THREE years after the car bomb that devastated world-famous Museum of Islamic Art, in Cairo, Egyptian culture is thumbing its nose at Islamic terror.
And in pride of place in the central rotunda is a nineteenth-century mosque door carved by Yehuda Aslan, a Jewish craftsman.
On 24 January, 2014 the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Cairo was the secondary casualty of the bomb that killed six, and injured dozens in a blast targeting the Cairo Security Directorate across the street. The attack was claimed by the Sinai Province of the Islamic State.
It also smashed the façade of the historic museum built in 1903, damaging 179 pieces, ten beyond repair.
Two weeks ago the museum reopened in grand ceremony.
‘This is our heritage, not only for Egypt or Muslims, but for humanity,’ said Ahmad al-Shoky, the museum director.
‘If you destroy it, we will rebuild it, and make it better than before.’
Considered the largest museum of Islamic art and artifacts in the world, the MIA holds more than one hundred thousand pieces from throughout the Muslim world.
The earliest dates back to 652AD, a tombstone from year 31 of the Muslim era that bears signs of the Umayyad regime. It is the oldest mark of Islam in Egypt.
Al-Shoky presided over the opening of sixteen additional exhibits, tripling the items on show to the public. The richness of Islamic history, he believes, blunts the appeal of terrorism.
‘The museum is not only about good art, but a good message,’ al-Shoky told Lapido. ‘We have reworked our displays to show how Islamic art contributes to world civilization.’
And a central part of this civilization, he says, is religious and cultural tolerance. The door to the as-Sayyida Zaynab Mosque by Yehudah Aslan is just one example.
Zaynab whose shrine is at the mosque named after her in Old Cairo, was the prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, and ‘patron saint’ of Cairo.
‘We are not against any religion, and welcome anyone who can produce something for the world,’ said al-Shoky. ‘This message is short, but powerful, and you can find it in many of our halls.’
Umayyad era art (661-750 AD) is introduced with a note of influence from Byzantine, Coptic, and other civilizational sources.
The medicine and science exhibits highlight the contributions of the Christian Bakhtishu family doctors, and the Muslim, Mary the Astrolabe, from the Abbasid era (750-1253 AD).
And the Fatimid era (909-1171 AD) speaks of joint celebrations with ‘Christian fellow citizens’ for the holidays of Epiphany and Maundy Thursday.
Renovations were supported by a £2.1 million equivalent grant from the United Arab Emirates. Additional donations and expertise were shared by the United States, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and UNESCO.
Before the explosion, if two hundred visitors came, it would be terrific, al-Shoky said. Since the reopening, the MIA has averaged more than two thousand.
And not only adults. The redesign includes an educational wing for children. Around 150 have come every day.
‘Art teaches children that Islam is not a terrorist religion,’ said Yumna Khalid, a 20-year-old volunteer guide studying Islamic archaeology at Egypt’s Ain Shams University.
‘It is not like what people say now about Islam. No, we have had brilliant artists and scientists.’
Maher Daniel agrees. He is an award-winning cartoonist and animation director for Egyptian state television – and a Christian.
He contributed the illustrations to the children’s guidebook free of charge. Aladdin and the Magic Shirt spins a fantasy tale introducing the reader to the main pieces of each exhibit.
‘Egypt has passed through several crises, and children have not received enough attention,’ says Daniel. ‘The museum strives to address [the child’s] mind, promoting our shared heritage, for both Muslims and Christians.’
This does not mean he whitewashes the past, or the present. But Daniel says the space for extremism in Egypt is shrinking, and if there is an opportunity to help, you must help.
‘Our hope is in the enlightened Muslims, who are seeking reform and trying to shake the dirt from Egypt,’ he said.
‘But God only knows, in history these things ebb and flow.’
Manal Salah brought her twelve-year-old son to see the museum. He particularly liked the hall of weapons, marveling at the ninth-century Ottoman sword bearing the name of Mohamed the Conqueror.
‘The reopening of the museum is a positive sign,’ she said. ‘And we are optimistic for the future. If God wills, all will be well.’
In a defiant gesture of faith from beneath the Pyramids, Anglican bishops sent a message to the world this week: Egypt is safe.
And this on a weekend the UK embassy warned against visiting public places.
Representing twenty of the more conservative provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion, delegates to the Sixth Global South conference in Cairo visited the Giza pyramids and dined on the Nile in a show of solidarity.
‘I appeal to you as an Egyptian, please return and visit Egypt,’ Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, chairman of the Global South, told delegates.
‘Our economy depends on tourism, and when it is down, thousands of Egyptians cannot earn a living.’
The tourism sector employs roughly four million Egyptians, representing 12.6 percent of the work force. But according to the Central Bank of Egypt, tourism revenue declined by nearly a half – 48.9 percent – year-on-year to September 2016.
The 31 October, 2015 crash of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 over the Egyptian Sinai desert, claimed by the Islamic State, had a disastrous impact.
Russia, who represented 35 per cent of arrivals, has since barred all flights to Egypt, and the UK at 12 per cent have canceled flights to resort areas in the Sinai.
In Cairo the pyramids stood empty. In Luxor there was just one family at their hotel, where staff threw a party for their one-year-old’s birthday, to show their appreciation.
American Darren Haley said: ‘It was sad to see just how much Egypt has to offer and how few are willing to take the journey. Egypt is history just waiting to be explored.’
Egypt is struggling to promote tourism with an ongoing Islamist insurgency.
Without identifying the threat, the UK embassy issued a warning 7 October to avoid ‘large gatherings and public spaces,’ specifically mentioning museums.
‘Most terrorist attacks target the security forces,’ reports the embassy website,‘but it’s likely that foreigners, including tourists, will also be targeted.’
So the bishops’ stance is all the more remarkable. ‘I wanted the Anglican delegates to see a different picture of Egypt than what they see in the media,’ Bishop Anis told Lapido.
‘It is unfair to call Egypt unsafe, as we have seen there is no place in the world safe from terrorism.’
Before the Russian airline crash tourism was showing signs of recovery. Revenues had increased 45.3 percent compared to a year earlier.
Egypt hopes a second rebound is coming.
Officials are finalizing negotiations with the Russian authorities to restore flights. Egypt Air resumed London-Luxor travel on 3 October.
On 10 October Egypt completed restoration work at the shrine of King Tuthmosis III in Karnak Temple.
Last month the ransacked Mallawi Museum in Upper Egypt was reopened for the first time since pro-Morsi rioting in August 2013.
But even throughout this tumultuous period, tourists have come.
‘We have never had a bad experience, even during the uprisings of the last five years,’ Bishop Timothy Ranji of Kenya told Lapido. Every year since 2004 he has brought thirty clergy to Egypt for religious pilgrimage.
‘Egypt is secure, full of lovely people, and I invite everyone to come,’ said Archbishop Tito Zavala of Chile.
‘I am an ordinary person here. There is no need for bodyguards.’
Gathered to promote their narrative to international evangelicals largely supportive of Israel, a bespectacled, long-bearded, Yarmulke-wearing Jewish settler appeared on screen.
He spoke, and their surprise deepened.
‘I am a passionate defender of Palestinian rights,’ Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger told the audience. ‘Zionism is a big tent, and there are many I disagree with.’
A New York City native, Schlesinger immigrated to Israel in 1977. He lives in the settlement of Gush Etzion, between Bethlehem and Hebron.
Many Palestinians consider Jewish settlers to be the source of all evil, he admitted. Not until two years ago had he spoken to a Palestinian as an equal.
Serving in the army, he had arrested them. For general housework, he had employed them. But after a US-based pastor encouraged him to listen to them, he had worked to be reconciled ever since.
In this capacity Schlesinger was invited to the fourth biennial Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conference, held 7-10 March in Bethlehem. Operating at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, these conferences provoke much controversy.
This year, they chose to provoke themselves.
Fifty UK citizens joined roughly five hundred people from 24 countries to attend the conference, including 150 Palestinian Christians from Israel and the West Bank.
Interviewed on screen, Schlesinger also expressed great appreciation for those the conference aimed to challenge: Christian Zionists who prioritize Jewish Israel.
‘The Christian nation is turning over a new leaf, it is a miracle,’ he said. ‘Christian Zionism defends Israel against its many enemies, so we need all the friends we can get.’
Afterwards he mingled in the crowd. Some even approached to shake his hand.
‘It was hard for many here to see Rabbi Hanan in our audience, let alone on the screen,’ said Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust, and a conference organiser.
‘But some came to me and said, you are challenging us in our faith.’
Like many Palestinians, Awad, who has conducted nonviolent trainings for Hamas, had found it difficult to befriend those with whom he had deep political disagreements.
Additional screened interviews with his friends in Hamas also challenged the conference towards a similar transformation.
Awad told Lapido that Jews have a basic need to live and worship in the land of their ancestors.
The fear that kept Jews, Muslim, and Christians apart, he said, came less from ‘the other’ than from those one considers on one’s own side.
‘People are not afraid of Rabbi Hanan, they know he will not come here and hurt us,’ he said. ‘But we are afraid of being labeled a traitor by our own community.’
Awad and Schlesinger jointly host a study to discuss their holy texts. Muslims, Christians, and Jews all suffer generational trauma, Awad says. So the Holy Land Trust sponsors ‘healing hatred’ groups to help them overcome it together.
Likewise, Schlesinger has co-founded ‘Roots’, a Palestinian-Israeli initiative for understanding, non-violence, and transformation.
Of three thousand local Israelis and Palestinians attending his training, around two-thirds have been Jews. Of these up to forty percent have been settlers, and up to 15 percent have been soldiers sent by the army.
Ninety-nine percent of all participants, he said, are meeting ‘the other’ for the first time.
‘Something is wrong,’ Rabbi Schlesinger told Lapido Media. ‘We are living out our truth in a way that causes injustice to other people.
‘I don’t know if the land is occupied, but the people are occupied.’
This theme was echoed by another prominent Jewish critic of Israeli policy invited to CATC, Arik Ascherman, president and senior rabbi of Rabbis for Human Rights. His remarks were introduced by a video from October 2015 showing him resisting a knife-wielding Jewish settler.
‘The creation of the state of Israel—and we know it is a catastrophe for Palestinians—was the beginning of our redemption, and we want it to be a blessing shared by all,’ he said.
‘But it may be that in God’s eyes, the very things we do to hold on to the entire land make us unworthy to keep all of it.’
CATC has been subject to much criticism, some of it theological, some of it political.
‘Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Christians enjoy religious liberty,’ Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, told Lapido. Last year they raised over £872 million to support Israel.
‘Even as I decry the anti-Israel rhetoric that has taken place [at CATC], I give thanks for the many, many Christians who truly know Israel and continue to support the land and her people in prayer.’
But for Awad, though resistance to the occupation is crucial, so is the befriending of an enemy.
‘I cannot be a voice to the other side in nearly the same way one of their own can,’ he said.
‘We are communal beings who only trust our own kind, so we need to make our own communities uncomfortable.’
Egypt’s centre-left secularist party has an unlikely mascot: America’s most famous Baptist preacher, Dr Martin Luther King.
King is the inspiration behind a revival of liberalism in a country where prison awaits street protest of almost any kind.
Selma was the surprise choice of film to launch a new cultural moment in post-revolution Egypt.
The 2014 film chronicles King’s march from a backwater hamlet to the statehouse in Alabama.
