Following up on my recent article for World Watch Monitor, here is Part II of my interview with Miles Windsor, head of advocacy for Christian charity Middle East Concern.
These questions and answers were cut for length from the original, but I am pleased to share them here for the consideration of readers.
If you have your own viewpoint on who Syrian Christians support, even if in a personal capacity, please share.
It is important to recognize the extent to which situational dynamics influence statements of political allegiance, including by church leaders. Most Syrian Christians are in areas controlled by the Assad regime. The conflict situation also heightens the extent to which communities rely on patronage, a significant factor in Middle Eastern society even in peaceful times.
So we should not be surprised that church leaders readily voice support for President Assad. That is not to suggest that such articulations are empty, but rather that nuanced interpretation is usually necessary.
It can be simplistic to suggest ‘what the Bible says’ Syrian Christians should do. But are there Biblical principles you would counsel for them in the midst of a complicated state of difficulty? Might there be multiple options of God-honoring response?
We must guard against simplistic or overly prescriptive approaches. There is biblical basis and precedent for a range of responses to danger and persecution. The Apostle Paul who explained that ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3:11,12) is the same Apostle who fled from Damascus to escape murderous plots (Acts 9:23-25). Other times he challenged the injustice and brutality of an imminent public flogging based on his citizenship rights (Acts 22:25).
It can be tempting to offer reminders of basic principles such as “trust in God and his promises,” and “do not deny your faith.” Although well-intentioned, true, and important, such advice is usually obvious and can come across as crass over-spiritualization, especially if offered by outsiders.
Better is to defer to our Syrian and other Middle Eastern sisters and brothers who are ministering in the heat of conflict and refugee situations and whose profound theological reflection is now shaping their own ministry approaches.
For example, two themes that are regularly emphasized in relation to the Middle Eastern church are the importance of presence and the danger of victimhood. The importance of Christian presence in Syria is the prophetic role of the Church and the calling of Christ’s people as agents of reconciliation and transformation. The imperative of maintaining a witness to the love, hope, peace, and life of Christ in a context of hatred, hopelessness, conflict and death, helps to understand how vital it is for the salt and light of Christ’s people to permeate and help shape a post-conflict Syria.
To rise above the mentality of victimhood is to reject the vicious cycles of blame, demonization and revenge, to acknowledge the comparable suffering of many others, to build alliances with the majority which also strives for peaceful coexistence, and to reject the label of ‘minority,’ whether imposed by those seeking to control, or to protect.
These are rich seams to mine as Syrian Christians seek to respond in ways which honor God, but they should also be a challenge to the more comfortable and complacent parts of the global church!
Describe a little bit about how MEC can speak authoritatively on the subject.
An association of many Christians and Christian ministries in the Middle East and North Africa, Middle East Concern (MEC) supports those in the region who are marginalised, discriminated against or persecuted for being or becoming Christians. Through a wide network of church and ministry partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, MEC seeks to provide support which is led by the priorities of MENA Christians. This support includes advocacy – challenging injustice and seeking to ensure that the voice of MENA Christians is heard and understood.
Please click here to read an excerpt of Part I, or here for the full article published at WWM.
As the conflict in Syria continues, Jayson Casper sat down with Miles Windsor, head of advocacy at Christian charity Middle East Concern, to discuss where Syrian Christians’ allegiance lies, whether those who fled the country may return, and how Christians in other countries can help.
Jayson Casper: There has been much reporting about how Syrian Christians supposedly support the regime, the opposition, or are neutral. There is also reporting about how their stance may have shifted over time. What is your perspective on how the hard-to-define majority of Syrian Christians should be described?
Miles Windsor: The first point to stress is that within Syria’s sizeable Christian communities, there are both supporters of the Assad regime and supporters of opposition groups, so it’s important to avoid blanket generalisations. And a second basic point is that for most Syrian Christians, and indeed most Syrians generally, political allegiance is usually nuanced or qualified.
