penalties given in terms of specified fines?

The formal law system can prescribe either a fine or a jail sentence, but not the CRS. But in three cases the CRS is sometimes able to authorize a greater punishment and kick the offending party out of the village, with security implementing the terms. These involve murder, sectarian conflict, or sexual assault.

Do both parties have to agree in order to enter a CRS?

Yes, usually the victim comes to us first, and then we try to get the accused to come also. [At this Sheikh Hamdi showed an official CRS document with the signatures of both parties.]

If the accused does not present himself there are two methods to gain his assent for the CRS. First, we can threaten to involve the police. Or second, we bring the issue to the elders of the village, who are generally greatly respected. They then know how to get all parties to comply.

Are witnesses needed in the proceedings?

Yes. If there is conflicting testimony both sides present their witnesses and we decide between them. But if there are no witness both parties are put on oath by swearing on the Qur’an or the Bible, and then we evaluate the case by what they say. Sometimes police are present, but they do not interfere and lend only their legitimacy.

Some of the penalties demand a very high fine. What if they person cannot pay?

Customary law does not judge the person alone, but his family as well. If the person cannot pay on his own the family must assume the responsibility, or someone else on their behalf.

In the case of murder and if the accused admits to the crime, he will take a symbolic burial shroud to the victim’s family. This signifies him saying to them, ‘My life is yours, you can kill me or not as you choose.’ But always the custom is to forgive and accept the shroud in place of his life.

What about domestic disputes between husband and wife? Can they be part of CRS?

Marriage relations have their own set of regulations, as do other inter-family relationships.

How are the people educated in customary laws?

This is the responsibility of parents, who assume it naturally as part of society. But one important aspect of the CRS is that it is public. A lesson is always stronger if it is both seen and heard.

How can your example of cooperation with Fr. Yu’annis spread throughout Egypt?

We are not a backwards people; we have values and a heritage of civilization. The type of relationship I have with Fr. Yu’annis is not unique, it is found nationwide. Western media is not just, for it shows you only what will reinforce the image it wants to present, and misrepresents our reality of cooperation.

In Kafr Darwish, I blame our local media, for when the Christians were kicked out of their village, it failed to report that in another location a Muslim was kicked out of his village for similar circumstances.

A man was insulting women on social media in Ishneen al-Nasara, both Muslims and a few Christians. I presided over the session and banned him from the village for a period of five years. This penalty was proscribed regardless of his religion, and resembles the circumstances found in Kafr Darwish.

What I want now is for you to return to your countries and speak about us correctly. Will you do that?

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In Memoriam: Ezzat al-Salamony

Yesterday I received the unexpected news that Ezzat al-Salamony died … back in August. He was a leader in al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group), designated a terrorist entity by the United States. Over the past few years I was able to interview him a couple of times.

According to al-Shuruk, Salamony died in the Tora Prison hospital, from an intestinal blockage. He had been jailed as part of the ‘Alliance to Support Legitimacy’ case.

Here is a picture of Salamony demonstrating in support of former President Morsi, proudly wearing a Rabaa sign.

Ezzat al-Salamony Rabaa
(from al-Shuruk)

Originally from Sohag in Upper Egypt, Salamony studied at al-Azhar Univerisity, graduating with a BA in Commerce. He joined the Islamic Group in 1979, served on its Shura Council in Cairo, and preached in mosques throughout the city, unaffiliated with the Ministry of Endowments.

He was married with three daughters. I do not know his age, though his youngest daughter was in college at the time.

As Salamony recounted, his first arrest came at the hand of President Sadat in 1981, lasting for a year and a half. Jailed repeatedly thereafter for short periods of time, he spent fifteen years in prison under President Mubarak, finally released in January 2006.

Salamony stated he was never involved in violence, though he admitted members of the Islamic Group committed ‘mistakes’ throughout this period. But on the whole he defended their record, stating they were much maligned by the regime and that most violence was defensive.

Our conversations ranged over many topics, including the history of the Islamic Group, the practice of hisba (commanding right and forbidding wrong), Islamist figures Morsi released from prison, the Innocence of Muslims film, and the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman.

I always found Salamony to be friendly, engaging, and eager to give a correct impression about Islam and the Islamic Group. Given his appearance and reputation, I was surprised he always arranged our meetings in a popular and upscale Nile River meeting area administered by the Egyptian military. He appeared to be a member, and we drank tea together.

I do not know if he was involved in violence following the fall of Morsi, though he certainly opposed what he considered to be a coup. We lost contact after this period.

But I was somewhat surprised also to find him prior to Morsi’s fall at a Salafi-Jihadi demonstration outside the French Embassy. He took the microphone and shouted:

“We tell these grandchildren of the Crusaders, we are the grandchildren of Saladin.”

“It is not right for the fields of battle to be in our lands, we must carry the battle into theirs.”

“We have the duty of jihad.”

Among the many chants that day was this, adapting the January 25 revolutionary cry: Al-Shaab, Ureed, Khilafa min Jadeed

“The people want a new caliphate.”

It was difficult to reconcile the peaceful, friendly character I encountered in the cafe with this one angrily shouting before a crowd. I understood that whatever kind of preacher he was, whether he employed violence or not, both then and now he was certainly a threat to the state.

Even so, his explanations of jihad and hisba were always nuanced, though his commitment to the eventual worldwide application of sharia was clear. I cannot imagine he would be in support of the current claimant to the caliphate, but I cannot be sure.

And now he is dead, so I cannot know.

The three years from January 25 to the last throes of popular pro-Rabaa resistance against President Sisi were a very strange time in Egypt. All constraints were thrown off, and every activist element of society took full advantage of the freedom available.

So it is hard to look back and evaluate Ezzat al-Salamony. Was he a long misunderstood Islamist finally anticipating success? Was he a conman deceiving a naive American into sympathy?

God – and likely the Egyptian intelligence – only knows, and now he will judge. May Ezzat al-Salamony rest in peace.

Ezzat Salamony
Ezzat al-Salamony

This article was originally published at Arab West Report.

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Family House Committee Work

Family House Committees

The Egyptian Family House is an institution created to preserve and promote religious unity between the nation’s Muslims and Christians. Its mandate includes both advising the government on proper policy and encouraging the grassroots by multiplying branches throughout the country.

I have written previously on its general structure. Recently with Arab West Report I had the opportunity to publish summaries of its committee work, which I will excerpt below. Please click on the link in each section to read the full article.

The Family Culture Committee (from AWR):

But it was the work of the family culture committee in the governorates that was most impressive. Ghālib was meeting with representatives of the family culture committees from the various cities which have created Family House branches.

In only three months, five regional branches had conducted four seminars each. The majority of these were not in the larger population areas, but in the villages, even in open squares. They were giving their reports, telling also of at least two incidents of sectarian conflict in Mallawi and Luxor where committee members were able to recruit Family House affiliated religious leaders to reconcile feuding families. There were also more mundane examples where peace was achieved within single families—parents with children, husband with wife.

The Emergency Committee (from the same article):

It consists of five Muslims, all associated with the Azhar, and five Christians, two from the Orthodox Church and one each from the Anglicans, Catholics, and Protestants. Two of these Christians are retired policemen, able to help facilitate relations with security when trouble arises. Azhar members, meanwhile, ensure religious institution cooperation.