‘We chose Selma because it shows how civil rights movements can proceed peacefully,’ said Islam Amin, founder of the Egyptian Cinema Club.
‘We also have suffered crackdowns and violence in the streets. The situation of Selma is like Egypt today.’
[Turning to culture: President of the centre-left ESDP AbulGhar (R), with the father of Egyptian cinema’s ‘new realism’ school, Daoud Abdel Sayed. Photo: ESDP]
Leading politicians attended the screening. One – Mohammed Abul Ghar – believes that as in King’s America only the President can make a difference to Egypt’s oppressive politics, as thinkers, writers, and ‘blasphemers’ find themselves facing lengthy prison sentences.
‘We are clearly against these laws, but the situation is very dangerous,’ said Ghar, president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP).
‘It must be the president who will take the step to change them; it is the only way.’
Martin Luther King suffered abuse from citizens and police alike, but his efforts mobilized a nation and culminated in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The ESDP, which won only four seats in the 596-member parliament, is frustrated with the path politics is taking.
Following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi, ESDP members occupied top posts in government, including prime minister.
But now, says Ghar, there is no government, only ministry heads he calls ‘secretaries to the president’.
So instead politicians are turning to culture.
‘It is hard to play politics these days, but we can still play culture,’ Amin, the ECC founder, said. ‘Culture, philosophy, and art spread tolerance and justice, where fascists and Islamists spread only lies and hate.’
[Logo of the Egyptian Cinema Club. Photo: ESDP]
But coming off the back of Egypt’s experience of political Islam, what chance is there for a Baptist preacher’s example?
Bassem Kamel, head of the political training department in the ESDP, drew three lessons from Selma and the life of King: change requires a long and sustained effort; violence is counter-productive, and to win you must win the people.
Selma also highlights King’s deftness with the media – something the new wave of liberals emulates. They invite popular culture-makers to maximize the attention they get, launching the film club cannily on the UN-designated World Day of Social Justice.
‘Culture and politics have a clear influence on each other,’ said Daoud Abdel Sayed, whose 40-year career in Egyptian cinema was honoured at the screening.
His school of ‘new realism’ emphasizes the modern struggles of ordinary Egyptians. ‘But the problem is the state has transformed culture into something only for élites,’ he says.
Two years later in 2011 she found herself distributing thousands of copies in Tahrir Square.
‘The book was being smuggled like drugs,’ she told Lapido. ‘The real challenge we are facing now is how to keep the momentum going.
‘But there is no Selma in Muslim Egypt.’
The problem has been a 40-year process of importing a foreign Wahhabi ideology, says Ziada. A moderate, Sufi-style Islam had declined as culture and state turned conservative.
Earlier sheikhs had looked to Europe for inspiration, she said, now they looked to Arabia.
[‘No Selma in Muslim Egypt’: Dalia Ziada. Photo: Andres Alonso Photography]
‘God knows how many years we will have to wait until a 2011 revolutionary comes to power,’ said Ziada, now director of the Liberal Democracy Institute of Egypt.
‘But even if it takes forty years, I am sure this day will come,’ she adds, recalling the four-decade interlude between Selma and the election of US President Barack Obama.
Beyond the comic book there are only eight books in Arabic on the life of Martin Luther King, according to University of Michigan professor Juan Cole. But in 2012 he added another: a translation of King’s biography, published by the London-Beirut-based company Dar al-Saqi.
Others agree with Ziada that there is no comparable figure to King in contemporary Egypt. American University in Cairo professor of Arab and Islamic Civilization Mohamed Serag cites nineteenth-century Al Azhar scholar Muhammad Abduh as a possible model.
One of the founding fathers of Islamic Modernism, Abduh’s students pioneered reforms in politics, economy, and gender equality.
But today, Serag said, poor education and state policy combine to keep another Abduh, let alone a King, from emerging. ‘Despotism is the reason,’ he said. ‘Since 1952 our régimes have controlled society and do not let it prosper.’
ESDP president Abul Ghar cannot envision a change until the collapse of Saudi Arabia and its petrodollar sponsorship of religious conservatism.
‘Egypt is completely polarized,’ he added, ‘and with Islam as a religion it is very difficult. Either you become a radical salafi or you separate Islam from politics completely.’
But pushing pessimism aside, the secular party highlights a Christian minister and continues the grassroots work.
‘Yes, Martin Luther King was a pastor, and we do not have this type of figure in Egypt,’ said Kamel, the political trainer.
Humble St George’s Church in Belhasa south of Cairo became a home for dogs and goats after its destruction by pro-Morsi supporters during Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
Now it’s been reopened better than ever – thanks to a surprise announcement by Egypt’s President.
‘This is a beautiful gesture for a new age,’ said Bishop Biemen, Head of Crisis Management for the Coptic Orthodox Church. ‘We have been pampered.’
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo on 6 January – Coptic Christmas Eve – for the second year running. Amid raucous applause he did the most un-presidential thing: he apologized
‘We have taken too long to fix and renovate the churches that were burned,’ the President told Copts, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. ‘God willing, by next year there won’t be a single house or church that is not restored.’
On 14 August, 2013, six weeks after then Defense Minister Sisi deposed President Morsi, military and police units violently dispersed his supporters as they staged two sit-in protests in Cairo.
Over the next three days angry Islamists ransacked dozens of Christian establishments across the country.
In Belhasa, 240 kilometers south of Cairo, youths climbed the roof of the neighbouring school and hurled firecrackers and Molotov cocktails into the church.
‘We prayed, we cried, we were in a difficult situation,’ Malak Ishak, a 40-year-old middle school teacher, told Lapido. ‘God, why did you let your house burn?’
The tiny community of Christian farmers and labourers abandoned the building which was charred beyond recognition, and lamented its fate.
And for the next three Christmases they trudged country roads to worship in Kom al-Akhdar village four kilometers away.
After the initial attacks Sisi immediately promised that the military would cover the costs of all reconstruction.
But progress was slow-going and some Copts began to complain. Local media also questioned if the job would get done.
But on 14 January, one week after the President’s apology, St George’s Church was reopened. Refurbished with top-of-the-line construction material and additional floors, engineers also included a sprinkler system and fire alarm.
Fr Yuannis Anton from nearby village Qufada had helped Belhasa church get its licence in 1999, after it was converted from a simple village home.
Now drawing on his biblical heritage, he praised the generosity of the military, which covered the £270,000 cost of restoration.
‘We were very sad when the church was burned,’ he said. ‘But we held to what Jesus once said, “You do not realize what I am doing now, but later you will understand.”’
Village relations with Muslims were now much better than in the time of Morsi, teacher Malak Ishak said.
Bishop Biemen echoed this theme about the country as a whole.
Consecrated in 1961 and an engineer by background, the Bishop was chosen to coordinate the nationwide effort with the Army Corps of Engineers.
Priority was given to churches that were the only ones to serve a given area.
Consideration was also given to the security situation, with the army not being placed in situations where confrontation with still-angry pockets of Morsi supporters might occur.
Stage one involved ten locations and was originally scheduled to be completed by the anniversary of Morsi’s ouster, he said. But there were delays until the end of 2014.
Stage two incorporated the remaining 33 locations, ten of which were made a priority. But these few took all of 2015.
Reports circulated in the press about materials being dumped. Other reports cited local priests saying their burned churches had not been registered.
‘As the army procrastinated there was grumbling from Copts that the job was not getting done,’ said Ishak Ibrahim, Religious Liberty Officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
‘But since Sisi’s announcement there has been a renewed push on the part of the armed forces.’
Bishop Biemen agreed, but took the blame for the delays.
‘We have the responsibility to plan and redesign the churches, not the army,’ he said. ‘Before God and my conscience, we were working the whole time.’
Popular confusion came from two misunderstandings, he explained. The project only involved locations damaged during the three-day melée. And after supplying initial materials, the army then paid upon completion.
But since Christmas the final phase has begun in earnest. It even includes the church in Arish, in troubled northern Sinai where the army remains in conflict with an ISIS affiliate, he said.
In total the army will pay out £16.5 million on 65 locations including 52 churches and 21 additional religious buildings.
But though he said it had not been needed, Bishop Biemen is most encouraged by an apology that runs counter to much of Egyptian culture.
‘Many people view saying sorry as an act of weakness,’ he said. ‘That the President did so is a big deal, and shows us our country appreciates us and is worth defending.
‘As the Egyptian proverb says, “We have been patient, but then received everything we need.”’
Amr Saleh, a 33-year-old lecturer in Islam in English had never met a Christian until he moved to Cairo. He believed monasteries were places of torture and black magic.
Now the respected scholar who is based at al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s most prestigious seat of learning, enthusiastically studies liberation theology.
He also wants to transform the traditional approach to comparative religion.
Saleh’s change of heart was sparked by an unlikely friendship with a French priest. It prepared him for a groundbreaking decision by al-Azhar to allow its students to learn about Christianity in Rome.
‘We should understand people as they want to be understood,’ he told Lapido. ‘To teach Christianity you should start with Christians and learn from their perspective.’
Saleh was the first al-Azhar lecturer to go to Rome for the inaugural Summer School for Christian Sciences at Urbaniana Pontifical University.
Now, after five long years, full-fledged relations between the Vatican and al-Azhar are set to resume ‘very soon.’
Dr Kamal Boraiqa of al-Azhar’s Centre for Interfaith Dialogue (formed in February 2015) told Lapido new efforts are underway to rebuild ties between the leading institutions of the Christian and Muslim world.
He praised the groundbreaking educational partnership, which graduated the first ever Azhar scholar with a Vatican-certified diploma in Christianity.
Boraiqa described it as a step to ‘pave the way’ to restoring cooperation that had ground to a halt.
In 1998 Pope John Paul II and Grand Imam Mohamed Tantawi created the Joint Committee for Dialogue. In 2000 he became the first ever pontiff to visit al-Azhar.
But relations soured in 2006 when his successor, Pope Benedict, quoted a Byzantine emperor who criticized Islam.
And in January 2011 al-Azhar astounded the world by officially suspending dialogue following the Pope’s call for protection of Middle East Christians after the New Year’s Eve bombing of a church in Alexandria.
A thaw came in 2013 as Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb sent a message of congratulations to newly elected Pope Francis.
Six months later the pope sent a letter expressing his respect for Islam and a desire to build ‘mutual understanding.’
A further boost came in November 2014, when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the Vatican and agreed with the Pope to renew dialogue.
It has been mostly quiet since. Boraiqa met with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran of the Joint Committee at high level interfaith meetings in Jordan in 2015, and conveyed to Tayyeb his wish to resume dialogue.
‘It proves we don’t mind our sons studying at the Vatican,’ Boraiqa said. ‘It is a message that we trust you.’
Saleh was the only Egyptian in the group of three Turks and two Chinese in the inaugural class. He said academics were eager to build good relations.
Originally from Fayoum, 100 kilometers south of Cairo, Saleh first came to al-Azhar as a student.
Dominican priest Fr John Jacques Perenes, from France, who was director of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo (IDEO), stumbled upon him struggling through a book on Christianity, and their eventual friendship ‘completely altered’ his outlook.
Now he is the one altering others. Most of his students at al-Azhar are from Indonesia and Malaysia, and never even heard of the Vatican.
The month-long intensive Urbaniana programme includes courses in theology, Old and New Testament, ethics, and church history.
