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A Tale of Three Churches

New Capital Cathedral
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo visits the Cathedral of the Nativity in Cairo, Egypt, on January 10, 2019. [State Department photo/Public Domain]
This article was first published in the Summer 2019 print edition of Light magazine, produced by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

In January, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt stood side-by-side with Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Inaugurating the Cathedral of Nativity, the largest church in the Middle East, he uttered two remarkable words that reverberated through the national broadcast to Muslim homes throughout the nation.

“Merry Christmas.”

If some Christians find this phrase under siege in America, they have no idea the power unleashed by the president’s words. Eight years earlier, emboldened by the Arab Spring and empowered by the Muslim Brotherhood presidency of Mohamed Morsi, ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims sparked nationwide controversy by declaring no pious Muslim could utter the words.

Their point was theological—Christmas celebrates God becoming man in Jesus, and a Muslim cannot congratulate a Christian neighbor for such blasphemy. But the impact was social. Easygoing Egyptians had long wished each other good greetings on respective religious feasts. Salafis are better practicing Muslims than we are, many would admit, and a chill began to spread in community relations.

When then-defense minister Sisi overthrew Morsi following widespread protests against his rule, he did so with Pope Tawadros—and the head of al-Azhar, the leading Islamic institution in Egypt—standing nearby in support. As president he became the first to attend a Christmas mass, a practice he has continued. He speaks strongly about the rights of Christians and their place in the nation. And in building a new capital city he made sure the centerpiece landmarks would be the region’s largest mosque and church, built side-by-side. There is no Merry Christmas controversy today.

But do Sisi’s words fall on deaf ears? Are the arms of the state too weak? Or might he be of double mind, grandiloquent in gesture, apathetic in implementation? Two other church examples counterbalance the cathedral…

Please click here to download the print edition; my article is on page 54.

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Happy Orthodox Easter, from the Egyptian President

EGYPT-POLITICS-RELIGION-COPTIC-SISI
President Sisi visits Pope Tawadros in advance of Easter 2014, via AFP.

Happy belated Easter, to Protestant and Catholic Christians who celebrated last week.

But having enjoyed either “Pascha” or “Paas” (or both), please do not be remiss in remembering your Orthodox brothers and sisters today.

After all, even the president of Egypt extends his greetings — and more.

I call on all of us to remember the teachings of Jesus Christ that lead humanity to the ways of love and peace,” he said, as reported by Ahram Online.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a Muslim.

Muslims join Christians in acknowledging the virgin birth of Jesus, but not his resurrection. Most believe he never died, delivered from the cross and taken to heaven.

Many of Salafi orientation go as far as saying that Muslims should not even give Easter greetings, lest they encourage a theological error.

Christmas is a national holiday in Egypt, but not Easter.

Even so Christians are administratively equal. They are given vacation time, and recently have even been legally encouraged in pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Muslims are to Mecca. 

Of course, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is also a politician, and politicians can say many things to curry favor.

But one, give credit not only for what could have been tepid acknowledgement, but instead is near fervent preaching.

He calls Muslims also in the teachings of Jesus.

And two, give credit to Egypt that if he is only currying favor, he judges the 90 percent of Muslims as at least non-offended by Easter greetings to the 10 percent minority.

Therefore, follow his example, and greet also the Orthodox minority in your own nations. And when the time comes, greet too the Muslims.

Encourage them both, like Sisi, toward greater love and peace.

And Ekhristos Anesti, for those who believe.

Tawadros Tayyib Easter
The Grand Imam and a delegation from al-Azhar greets Pope Tawadros for Easter 2018, via the Coptic Orthodox Spokesman.
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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Re-Election

Flag Cross Quran

God,

The election is over, and there were no surprises. President Sisi won re-election with 90 percent of the votes cast. His opponent – 3%. Spoiled ballots – 7%. Overall turnout – 41%.

It is a respectable show of support. Critics say the best candidates were discouraged or prevented from running. They say the government mobilized to get out the vote. They say the media was either complicit, or bullied.

Decide between them, God. But bless the Egyptian people in their choice.

And now, and continue, bless the Egyptian head-of-state.

Give him wisdom to handle the ongoing challenges. Economy. Water. Reform. Terror.

Give him wisdom to handle the coming choices. Constitution. Legacy. Politics. Friends.

Lead him, God. May he seek your leading.

And with him, Egypt entire. Let these be four years of peace, stability, prosperity, and justice.

May all surprises be welcome. May all turn out to the good.

Amen.

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Does One Huge New Church in Egypt Make Up for Troubles with 24 Small Ones?

Sisi New Coptic Cathedral
(via Ahram Online)

This article was first published at Christianity Today on January 10, 2018.