The committee activates when trouble arises, and Jirjis and his team have intervened to quell sectarian conflicts in Aswan, Minya, Mallawi, Deir Mawas, Hurghada, and Jabl al-Tayr. Details of the work can be sensitive and are often to be off the record. But by engaging trusted people the committee is able to research the true report of what took place, from which they can issue recommendations. At times, though, a security solution takes priority.

Sometimes the dispute involves conversion from one religion to another. Other times it is over church building. In all cases the committee goes to the source. Have official conversion papers been issued by the Azhar? Has security given written license to the church? Media reporting can often give conflicting opinions, but engaged with officials at the highest levels, the committee is usually able to make a sound determination.

The Media Committee (from AWR):

These values are promoted by the Family House in a general way, and having priests and sheikhs work together is important. But what relation does this have with the media committee?

Our committee must shine the light on this work. If we do this, it will become a pattern for other media to follow. What we are waiting for is it to be stimulated.

What about the website? It is laid out well but seems underdeveloped.

It is still experimental. We want to use it to cover events, but actual accomplishments are not yet that many. The website is somewhat empty, and I have an appointment with Dr. Matanī to select two from our media center [of the church] to work on it. But centralized organizations can be slow.

In our media center we have press releases and our website is active because it has someone dedicated to it. The Family House media committee could stand also to be decentralized a bit. But first we must meet, then take a decision, and so on.

Dr. Matanī and I must press on the other committees to be active and give us the news of what they do.

What will you do when you begin to receive reports?

My idea is that in highlighting the positive values we want society to see, we do more than just put it on the website. We should make something professional and then give it directly to media outlets and satellite channels. But it is clear the financial resources are not yet allocated sufficiently for something like this.

The Education Committee (from AWR)

The idea of the Family House is that we are a family, all together. But how can we live together when each one is raised in an incorrect way? We have witnessed this, and in the education committee we are trying to do something about it.

The first problem is that there are no teachers of religious education, whether Muslim or Christian. The teacher of Islamic religion is often the Arabic teacher. And the teacher of Christian religion, almost anyone can become a school employee no matter their weak qualifications.

So the problem is that they teach religion, but not religious education?

As you said, the subject is religious education, and it should be education, but most of it is just religion. There is no prepared cadre of religious education teachers in the ministry. We are asking the Ministry of Education to create such teachers, both Muslim and Christian.

And the religious classes should remain separate?

Yes, even though there is a wide shared space. I was responsible for the national standards in education committee for the cabinet as concerns religious education, and we sat with the committee in the ministry responsible for Islamic education. We discussed concentrating on our shared items and put aside areas of difference like doctrine. But concerning things like relationships, civilization, and contemporary issues like cloning, for example, let us find the common ground in the two religions.

Values are also shared around the world, even in places that do not have religion. Security, cleanliness, order – these are represented in verses from both the Quran and the Bible.

So do you want to substitute doctrine and in its place put values within the religious education curriculum?

Religious education should teach the spirit of Islam to Muslims and the spirit of Christianity to Christians. The goal is to give the right practices in life. How do you interact with the other? How do you interact with someone who is different than you? This is the educational component we are looking for, from within religion.

We are a religious country, whether Muslims or Christians, and it was this way from the age of the Pharaohs. We live, we eat, we die, and we will be held accountable. This is a constitutional part of the Egyptian character, for us to fear God. Even the thief, before he steals, will say, ‘God protect me.’ From deep within us, religion is important.

So we cannot remove the essence of religion from the schools. Not everyone will go to mosque or the church. We have to take the opportunity in schools to teach it. But the new idea, and it has actually happened, is to have a new book simply entitled, ‘Values’. It takes the common values from Islam and Christianity and teaches them to everyone, in the same classroom.

So this is a new book for a new course? Where will it be taught?

It is a course titled ‘Values’ for all class levels. It will not be tested, but will be taught during activities, such as when the school takes a special excursion to camp, or have a seminar, for example. We have prepared it for the elementary, and will complete it for the other levels. It has been approved by the pope, the grand sheikh of the Azhar, and the minister of education, who have all written introductions. I believe it will be used starting next year.

This, then, will be offered alongside the regular religious education classes?

The regular religious education books will continue to be used, but we are taking these books – along with the Arabic and social studies books – and will try to remove those elements which injure or harm the religious other.

In the days when Fathī Sarūr was the minister of education, there was an elementary book issued and its first lesson was, ‘I am a Muslim’. So what of the Christian student? The minister became aware and had it removed, but things of this manner remain. Things that call Copts ‘infidels’, for example.

This exists in the curriculum?

It was. But this is present in verses of the Qur’an. So if it is included for memorization in the Arabic class, the Coptic student will be harmed. Our committee is taking all the curriculum books to study them, but the ministry has also begun to study this to make sure they are removed. Last year we witnessed this, but we are continuing our review.

As a committee we can only issue recommendations, but there is a response from the ministry. There is a very good relationship between us.

Please click on the links above for the full articles, at Arab West Report.

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How the Egyptian Family House Quells Sectarian Tension

Sheikh Hassan and Fr. Kyrillos
Sheikh Hassan and Fr. Kyrillos

This article was first published at Arab West Report.

Port Said is known as a revolutionary city, famed positively for its resistance in the wars with Israel, negatively for the February 2012 massacre of soccer fans during the confusing days of the Arab Spring.

But fortunately, Port Said has never been a sectarian city, said Fr. Kyrillos Ghattas of St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, one of eight Coptic Orthodox churches serving an integrated Christian population, among fifteen overall. In the past Port Said was a cosmopolitan mélange of different cultures, and the spirit of coexistence continues to this day.

This heritage makes Port Said a natural home for the Egyptian Family House, witnessed in the warm Easter greetings offered to Bishop Tadros. The governor and top officials from the Azhar, police, and local university spoke of the importance of local relations and congratulated the Christians on the occasion of their feast.

And though Port Said has experienced far less sectarian tension than other parts of Egypt, no city is immune. Ordinary struggles, mixed with family pride and factional attitudes, can poison relations even between neighbors. What is necessary is a system of wise men attuned to sense the early warnings, and to engage in early response.

The Family House was established in 2011 as a joint initiative between the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyib and then-Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda. Worried over the sectarian violence witnessed in Iraq, they invited the Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans also to work together to preserve national unity in Egypt.

The Egyptian revolution slowed implementation, but over time committees were formed for this religious body to communicate directly with cabinet ministers. And a mandate was received to create local branches at the grassroots level, so that national unity might come to mean more than just the ‘hugs and kisses’ of top level religious dignitaries, interpreted by many as masking a neighborly but latently sectarian people.

This year marks the third year of one of the Family House’s most dynamic projects. Seventy participants – thirty-five imams and thirty-five priests – live together for three days, four times a year, being trained in dialogue and practical partnership.

Each of the previous two years witnessed an additional seventy, some of whom went on to help establish Family House branches in Alexandria, Luxor, Mallawi, and among others, Port Said.

Fr. Ghattas was one of the participants in the year two training with his colleague Sheikh Hassan Abdel Dayim. Together they are two of the 27 members of the Port Said central committee, among roughly 100 active participants.

Dayim explained part of their work is to visit together in schools, youth centers, hospitals, and conferences. Some sort of public Family House work takes place on average once a week, he said.

‘Jesus and Mohamed both call to be united, to build society and keep it from harm,’ said Dayim. ‘In this we have the responsibility to help quell problems between families.’