“Improved security alone will not be sufficient to facilitate large-scale return of IDPs”
Although there are Syrian Christians who support, and are active within, opposition groups, most Syrian Christians tend to favour the Assad regime. This is certainly the public position articulated by most Syrian church leaders.
Such support has historical roots. The Assad regime has traditionally granted a significant degree of freedom to the diverse religious communities of Syria.
Please click here to read the full article at World Watch Monitor.
The images are horrific. Fr. Samaan Shehata, a 45-year-old Coptic Orthodox priest lay dead on the ground, stabbed and beaten by a young man wielding a meat cleaver.
Blood dripped down his face into his long, black beard. Dirt discolored his flowing, black robe. His cross pendant rested peacefully on his chest, eerily imitated in the cross-like stabbing etched onto his forehead.
Many details remain unknown, but early indications point to extremism. Fr. Samaan was from Beni Suef, visiting a family in Cairo 150 kilometers north in a lower-class, urban suburb of Cairo.
It may well be he was targeted only for the clothes he was wearing – in Egypt, a clear indication of his religious profession.
He was left a public spectacle. So far, no claim of responsibility, no message of intention. There are possible hints circulating of mental instability.
Perhaps. Outright murder is rare in Egypt. Despite the increased terrorism suffered by Copts in recent years, this killing is unusual. There is a chance it was random.
But few think so. Coptic social media immediately proclaimed Fr. Simaan a martyr, adding him to the growing scroll.
The image, however, may have lasting effect, reinforcing a decades-old message: The streets are not the place for priests…
Please click here to read the rest of the article at World Watch Monitor.
The churches of Egypt are temporarily shutting down their summer activities.
“I asked all our churches and conference centres to cancel their trips and events for the next three weeks,” Dr. Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, told World Watch Monitor. “There is news they could be targeted by radicals.”
An unofficial translation of his official statement reads: “Warm greetings in the name of Jesus. In light of recent developments, please stop all church trips and conferences [for] the next three weeks of July 2017. This is a serious matter. Any trip or conference [that continues] will be the personal responsibility of the organiser.”
Zaki confirmed the information came directly from the security agencies. Fr Boules Halim, official spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, told World Watch Monitor his denomination issued similar instructions, asking churches to wait for further information once the three-week moratorium expires.
Please click here to read the full article at World Watch Monitor.
Forty-eight year old father of three Revd Yamane Abraha received an ultimatum in Khartoum following a trip to Ethiopia in the fall of 2015.
“(Sudanese government) security threatened me, saying I would have to appear in court either as a witness, or an accused,” the Evangelical Baptist Church of Khartoum pastor told WWM. “But my father was sick, so unlike others I couldn’t escape.”
Abraha was one of several Sudanese Christians gathered abroad to pray for their nation. Among them were Revd Hassan Abduraheem Kodi Taour and Revd Kuwa Shamal, Sudan Church of Christ pastors from the Nuba Mountains region.
Also attending was Czech Christian aid worker Petr Jašek. According to Middle East Concern, these three had helped facilitate financial assistance to pay for the medical treatment of a Darfurian university student who had suffered burn wounds when government security attacked a campus demonstration in Omdurman, north of the capital Khartoum.
Sudanese at the meeting suspected there were spies around their Addis Ababa hotel. Then shortly after their return to Khartoum, the police arrested Taour, Shamal and Jašek, in December 2015. They have now been in detention for a year. Detained along with them is Abdulmonem Abdumawla, also from Darfur, who helped facilitate the medical treatment for the student.
The four are charged with waging war against the Sudanese state, espionage, conspiracy to carry out criminal acts, and undermining the authority of the state through violence. Trial proceedings finally begun in August have been postponed repeatedly in recent months. They could face the death penalty.
Abraha was not arrested until three months after his colleagues, on 13 March, and then held for only one day. Security ordered him to report back daily, and on 24 March told him he would have to appear in court in the role of his choice: testify against the others, or be charged along with them.
On 26 March his father died.
Abraha gathered his family and traveled eight hours east by bus to bury him in their hometown of Kassala, on the border with Eritrea. And there he dropped off the radar, ditched his cell phone, and waited.