But it also provides students an opportunity to witness the darker side of interfaith relations.
In the northern city of Padua, the authorities passed a law requiring immigrant kebab shops to close earlier than other restaurants, Saleh said. In Rome, he visited a Bangladeshi mosque marked by stark poverty.
But it was his visit to the Jewish ghetto and the stories of Jewish eviction to death camps in Germany that left the strongest impression.
‘I was deeply moved. Look what we can do to each other,’ he said. ‘And this was only a hundred years ago.’
The programme director is one Fr Roberto Cherubini. He told Lapido the school is meant to create a network of relations in the non-Christian world.
‘Often their perceptions are not correct,’ he said. ‘It is important to help them get information from the source.’
Cherubini blamed the media, and described the school as an effort to help Christian minorities by helping the majority religion better understand the Catholic faith.
To do so he interacts with reputed academic institutions. Saleh’s participation had been secured via direct conversation with al-Azhar’s Grand Imam.
Cherubini has requested five Egyptian scholars for next year, with plans to draw also from India and Indonesia.
Boraiqa also blamed the media for misrepresenting Muslims. He has travelled in the West, describing first-hand experience of Muslim stereotyping as potential terrorists.
But in the UK his experiences were better, owing, he said, to its multiculturalism. Once a visiting scholar at Birmingham University, he now joins al-Azhar’s Centre for Interfaith Dialogue in official discussions with the Anglican Communion.
Al-Azhar hosted the Bishops of Bradford, Southampton, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s secretary of interreligious affairs, arranged through Archbishop Mouneer Hanna Anis of Egypt. Together they examined how religious texts could be used to justify violence.
‘Extremists take a verse out of context, and use it as a pretext,’ he said. ‘If you clarify issues for religious leaders, they will foster better understanding, promoting respect and cooperation.’
Anglican dialogue will with al-Azhar will resume in the UK in autumn 2016, mirroring a pattern that used to exist with the Vatican.
Meanwhile, all the signs for imminent resumption of relations with the Roman Catholic Church are there, aided by a joint effort to transcend religion with the most basic of human interactions.
‘We are warming the relations that have recently cooled,’ said Saleh. ‘What al-Azhar and the Vatican need is mutual friendship.’
STOP PRESS: We have just learned today that al-Azhar has approved a scholarship from Urbaniana for Amr Saleh to read for a PhD in Christianity and Comparative Religions.
The ruling family in the United Arab Emirates have transformed the country’s maternity facilities, thanks to a multi-million pound investment in Christian medical care.
Oasis Hospital in al-Ain, once just a mud-brick affair built at a date-palmed caravan crossing point before oil wealth modernized the area, will become the top childbirth facility in this former Trucial State.
Four members of the royal family inaugurated the new facility on 15 November this year, with hospital staff old and new.
‘This hospital may be better equipped and integrated than ninety per cent of the hospitals in the United States,’ said Dr Daryl Erickson, a missionary surgeon who served at Oasis from 1976-1985.
The expanded complex now includes 98 rooms over three floors and a state-of-the-art neo-natal intensive care unit. There are twelve delivery rooms – doubled from six – and more specialist staff.
Still present throughout the hospital are Arabic translations of the Gospel of Luke, the physician.
American missionary doctors Pat and Marian Kennedy founded the hospital in 1961, coming at the invitation of the nation’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
They scaled sand dunes by Land Rover in a rugged two-day trek to arrive at the desert oasis, tasked with developing modern medical care.
‘Before the hospital, thirty per cent of women died in childbirth and sixty per cent of children died before they were six years old,’ said Erickson, after whom the new surgical wing is named.
‘Immediately after delivery women had their vaginas packed with rock salt. As a result the post-partum period was incredibly painful and any subsequent labour could last up to four days because of severe scarring,’ he explained.
Among the Kennedys’ first births was Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, younger brother of Sheikh Khalid, President of the UAE.
Gertrude Dyke, author of the definitive history of Oasis Hospital, delivered babies for twenty-six years. She related to the National that Sheikh Mohamed told her, ‘If you had not come, we would not be here.’
From the beginning, Erickson said, the Kennedys were up front about their desire to share their Christian faith. The tolerance – even honour – afforded to them and the hospital by the royal family continues to this day.
‘The founding doctors came as missionaries, which was allowed and accepted by the rulers of that time,’ Oasis President Dr Trey Hulsey told Lapido.
‘Because we have kept to the spirit of treating everyone and turning no one away, we are allowed to keep Bibles out for people to take if they choose.’
Oasis is part of CURE, a network of Christian hospitals in thirty countries that has assisted more than 2.5 million patients, performed more than 180,000 surgeries, and trained over 7,200 medical professionals.
The hospital provides free care worth almost £1.8 million per year, mostly to migrant workers from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Equal dignity to the poor, said Hulsey, is integral to the CURE slogan: Healing the sick and proclaiming the kingdom of God.
But so too is top-notch professional service to wealthy Emiratis. The hospital has twenty VIP suites fitted out with floor cushions and carpet: Emiratis prefer to sit on the floor.
‘We want people to understand they are cared for, both by us and by God,’ said Hulsey, ‘because God has cared for us first through Christ.’
Oasis hospital employs sixty doctors, about half of whom are Muslim. One-quarter are Christians of traditional missionary spirit.
They deliver three thousand babies a year, but are in need of more staff. The hospital is operating at only two-thirds capacity following the expansion.
At the grand opening UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sheikh Saif bin Zayed especially honoured the Kennedys’ two daughters, Kathleen and Nancy, thanking them publicly for their parents’ service, the nature of which he said he highlighted to all his international visitors.
Saif also acknowledged their faith, saying whether Muslim, Christian, or Jew, everyone must follow God in their own way.
Christians represent 13 per cent of the UAE’s population, according to the Pew Research Center, drawn entirely from the migrant worker community.
The UAE constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of religion, and guarantees freedom of worship if consistent with public morals.
Open Doors ranks the UAE at number 49 on its list of countries showing degrees of Christian persecution. Though persecution is ‘scarce’, and there is wide freedom for non-Muslims to worship, evangelism is prohibited and the law does not recognize conversion from Islam to Christianity.
Preaching at the hospital had to cease in 1978, and the Christian bookstore was forced to close. In the 1980s, Bibles were banned from patient rooms.
But today they are available again, while the church adjacent to the hospital hosts a Bible Society of the Gulf kiosk.
Oasis Hospital recently delivered its one-hundred-thousandth baby, and certainly enjoys the favour of both citizens and government.
Coordination is now underway with a national charitable foundation to provide medical and surgical aid in Syria and Yemen.
Erickson muses: ‘I wonder if the UAE is as peaceful as it is today as a result of God’s blessing on the local people—citizens and leaders alike—because of their long-term interest in and tolerance of the Gospel.
‘I don’t know how you prove this, but just look at what the rest of the Middle East is like.’
Who downed Russian airline flight 9286 as it left tourist resort Sharm el-Sheikh in October, killing all 224 on board?
Russian officials have confirmed a bomb brought down the plane, while Whitehall has labelled shadowy leader of the new ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sinai – Abu Osama al-Masry – ‘a person of interest’ in on-going investigations. Egypt has yet to release details from their investigation.
‘Foreign tourists, workers, and troops in Egypt are at greater risk than ever’, wrote Zach Gold in Egypt Source.
‘Whether [WS] was responsible or made an opportunistic claim, the group’s willingness to even rhetorically target foreign interests in Egypt is another dangerous marker in a pattern of threats’, he added.
A former Azhar student and clothing importer Abu Osama al-Masry claimed responsibility on behalf of Wilayat Sinai. ‘They were shocked by a people who sought the hereafter, loved death, and had a thirst for blood’, he said.
‘We will inherit your soil, homes, wealth, and capture your women! This is Allah’s promise’.
‘Eloquent in quoting the Qur’an’: Abu Osama al-Masry, blurred in propaganda video. Photo: SITE Intel Group
Al-Masry, a nom-de-guerre indicating he is Egyptian, is said to have been born in northern Sinai but grew up in Sharqiya in the eastern Nile Delta.
The 42-year-old former student at the Muslim world’s most prestigious seat of learning, al-Azhar in Cairo, al-Masry is said to be ‘well versed in Islamic jurisprudence’ and ‘eloquent in quoting the Quran’.
Wilayat Sinai, meaning ‘the province of Sinai’, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on 10 November, 2014.
It was previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM), translated roughly as ‘Supporters of Jerusalem’ – implying the same apocalyptic zeal as IS.
Lapido Media nailed this affiliation a year ago – and the fact of the reluctance of the West to believe it amid the complexity of Egyptian culture and the prevalence of ‘conspiracy theories’.
On 5 November 2014, we wrote: ‘Ali expects the “Supporters of Jerusalem” – a home-grown terrorist outfit operating out of Sinai – to soon announce their allegiance to ISIS. Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, he said, was an associate of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi in the Islamic State of Iraq and believed to be killed by US forces in 2010.
‘But some evidence suggests he is still alive and operating out of the Sinai with the Supporters of Jerusalem,’ Ali said.
If the Russian airline attack is confirmed, it will not have been the first time Wilayat Sinai has targeted foreigners.
Strategy, however, is shifting from attacking tourism in Egypt as part of an economic war, to attacking tourists in retaliation for their nation’s policies.
In February 2014 the group killed two South Koreans and an Egyptian driver in a bus traveling from St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai.
They also claimed responsibility for the hideous executions of American oil worker William Henderson in August 2014, and the Croatian Tomislav Salopek in August 2015.
Wilayat Sinai’s fighting force is estimated between a low of one to two thousand militants, and as high as five to twelve thousand.
The sparse population of North Sinai is approximately 435,000, or forty per square mile.
Unlike the Islamic State, WS’s composition is mostly local, consisting of veteran jihadists, disaffected Bedouin, and disillusioned youth. Some foreign fighters come from Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and WS have issued a call for more.
Egypt has accused Turkey of providing support for Wilayat Sinai, posting names and pictures of alleged operatives they have captured.
Wilayat Sinai also benefits from members who previously served in the Egyptian military, before defecting or being expelled.
Walid Badr, a former major in the army, was the suicide bomber in the September 2013 assassination attempt on the interior minister. One month later former officers Emad Abdel Halim and Hisham Ashmawi led an assault on a checkpoint in Sinai killing 31 people.
WS, under its original guise of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was formed sometime in 2011 in response to the Egyptian revolution of 25 January.
Egyptian security says ABM breathed new life into existing bands of militants such as al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, which had conducted operations against tourism hotels in Sinai in 2004, 2005, and 2006.
After formally merging, ABM originally targeted Israel, launching a few cross-border attacks and several acts of sabotage against the Egypt-Israeli gas pipeline.
President Mohamed Morsi authorised military action against ABM after it killed 16 border guards in August 2012. But he is also understood to have preferred negotiation and tried to limit their influence through dialogue with other Sinai parties.
After Morsi’s removal from office on 3 July, 2013, ABM shifted focus and deliberately targeted Egyptian security forces.
Abu Osama al-Masry deemed Morsi an apostate and equated democracy with atheism – a typical militant Islamist trope.
But ABM sought to take advantage of the military-versus-Muslim Brotherhood conflict to paint itself as the defender of Muslims.