A dispute among teenage boys in May 2014 provided a good example. A Christian youth flirted with a Muslim young woman, and her brothers intervened and began insulting him along with the Christian neighbors who had come to his defense. The situation worsened as a fight broke out and one of the Muslims suffered severe bruises and a broken arm. Such a scene is not uncommon in Egypt, when harassment touches family honor. But involving opposite religions, the situation threatened to escalate and both sides filed reports with the police. One of the Christians was arrested and held in jail. Fearful, the Christians fled, vacating their home for a week.

Fr. Ghattas heard of this issue through neighborhood gossip and consulted with Dayim on how to handle it. When he went to visit the families he found the Muslim home full of knives and bladed weapons. The Christians, meanwhile, called for help from a handful of relatives from Asyut in Upper Egypt who came with guns. The family itself had migrated to Port Said around five years earlier.

Fr. Ghattas pressed upon both families the need for a peaceful solution, speaking in the name of the Family House. But he made use of the Family House status as an approved government institution, warning of the influence he would have also with police. Combining religious and civic responsibilities, Fr. Ghattas led both families to agree this was just a problem between youths which spiraled out of control.

He also helped the Christians to accept that they were primarily at fault, having begun the flirting and causing the bodily harm. From their own initiative the family purchased two sheep for roughly $300 – a substantial sum in their poor neighborhood – and gave it to the offended family. The Muslims slaughtered the sheep, placed their hands in the blood, and pressed the mark against the walls. Afterwards some of the meat was distributed to even poorer neighbors. Through this act reconciliation was achieved, the Christian was released from prison, and the families today continue to live in peace.

Such is a practical demonstration of the value and promise of the Family House, but like the initiative as a whole the fruit is still ripening and not yet fully grown.

Reviewing the incident, Dayim emphasized that ideal Muslim reconciliation should not require compensation. Furthermore he recognized that though marking the wall is a common cultural practice, the blood is unclean and should not have been touched.

Fr. Ghattas reflected that it might appear the Christians ‘purchased’ the reconciliation, and though the Muslim elders rebuked their children for the insults, there was no apology for the lesser share of their family’s guilt. Fr. Ghattas believed the Muslims felt they were only slightly at fault, and were doing enough by forgiving the offense and returning to live in neighborly peace. But both sides withdrew their complaints with the police immediately after the reconciliation session, and through several visits afterwards Fr. Ghattas can testify that peace has indeed prevailed.

‘This is what the culture says to do to solve these types of problems,’ said Fr. Ghattas. ‘It is not altogether right, but it is the right solution in this case.’

Much about the Family House seems all right. But privately some imams and priests express less than conciliatory attitudes about the other. Though some cities have witnessed continuing cooperation, others have not yet been able to translate budding relationships into joint work on the streets.

But even where there is success, after three years there will be only 210 religious leaders who have been actively trained in the program. Surely the same spirit exists among hundreds more, but what is this among millions of Egyptians?

‘Sowing the values and morals of citizenship is like a drop in the desert,’ said Lubna Abdel Rahim, a trainer in the program and unit leader in the Ministry of Education, speaking of her ministry’s efforts.

‘But if we cooperate in all our institutions this drop can become a garden.’

Such is the promise of the Family House, still awaiting the nourishment to flower further. Port Said is a worthy place to begin and if the Easter visit is any indication, the effort is well under way.

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The Educational Initiative of the Family House

Rasmy Abdel Malak
Rasmy Abdel Malak

Dr. Rasmy Abdel Malak is the head of the educational committee of the Egyptian Family House, an independent institution created by government decree. It is run by the grand sheikh of the Azhar in partnership with the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, involving Egypt’s other Christian denominations as well.

The Family House is authorized to create branches in the governorates, so that the effort to protect and reinforce national unity between Muslims and Christians will be felt at the grassroots. But it is also authorized to interact directly with government ministers, so that their suggestions will be taken into serious consideration in the framework of national policy.

It is in this second capacity Arab West Report met with Dr. Rasmy Abdel Malak Rostom, who describes the work of the educational committee of the Family House in formulating recommendations to the minister of education. The interview was conducted on November 10, 2014, by Jayson Casper and Adel Rizkallah, board member of the Center for Arab-West Understanding.

Please describe the basics of your educational work in the Family House.

The Egyptian Family House was established by a decision by the prime minister in 2012. There are a number of committees, approximately eight or nine, including one for education which I am honored to lead.

It is well known in Egypt, like in any nation of the world, that education forms the person. We have noticed instances of extremism and fanaticism among the students that come from the religious discourse in the mosques. But there are no question marks concerning the churches, it would be very rare to see similar problems.

We have begun to think how we can build up a person from youth. It is very important, from nursery and preschool certain things influence Muslims and Copts to be against each other.

The idea of the Family House is that we are a family, all together. But how can we live together when each one is raised in an incorrect way? We have witnessed this, and in the education committee we are trying to do something about it.

Please click here to read the full text of the interview at Arab West Report.

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The Implications of Charlie for Political Islam

Fadel Soliman
Fadel Soliman

What is the message of Charlie Hebdo concerning political Islam? It must be allowed to compete and win power, lest these tragedies be repeated.

Of course, the political messages made out of terrorism are many. Some say greater security measures are needed. Others call for limitations on Muslim immigration. Some call for curbs on freedom of speech. Others demonize Islam as a whole.

But there is a powerful argument that states the flare-up of terroristic violence is tied to the grievances of Muslim people around the world. These could be the sufferings of the Palestinians, or the innocent victims of drone strikes. But one of the most animating interpretations of grievance comes in the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood at the hand of military authorities in Egypt.

Evaluation of this argument is beyond the scope of this article. But understanding the perspective is necessary to best appreciate the mindset of the segment of Islamists who insist they are committed to the peaceful pursuit of power. In this case the spokesman will be Fadel Soliman.

Soliman is the founder and director of Bridges Foundation, who following the September 11 tragedy wished to bring peoples together by correcting misunderstandings of Islam. An Egyptian, he created a Cairo branch in 2005 under the auspices of then-Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, and enjoyed wide favor in both countries, winning endorsements also by congressmen and military leaders in the US.

But over the course of the Arab Spring his position of favor with the government changed. Soliman was an active participant in the revolution, but was also among the protestors at the pro-Morsi sit-in at Raba’a al-Adaweya, where he witnessed sixteen of his students killed in the bloody dispersal. He has not returned to Egypt since.

In December he published a video in which the above perspective on political Islam is established. He is horrified by the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, but more so by the attraction Muslim youth are beginning to show. Millions, he said, own the dream of ruling by sharia.

When the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated power could come through peaceful, democratic methods, they flocked to his support. But following the coup, he states, the world has witnessed an unprecedented recruitment of jihadists to Syria and Iraq. The worst, he predicts, is yet to come.

This message is given as part of a video series organized by the Munathera (Debate) Initiative, asking, “There won’t be change without…” Soliman’s answer is, “…the renewal of hope for peaceful change.” But Soliman can offer no specifics on what to do to renew this hope. He remarked about the strength of protests in the streets, and noted the violence in Syria only began when the army split. Tactics, however, are for the leaders, and he is part of no Islamist organization.

But he is an observer and knows his community. He compared the situation to a pipe with two spigots. If one is plugged up (political Islam), the water will definitely come out the other (jihadist Islam).