Two weeks later he returned to Khartoum and set his plan in motion. Nervously he checked his surroundings before going to buy a ticket to Egypt.
With his wife he exchanged notes on paper serviettes, which they wet and discarded when read. Discreetly they packed their children’s belongings, lest they tip off authorities at school.
Abraha then checked with a friendly security officer that his name was not on a watch list. And on 20 April, he told his children they would have a family picnic near the airport. Relatives—and kids—were surprised to learn they were saying ‘goodbye’.
In Egypt, Abraha is now involved in training for discipleship and church planting, and supervises 15 house churches among Sudanese refugees.
Over 31,000 Sudanese in Egypt are registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees, according to its August 2016 report. Unofficial estimates can exceed well over one million.
Most have fled the ongoing violence in Darfur and the southern regions of Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains bordering South Sudan.
But Abraha’s story is not unique.
Barnaba Timothous, who fled to Egypt three years earlier, had also been pressed to testify against Christian colleagues. Doing student campus ministry, he was accused of taking foreign money.
“I was told that if I would cooperate nothing would happen to me,” he told WWM. “But if not, nothing would protect me from them.”
Some people criticized him for his decision to leave. He did so quickly, taking one bag and telling no one in his family. And though he stated he was not personally involved in ministry among Muslims, he refused to betray those he knew.
“I will not be involved in issues that hurt the body of Christ and bring suffering to innocent people, just because they follow Christ as savior,” he said.
“The Islamic government of Sudan is persecuting the leaders of churches and ministries. And now our students no longer trust each other, fearful someone might report them.”
Timothous, who has since been joined by his mother and sister, is now working amongst students at several university campuses in Egypt.
WWM has spoken with other Christian leaders who tell similar stories.
Excuse for crackdown
”The [Sudan] government wants sharia and is cracking down on the church,” said Kamal Fahmy, head of the religious freedom advocacy group Set My People Free.
He recalled President Omar al-Bashir’s threat, on the eve of South Sudan independence in 2011, to make Sudan a fully Islamic state, the removal of foreign NGOs thereafter, and the expulsion of South Sudanese in 2013.
“Authorities felt Pastors Hassan and Kuwa were shaming them, bringing a bad report,” Fahmy told WWM.
“In the rebel areas the church is doing humanitarian work and is not involved in the conflict, but it does expose the atrocities the Sudanese government is committing.
“It will find any excuse to accuse them.”
Pastors have been arrested, churches have been destroyed, and land has been confiscated, according to the US State Department’s 2015 Report on International Religious Freedom.
And on 6 Oct the European Parliament passed a resolution against Sudan, specifically naming the four detainees.
Noting the EU partnership with Sudan toward ‘better migration management’, the resolution ‘reaffirms that freedom of religion, conscience or belief is a universal human right that needs to be protected everywhere and for everyone … especially in the case of apostasy.’
But in January 2015, Sudan actually expanded its apostasy laws to include criticism of the Prophet Mohammad’s wives or early companions.
Fahmy, who recently penned an open letter to the UN with the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe, links an oppressive religious climate to development issues, which he says “assaults the core of human nature”.
“Apostasy laws … have negative social and political consequences everywhere they are in force,” he wrote. “They create instability and inspire violence.”
“Without freedom to change beliefs there is no religious freedom,’” he told WWM. “Going to paradise is not compulsory.”
Egypt’s Secular Party has called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to support legislation which cancels the blasphemy law, because, in the words of lawyer Hamdi al-Assyouti, it has “become a tool in the hands of extremists against minorities, thinkers, and the creative impulse”. And, in his experience as a defence lawyer, 90% of charges are filed against Christians. The first session of Egypt’s new parliament is due to open on 10 January.
“There has been a case each month,” he said at the launch of his new book, Blasphemy in Egypt. “If I have gotten any detail wrong, let me be judged accordingly, but everything is taken from judicial rulings.”