A leaked Egyptian security document from February 2015 accused the Muslim Brotherhood of working with Al-Qa’eda to send three thousand fighters to the Sinai.
Morsi, like the transitional military council before him, released jihadis from prison.
But an Egyptian researcher says that while he permitted militants a degree of operation, he did not nurture them as a ‘last resort’ to protect his office.
In addition to the acts of terrorism listed above, ABM has been a leading force in a long list of attacks in Sinai and the Egyptian mainland.
The small Christian population of roughly 650 families in the Sinai have also suffered at their hands. Many have relocated, though local Muslims have promised to protect them.
Four hundred attacks killing seven hundred soldiers: Wilayat Sinai. Photo: SITE Intel Group
Targeting Christians is only one of the ways Wilayat Sinai is imitating the Islamic State.
Mixing terror and piety, they have beheaded opponents and moved against drug trafficking. They have appealed to the sympathy of Bedouin tribes and distributed money to those whose homes have been destroyed in the conflict.
But Wilayat Sinai has so far failed to reproduce the primary marker of the Islamic State – territorial acquisition. They hide out in the desert, mix with the people, plant roadside bombs, and adopt guerilla tactics, but have failed to claim and hold land.
It has not been for want of trying.
Wilayat Sinai has led over four hundred attacks on security forces between 2012 and 2015, killing an estimated seven hundred soldiers.
On 1 July, 2015 militants led a full-day assault on the city of Sheikh Zuweid, following multiple coordinated attacks on surrounding checkpoints. The effort failed when the military employed F-16s in the city’s defense.
Reporting on Sinai is difficult as the government has criminalised publication of information that contradicts official statements.
One month ago on 22 October, an army spokesman declared ‘full control’ over the Sinai, but terror attacks continue.
An anonymous officer said failings stemmed from unfamiliar terrain and a scorched-earth policy that alienated the population. There are alsoconflictingreports as to whether local tribes are joining the fight or just watching idly by.
But an anonymous militant admitted the military have severely restricted their operations, and the closing of tunnels on the Gaza border has dried up the weapon supply.
Human Rights Watch has criticised the government over the creation of a buffer zone meant to destroy the network of tunnels long exploited by traffickers and terrorists alike. Between July 2013 and August 2015 HRW reported the destruction of at least 3,255 homes and properties.
Israel claims that Hamas is aiding Wilayat Sinai, though leaders deny any connection to this ‘black extremism’.
But on Egypt’s Western border the Islamic State has been more successful in setting up a franchise. They call Libya ‘the strategic gateway’, noting its proximity to Egypt, Tunisia, African nations of the Sahel, and Europe.
In spring 2014 Libyans in Syria returned to Derna near Benghazi and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Fledgling states have been created for each of Libya’s three traditional regions: Cyrenaica, Tripoli, and the Fezzan.
This has sparked terrorist activity in Egypt’s Western Desert as well. In July 2014 ABM claimed responsibility for an attack in Farafra that killed 22 soldiers. Last month in pursuit of terrorist targets, the military accidentally killed eight Mexican tourists in the Bahariya oasis.
The terrorism network in Egypt is fluid. Abu Osama al-Masry indicated his support for the Islamic State as early as 30 June, 2014, praying for them to conquer Baghdad. By September reports of co-operation and training emerged.
But by November the eventual pledge of allegiance was disputed, with veterans said to support Al-Qa’eda, yet with the youth vote winning out.
Since then splinter groups have formed, though there is no evidence of direct conflict. Jihadi Ribat was created in December 2014, eschewing support for Islamic State claims to the caliphate. The aforementioned former military officer Ashmawi split with others in July 2015 to formal-Murabitoon.
Ajnad Misr declared its intention to focus on attacks against security personnel in Cairo, in January 2014. It has been implicated in over 25 attacks, but focuses on Egypt rather than a global cause.
There even appears to be diversity within the Islamic State network. Recent attacks on the Italian Consulate in Cairo and on a security directorate in Shubra el-Kheima were claimed by Islamic State in Egypt, not Wilayat Sinai.
The Egyptian government claims progress in the fight against terrorism, and last week killed Ashraf el-Gharably, reportedly a top commander in Wilayat Sinai. The UK has offered the support of special forces to help kill or capture Abu Osama al-Masry.
The British government declared Wilayat Sinai, then ABM, a terrorist entity in April 2014.
‘Egypt deserves support, not punishment,’ Anglican Bishop of Egypt Mouneer Hanna Anis told Lapido Media, critical of Russian and British decisions to restrict air travel to Egypt estimated to cost the nation nearly £185 million per month.
‘My prayer is to see the international community working together to fight terrorism.’
The Israeli government appears to be shunning a Palestinian peace studies course – even as a third intifada escalates.
The Arab world’s first Master’s degree in Peace Studies – developed by a Bethlehem college – is getting the brush-off from a government whose commitment to peace is already being questioned from within the Jewish world.*
Bethlehem Bible College (BBC) aims to train Muslim, Christian, and Jewish peacemakers to build bridges instead of walls.
But 24-year-old ‘William’, a Canadian, and one of five international students in the inaugural class, cannot obtain a student visa.
Instead he must come and go every three months as a tourist. Afraid of deportation, he shields his identity online and makes no mention of his studies to the authorities.
‘My fear is maybe they would become aware of what I’m doing and reject any subsequent tourist visas,’ William, using a pseudonym, told Lapido.
‘It has been a step of faith, but I figured I would just take the risk and do it.’
BBC was established in 1979 to offer theological education to Palestinian Christian leaders. William is motivated to help Christians in the West shift away from theological positions that are biased towards Israel.
Accredited by the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education, BBC has a long history of opposition to the Israeli occupation. It was founded by Bishara Awad, brother of Mubarak Awad, who in 1983 created the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence.
Often called the Gandhi of Palestine, Awad was deported by Israel in 1988. He returned to teach the first MA module, but like William and the team of international professors, he also had to come as a tourist.
According to the 2012 European Commission report, Higher Education in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, international students are able to enrol in Palestinian universities.
In practice, however, it is ‘very rare’ due to the difficulty of obtaining Israeli permission to enter the country.
William was advised by the BBC not even to try. But this has not stopped him from full immersion in Palestinian society, gaining a first-hand education that peace studies students in other universities can only read about.
On 5 October he witnessed an angry crowd of hundreds passing by campus. They chanted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and threw stones at security after 13-year-old Abdel Rahman Abdullah was shot in the chest by Israeli security.
He describes witnessing the agony of Abdullah’s brother [pictured above in blue hat]. ‘It was heart wrenching,’ he says.
‘He was weeping and flailing, his anguish was so horrible to see. I’m tearing up just thinking about it right now.’
For Nayef Hashlamoun, a veteran Muslim activist from Hebron and one of two Muslim students in the programme, witnessing such anguish has become commonplace.
‘My life is for my homeland, but I cannot kill,’ he said. ‘I choose the way of nonviolence, I choose instead to carry a camera.’
Hashlamoun worked for twenty years with Reuters as a photojournalist, and founded the Watan conflict resolution centre in 1985.
He has pursued peace studies at American University and the School for International Training in Vermont, but events in Palestine always brought him back.
Over time he became friends with the Awads, who invited him to BBC. Mubarak Awad went on to found Nonviolence International, which has translated much of the literature on peace studies into Arabic.
‘They are Christians and I am Muslim, but I will be proud to have a degree from BBC as our relations are as brothers,’ he said. ‘And now I can pursue my education at home.’
The three-semester MA is taught in English and requires 39 credit hours, including a practicum or thesis.
It features distinguished professors from around the world including Nancy Erbe, Fulbright Specialist in Peace and Conflict Resolution, Mohamed Abu Nimer, Director of the Peacebuilding and Development Institute at American University, and Edward Kaufman, formerly of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University.
Jews are welcome at the centre, but none has so far enrolled. Two of the twelve students identify as nonreligious, and four local Palestinians are auditing.
Jonathan Kuttab, chairman of the BBC board and a human rights lawyer in Israel and Palestine, hopes officials from Fatah and Hamas will also join.
‘Nonviolence is far more effective than violence, which certainly has not helped us in working for our rights,’ he told Lapido. ‘For me, this is an easy sell.’
In the current context Kuttab is critical of Benjamin Netanyahu for provoking violence from Palestinians. But he also criticises Mahmoud Abbas for policing his own people on Israel’s behalf at the expense of nonviolent resistance.
‘There is a lot of acceptance of nonviolence in the Palestinian community,’ he said, ‘but the Palestinian Authority has been so weak in pursuing our rights that it has given peace a bad name.’
Education is limited in its direct impact, said Kuttab. But he is hopeful that beyond increased international attention in peace studies circles, the programme will deepen local commitment to nonviolence through strong engagement with the academic literature.
‘We have to revive what real peace and real nonviolence mean,’ he said.
‘Bethlehem is the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, where else should we have this programme?’
No spokesman was available from the Israeli government as this story went to press.
*War Against the People: Israel, The Palestinians and Global Pacification by Jeff Halper, published by Pluto Press. 2015.
If the Islamic State is uprooting civilization, one response is to plant a tree.
At Palmyra in Syria, religious fanatics took an axe to the witness of generations past.
At Ismailia in Egypt, religious leaders take a shovel to secure a witness for generations future.
And by the banks of the Suez Canal, Egypt’s recently expanded national project, imams and priests both learn and demonstrate a lesson that transcends religion.
‘We want to open their eyes to see how great their country is,’ said Saleem Wassef, ‘not in terms of their Muslim or Christian heritage, but for all of us as citizens.’
Wassef is the coordinator of the ‘Imam-Priest Exchange’, a three year project run by the Egyptian Family House. Each year 35 pairs of Muslim and Christian leaders are brought together in friendship, trained to cooperate in practical expressions of national unity.
The ‘Exchange’ is supported strongly by Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church. Supervised by the head of the Islamic Research Council, Sheikh Muhi al-Din al-Afifi, and a leading figure in the Orthodox Church, Fr. Butros Bastorous, it urges participants to dialogue.
The Family House was created in partnership by the Azhar and Egypt’s Christian denominations shortly after the 2011 revolution, in an effort to preserve good religious relations.
Despite much trauma locally, as the whole region exploded in religious violence, Egypt stayed relatively stable.
Last month, to great celebration, Egypt opened a new waterway in the Suez Canal to permit two-way traffic, decreasing travel time and potentially doubling revenue. Funded entirely by the local investments of businessmen and farmers, Muslims and Christians, it was a moment of pride after four trying years.
On 1 September the Imam-Priest Exchange followed behind to consecrate the effort.
At the oldest church in Ismailia the imams planted three olive trees. Then at the Young Men’s Muslim Association, priests did the same.
‘It is necessary to bring our people together,’ said Wassef. ‘Planting a tree means love and prosperity, and is sign for the future that you are working for the coming generations.’
In a previous generation under then-President Mubarak, Egypt would often make a great show of national unity. Religious leaders would come together at major events and exchange what became locally known as ‘hugs and kisses’.
But many felt they were only patching over religious tensions. ‘Hugs and kisses’ would often follow an episode of violence.
So the Family House mandate is to diffuse tension and preempt violence in practical projects of great symbolism. Branches have been created in Alexandria, Asyut, and other major cities throughout the country. One of the most active is in Ismailia.