He did have a message for the church, however, given in Christmas felicitations offered to the leaders of Christians against the Coup. Copts should think for themselves and stop following the political dictates of the church. He believed violence is coming given the choices made to support Sisi.

“I am so worried about the future of Egypt,” said Soliman, “especially about the reactions of Muslims toward you.”

Soliman noted parallels to Mamluk Egypt when some Copts, he said, cooperated with the ‘coup’ attempt of the invading Mongols. Some viewed this as treachery, and in 1321 mobs took it out on the community as a whole, destroying churches and looting homes. Historian Phillip Jenkins says the government, after initially trying to suppress the riots, eventually looked the other way. Soliman said many Muslims today view Christian support of the coup as similar treachery.

But is this an accurate description? Copts have lauded the current climate as one in which Copts have never received such appreciation from state and society together. Muslims in the millions also backed Sisi, but many Islamists focus on Christian participation.

Soliman is clear he is not making a threat, he is describing his fear. But he speaks powerfully about the need for justice for those who have shed blood, and is convinced about the best method revealed to man.

“Sharia means absolute justice for everyone,” he said, noting his previous efforts to locate the UN Declaration of Human Rights in its contents. “So if I see a world of injustice its application is my dream.

“It is my right as a Muslim and as an Islamist to see sharia prevailing. It is my right, whether I am right or wrong.”

As mentioned above, ‘right or wrong’ is beyond the scope of this article. But right or wrong in his assessment of Egypt, right or wrong in his judgment of sharia, his vision is right in the eyes of millions.

Will these copycat Charlie Hebdo? Should the threat yield greater allowance to political Islam? Does it warrant greater curtailment? This is only one of the political debates in its aftermath, but Egypt is the ongoing laboratory.

This article was first published on Arab West Report.

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The Egyptian Family House: Early Structure and Activity

Heads of the religious discourse committee of the Family House
Heads of the religious discourse committee of the Family House

‘National unity’ has long been a part of Egyptian political discourse. Spun positively, it celebrates the equal contributions of Muslims and Christians as one people in the national fabric. Spun negatively, it is crass propaganda used by the ruling class to demonize Islamists and scare both Copts and international observers into supporting the status quo.

Experienced positively, national unity represents the normal everyday life of Muslim and Christian neighbors interacting with each other as people, with nary a thought of religious differences. Experienced negatively, national unity is little more than the hugs and kisses exchanged by top religious leaders covering over a potent sectarianism that too often lashes out at the religious other.

But until recently, national unity was only an idea, of which the substance or emptiness was determined by the speaker. In Egypt today this is beginning to change; national unity is becoming an institution.

The idea was born following the horrific October 31, 2010 attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, in which 58 people were killed and threats issued also against Egyptian Copts. The Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib interpreted this al-Qaeda sponsored atrocity within larger efforts he believed were meant to damage the religious unity of the whole region. He proposed to then-Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda to create an Egyptian antidote called the Bayt al-Eila or ‘Family House’, the necessity of which was further demonstrated following the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria in the first hours of January 1, 2011.

The Egyptian Family House was formally created as an independent national institution by cabinet decree in 2011, but the ongoing instability created by the January 25, 2011 revolution meant that little was initially done to develop it. But from the beginning the Family House was meant not to be a place of religious dialogue, said Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq, the secretary-general, but of dialogue between the common people to strengthen their general relations. They will not discuss the differences of doctrine, nor seek primarily to solve any outbreak of sectarian strife. Rather, it is a comprehensive effort to reduce the causes of such strife, so as to revive the popular slogan of the 1920s national movement against British colonialism: Religion is for God and the nation is for everyone.

This article is based on an interview with Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq and his secretary Muhammad al-Banna, on October 12, 2014. Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Church Donations in Upper Egypt: Ideals and Reality

Fr. Yu'annis
Fr. Yu’annis

A few excerpts from my recent article at Arab West Report:

Fr. Yu’annis sat in his small office waiting for a delegation to come, fearfully aware it might not. Having made all the arrangements, he was eager for a prominent Coptic businessman to visit the hundred year old church in his village, see the plot of land he had purchased, and envision together how a small hotel could lure religious pilgrims following the route of the Holy Family.

Being a practical priest, Yu’annis put aside the objection that his village of Qufada is not actually on the official route of the Holy Family. Several kilometers from the central city of Maghagha in the governorate of Minya, Qufada is a bit of a backwater. The nearby villages of Ishneen al-Nasara and Dayr al-Garnous are no closer, but they each boast a well from which the Holy Family is said to have sipped.

Unlike these, Qufada is not mentioned in the ancient manuscripts of the church. No matter, thought Yu’annis, given the geography it is certain they passed through. In any event neither Ishneen al-Nasara nor Dayr al-Garnous have a hotel either, so there is an opportunity to exploit. God knows his people need it.

After describing Qufada and Fr. Yu’annis’ local relations, here is a little more about his project and the man he hopes can implement it:

With this in mind, Yu’annis bought a plot of land next to the church in hope his hotel idea might result in tourist income and local employment. He secured Hamdi’s support and pays him a small sum of money each month to secure the premises. That this is necessary undermines somewhat an absolute understanding of Muslim-Christian harmony; Hamdi once remarked in frustration that though Christians are only 15 percent of the village, the one church is larger than all mosques put together. Correct or not in his estimation, it is personal relations and greased wheels which keep communal peace.

But the peace is present, so Yu’annis proceeds. And thus he sits in hope for the arrival of the delegation, which turns to frustration when it does not arrive.

The awaited businessman is Munir Ghabbour, owner of the luxury Sonesta hotel in Cairo and a number of enterprises beside. Now 70 years old, Ghabbour wants to use his wealth to leave behind a Coptic legacy, strengthening that of the Holy Family. Many churches along their route are operational but decaying. Poignantly similar are the Christians; poverty and emigration, not to mention pockets of religious extremism, eat away at what was once a flourishing Coptic presence.

Mounir Ghabbour
Mounir Ghabbour

I wrote about Ghabbour in reference to a new government initiative to promote Holy Family tourism here. The priest and businessman have a relationship stretching back many years, but the key to the project is support of the church:

But the lynchpin for the deal is a different person altogether. Bishop Aghathon heads the diocese of Maghagha for the Coptic Orthodox Church, responsible for all spiritual matters and many temporal ones beside. Yu’annis could not fail to inform his bishop of such a high profile visitor, who promptly requested to receive the businessman in the local cathedral.

Or rather, the old cathedral. Poorly built and suffering severe structural damage, Bishop Aghathon had long petitioned the government for a new building. For years he was frustrated, and thus he went political. Small demonstrations were held and the bishop complained in the press. His demeanor was much different than that of his predecessor Bishop Athanasius of Minya, who died in 2000 and had his diocese divided into several smaller dioceses. Bishop Aghathon was appointed to Maghagha, and proved less adept at fostering local relations.

This, at least, is the opinion of Yu’annis, who found his own success in securing building permits halted after the death of Athanasius and the ascension of Bishop Aghathon. Relations also faltered between the bishop and the priest, as the latter’s attention increasingly focused on his own village. Previously the twenty-four churches he facilitated were scattered throughout the area.

But Bishop Aghathon’s political approach finally proved successful after the revolution. In May 2011 the Maspero Youth Union formed during a massive Coptic sit-in near Tahrir Square, protesting the burning of a church in Cairo. Completely unrelated to events in Maghagha, during negotiations with the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Coptic youth activists included Bishop Aghathon’s cathedral permit within their list of demands. It was granted, and construction of the new cathedral is currently ongoing.