The research confirms the Egyptian lawyer’s claim. World Watch Monitor readers might have read the cases of Gamal Abdou, Gad Younan, and Bishoy Garas, each a Christian who has been tried for insulting Islam. But Muslims who question traditional interpretations of Islam are also targeted, as seen in the recent one-year prison sentence given to Islam al-Beheiry.
According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), alleged blasphemy cases increased from three in 2011 to 12 in 2012. Thirteen cases were recorded in 2013, and of 42 defendants during that time, 27 were convicted. EIPR lead researcher Ishak Ibrahim told World Watch Monitor that 17 new cases were filed in 2015.
Assyouti’s book, which he believes is the first Arabic language book of its kind to be published in Egypt, details 23 cases. But in only two cases did he say the defendants expressed actual contempt for Islam. Oftentimes social media postings provided an excuse for extremists to file charges against local Christians. Then either mob pressure in court, or a judge’s own religious conservatism, resulted in a guilty verdict.
“I try to turn the judge’s focus from religion to the law,” Assyouti told World Watch Monitor, “or else he will bypass legitimate reasons to dismiss the case.”
Law 98(f) of the penal code, he said, was originally passed by parliament in 1981 following deadly riots between Muslims and Christians at al-Zawiya al-Hamra in Cairo. The text of the law designates a fine or jail term “against any person who exploits religion to propagate … extremist thoughts with intent to inflame civil strife, defame or show contempt for a revealed religion … or harm national unity”.
But since then, he said, “it has reversed application and become a tool in the hands of extremists against minorities, thinkers, and the creative impulse”.
Articles 64 and 65 of the constitution declare freedom of belief to be “absolute” and freedom of thought and opinion to be “guaranteed”, inclusive of the right to express and publish. In their legal representation, both Assyouti and EIPR’s Ibrahim aim to convince a judge to refer a blasphemy case to the Supreme Constitutional Court.
But because of the difficulty in persuading a judge to do so, some rights advocates argue for a change in the law itself, if not its outright cancellation. In advance of the first session of Egypt’s new parliament, the Secular Party called on President Sisi to support such legislation.
Assyouti expressed hope his book might result in the issue being tackled in parliament, but gradually: first the law should be amended to lessen the penalties, and only thereafter should cancellation be discussed. “Otherwise it will shock the population,” he said. “Even those who are not overly religious will cling to their religion during a controversy.”
But Ibrahim was cautious, wishing to focus on freedom of expression in general, with blasphemy included under the umbrella. “If we request this article be cancelled, it will result in an increase of the punishment,” he said, fearing a reversal. “No parliamentarians have the courage to raise this issue in parliament.”
Perhaps Anwar Esmat al-Sadat, nephew of the late president, will prove him wrong. Last year, during an open session in the upscale Cairo suburb of Maadi, he spoke boldly to the gathered assembly of foreigners and upper-class Egyptians.
“We are not in agreement with the blasphemy law,” said the president of the Reform and Development Party, recently elected from his district of Menoufiya in the Nile Delta. “Everyone has the right of expression, but it has to be organised. We will work on these laws in the coming parliament.”
But will he? Mahmoud Farouk, head of one of Egypt’s leading liberal lobby groups, is doubtful the new parliament will take on the challenge. His Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies advocates not only to cancel Article 98(f), but also to remove the religion marker from national ID cards.
In 2014, Farouk presented his centre’s paper on freedom of belief to most of Egypt’s leading political parties. At the time he estimated that 30 per cent of party members believe in cancelling the blasphemy law. But in a follow-up conversation with World Watch Monitor, he said he thought only five per cent of the elected parliament would be brave enough to speak on this issue.
The problem lies in his estimate of only 10 per cent of the population being in favour of such a change. To spread the message, he invited Paul Marshall, author of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide, to a public lecture, and promoted the Arabic version of his book online. But similar translation efforts, such as Brian Whitaker’s Arabs without God, can reach only a limited segment of Egypt’s population.