‘The Grand Imam of al-Azhar [Ahmed al-Tayyib] wants us to move from closed meetings out to the streets and the people, walking among them,’ said Sheikh Abdel Rahman Mahmoud, a leading figure in the local branch.
‘When they see so many imams and priests walking together they are amazed; they have not seen this in Egypt or elsewhere.’
Hundreds attended their public lecture. Dozens came up to them on the street, took pictures, and asked how they could participate.
Mahmoud and Fr. Surial Aziz coordinate with other imams and priests to visit up to four local schools a week, demonstrating religious unity. They are even working to open sub-branches in two of Ismailia’s larger neighborhoods.
Ismailia is a success story of the Family House vision, but for Wassef in the Imam-Priest Exchange, the visit is only one step of the process. The next day he took them to a drug rehabilitation center.
A patient gives his testimony of recovery. The director lectured on the spiritual role in healing. Wassef wants each participant to return home, find his religious opposite, and together meet the needs of their shared community.
And the Suez Canal is a reminder.
‘If imams and priests visit our national projects it will inspire their role in society as religious leaders in promoting citizenship,’ Wassef said.
‘They go back to their cities and villages and tell the story of pride in their country. Egypt is serving not only its own people, but the whole world.’
If religious unity holds in Egypt as Iraq and Syria burn, they just might.
Thousands are in jail for breaking the protest law. Revolutionary hope takes a backseat to stability and security.
Yet, despite the crackdown on opposition politics, an unlikely source of protest is taking back the streets.
‘Even now, I am calling for the revolution to continue and the rejection of dictatorial paths,’ Fr William Sidhom told Lapido. ‘But I have no weapons except my words.’
The motivation is liberation theology. The medium is street theatre.
The 68-year-old Jesuit is one of the few Egyptian Christians influenced by the Latin American movement. He has written fourteen books, five on the subject.
In the 1960s and 1970s, activist Catholics pushed the church not just to care for the poor, but to liberate them from political and economic structures that held them in place.
Pope Francis has warmed to this heritage, designating the murdered Salvadorian bishop Oscar Romero a saint. But in Egypt, Sidhom said, the church is afraid.
‘There is no faith without justice,’ he said, ‘but the understanding in the Arab world is to stay far away from politics or you will go to prison.’
So instead, Sidhom, the self-proclaimed Christian Marxist, has surrounded himself with Muslim activists.
From 2011 onward they were at the forefront of the Egyptian revolution. Youssef Ramez, the youthful Coptic general-coordinator of Sidhom’s Nahda Association, said the NGO was a centre for much of the early artistic graffiti in and around Tahrir.
Nahda is located in the working-class neighborhood of Faggala, only a thirty-minute walk from the iconic square. For the past fourteen years Sidhom has sponsored acting, painting, music and literacy for residents and artisans alike.
In 2005 he partnered with Mostafa Wafi’s ‘Popular Imagination’ street theatre troupe, placing the Muslim leftist and human rights activist in charge of art and cultural activity.
In 2012 they created the Nahda Art School, whose acronym deliberately forms the Arabic word for ‘people’.
Saturday before sunset prayers, the people hit the street.
‘What are their demands?’ asked an intrigued resident playfully as the group of twenty moved from the centre to an open sidewalk in front of the local chemist.
With five Sudanese refugees at the head of the procession, the students chanted an African tune before launching into a fifteen-minute sketch.
Then they marched back to the centre, again in song. Several peered from their balconies. Traffic along the narrow side street came to a halt.
‘This is new,’ laughed a driver as his four-year-old daughter gaped from the passenger seat on her mother’s lap. ‘We haven’t seen this in Egypt before, but it is good.’
The Nahda effort to share culture with local residents is rare but not quite unique. ‘Our Street Cinema’, funded partially by the British Council, shows current and vintage films in the streets of Salam district in Cairo.
‘Mahatat for Contemporary Art’ stages opera presentations in residential balconies in the Delta cities of Port Said, Damietta and Mansoura.
But ‘Art is a Square’ grew too popular—and perhaps too provocative—for its own good. Despite receiving on-and-off funding from the Ministry of Culture, security forces shut down its monthly offerings of art and music.
The Nahda sketch had an ‘indirect’ political message, said Italian-trained acting coach Hamdy el-Tounsy.
His students designed content under his supervision, consisting of several short scenes from everyday life. Issues included racism, sexual harassment and drug use. But nestled in was also a reference to an opposition newspaper, doubling as a pun about absent human dignity.
‘There are many messages that can be received,’ said Tounsy, ‘but it is up to each person what impacts him.’
Wafi’s ‘Popular Imagination’ troupe has produced street theatre performances about public space, freedom for women, and emigration. But it was The Colours’ Revolution that carried a direct political message.
‘Dictatorship destroys diversity,’ he told Lapido. But Wafi’s greater concern is ‘daily politics’, the kind that organizes neighborhoods and clears garbage from the streets.
Last year, as Islamist protests were squashed under President Sisi, Colours was performed over 150 times throughout Egypt.
Each performance is cleared first with local neighborhood leaders—café and chemist owners in the most recent example. Should the police show concern they assure all is OK.
Even so, Wafi considered and then declined a revision of Colours. ‘The atmosphere is not right,’ he said. Currently in production is a play about water pollution.
Wafi considers himself a non-practicing Muslim, but is positive about Sidhom’s liberation theology. Copts’ strong attachment to the church, he believes, hurts the concept of citizenship. But Christians in Sidhom’s circles are driven to help the poor and marginalized.
The sponsorship of the church also gives cover to Nahda’s work, he said. Independent activists have much less space to operate.
Catholic Church spokesman Fr. Rafic Greiche said that Egyptian church hierarchy distances itself from liberation theology because of Latin American associations with communism and violence.
Ramez said that apart from Christian activists, almost no Copts have even heard of it.
But for Sidhom, the believer must ‘defend justice, build society, and secure the interests of the poor’. There are many methods, some revolutionary.
His path is development through the sharing of culture.
‘Revolution is not to change ten officers with ten others, but to change society,’ he said. ‘This requires great patience.
‘So rather than people going to the theatre, we take the theatre to the people.’
THE social contract . . . limits on power . . . liberty of conscience . . . doctrine of toleration . . . human rights . . . Each is under attack around the world and Lord David Alton wants the government to do something about it.
The Independent Crossbench Peer has tabled a debate in the House of Lords this Thursday (16 July) to focus on the issue that underpins them all: religious freedom.
Alton has framed the debate to focus on the ‘clear links’ between freedom of conscience and both the prosperity of a nation and the litany of other rights its citizens enjoy.
It will also discuss ‘greater political and diplomatic priority’ in support of Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guaranteeing freedom of thought and religion.
One debate participant is Lord Jonathan Sacks, former UK Chief Rabbi. Addressing a UK-Israel policy conference in late June he noted that ‘wars are won by weapons, but peace is won by ideas.’
And each of the above principles which shape the modern world, he said, ‘began life as religious ideas.’
Within the UK the debate over secularism may question the value of this assertion. But it is undeniable that international religious freedom has received greater attention across the political and social spectrum.
Richard Honess is a board member of Atheists Alliance International and the international liaison officer for Atheism UK. Dr David Landrum is the director of advocacy for the Evangelical Alliance.
Unlikely bed-fellows, both have spoken forcefully in support of religious minorities around the world.
‘The right to religious freedom is essential,’ Honess told Lapido. ‘All we ask is in return that atheists also have that same right, the right not to believe.’
Honess finds the UK guilty of privileging Christianity and believes the foundation of freedoms to be personal liberty under the law—not faith. He looks at Africa and the Islamic world and finds witch hunts against homosexuals and the lashing of dissidents in the name of religion.
‘The Atheist Alliance International will continue to lobby the EU and the UN,’ he said, ‘but this has to stop and I fear that we are long way from that.’
Landrum, on the other hand, released a report to Parliament detailing how UK Christians’ freedoms are ‘restricted’. But he sees religious liberty as receiving a far higher profile than it used to, driven by horrors witnessed in the Middle East.
‘We need to educate society about the value of religious freedom for all freedoms,’ he told Lapido, ‘and keep our politicians focused on persecuted minorities abroad.’
A growing and influential segment of these politicians sees this as their key mission. The All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief was formed in 2012, and is co-chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Berridge.
In addition to a host of Christian organisations, it is supported also by the British Humanist Association and Sikh, Bahai, and Ahmadiya Muslim groups.
‘The level of awareness and involvement among MPs on issues of international freedom of religion was higher in the last parliament than at any point in the past twenty years, and there is every evidence that this is just as true now,’ said Stephen Rand, advocacy consultant for Open Doors and web editor for the APPG.
The election manifestos of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, DUP, and Green parties all included language supporting religious freedom abroad.
‘But it is too early in the life of this government to judge whether the rhetoric will become reality,’ Rand added.
One sign of the rhetoric is the recent honour given to Coptic Orthodox Bishop Angaelos, appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen for his services to international religious freedom.
‘Greater acknowledgment of this issue,’ Angaelos told Lapido, ‘is fitting within the UK’s understanding of what it means to safeguard human rights.’
It was ‘imperative’, he added, for both individuals and nations to protect them.
There are signs the UK government is getting the message.
According to the Pew Research Center, 76 per cent of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religion.
The 2011 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report on Human Rights and Democracy found that religious freedom was ‘crucial to ensuring conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding.’ It has since been updated to include ‘countries of particular concern’, numbering 27 in the most recent edition.
Put negatively, the June 2015 volume of the Harvard International Law Journal noted ‘nations that criminalise blasphemy tend to foster an environment where terrorism is more prevalent, legitimised, and insidious.’
The FCO report insists it is ‘important’ to secure religious freedom as part of the government’s ‘wider security agenda’.
The report was quoted in ‘Article 18: An Orphaned Right’, prepared by the APPG in 2013. It will form the basis of the coming House of Lords debate.
It also contains ten recommendations to the government on how to ‘mainstream’ a religious freedom approach into foreign policy.
One year later Baroness Warsi chaired the first meeting for the Foreign OfficeAdvisory Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, fulfilling recommendation three.
An additional three have been positively acted upon, with evidence suggesting all have been considered.
But is advice enough? Do reports translate into policy?
Lord Alton continues to push the debate. His own view is clear: ‘Countries have to make the cause of those who suffer for their religion or belief the great cause of our times,’ he wrote in GIS.
‘Christians, Jews and Muslims privileged to live in free societies have to challenge cold indifference and speak up and defend humanity.’
Multiple assassinations and repeated threats fail to make Egypt’s judges buckle.
The hammer of terrorism meets the rock of faith, with Muslim and Christian alike proclaiming a reality of inner peace.
‘What is the worst that can happen?’ Judge Adel Maged, vice-president of the Court of Cassation, the highest judicial court in Egypt, asks. ‘If they kill us, we become martyrs in our holy mission to dispense justice.’
Western media is full of explosive images of ISIS and others seeking death for the sake of Islam. Maged calls it ‘distorted’, seeking political gain.
Quietly, Egypt’s judges paint a different picture as the fight comes to them.
Bombs have been planted outside the homes of several. In mid-May bullets riddled the car of three judges travelling to their courthouse in the Sinai.
Six weeks later the Islamic State published agonising video of the atrocity. Hours afterwards a remotely detonated bomb killed Egypt’s public prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, on his way to work.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the outrage on 29 June, and investigations are ongoing.