But in the old cathedral he received Ghabbour and his delegation and planned the events of the day. First would be a visit to Ishneen al-Nasara, then to Dair al-Garnous, and finally, if time permitted, Qufada. Back in his village Yu’annis waited, unable to have a say in the bishop’s ordering of affairs.

He continued to wait, as the bishop showed the businessman other project opportunities. I describe the diocese and local conditions, but then come back to the priest:

All the while, Yu’annis waited in Qufada, making occasional phone calls about the delegation’s whereabouts. Bishop Aghathon urged the businessman back to the cathedral, and said Qufada was an hour away by car, at least. In this he appeared to pad his calculation over estimates in the original schedule, and told Ghabbour he could visit Qufada next time. That village was not on the Holy Family route, he persuaded, and the church had recently been renovated anyway.

It took a comparable amount of time to return to the cathedral, where a multi-course meal awaited. Delicious, time could have been spent in Qufada instead, had the bishop honored the priest’s original intention. Yu’annis himself then traveled to Maghagha, exchanged pleasantries with the bishop, and greeted his friend. They parted ways fifteen minutes later as Ghabbour needed to return to Cairo for an appointment. Yu’annis was disappointed, but understood how the formalities of church hierarchy needed to be honored first.

But it is not simply a matter of formality. In the Coptic Orthodox Church the bishop is one step removed from the pope and near-autonomous within his diocese. No priest can act without his approval; no church project can progress without his oversight. Ghabbour cares little for local squabbles, he simply wants to leave a legacy and assist area development. Working with the bishop can unlock any door.

But for Bishop Aghathon, working with Ghabbour can fund any door. The businessman remains in control of his own money, and will only pay for projects that are viable and fit his vision. The bishop’s pitch appeared to convince him, along with the appearance of the churches. If anyone comes to visit and sees this, he said, we will lose face. But Ghabbour’s vision is larger than churches, and includes his priestly friend. All he needs is land and an idea. Yu’annis has the former, but may need to modify the latter.

All three individuals are looking to intervene in an area of decline, through a tradition that may also be fading. From the conclusion:

Does this mean the Holy Family tradition itself does not have many days left either? To be sure this is not a warning for ‘days’ but years or decades, but as the Christians of Iraq are demonstrating, the existence of community is precarious. Coptic Christianity is not similarly threatened, but if trends continue toward poverty and emigration, will enough remain to care for the churches still being built and renovated? Or will they be the permanent reminder of a bygone era, symbols of a history cherished by believers elsewhere?

Perhaps then the tourists will come, and the hotel will be necessary.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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The Story of a Village Church

Qufada Skyline

From my recent article at Arab West Report:

A man named ‘lantern’ finds a buried treasure, and with the money builds a church and extends a priesthood. If only all tales of Coptic Orthodox churches were so adventurous. (Some are.)

The village of Qufada, home of the Virgin Mary and St. Abaskhiroun Church, is about a 30-45 minute drive from Maghagha, 160 kilometers south of Cairo, in the governorate of Minya.

The church was built in 1910 by Fanus Abaskhiroun [‘Fanus’ means ‘lantern’ in Arabic]. He was a building contractor of average means, when one day he discovered buried gold on a plot of land he was developing.

Fr. Yu’annis, one of two priests currently serving in the Qufada church, related this fact and the story which follows. He says the tale of the gold is probably 90 percent true. Even today ordinary Egyptians illegally mine for Pharaohnic treasure on restricted archeological sites, so Fanus simply had a hundred year head start.

Throughout Upper Egypt, there are many villages with churches, and many villages without – despite a local Christian population. Fr. Yu’annis, who descends from a priestly heritage stretching thirty generations, described it this way:

… historically the issue of building churches rested with the good will of Christian landowners. Where they feared God and cared for the people, as in the example of Fanus and Qillini Pasha, churches were built. Yet there are several other villages in Maghagha today which do not have a church yet did have wealthy Christian residents.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report, including a description of the last four generations of lineage. Here is Fr. Yu’annis at work, with a few other additional pictures:

Yu'annis in church

Qufada Church

Qufada church sign

The sign reads: Oh Lord, remember your servant Fanus Abaskhiroun and his children and his grandchildren, who have concerned themselves with this holy place in the kingdom of heaven. Amen. 1910 AD.

In front of the sign hangs an ostrich egg.

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Musad Abul Fagr: The Bedouin in Egypt’s Constitutional Committee

Musad Abu Fagr

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series on the formation of Egypt’s constitution:

By self-description, Mus’ad Abū al-Fajr really wasn’t that important. In almost every categorization he was in the minority. But he also counts himself a ‘son of the revolution’ and fully worthy. And as a Bedouin, his participation in Egypt’s constitutional Committee of Fifty was itself one of its greatest accomplishments.

Selected as a ‘general personality’ independent of any institution, Abū al-Fajr isn’t sure why he was chosen. But he is confident it is linked to his status as a revolutionary from Sinai, active in protest in public squares since 2004. From 2007-2010 he was jailed on charges of ‘inciting riots’, and was released only a few months before the January 25 revolution. He immediately joined in on the National Movement for Change, found himself active in Tahrir Square, eventually became part of the National Salvation Front, and then worked on behalf of Tamarod to depose Muhammad Mursī.

But there were many revolutionary candidates to choose from for inclusion in the Committee of Fifty, so it was his status as a Bedouin that stood out. Therefore from the moment of his inclusion Abū al-Fajr considered that the region of Sinai was going to win at least a minimum of its rights. He knew that if he would withdraw from the committee – along with Hajāj Udūl of Nubia, with whom he cooperated extensively – it would cost the project much credibility and the symbolic vote of their regions. The task, then, was to achieve more, not just for the Sinai but for the people, for whom Abū Fajr described himself as continually defending.

Here is the gain:

His primary achievement, Article 236, represented the minimum. Treating Sinai along with the underdeveloped border areas of Nubia, Matrouh, and Upper Egypt, it promises a ‘comprehensive economic and urban development’ with ‘participation of the residents’. These are promised the ‘priority in benefiting from them’ in a manner that takes into account ‘the cultural and environmental patterns’ of each area. Ten years is given as the limit, with the law to spell out the particulars.

And here is why it wasn’t more:

But in fact, Sinai was to be mentioned more frequently. It was to be in the preamble, in the articles on cultural diversity, and those preventing discrimination based on geography. It was not the writing committee that played the chief role in removing it, he says, but direct pressure from the military seeking support for its own controversial article.

Abū al-Fajr described this as Article 204 on the military trial of civilians. He says he could have achieved more for Sinai had he simply agreed to it. He judges this from his experience in the work and discussions of the committee, but stood against it nonetheless. Besides himself, only five others voted to reject the article in the end.

Most of those interviewed described a few setbacks here and there, but were very positive about the document as a whole. Abul Fagr’s reaction is unique:

And the end result is a constitution he is happy with, recognizes a few flaws, but yet does not consider a revolutionary document, and is ultimately not worthy of Egypt. He does not even believe it will last.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Sayyid Hegab: Writing the Preamble to Egypt’s Constitution

Sayyid Hegab

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series on the committee which rewrote Egypt’s constitution:

The quip often attributed to Otto van Bismarck may apply to Egypt’s constitution: Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them made. Recent articles in this series attempt to do just that; peel back the layers to watch how certain articles came to be.