For this reason, Farouk wants to lobby directly, but quietly. Of the major political parties, he sees the Free Egyptians Party (FEP) as one of the few ideologically inclined to support changes to the blasphemy law. Osama al-Ghazali Harb, one of their leading figures, who only recently resigned, penned an article in Egypt’s largest daily calling the law a “disgrace”. But though the FEP is the largest party in parliament, with 65 seats, they are dwarfed by the non-ideological independents that make up just over half of the 596-member body.
But even among these, Farouk sees possibility. Given the current depoliticised playing field, many might not actively stand in the way of greater religious freedom if it does not cost them.
“The majority of people are not politically aware,” he said, “and if the atmosphere is right, legal reforms can be enacted without causing offense.”
Given President Sisi’s many statements about the need to reform religious discourse, rights advocates wonder if the atmosphere has ever been better. Farouk said the issue must be kept before parliamentarians in committee, urging them to take a stand, but like William Wilberforce, who won his fight against slavery in the early 1800s by slowly cobbling together a coalition, Farouk knows the challenges ahead.
“We have to find people who will work with us while keeping good relationships with the parties and their leaders,” he said.
“But to change the climate of ideas in Egypt, we need a politician who will stand and lead the charge, and right now we don’t have him.”
Until one emerges, Farouk, Ibrahim, and Assyouti labour on through each challenge. Even Blasphemy in Egypt has to fight to win a hearing, having been apparentlysubjected to an informal ban. Nevertheless, its back cover makes clear the stakes: Freedom of religion and belief is the first freedom, from which every other freedom emanates – speech, assembly, press, and the supreme right to life.
Please click here for my later article that provides an alternate take on the blasphemy law.
Gathered at Cairo’s prestigious Dar al-Mudarra’at military complex in early December, 150 imams and priests heard some of Egypt’s highest religious authorities praise their participation in a three-year programme to deepen religious unity.
“Working together for the sake of Egypt – we are in great need of this slogan,” said Grand Mufti Shawki Allam, in reference to the Imam-Priest Exchange, an initiative of the Egyptian Family House. “But it is also the reality in which we live.”
The Egyptian Family House was created shortly after the 25 January, 2011 revolution against President Mubarak – in partnership between al-Azhar (Sunni Islam’s leading authority), the Coptic Orthodox Church, and Egypt’s Protestant, Catholic, and Anglican denominations. The Imam-Priest Exchange began in February 2013, as popular opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and then-President Mohamed Morsi was coalescing throughout the country.
According to Abdel Rahman Moussa, an advisor to Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyib and speaking on his behalf for al-Azhar, “This scene is what we have dreamed of – a sincere expression of what Egypt is, the Egypt that God has preserved.”
“We were all wondering where Egypt was going,” said Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, whose Anglican church sponsored the training. “But now we celebrate the return of love and the brotherly spirit.”
Each year the Exchange brought together around 70 imams and priests from across the country. Four trainings of three days each had them live and eat together as they were encouraged towards a gradual but escalating partnership.
The themes? “Let us know each other. Let us coexist. Let us cooperate. Let us work together for the good of Egypt.”
Participants not only listened to academic lectures, but also actively toured the country. Egyptian citizens looked on astonished, but proud, taking selfies with imams and priests as they walked hand-in-hand down busy streets.
Their distinguished long robes, caps, and beards added to the gravity of ancient mosques, churches, and monasteries. Together they joined fellow citizens in celebrating the opening of the Suez Canal expansion. They rediscovered a shared heritage while exploring the Coptic, Islamic, and National Egyptian museums. And in the final session they visited practical examples of interfaith development work.
“We want to go where people have done things,” said Saleem Wassef, project manager for the Exchange. “The idea is to help them think out of the box, and consider how they can repeat these experiences back in their own communities.”
Moving from remedy to prevention
This last marker is an important departure from the previous model of imam-priest cooperation, said Nady Labib, representing the Protestant Churches of Egypt. He criticised the “hugs and kisses” displayed in the media after incidents of sectarian tension, to present an image that “all is fine” between Muslims and Christians.
The Family House has been active in quelling sectarian tension, said Fr. Augustinos Elia, assistant head of the branch in Mallawi. But the focus now is on prevention, not remedy.