‘It is wrong for the tyrants to jail our brothers,’ Islamic State’s affiliate in Sinai said in a statement, referring to the judges in an audio message translated by Reuters one month earlier. ‘Poison their food . . . surveil them at home and in the street . . . destroy their homes with explosives if you can.’
But it is not just hardline extremists threatening judges. Lapido Media previously detailed Muslim Brotherhood endorsement of a document calling for ‘retribution’.
At issue is the death sentence issued to former president Mohamed Morsi and several hundred of his supporters. Thousands of others languish in prison.
The 52-year-old Maged thinks it is ‘ironic’ that such groups, like himself, see death as martyrdom. But while God will judge between them, he says, it will not deter him from his religious duty with the law.
‘The Quran says, “Do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just,”’ said Maged, a founding member of the research group Islam, Law and Modernity at Durham University, UK, where he is an honorary professor.
‘These threats will never stop us from treating all parties fairly and impartially, regardless of their social, political, or religious affiliation.’
Despite the threats against the judiciary, Maged’s daughter is following in his footsteps, studying law in Cairo. His eight-year-old son is undergoing British schooling. His family is nervous, and his wife is praying for the circles of violence to cease in all Arab countries.
Those under the direct target of terrorists should be given more security, Maged said. But the killing of random judges in the Sinai show that all are vulnerable.
But though he has taken ‘extra precautions’ at home in his upscale suburb in Cairo, Maged is undaunted. ‘We are used to working with all sorts of criminals,’ he said. ‘These incidents will never make us afraid, as God is our protector.’
Meanwhile, on his way to work Judge Amir Ramzy lazily gazes at the water buffalo browsing in green fields alongside the agricultural canals.
It is a strange serenity for someone whose name is on a death list.
Ramzy is among those directly targeted, his name found on a list on a terrorist captured in January 2014. Even then he declined an offer of extra security.
It is no different now.
‘I believe in God and everything is in his hand,’ the president judge of the criminal court in Benha told Lapido. ‘But I will die when it is written, no one can add a single day to his life,’ referencing the Biblical wisdom.
Ramzy’s driver navigates narrow roads and frequent speed humps during the 55-kilometer-trek north of Cairo through the Nile Delta.
His courthouse is fitted out with extra security, much of which he can bypass due to his position.
At the door to his chambers two policemen stand guard.
Cameras should be installed at every entrance, he says, but there are simply too many judges to guard on a personal basis. And so he commutes, alone.
Ramzy counts 7,000 judges and 6,000 prosecutors in Egypt. Ninety per cent, he believes, are as religious as he is.
‘All of us know very well that we are targets for these murderers,’ said the 41-year-old father of two, a boy of 14 and girl of 11.
‘My family is afraid, but we are Christians and we pray every morning, putting our lives in God’s hands.’
But religious or not, fear is natural. Remaining anonymous, some judges express it.
‘I am concerned about going to work,’ one judge told Egypt Source after the public prosecutor was killed, adding that other colleagues were concerned for their safety.
‘We feel a lot of pressure now,’ he continued. ‘If they can get to him, they can get to anyone.’
Perhaps. But for Maged, he and his fellow judges have a sacred duty.
‘Ours is a practice of the Prophet that must be performed,’ he said. ‘We are going about our normal lives.’
Both images are from the web. Copyright applied for.
More than 150 top university students from seventeen countries competed to design practical apps to innovate solutions for social problems, during a three-day marathon.
An app called Guide Me won the Audience Choice Award, aiming to inform migrants of their rights in law. It also monitors abuse.
26-year-old Mona Demaidi, a mentor from Palestine and a lead programmer for the app is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester in the UK. ‘Our region needs transparency,’ she told Lapido Media. ‘This project will give data and facts, as we don’t have access to information. And here, it will change lives.’
With a team of eight students she helped create a system to log calls to a central database from a free helpline to record and track complaints about abuse.
All audio, it will operate in twelve different languages, providing labour law and feedback options for anonymous or on-the-record complaints.
Information is also available on a website, to be accessed from a kiosk at every labour camp.
‘We’re not coming from the West dictating what the problem is and what the solution should be,’ said Sana Odeh, the NYU professor and organizing force. ‘These must come from the students. The power of a hackathon is to unleash students’ skills and connect them to the world.’
And though the younger generation is different, there is a significant gap to overcome.
‘We always want to hide our problems, we don’t want to talk about them,’ Demaidi said. ‘But the information collected will be good for the workers, good for the companies, and good for the government.’
According to the Pew Research Center, the Arabian Gulf is home to fifteen million migrant workers, the majority from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
In the UAE they make up 84 per cent of the population, the highest rate in the world. Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain follow next on the list.
One link between these workers, the Hackathon, and the government is Anglican priest Revd Andrew Thompson of St Andrew’s Church, Abu Dhabi.
‘The nation has good laws,’ the British vicar who has served in the region for the past 27 years, told Lapido. ‘We just want to assist the government in letting the workers know what they are.’
UAE labour law demands payment of a salary every month. Employers must provide health care, vacation, and sick leave, within a working week of 48 hours. Passports may not be confiscated.
Unfortunately, each of these provisions is regularly violated.
Given the vast expanse of labour camps, oversight is difficult, Thompson told the UAE-based National. And companies that encounter problems simply shut up shop and open elsewhere.
But ignorance and illiteracy keep many migrants from knowing their rights in the first place.
St Andrew’s Church compound is part of the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. Thompson hosts and oversees an international community of more than ten thousand weekly worshippers, in 45 congregations with 17 language groups.
Thanks to those like Thompson and his teams of volunteers, they now have the law translated into twelve different languages.
A leading American academic has denounced the latest Muslim declaration against elected Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a call for ‘religious violence’.
Samuel Tadros of Hudson Institute in Washington DC told Lapido that ‘Egypt Call’, a 13-point document published last week by 159 Muslim scholars from 35 nations, and endorsed by the Brotherhood, provided ‘Islamic justification’ for the fight against Sisi.
‘This document is as direct a call for violence as you may ever get,’ Tadros said. ‘This is a religious verdict on the regime as unbelievers.’
As President Sisi visited Germany and secured an eight-billion-Euro energy deal, two policemen were shot dead near the Giza pyramids.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood sponsored protests in Berlin. ‘Tell Merkel to stand up for democracy and human rights in Egypt,’ tweeted Ikhwanweb, their official English account.
Both activities find justification in the new document which reinforces already grave questions about whether the Muslim Brotherhood is behind violence in Egypt.
The text of Egypt Call declares, ‘It is a religious obligation to resist the regime, working to finish it off through all legitimate means.’
Points 11 and 12 recognize the international struggle, condemning nations that have stood with Sisi, while praising governments, politicians, human rights organizations, and others who have criticized him. Point 13 specifically mentions civil disobedience.
But point 4 makes it personal. Mentioning specifically rulers, judges, policemen, soldiers, muftis, media, and politicians, it says: ‘Retribution against them is necessary.’
The sharia views them as killers, it says, and they deserve the judgment of those who kill. But the text also insists – without specificity – that this must be according to legitimate methods.
So: What is legitimate?
Jihad as a concept can be viewed along a spectrum from the struggle to submit to God, to the fight to submit the world to him.
The Brotherhood has long perfected the art of ambiguity. In January, it called on followers to prepare for a ‘relentless jihad.’
It has issued statements that condemn ongoing violence, but also praised previous Brotherhood militancy.
For Tadros, the ambiguity is now gone.
He sees in Egypt Call the concept of ‘loyalty and disavowal’, often interpreted in the modern world by jihadis as the rejection of all who do not fit their definitions of sharia.
The doctrine requires viewing those disavowed as non-Muslims, or unbelievers.
Tadros recognizes, however, that the word ‘unbeliever’ is not found in Egypt Call. Rather, in detailing how the Sisi regime has fought against Islam, allied with enemy Zionism, and killed and imprisoned thousands of innocents, it lets readers make this judgment for themselves.
Over 500,000 have indicated their support on the official website.
According to Joas Wagemakers, a prolific writer on political Islam and lecturer at Radboud University in the Netherlands, ‘loyalty and disavowal’ has some Quranic inference.
But it was developed by the early Kharijite movement that rebelled against the caliphate.
Wagemakers, in his chapter in editor Roel Maijer’s Global Salafism, says Sunni Islam rejected the concept until ibn Taymiyya resurrected it in the fourteenth century. Modern-day extremists use it to justify rebellion against a Muslim ruler.
Point 2 of Egypt Call references one of the principle Quranic verses underpinning the doctrine.
But it does not specifically use the terminology, nor label the regime as non-Muslim.
Tadros attributes this to internal philosophical disputes on technical points about legitimate rebellion. But these religious scholars, he says, do not see themselves as offering points on strategy.
According to the research of Michael Cook, a professor at Princeton University and author of Forbidding Wrong in Islam, majority scholarly Sunni opinion is against the idea of opposing even an oppressive ruler.
Most say it will result in more harm than good, even if legitimate.
But the heritage of sharia includes voices which advocate a quiet rebuke, and others who advocate outright militancy. Where does the Brotherhood fall?
Some ask whether retribution is to come from formal judicial tribunals after they restore Morsi. A recent report from the semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights said 1,250 Muslim Brotherhood members had been killed in the eighteen months after Morsi’s overthrow.
Others question whether they have advocated the kind of assassinations seen at Giza. The same report said seven hundred security forces had been killed during the same time period.
Egypt Call does not provide details, but a brief look at the signatories offers perspective. Tadros has identified several of them from previous research he did into Egyptian Islamism.
While in Germany the Brotherhood tweeted about democracy and human rights, one of the signatories Said Abdel Azeem, an Egyptian Salafi leader denounced democracy on YouTube as ‘an idol that people worship apart from God,’ and said that it permits all sorts of excess in personal freedoms. The film has received more than 28,000 views.
Azeem has taken a stand against jihadis who kill Muslims they deem apostates, but another signatory, Atiya Adlan, adheres to the Sorouri strand of Salafism that adopts the concept of ‘loyalty and disavowal’, declaring the ruler who does not govern by sharia to be an unbeliever.
And signatory Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, a pro-Brotherhood Salafi leader, has previously hailed the jihad of Osama bin Laden.
More acutely applicable to the Egyptian struggle, he called for the killing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and praised the vengeance taken against Egyptian police.
Though not a signatory, Wagdy Ghoneim spoke at the press conference in Turkey that introduced Egypt Call.
‘The military regime headed by the infidel and apostate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is fighting Islam and religion,’ he said. ‘He led a coup against Morsi because Morsi desired to bring back the Islamic caliphate.’
Ghoneim has called for the killing of pro-Sisi journalists. When the Islamic State beheaded Copts in Libya, whom he called ‘Crusaders’, Ghoneim had no condemnation but launched a diatribe against the Coptic Church.
At a popular level, the official Facebook page of the Brotherhood’s political party in Maadi, Cairo, shared video of ‘revolutionaries’ firebombing an empty train.
None of this is proof that the Brotherhood is behind the violence in Egypt. But it chips further away at the veneer of ambiguity, even as they cling to it.
The editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website did not respond to a request for clarification.
Imagine David Cameron in Norfolk, about to speak on ‘British values’. He then invites forward a Muslim Brotherhood leader, and asks him to explain Islam.
And in the Zippo’s Circus-like atmosphere, the audience leaves pleased.