But the quip does not apply as well to the preamble of the constitution, for this was largely the work of one man. Sayyid Hijāb, the esteemed Egyptian poet and winner of the 2013 State Appreciation Award in Literature, described the process.

Hegab describes his oppositional past as a possible reason he was chosen for membership in the Committee of Fifty, and then how he came to be given the preamble:

Eventually the committee agreed to authorize Hijāb and Fadl to write alternate preambles, though Hijāb consulted also with Salmāwi and Bishop Antonius, who represented the Coptic Catholic Church. After about a month both submitted their drafts, and Fadl’s was roundly dismissed. It read too much like an employee report, Hijāb described, while he purposed his to carry the vision of the revolution.

But tinkering with his draft went on throughout, up until the last minute. Hijāb faithfully continued in his subcommittee responsibilities, he said, working on the preamble from home. But while the end product differed from his original text due to negotiating the concerns of some—and the manipulation of others—he is pleased it carries forward the vision.

These concerns and manipulations were largely over religious matters of varying importance:

Most of this description was easily accepted, however. He modified language about ancient Egypt and its early discovery of monotheism, as his original text violated the sensibilities of some religious members. There was some objection to describing the early Christians as ‘martyrs’, he said, but this passed when they witnessed his suitable description of Islam. No Christians complained about describing the ‘light’ of Islam, but non-Orthodox questioned his initial description of the Christian martyrs defending the ‘true doctrine’ of the church of the Messiah. Seeking consensus, he pulled the phrase.

All Christians were pleased, though, by his unsourced reference to Pope Shenouda about Egypt being a homeland that lives in us. No one objected to this phrase either; perhaps some did not know where it came from, he surmised.

But the modern era ruffled some feathers, as he described it as a time of ‘enlightenment’ in which ‘humanity became mature’. Once again, the religiously conservative objected, seeing maturity in the message of the prophets. Hijāb had one conversation in particular with the Grand Mufti, in which he assured him the terms were common in the social sciences as descriptions of the developing world. The mufti was satisfied enough in the end, and the language stayed.

Hijāb proved flexible when he originally intended to describe the ‘sharī‘ahs’ of human rights documents, amending this only to state the constitution was consistent with UN Declaration of Human Rights. But he held ground over the objections of Salafis toward language describing the Egyptian people as ‘the sole source of authority’. These references came in Hijāb’s second section of the preamble in which he described the principles of the revolution and the basics of political vision.

Salafis view God alone as possessing authority, but they received a different goal in the end. After long discussions about defining the role of sharī‘ah within the body of the constitution, they won its mention in the preamble, defining interpretation according to the collected rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court. Here the poetic vision of Hijāb’s text is broken, for this reference even contains a footnote, saying these rulings are to be deposited in the official minutes. Hijāb did not intend for sharī‘ah to be mentioned in the preamble at all, finding its place in Article 2 to be sufficient.

But perhaps the Salafis received a bit more, though for whose benefit cannot be said securely. The reference to sharī‘ah was won through negotiation, but Hijāb believes a second late change came through manipulation. Salafis were strong, though not alone, in arguing against reference of Egypt as a civil state. In the end a compromise was won to declare Egypt had civil governance, and this is reflected in the official draft Hijāb submitted for the final vote. But at its reading, ‘Amr Mūsa spoke ‘civil government’ in its place, and Hijāb believes it was deliberate. In any case, though he and Bishop Antonius objected, it entered the record as the preamble was voted on and approved unanimously.

Please click here to read the preamble (and constitution) in its entirety, and here to read the full article at Arab West Report.


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A Sufi Sheikh and the Fine Line of anti-Semitism

Alaa al-Din Abul Azayim
Alaa al-Din Abul Azayim

From my article at Arab West Report, from before Egyptian presidential elections but pertinent now with the escalation in Gaza:

Arab West Report, Editor-in-Chief Cornelis Hulsman recently highlighted the mutual recourse to anti-Semitic accusations on the part of both opponents and supporters of the current government. He referenced research complied by MEMRI, in which General Sīsī and the Muslim Brotherhood are simultaneously declared to be Jewish in origin and committed to a Zionist agenda.

The prominent Sufi sheikh, ‘Alaa al-Dīn Abū al-‘Azā’im, recently offered an example of such rhetoric. In an interview designed to explore both the Sufi contribution to the June 30 revolution deposing President Mursī, and the motivation thereof, ‘Azā’im consistently inserted accusations of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis being allied to Israel. Despite efforts to focus on the local issues involving Sufi citizens, ‘Azā’im could not help himself from resorting to international conspiracies.

Examples include the following:

The article lists his charges, but here is an excerpt from his response at the end of the interview about whether or not the Western world is right in considering such comments anti-Semitic:

First, he said the Qur’an commands us to be merciful to everyone – Jews, Christians, the whole world, even unbelievers. Mohamed’s constitution in Medina was civil, giving everyone the right to choose his own religion and pray as he wishes, again, emphasizing this right was given even to unbelievers. Jews are welcome to live in Egypt, and before 1967 when they were plentiful, he had good relations with them. While a student in Asyut University, ‘Azā’im’s Jewish colleague tried to persuade him to marry his sister. He referenced Pope Shenouda, stating he said we all worship one God – Muslims, Christians, and Jews – so he should gather us together rather than us fighting each other.

But second, this fighting is what earns Israel his animosity. Jihad in the Muslim sense may only be waged if a country attacks you, or has attacked you. Look at what Israel does, he said, killing Muslims every day. They occupied our land, so it should be jihad, until they leave.

There is a necessary difference between Israel and the Jews. Arabs often conflate the two; do Westerners as well? Where is the line properly drawn?

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Anticipating Transitional Justice and National Reconciliation

Adel Maged
Adel Maged

President Sisi has been elected, and everyone wonders what will be next. Will he continue the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, as indicated? What does it mean that the Salafi Nour Party is backing him? Is Sisi an Islamist-of-sorts himself? Is he a dictator in the making? Does his presidency herald a coming liberal era?

For these answers one must wait and see. But beyond the obvious divide that exists in Egypt lies one reality: The constitution obliges parliament to issue a law on transitional justice in its first session. Having suffered – or celebrated – the fall of two presidents in three years, political frustrations exist among many. Far beyond frustrations, many are dead due to political violence. Few have been held accountable.

Transitional justice promises much; in theory and often in international practice it leads to national reconciliation. Will it in Egypt?

Again, one must wait and see. But ‘Adil Mājid, vice-president of the Egyptian Court of Cassation and an honorary professor of law at the UK’s Durham University, is one with a vision. In July 2013 he wrote an article putting forward the requirements of national reconciliation at a time the concept was first discussed after the fall of Mursī.

I have translated his article here, published at Arab West Report.

A year later, Mājid is very critical of early efforts, but is hopeful that with a new president and coming parliament, the groundwork is better laid. Though obstacles remain, in an interview he described his hope for transitional justice given current realities, in the framework of his earlier article.

This vision is given here, also at Arab West Report.

Of course, even worthy endeavors like transitional justice and national reconciliation can be employed for less than worthy ends. Mājid is well aware of this possibility. But in answering the questions posed above about the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamism, dictatorship, and a liberal era, a key indicator to watch will be how it is used, worthily or otherwise. Will it heal the nation, or hurt it further?