“We are removing walls and building bridges,” he said. “A certain extremism still persists in society, and we are working to educate and spread awareness.”
One of the best examples is found in Ismailia, where Sheikh Abdel Rahman and Fr. Surial have visited four schools a week for the past two years. Having never before seen such respect and friendship between an imam and a priest, the girls often cry when they see the two together, they said.
Consider also the work of Sheikh Ahmed and Fr. Boula in Menoufiya, where the “My Church, My Mosque” campaign collected money from Muslims to build a church, and from Christians to build a mosque.
Even in Delga, a community whose church was destroyed following the removal of Morsi from power, Sheikh Fayed and Fr. Ayoub have worked to bring Muslims and Christians together. Medical and sport outreaches have tried to unite the people, with youths brought to Cairo to witness the Family House in action.
Wassef said the local branches of the Family House are one of the best successes of the Imam-Priest Exchange. And those trained have gone on to help establish branches in Port Said, Alexandria, and Luxor.
“At first the participants were afraid to be involved,” he said. “But once they knew about the goals, they were convinced about the need to work together for the benefit of their communities.”
Bishop Armia, assistant general secretary for the Family House, related the story of an imam who told him he used to cross to the other side of the street if he saw a priest coming his way. Now, after spending a year together in the Exchange, he has become friends with a priest from his town.
Sheikh Muhi al-Din al-Afifi related a similar experience. Head of the Islamic Research Academy, as well as the Family House committee for religious discourse, he told those gathered of his first visit to a monastery, where he was pleasantly surprised to see such faith and activity mix for the good of Egypt.
“This project works to change the inherited teachings that have sown hatred among us,” he said. “It is the tip of the spear that confronts all manner of civil strife.”
Sincerity and continuity questioned
Not all participants, however, were as convinced. Some grumbled that the “religious other” was present only from obligation. Others complained that there was little contact between them once they left the training.
One leader in one branch confirmed this impression. Only 20 per cent of the roughly 100 members acted from full and sincere conviction, he said. Forty per cent came because they were assigned by their religious institution, and another 40 per cent were active for personal or political gain.
Another issue is that the Family House has not yet been able to win wide national media attention. “We are here, but no one sees us,” said Sheikh Said Shoman, a participant from the Sohag branch, who encouraged much more open mixing of imams and priests in the streets. “The problem is there is not enough connection between words and actions.”
The work is slow going, the branch leader admitted, but he is not discouraged. Their branch has held 10 seminars about national unity, and smaller meetings in youth centres and villages throughout the area. As a leader, he is frequently invited to government and civil society events as a Family House representative. But he considers it natural that cooperation between religious leaders takes time.
“Progress develops as someone first sees you, then later will talk to you, and only later might work with you,” he said. “There is a will to make the Family House work but it still needs more interaction.”
Wassef estimated that around 50 per cent of Exchange imams and priests have been active in pursuing the goals of the training. But if engaging men of religion has been hard work, convincing a sceptical public has been harder.
“Some of my colleagues in the ministry used to laugh at me, and some Christians say I am wasting my time,” he said. “But you meet some people who are ready to change. The progress is slow but sure.”
Bishop Mouneer echoed this long-term perspective, telling Exchange graduates that Egypt deserves their effort to rebuild.
“We must look not to what Egypt can give us, but what we can give Egypt and the future generations,” he said. Adding a word to their slogan, he urged them, “Always, together for the sake of Egypt. This is a beginning, not an end.”
Forgive Emad Youssef if he and his extended family felt quite confused. The crowd welcoming them back to the village had only a few days earlier demanded they leave.
“They said this is the first time something like this has happened in our village,” he told private satellite channel, OnTV “and that, Inshallah, it won’t happen again.”
Yet it happens frequently in Egypt – at least 23 times in the last four years, according to new research released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Whose Customs? – a 78-page report by the group – points out that the period from 2011-2014 saw 45 instances in which sectarian strife was settled, in different ways, outside the law through “Customary Reconciliation Sessions.”