Transfer the scene to the Sultanate of Oman, and witness an American Christian pastor make clear the gospel in the austere heartland of Ibadi Islam.
Now picture a tolerance that predates Britain’s embrace of multiculturalism—on the border of Saudi Arabia.
The analogy is not perfect. Sultan Qaboos bin Said is an absolute monarch, ruling since 1970. Proselytisation is forbidden in any direction.
But the Shiva Temple in the capital of Muscat has served the Hindu community for over 200 years. Since the early 1900s the government has given land to build churches.
Saudi Arabia’s chief cleric has repeatedly called for all non-Muslim houses of worship in the Arabian Peninsula to be destroyed in accordance with sharia law.
Clearly, Oman does not share Wahhabi convictions. There appears a similarity in strict practice, but not in the approach to others. The Ibadi branch of Islam is far older than the eighteenth-century Saudi creed, dating to its formative scholar from the old capital in Nizwa in AD 711.
And to this region where Islam originally took hold, the Ministry of Religious Affairs invited Revd Douglas Leonard to speak.
Leonard is the director of al-Amana Centre in Muscat, an outgrowth of the Reformed Church in America’s (RCA) mission dating back to 1893. Today its focus is on interfaith dialogue.
Leonard expected a quiet discussion with twenty imams. He found a huge tent full with 500 people, over a thousand outside, and twenty imams seated in the front row. Three television stations were present, broadcasting his lecture to the whole nation.
It was a lecture, not a Billy Graham crusade. But it focused on countering misconceptions about Christianity, dealing with differences and not content to settle for ‘common ground’.
A kindly reception was guaranteed by his official introduction as part of the heritage of ‘Dr Thoms’, an RCA missionary-surgeon remembered fondly. Omani’s eyes soften, Leonard said, and tell stories of how he healed their grandparents, or delivered then when they were born.
Leonard also teaches a course each semester at the College for Sharia Sciences. Its thousand strong student body goes on to become imams, jurists, lawyers, and bureaucrats.
‘The government wants every Omani to gain appreciation of other religions,’ he said.
Ibadism sees tolerance amid conviction as the essence of original Islam.
Twenty years after the death of Muhammad the nascent caliphate was in civil war. Unlike the eventual Shia, they rejected Caliph Ali when he agreed to negotiate with Muslim rebels deemed insufficiently pious. And unlike the eventual Sunni, they did not reconcile with the rebels after their victory established a hereditary throne.
History records one of the leading rejectionist parties as the Kharijites, a violent and puritanical sect who declared anyone in disagreement a non-Muslim, much like ISIS today. But though they emerged from the same political position, Ibadis separated completely from the Kharijites and became quietists. They insist on piety but do not judge, as only God can know one’s heart.
Ibadis are less than one per cent of Muslims worldwide. But in Oman they are a majority, with a substantial Sunni minority. Shia are roughly five per cent, though the government does not keep official statistics. In law and practice, all mosques are open to all faith interpretations.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Oman’s population is 3.2 million, 30 per cent of which are foreign workers. An estimated 85 per cent are from India, mostly from the southeastern state of Kerala where Hindus and Christians together have shaped the culture.
Centuries of trade across the Indian Ocean have nurtured an open spirit. A few Hindus and Christians have become citizens.
But nearly all Omanis are Muslim, and the demographic explosion of foreigners since the oil boom has put pressure on traditional society. Sultan Qaboos has developed interior cities such as Nizwa, but despite employing extensive foreign labor the city has not been allotted a church.
Doing so would be sensitive, Leonard said, just as building a mosque can be sensitive in parts of the West. But in his experience the people are kind and the government wants to do all it can to facilitate the ability of foreign Christians to worship.
And one reason Leonard is trusted is because he does all he can to facilitate the ability of Omani and Christian alike to appreciate the other.
Over the past five years al-Amana has hosted 42 American university students in a semester-abroad program. Besides taking introductory classes on Arabic and Islam, they have been matched with 40 Omanis in ‘scriptural reasoning’.
Much interfaith dialogue does not go into the details of religious difference, afraid to cause offense or devolve into argument. Scriptural reasoning seeks to honor each faith at its core, studying the texts as holy in the eyes of the other, and not just stop at common ground.
Each year for the past four the Omani government has sent ten religious sector employees to Cambridge University for training, where Leonard is an instructor. One became emotional reading the Sermon on the Mount, saying he would now tell other Muslims that what they say about Christians is wrong.
An experience mirroring that of Kory McMahan, a junior at Northwestern College in Iowa and al-Amana’s most recent graduate.
‘At my school there is no Muslim voice, but it deserves to be heard,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘I can’t speak for Muslims but I can share what I have seen and learned.’
Leonard hopes the pattern of religious tolerance in Oman can be replicated throughout the Middle East, as well as combat anti-Muslim sentiment in the West.
‘Ours is a 120 year example of Muslims and Christians working together,’ he said. ‘Imagine what would happen if instead of being suspicious, we came together for the common good.’
Whether in Norfolk or Nizwa, British and Omani values may not be that far apart.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concludes cantankerous negotiations to finalise his right-wing cabinet, Palestinian-Israeli evangelicals are hoping for something better.
Alienated by campaign rhetoric stigmatising Arab citizens as an electoral threat, they turned in response to the source they know best: the Gospel.
In doing so, they seek to reverse a disturbing trend of isolation from society as a whole, and in particular their Jewish neighbors.
‘Are we not asked to be the salt and light of the earth?’ asked Revd Azar Ajaj, president of Nazareth Evangelical College, in an open letter shortly after the Israeli elections.‘How important, then, to show love to those who have been styled as our “enemies”. In fact we are asked to be peacemakers.’
And from April 16-18, he gathered 60 local and international leaders to discuss how.
The ‘Evangelicals and Peacemaking’ conference was sponsored in part by the Baptist Mission Society UK. It urged participants as Palestinian Christians in Israel to seek justice and reconciliation to create a state for all its citizens.
Present at the conference was Salim Munayer, head of Musalaha, which since 1990 has bucked the trends of intifadas and settlement building to call for peace between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.
The election rhetoric was quite discouraging, Munayer told Lapido Media.
Netanyahu rallied his supporters saying the Arabs were coming out to vote ‘in droves’. His foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman told Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List which placed third in total Knesset seats, ‘you’re not wanted here.’
Meanwhile the Joint List – a merger of secular, communist, and Islamist parties – included the symbolic presence of a politician calling for a caliphate in Jerusalem. It received the strong endorsement of Hamas.
Pressed between a regional rise in Islamism, mirrored by the gains of religious Zionism, Christians are being squeezed.
And as a result, they are withdrawing from both.
Evangelical leaders estimate their numbers in Israel are only around 5,000, among 157,000 Christians and 1.4 million Muslims. Israel’s population is 7.91 million, according to the 2012 census.
‘Most interaction between Palestinian Christians and Israeli Jews comes by necessity, not as a result of a relationship,’ Munayer told conference attendees. ‘We see them at school, at the bank, but much more must be done.’
And it has never been worse, according to his research co-authored with Jewish professor Gabriel Horenczyk from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The October 2014 issue of International Journal of Psychology details how Christians have soured toward Jews.
In 1998, the predominant attitude of over 200 Arab Christian adolescents surveyed was of integration with Israeli Jewish culture. By contrast, the attitude toward Arab Muslim culture was one of separation.
But 10 years later, adolescents exhibited a primary posture of increasing separation from both.
‘Many of us have given up on trying to improve our relationship with both the Jews and the Muslims of Israel,’ Munayer said. ‘We say it is a waste of time, they are not going to change, they are becoming more religious, and they don’t want us.’
Munayer’s Musalaha is doing all it can to fight the reality of this withdrawal. It has created a three-hundred-page curriculum on reconciliation between distinct peoples, applying its principles during inter-ethnic summer camps and encounter groups.
But he increasingly aims to influence society as a whole, not only at the grassroots but also in academic engagement. Munayer received his PhD from the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies at Cardiff University, and is collaborating with a number of young Israeli Christian and Jewish scholars to further his research.
For example, in a survey of 700 Muslims, Christians and Druze, Sammy Smooha of Haifa University found only fifty per cent of Christians have Jewish friends they have visited at home. But 57 per cent have experienced discrimination, and thirty per cent reported receiving threats or humiliation.
These and other findings were presented at a January conference on Palestinian Christian Identity in Israel, co-hosted by Musalaha and the Hebrew University. It was unprecedented, Munayer said, for an Israeli university to sponsor such an event.
And it is an Israeli Jew who is helping Ajaj take his baby steps toward peacemaking, moving beyond his simple convictions.
‘Very little is being done to build bridges with the Jews,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘I’m still in the beginning of the journey and I pray that good things come out of it.’
In October last year Ajaj participated in an interfaith dialogue at a Jewish conference centre. A rabbi from the village of Kiryet Tiv’on, ten miles from Nazareth, invited him to speak at his synagogue during Hanukah and explain the Ten Commandments on his radio program.
In May they begin a six-month experiment to bring eight from each community to discuss matters of faith and society.
‘We are classified as enemies, but we don’t accept this,’ Ajaj said of the national political discourse. ‘So we must encourage those who are silent to take action and express respect for the other.’
Ajaj hopes the April conference can empower Nazareth Evangelical College as a centre for theological education in peacemaking. But as a minority within a minority within a minority, there is only so much they can do.
To help, Ajaj recently invited leaders from seven different denominations to a conference on Christianity in the Holy Land. Several said it was their first meeting with an evangelical.
But with Christians withdrawing into a self-imposed ghetto mentality as Israeli Arab citizens are labelled a demographic threat, these evangelicals are calling for a halt.
‘If we want a better future built on respecting and loving the “other”, then let us take part in building it,’ Ajaj wrote. ‘Otherwise, those with other values will determine what this future will be.’
So boasted the black-clad narrator of the latest ISIS video, this time chronicling their slaughter of 30 Ethiopian Christians captured in Libya. Two months earlier, the victims were Coptic Christians, whose beheadings came entitled: A message signed with blood to the nation of the cross.
But what is the ‘nation of the cross’?
Some have embraced the terminology. The Christ Church United Methodist of the Woodlands, Texas, posted a Je Suis Charlie inspired message of support: ‘Here am I, I too, am a member of the nation of the cross.’
But Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK thinks they are making a grave mistake.
‘This divisive terminology implies that we as a “nation” of Christians are at war with the “nation of Islam”,’ he wrote to the youth of his church.‘Of course this is not the case, and we must not be coerced into a state of enmity.’
ISIS labeled the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church an ‘enemy’, likely for the ongoing Ethiopian military response against the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia. Likewise, the Coptic Orthodox Church is targeted to a great degree for the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
But ISIS is not just after these churches. ‘Our battle is between faith and blasphemy,’ the narrator declared. ‘We swear to Allah: You will not have safety, even in your dreams, until you embrace Islam.’
In seeing itself as a caliphate, Angaelos told Lapido Media, ISIS wants to put itself at war with Christianity.
‘Because there is a Muslim ummah, there must be in their eyes a Christian ummah, the nation of the cross,’ he said, using the Arabic word that can be translated as ‘nation’.
‘This is why I am very alarmed when people use it naively, because they are buying into a rhetoric that is not ours.’
And according to Muslim scholars, ‘nation of the cross’ is not part of Islamic rhetoric either.