Please read the linked reports for indications from a respected expert. Then watch carefully, and judge accordingly. Justice and reconciliation are concepts to be respected, necessary for the well-being of any nation. May they be pursued with truth and transparency.

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Hala Shukrallah: The First Coptic and First Female Head of a Political Party in Egypt

Hala Shukralla

From my recent article at Arab West Report, an interview with Hala Shukrallah of the Constitution (Dostour) Party:

Congratulations on your election as party leader, which as a Copt and as a woman is historic and unprecedented in Egypt. What does it mean both for the party and the country?

It represents a definite step forward, for at a conscious level people have not seen it as significant. A few years back this would not have been possible. The divide was not only visible, but vocalized. It would have created a backlash and instigated an attack, especially utilizing these two factors – woman and Copt.

That this was a non-issue within the party was very significant. It was not a focus at all during elections, showing that the party itself stopped perceiving these elements as a divide between people.

In society, it is another issue altogether. When we are speaking about our party we are speaking about a majority of young people. They have gone through a revolution – two revolutions – and have really changed so much of their thinking. You can understand why these things have stopped meaning so much to them.

But if you look at the way society has accepted this, and even celebrated it, this also is very significant. It shows there is a majority within society that wants to see change.

Your election was also celebrated by the Coptic community at large, which itself has gone through two revolutions and witnesses a divide between its youth and elders. How do you describe the Coptic electorate? As a citizen and voter, what is the average Copt like?

Especially since the 1970s, the Coptic sector in Egypt has been very aware there is a growing conservative element that perceives them as ‘the other’. What they have done is take a step backwards and basically hide in their own community. They have ghettoized, in a way, in the arms of the church, which has been speaking on their behalf.

From my point of view this is dangerous. I understand why they have done it, but they perceive themselves as a bloc, allowing the church to speak on their behalf, and therefore society continues to see them as a bloc, and not as individuals or citizens.

We have gone through this cycle over and over again, but it was broken on the 25th of January, when for the first time they went out into the streets and joined demonstrations. They began to protest as citizens. This was a turning point, very visible and vocal, with Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square holding hands as citizens.

Pictures of the cross and crescent together became very important symbolism that became ingrained in the minds of Egyptians over the last three years. This has made a difference and left its mark on us.

But with the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood there was an effort to roll back this progress made in the first year of the revolution. Citizenship was debated, whether we can give minorities rights, but maybe not all rights, and so on. The discourse excluded some sectors from being full-fledged citizens. But with their growth and that of the fundamentalist movements there has been a withdrawal, once more, of Copts into the church. And the church is again speaking on their behalf.

Please click here to read the full interview at Arab West Report.


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Sharia in the Supreme Constitutional Court

Islamist protests at the Supreme Constitutional Court, December 2012
Islamist protests at the Supreme Constitutional Court, December 2012

From my recent article at Arab West Report, in the series on Egypt’s constitution. This text opens with a consideration of Salafi participation in both the 2012 and 2014 charters, and proceeds then to examine their chief triumph:

This article [219 in the 2012 constitution] was quickly scrapped by the new committee, but the [Salafi] Nūr Party representative continued to press. His lone leverage was in the desire of the transitional government to frame its discourse as anti-Muslim Brotherhood, in response to a popular revolution, rather than as anti-Islamist per se, and certainly not as anti-Islam. The presence of Nūr legitimized greatly.

For their troubles, they received a small reference in the preamble of the constitution. It was agreed upon at the very close of proceedings, and states:

‘We are drafting a Constitution that affirms that the principles of Islamic Sharī‘ah are the principal source of legislation, and that the reference for the interpretation of such principles lies in the body of the relevant Supreme Constitutional Court Rulings.’

But what does this mean for future legal interpretation? Is it only a means for them to save face, or will it have real impact on future constitutional rulings? A partial answer is to examine one of these relevant rulings, from 1996, and see what it says. Two girls were expelled from school for wearing the niqab, a garment that covers all but the eyes. The court ruled against them, as they appealed to sharia law and freedom of religion:

Sharī‘ah establishes the necessity of morality, the judge argued, even quoting the Qur’an. But sharī‘ah nowhere establishes that a woman must wear a niqab. On the contrary, and in dismissive wording, it compared such a woman as kept from interacting with society and going around as a covered ghost.

The constitutional guarantees of belief and individual freedom, the judge explained, are to follow and practice a religion in the manner the religion instructs. Since scholars differ about the nature of a woman’s dress, there is no firm principle on this matter in sharī‘ah. Therefore, the government is within its rights to establish a dress code as it sees fit, while staying within the principle of modesty as is clearly required by Islam.

Sharī‘ah, the judge wrote, is principally about truth and justice, and is naturally progressive to change with the time and place. This guarantees it flexibility and vitality, so as to guard its purposes (maqāsid) in preserving religion, life, reason, honor, and property. No one scholar’s view should be made holy over another’s, and even the Companions of the Prophet made their rulings based on the benefit of the people. There is no reason to either consider or cancel them, but to judge independently based on the benefit of today.

Salafis originally wanted to tie sharia interpretation to traditional rulings, not just purposes, as interpreted by senior scholars from the Azhar. These provisions were written into the 2012 constitution but lost in its 2014 amendments. Seeing such a ruling as this, it is clear they do not trust the court.

But maybe they got what they wanted, through the court, even in what evaded them in 2012:

In order to replace the sharī‘ah-escaping word ‘principles’, the Nūr Party sought to change it in Article 2 with the more strict ‘rulings’ (ahkām). They did not gain consensus, and even in Article 219 the words translated as ‘rulings’ do not reflect the strictures of the Arabic ahkām.

But the SCC states in its May 18 judgment that Article 2 is based on the ahkām of sharī‘ah, in its foundations and general principles, using language reminiscent of Article 219. Furthermore, these ahkām may not be violated where they are maqtū’ bi thubūtiha au bi dallālitiha. This phrase means that the rulings are clear and proven, either by the Qur’an directly (thubūt) or through jurisprudential reasoning (dallālah).

But this is not restricted only to hukm qata’i, where there is one accepted meaning only. It includes also hukm zanni, where many meanings and interpretations have been suggested. The point is that sharī‘ah encompasses the historic work of scholarship, and legislation must not transgress its bounds. Within this sharī‘ah heritage, no voice is sacred and new voices may emerge with the times. But as the parliament creates law, the judiciary judges within the hedge of sharī‘ah. This is not the language of a judge seeking to ignore it.

But perhaps this is all legal semantics, and what really matters is who is in charge. From the conclusion:

It may not be the language of the constitution that is of paramount importance, but who writes it. The 2012 constitution signaled a transition to a new Islamist order; the 2014 signaled a reversal. The reversal, however, includes preamble language authored by the Salafis, and the terms of debate bound by Article 2.

If correct, this interpretation suggests the forces of reversal remain in control, and less-than-Islamist rulings are likely to issue from the SCC. But it also suggests that Salafis have a place at the table, and may through this constitutional nod win either legislation or rulings that reflect conservative religion.

In this sense, does their defense of sharī‘ah mean also the defense of their existence? It is too early to tell, but it has resulted, at least, in a public constitutional reminder that sharī‘ah remains the basis of legislation.