In concept, Customary Reconciliation Sessions are community-based conflict resolution, long established in Egyptian tradition. If two residents have a dispute, solving it through the judicial system is long and costly. Instead, “wise men” of the village will hear both sides and issue a binding ruling. Religious leaders are often involved.
If the dispute is violent, the Customary Reconciliation Session is a method to calm tensions and prevent escalation. Police are usually present to enforce security.
But in the case of Youssef and his relatives, all Coptic Christians, the session took place because police did not do their job in the first place.
”This (the forced ‘relocation’) happened while the police were in the village, and they did nothing to stop them,” a local Copt, choosing anonymity, said.
Emad’s brother Ayman is a migrant worker in Jordan, accused of sharing pictures deemed insulting of Muhammad on Facebook via his cell phone. Ayman claims he is innocent. Nevertheless, on May 27 a mob gathered in his home village back in Egypt, attacking the houses and fields of his family and their Coptic neighbors. The village of Kafr Darwish, about two-thirds Muslim, is located in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo.
Reports say that some local Muslim neighbors tried to defend the family, but the mayor was not able to control the situation. Officials and village leaders conducted a Customary Reconciliation Sessions and issued a verdict placating the mob. In Ayman’s absence his family was punished, resulting in the expulsion of 18 individuals, including Ayman’s mother and his 71-year-old father.
The displaced told of their ordeal as they were “traveling from one town to another and not finding a place to accommodate us.”
In this one instance, five families of 18 members had to contend with living in one room. “They expelled us while we have done nothing, we are struggling to provide for ourselves,” they said before their return.
Media is often inattentive to Upper Egyptian issues, but in this case the outcry was immediate. Popular broadcaster Ibrahim Eissa declared, “How is that we have an enlightened president but a Salafi [ultraconservative Muslim] state? We don’t have the courage to say: These are their homes and their life is here. Whoever stands against them and the law will be judged by the law!”
A day before Eissa said this, the Beni Sweif state governor had tried to intervene, announcing the displaced families would return. This only resulted in further attacks in the village. But the following day control was established. The governor convened a meeting in the village, with high profile political, religious, and security figures – and more than 2,000 residents.
According to Mideast Christian News, the governor announced that the law does not allow the displacement of any Egyptian from their home. He promised to restore the properties that had been damaged.
But Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, which helped first report the story, is not aware of even one Muslim arrested for the attacks. MCN reported that Christian villagers submitted the names of 20 individuals involved.
“I don’t consider this a happy ending, it is not a healthy situation and the law is not enforced,” Sidhom told World Watch Monitor.
Fanatics ”may harm Christians,” he said, ”but the greater harm is done to the sovereignty of the state.”
The incident was unique in that the state intervened to overturn the results of a Customary Reconciliation Session. But Ishak Ibrahim, lead author of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights report, said the non-prosecution of offenders is common. In the vast majority of cases studied, no arrests were made. In the few that were, the accused were released shortly thereafter. The reconciliation agreements often stipulated the relinquishing of legal procedures.
“If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian attacks,” said Ibrahim, “but accepting it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions. We put responsibility on the government because it is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”
Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. And while Article 185 of the penal code allows for a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.
But the waiver of prosecution has not applied to Christian aggressors.
Not all incidents begin as sectarian. In 29 per cent of the studied cases, community tension resulted from a romantic relationship between a Muslim and a Christian, and in 16 per cent conflict emerged from land or other property disputes.
In each one where the Christian was at fault, legal prosecution continued after penalties, often exorbitant, had been stipulated by a Customary Reconciliation Session. But when the Muslim is at fault, reconciliation and social peace are emphasized. Sometimes there are no penalties whatsoever; other times the church has opted for waiving them to keep the peace.
Bias against Christians is also apparent in disputes with religious origins. Thirty-one percent of cases have to do with the practice of Christian religious ritual, including attempted church construction and repair.
Only one case was resolved in their favor.
Even the “Martyrs” Church, established by a presidential decision to honor the 20 Egyptian Copts killed in Libya by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, had to be “physically relocated” following protests and a subsequent Customary Reconciliation Session.