The word ummah is used 62 times in the Qur’an, sometimes referring to ‘peoples’ in general. But over time it becomes more specific to the Muslim community, according to Frederick Denny’s chapter, ‘The meaning of ‘ummah’ in the Qur’an’, in The History of Religions.
Christians and Jews are viewed as an ummah as recipients of divine revelation, but Christians are labeled ahl al-kitab, or ‘people of the book’.
‘This phrase [nation of the cross] is unknown, ISIS has invented it to divide people,’ Muhga Ghalib, dean of Islamic Studies at al-Azhar University told Lapido Media. ‘We have the three religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and we are brothers in humanity.’
The editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website agreed. ‘I cannot really make any reference of “nation of cross” to Islamic heritage, or history, and I’m not sure what the origin is,’ Hazem Malky told Lapido. ‘It looks like something they use in their own literature to serve their needs and ideology.’
But even where the rhetoric turns negative in Islamic history, terms like ahl al-dhimmah or kuffar are employed, to refer either to a protected community paying jizya tax, or to infidels.
ISIS’ video also highlights the fact that Syria’s Christians admit paying the tax, having been brought to the point of submission. Rejecting the nation-state system, ISIS sees the caliphate at war with distinct religious communities with the aim of subjugating them.
Its extremist scholars have made a science out of reviving obscure concepts in Islamic history, like the selling of sex slaves and the burning of captives. These are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims today.
But even a group with traditional animosity against Christians finds the term ‘nation of the cross’ unfamiliar. Hany Nour Eddin, a member of Egypt’s dissolved parliament with the formerly militant al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, told Lapido Media ISIS tries to invoke the Crusades in its effort to pit East against West.
‘ISIS uses the logic of power and jihad in order to create conflict,’ he said. ‘They are trying specifically to recruit the Islamist current to their side, telling them the democratic experiment has failed.’
Bishop Angaelos, on the other hand, interprets it as the recruitment of an enemy.
He says ISIS wants a military response motivated by Christian sentiment. ‘The West must not give in. This ideology must fall, otherwise those killed will be replaced by others,’ he says.
Instead, those motivated by Christian sentiment have a responsibility to exhibit their faith.
After the beheading of the Copts by ISIS, Angelos tweeted #fatherforgive, and it quickly went viral. When BBC and CNN reported it, the popular discourse shifted.
Angaelos is calling for his own redefinition of terms to be taken up more broadly, to prevent the world being sucked into a false dichotomy.
‘When we disengage from this language, we move away from the simplicity of Christian West versus Muslim East, because it’s wrong,’ he said. ‘I find this concept of the Muslim world quite offensive. Do I not have a place? For millions of Christians, this is our world also, plus Baha’is and non-believers beside.’
He adds that ‘the nation of the cross’ does not fit the West in its religious diversity. Coining a phrase foreign to Islam, Christianity, and modern civilization, ISIS is threatening to set the terms.
‘They are killing Muslims not just Christians’ says Angaelos. ‘This ideology considers everything unlike itself an enemy.’
IN IRAQ, ISIS zealots smash centuries-old artifacts and blow up churches. In Yemen, Shia militias plough through cities as Sunni neighbour Saudi Arabia rains down missiles.
Egypt is not without its own religious tension, but a timely interfaith art exhibition in Cairo intersects with perhaps the only potentially good news coming out of the region.
Iran may be rejoining the international community, and Iranian-born Azadeh Ghotbi is coming to London.
Born a Muslim, educated in a Catholic school and married to an atheist beside a Jewish bridesmaid, Ghotbi has lived in five countries across three continents.
Her parents fled the Islamic Revolution when she was a child.
Today,Ghotbi is one of 47 premier and emerging artists featured at the CARAVAN visual arts exhibition. Founded in Cairo in 2009, its yearly offerings travel the world, dedicated to the message of interreligious peace and cultural understanding between East and West.
‘I jumped at the opportunity to participate in this noble mission,’ Ghotbi told Lapido Media. ‘I highlight in my art that strength and beauty come through openness to the “other” and the cross-fertilisation of differences.’
[Change your viewpoint. Photo: Sixpillars.org]
Her piece is entitled Crossroads, and her message fits perfectly with the theme of the exhibition, The Bridge.
‘I have suffered the consequences of religious obtuseness,’ she wrote in her artist’s statement, ‘but have benefitted immensely among open-minded souls from diverse religious backgrounds.’
Ghotbi’s art has been exhibited in top galleries in Europe, the United Statesand Iran. The last of these has informed several pieces.
Faced straight on, the black letters of peace are hard to read behind the iron bars of a cage. But the inset of the letters is radiant turquoise, a colour she associates with the beauty of Iran, and only visible if you changeyour viewpoint.
‘As for the small fragile turquoise bird that represents hope, peace and freedom for us all,’ she explains,‘I left the cage door ajar for it!’
Ghotbi crafted Peace in 2013, eager for change.
Two years later, Ghotbi is enthusiastic about the framework agreement signed by Iran and Western nations. As Tehran reduces its nuclear capabilities and allows comprehensive inspections, international sanctions will be gradually eliminated.
Sanctions have disproportionately hurt the poor and middle class, she said, while strengthening the political hand of the hardliners. The US Congressional Research Service reported a five percent contraction of the Iranian economy in 2013 along with a 56 percent currency devaluation and a 45 percent rise in the rate of inflation.
‘What Iran needs eventually is political change from within,’ said Ghotbi. ‘It’s youthful and highly educated population is quite savvy, but desperate for more freedom and better economic opportunities.’
‘I am very pleased about the deal going ahead,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘We have to work toward peoples coming together.
‘Opening up Iran, which it will do, allows more people to experience the “other”, on both sides.’
An American, Chandler grew up as a minority Christian in mostly Muslim Senegal. He was deeply influenced by the local arts scene, but also disturbed by the tensions between the two faiths.
It was not until his ten years as an Episcopal priest in Cairo’s historic St. John’s Church that a vision began to form. Initially, CARAVAN was held only in Egypt, but over the past two years more than 300,000 have viewed the traveling exhibition in London, New York, and Washington, DC.
This year, The Bridge opened at the oldest church in Paris, the Eglise Saint Germain-Des-Pres, during the United Nations week for interfaith harmony. Following its current station in Cairo it will move to St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square from June 1 – July 31.
But CARAVAN is not intended only for the Western elite, as important as it is for them to see this example of cooperation between Arabs, Persians, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The exhibition will travel also to rural areas in the United States, where misunderstanding of the Middle East is prevalent.
‘Art provides a context to address issues indirectly,’ Chandler told Lapido Media. ‘ It provides an atmosphere of contemplation and discussion that is neutral, when being direct causes tensions to rise.’
And in the Middle East, where spin-off projects are in development in Jordan, Tunisia, and Malta, the indirect approach of art can make all the difference.
According to Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, archbishop of the Anglican diocese of Egypt, structured efforts at dialogue between religious professionals have not impacted reality.
‘We have to be creative so that dialogue reaches the people,’ he said at the exhibition opening in Cairo. ‘Paul-Gordon has done this through art, to help build harmony between cultures, and to bring people together.’
The Middle East needs CARAVAN, Ghotbi believes, but art is not enough.
Education, jobs, and women’s rights are necessary to ease religious clashes between groups that used to coexist peacefully.
Chandler agrees, noting that transformation through art is a long term process.
‘Art doesn’t stop conflict, but that is not its function,’ he said. ‘It can’t change events but it can change people.’
However much the Middle East needs this message, it can also export the example. 47 artists are living testimony.
World attention has turned to the Coptic Christian community of Egypt, following the beheading of 20 of their migrant workers in Libya at the hands of the so-called Islamic State.
The Coptic Orthodox Church considers them martyrs. A new icon venerates their death and their names have been added into the Synaxarion, the liturgical church history commemorating the saints.
But who are the Copts, and what is their understanding of martyrdom?
The word ‘Copt’ derives from the Pharaonic word ‘gypt’, which through the Greek ‘Aigyptus’ became the modern-day ‘Egypt’.
Copts are therefore Egyptians, descendants of the ancient Pharaonic civilization. As such, the Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic Egyptians call themselves Copts, as do some Muslims.
Coptic population figures are highlycontested. Some Muslims estimate as low as 3-4 percent; some Christians as high as 20-25 percent. The CIA world factbook estimates 10 percent. Official Egyptian ID cards list the religion of every citizen, but these figures are not released. Roughly 90 percent of Copts belong to the Orthodox denomination.
Coptic tradition says the church was planted through the missionary preaching of St. Mark, writer of the second Gospel in the New Testament. He was martyred in Alexandria in 68 AD.
The Coptic Orthodox Church dates its calendar from the year 248 AD, the first year of Roman Emperor Diocletian. His reign witnessed up to 800,000 Christian martyrs in Egypt.
According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad said that after conquering Egypt [649 AD] the Muslims should treat its inhabitants well. To come under the protection of the new rulers Copts had to pay the jizya tax. Those unable had to either convert or risk death.
Historian Phillip Jenkins, author of The Lost History of Christianity, says that periods of persecution waxed and waned until the end of the 12th century, when Islam became the dominant religion.
Islam considers a martyr to be one who is killed while striving in the path of God, often interpreted as participation in jihad.
In Christianity, the early church defined martyr as a technical term to mean one who was put to death for their faith, in imitation of Jesus.
Christology was an issue that divided Coptic Orthodoxy from emerging Roman Catholicism. In 451 AD at the Council of Chalcedon the Copts were anathematized over the issue, but in 1998 the two churches reconciled. Copts prefer to be known as ‘miaphysites’, where Jesus’ humanity and divinity unite to make one nature.
In many issues the Coptic Orthodox are similar to Roman Catholics, following a traditional liturgy, holding to seven sacraments, and believing that during Eucharist the bread and wine become Jesus’ actual body and blood.
They differ in that the Copts have their own patriarch. Pope Tawadros II is the 118th in a line stretching back to St. Mark. Coptic priests are free to marry, though bishops must be celibate and are drawn from monastic communities.
Coptic ascetic spirituality is exhibited through the practice of fasting. But unlike complete abstinence as in Islam’s Ramadan, faithful Copts maintain a vegan diet while fasting 210 days of the year.
Monasticism as a Christian expression is traced back to St. Anthony in the Third century. St. Benedict and John Cassian visited the Egyptian desert monks and introduced the practice to Europe.
Being a bishop-led church independent from Rome has also contributed to close relations with the Anglican Church in the UK. According to Heather Sharkey, author of American Evangelicals in Egypt, the Church Missionary Society worked to revive the Orthodox Church in the Nineteenth century, as opposed to US Presbyterians from whom most of today’s Egyptian Protestants are descended.
Competition between denominations has often led to tension, but especially since the Arab Spring Copts have deemphasized distinctions in light of the challenges of Islamism.
It has also resulted in a surge in spirituality. The late Pope Shenouda III encouraged biblical literacy and winsome preaching. Today the Bible Society of Egypt is the fourth largest in the world.
Over the past 30 years the Coptic Orthodox Church has spread throughout the world, establishing over 15 dioceses in Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Commenting on the martyrs in Libya, Bishop Angaelos of the UK demonstrates Coptic—and biblical—spirituality.
‘As a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness,’ he said to CNN. ‘We do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.’