That this reminder can be interpreted flexibly fits well the overall ambiguity of the political situation, Nūr included.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Saad al-Din al-Hilali: An Azhari Rails against Religion in the Constitution

Saad al-Din al-Hilali

From my recentarticle at Arab West Report, continuing a series on the people who wrote the constitution:

Sa’d al-Dīn al-Hilālī is a professor of comparative jurisprudence at Azhar University, where he is acknowledged as an expert in both sharī‘ah and international legal systems. Perhaps for this acumen he was selected as a member of the Committee of Fifty tasked to amend the Egyptian constitution. But he does not know, because he was not one of the three members chosen to represent the Azhar officially as an institution. Instead he was picked in the category of ‘general personalities’, learned of his selection via the television, and has never received an explanation why. He is quite happy not knowing, as he can express his appreciation to God alone.

The Azhar is the premier religious institution in Egypt, perhaps in the Arab world. Many consider it to be a ‘moderate’ body; if so, Hilali is a radical in the opposite direction:

Though Hilālī preferred not to characterize the internal workings behind either the disagreements or consensus, he spoke frankly about how he communicated to his colleagues on the topic of sharī‘ah. Most accepted what will be described below, he said. Some, who prefer to rule the street by claiming they ‘protect’ sharī‘ah, taking advantage of illiterates in doing so, were less pleased.

Article 2, for example, was previously inserted in the constitution only to satisfy these illiterates. They believe such a clause is necessary for them to go to heaven, and all the while they are laughed at by those who exploit them in pursuit of power. What does it mean that Islam is the religion of the state? Nothing. What are the principles of sharī‘ah that must be the main source of legislation? Only the concepts of mercy, justice, and equality, over which no one disagrees. If the United States were to draft sharī‘ah into its constitution, would that make everyone a Muslim? If Egypt were to make Christianity the religion of the state, would he become one? No, these are personal matters between the individual and God, each of whom interprets religion in his own way.

If this sounds like the general understanding of religion in the West, read on:

Fair enough, perhaps, but does not Islam as a religion demand some measure of public enforcement, based on the will of God? Muslims are tasked with the role of ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’, so what is involved in doing so?

Correct interpretation, Hilālī argued, is that right and wrong are calculated for all, not by the individual, and can be equated well with the principles of sharī‘ah as the constitution states. He listed as examples helping parents and neighbors, working rather than unemployment, and refusing terrorism and killing, and said the rest is to be worked out by the judiciary and the police. As for the famous hadith that instructs the Muslim to correct a wrong with his hand if he is able, with his tongue if he is not, and with his heart as the least requirement of faith, Hilālī accepted it. The hand is the hand of the state, the tongue is the voice of the preachers giving enlightenment, and heart is for everyone else outside of these contexts. In this he is in line with much historic interpretation of sharī‘ah, but not all.

But this is fine, he might say. After all, sharī‘ah is meant for guidance and knowledge. Once its details are sought to be enforced in the public square one Muslim will clash with another over what is allowed and what is forbidden. This is in fact what happened to Egypt, and remains in the current struggle. Europe eventually rid itself of religious authority, he said, and this was Egypt’s trial now. America has achieved this light in its constitution, he believed, but now seeks (through support for the Brotherhood) to deny it to us.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Ehab el-Kharrat: A Protestant Political Leader in Egypt

Ehab el-Kharrat

I met with Ehab el-Kharrat in his office just off Tahrir Square on March 15, 2014, shortly before the presidential elections. Kharrat is one of the founding members of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and though the party remained neutral, he endorsed Hamdeen Sabbahi, one of the few high profile Coptic leaders to do so.

As we know now, it turned out to be a losing proposition, as he was crushed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But as Kharrat explains, it was a principled vote more than one to back a likely winner. Being principled is important to Kharrat, and the interview explores this theme in relation to his Christian faith and deep involvement in politics.

The following is an excerpt from the transcript published at Arab West Report.

You grew up in a leftist home and had a personal conversion. Perhaps this is not the normal story of Christians in Egypt?

My father is one of the most prominent intellectuals in Egypt. He is old now at 88. He is a novelist, literary critic, and short story writer who has been acclaimed and received the most prominent awards in Egypt and the Arab region. He was even nominated by Naguib Mahfouz to be the second Nobel Prize winner from Egypt.

He used to be a Communist Party leader as a young man though he moderated as he became older. He was imprisoned two years under King Farouk. I read Marx and Freud and Sartre before I read the Bible, actually. I had a personal experience with the Lord when I was 18 with the youth of Kasr el-Dobara Church, and it was an intense spiritual experience.

I became very active in the church and I had to struggle with the question of should I still be politically active or not. I had been an active member of leftist groups at Cairo University, though never a member of secret organizations.

I became a preacher, a youth leader, and an assistant pastor at Kasr el-Dobara and was instrumental in our phenomenal growth from a couple of hundreds to our current count of five or six thousand. I was the interpreter for Billy Graham and Louis Palau, and for a number of years I was an evangelist. I think I got thirty or forty thousand professions of faith. I was counting at that time.

Most American evangelical Christians tend to lean toward the right rather than the left. Why do you find the left is a better fulfillment of your Christian faith?

If you study the Bible carefully and its emphasis on justice, the rights of the poor, anti-exploitation, and protection of the weak and vulnerable, you cannot escape that this is the brunt of the political position of the Biblical writers.

Of course there is the aspect of creation of wealth and this is a social democratic position too. I am not against personal entrepreneurship, being creative, or being rich. Many evangelicals in America are not giving enough attention to justice or the poor, but if you can find a political tendency in the Bible this is it.

It is not ‘name it and claim it,’ ‘be as rich as you can,’ or ‘trickle down policies.’ You cannot find these in the Bible. Even ‘compassionate capitalism’ as Francis Schaeffer says. When the Bible talks about the rights of the poor it is clear it is not about mercy or compassion. It is about justice.

Please click here to read the full transcript at Arab West Report, including extensive comments about his participation in the January 25 and June 30 revolutions. Here is a sample:

You don’t want to over-spiritualize the situation, but here is a spiritual question. In recent days some of the leaders of the popular opposition against Morsi have said there was police and military involvement. This suggests it was not just a grassroots movement, it was also a state manipulated movement.

Look, the movement started from our ranks, young people from the National Salvation Front. They gathered many signatures against Morsi and it was clear they had popularity. They were approached by the police and the military intelligence, and they talked to them. It is not like they became their agents, they cooperated, which is legitimate because we made clear we did not want to destroy state institutions only topple Morsi.

The signature campaign started the first of May, and I signed publicly the 10th of May with all our leaders. By early June it was clear the police and military intelligence were not going to oppose us. We made friends with the institutions, yes, but the movement was not manipulated by the government.

So this is my question, then: A Christian in politics must be straight in all he does, but politics can be about maneuvering, even manipulation. I don’t know if or where the line is crossed, but as a Christian, were lines crossed in the movement against Morsi?

I did not do any under the table negotiations and I think politics should be a clean game. The Brotherhood said that politics is a dirty game, and they played it dirty and paid the price. Whoever is not of integrity will lose. I believe politics should be straightforward whether you are a Christian or not. If you play by principles at the end you will prevail.

If the police or military intelligence dealt with us fair and square, it was ok. If they want to manipulate us we will not be manipulated. If they want to intimidate us we will not be intimidated. But if they ask if we will burn buildings and attack the Ministry of the Interior and we give them our word we will not, this is clear politics, it is clean.