Eight per cent of cases had to do with expressing opinions on religious matters. The majority involved simply “liking” a Facebook page deemed insulting to Islam, and resulted in expulsion of the offender from his village.
World Watch Monitor previously reported on Gad Younan, a teacher from Minya arrested with some of his students for a video in which they made fun of Islamic State. Mideast Christian News has recently reported that judicial procedures resulted in his release on bail pending further trial, but that the Customary Reconciliation Session agreement continues to demand he not return home.
“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdulrahman, head of the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Abdulrahman explained that those who conduct the reconciliation sessions often view them as above and apart from the law. This status is buttressed by the police presence that implicitly endorses the process.
And in a rare departure from Coptic restraint in criticism of the government, Bishop Aghathon of Minya accused local authorities of collusion with conservative Muslims in Customary Reconciliation Sessions. He told a Coptic satellite television channel that, in one incident in his diocese, the typical mob protest was instigated by security.
General Sayyid Nour el-Din, former director of security in Minya, defended the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions. “It does not conflict with the law at all, it has to do with the prevention of bloody conflicts,” he told OnTV. “The security presence is there to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.”
Nour el-Din said security has to be especially vigilant as Islamist groups are looking for any excuse to explode the situation. Strong especially in the poorer southern governorates, their presence coincides with the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions following sectarian incidents. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reported 48 per cent of cases are from Upper Egypt, 33 per cent from Minya alone.
The Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the forced displacement of Copts in Kafr Darwish, while blaming the church for tearing apart national unity through its support of the government.
This latter sentiment was emphasized by Amr Abdul Rahim, a former member of parliament from al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, an Islamist group implicated in many attacks on Copts in Upper Egypt during the 1990s.
“The church is part of Sisi’s regime,” Abdul Rahim said. “(The church clergy) have to wake up and realize they are playing with Coptic lives and leading them to a holocaust.”
Though Abdul Rahim insists that “Muslims” are not against Copts, his criticism makes no distinction between Islamist ideology and Muslim identity.
‘Roots of the Problem’
Statistics assembled by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights indicated the use of one Customary Reconciliation Session per month during the interim rule of the military, when, following the fall of Mubarak, a security vacuum existed and Islamist groups felt themselves in the ascendency. During Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led presidency, the rate rose to 1.25 per month.
It declined under interim president Mansour and incumbent president Sisi following the removal of Morsi, but the practice continues all the same. The report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted six incidents, outside the scope of its report, in the first half of 2015 alone.
“From Mubarak to today, no regime has dealt with the roots of the problem,” said Ibrahim, the report’s lead author.
Sidhom tied Customary Reconciliation Sessions to an unreformed educational system that does not properly instill the values of citizenship. Related is a weak state apparatus that submits to the pressure of militant action apart from the law.
But Ibrahim emphasized he is not against Customary Reconciliation Sessions in principle.
“Anything that extinguishes sectarian tension is beneficial, as long as the process of law continues,” he told OnTV. “The problem is that it is a replacement for law, often compelled upon the weaker party, reflecting the local situation of power.”
But where power is balanced and tension is not high, Christians, like Muslims, avail themselves readily of a Customary Reconciliation Session, especially in view of a judicial system saddled with millions of new and pending cases.
“In 90 per cent of the cases, CRS is beneficial,” Fr. Yu’annis Anton of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Minya told World Watch Monitor. “Relationships are reconciled and everyone takes his rights.”
Anton speaks from a long experience with Customary Reconciliation Sessions, underlining their utility in non-sectarian cases. This is not the case of Kafr Darwish, he said, which was an emergency situation.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted that its 45 cases detail only Customary Reconciliation Session use following sectarian clashes, not the practice itself.
Perhaps following in the footsteps of Jesus, Emad Youssef chooses to reflect positively.
“This trial was from God, who has used it to increase the love shown to us by Muslim neighbors,” he said.
“They have made reconciliation,” added the 71 year old father. “We have returned home, in goodness and peace.”