Celebrating Christmas with Egyptian Christians for the fourth consecutive year, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi presented the largest gift under the tree: A new cathedral.

Sisi was the first president in Egypt’s history to even attend a Christmas mass. During last year’s celebration, he promised to build Egypt’s largest church and largest mosque in a yet-to-be-developed new administrative capital.

Three weeks earlier, 27 people had been killed in a suicide bombing in a chapel adjacent the old cathedral and papal residence, St. Mark’s in Cairo.

“Evil, destruction, and killing will never defeat goodness, peace, and love,” Sisi said at this month’s cathedral inauguration. “We are one, and you are our families. No one can ever divide us.”

Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II called the new church, named The Nativity of Christ, a “divine arrangement.”

But also…

 

One week prior to the Helwan incident, a church in Atfih, 60 miles south of Cairo, was ransacked—not by terrorists, but by dozens of local Muslims offended by the rumor that a bell would be installed in the unlicensed village church.

In a recent report by EIPR, Egypt witnessed 20 similar sectarian incidents at churches over a 13-month period. Ibrahim said the total is now up to 24.

EIPR’s reporting timeframe began with the issuance of Egypt’s new church building law, meant to eliminate such problems…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

 

 

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What Trump’s Evangelical Advisors Took Out of Egypt

Egypt Evangelical Delegation 2
Image: A. Larry Ross US evangelicals meet with Egypt’s grand mufti.

This article was first published at Christianity Today on November 14, 2017.

Jim Garlow walked cautiously through the cavernous halls of Egypt’s Ministry of Islamic Endowments. He prayed: Why am I here, God? What do you want me to see?

The pastor of Skyline Church in San Diego was part of a 12-member delegation of American evangelicals. Their mission: To offer friendship to the president of Egypt.

But as largely a Who’s Who of Christian Zionists and otherwise pro-Israel pastors and ministry leaders, the mission could easily go awry in a majority-Muslim nation where even the Coptic Orthodox Church still officially bans pilgrimage to neighboring Jerusalem.

Mike Evans, founder of the Friends of Zion Heritage Center in Jerusalem, is a lifelong friend of Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu. Mario Bramnick, senior pastor of New Wine Ministries Church in Florida, is president of the Latino Coalition for Israel. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, leads tours to Israel. They were assembled by Joel Rosenberg, a Jewish Christian with dual US and Israeli citizenship and author of the fictional The Last Jihad series.

But Rosenberg had recently made a new friend, giving him confidence that this visit might be God’s will.

Last year in March, he spent five days in Jordan as a guest of King Abdullah, who had just read his book. Intrigued after noticing himself as a named character in Rosenberg’s latest series on the ISIS threat, the Muslim ruler wanted to know more. (Rosenberg assured Abdullah that his character didn’t die in the series, which the king went on to finish reading.)

Not long thereafter, God placed on Rosenberg’s heart a different Middle East leader: President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt.

Invited as 1 of 60 Middle East experts to a forum held during Sisi’s state visit to President Donald Trump in April, Rosenberg walked up and boldly introduced himself.

“I’m Jewish,” he told CT. “I’ve got some chutzpah.”

Rosenberg thanked Sisi for rescuing Egypt and its Christians from the Muslim Brotherhood. He commended the president for reaching out to Jews and to Roman Catholics.

“But there is one group I don’t see: evangelicals,” he told Sisi. “It’s not your fault; probably we haven’t asked. But would you like us to bring a delegation of leaders to come and visit you?”

Seven months later, Garlow was in Cairo.

“Each step of the way I learned so much,” he said. “There were insights I had never known…”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

Egypt Evangelical Delegation
Press el-Sisi: Egyptian President el-Sisi (front center) receives a first-ever delegation of American Evangelical leaders in the Presidential Palace after a frank and transparent dialogue about challenges in the region and opportunities for cooperation.
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Friday Prayers for Egypt: United Nations

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Significant things happened within Egypt this week. A prisoner was acquitted after four years detainment. Two churches reopened after security concerns. Police station spot inspections were begun by parliament.

But the president was in New York at the United Nations, significantly negotiating the path of the nation.

He earned praise for helping un-divide the Palestinians. He urged better coordination in combatting terrorism. He signed memorandums on illegal migration. He lobbied for increased foreign investment.

He took his place on the world stage, mingling with world leaders.

Interests govern foreign affairs, God. But relationships can make a significant difference.

So does domestic policy. Help Egypt do what is right by her own people.

But in the world, give the president grace. In precarious times, help him balance sovereignty and support. Help him challenge allies, and win over foes.

Help him represent Egypt.

It is a significant task, God, but in your sovereignty, support him. Of the people, and for them, challenge, and win over.

Amen.

 

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Trump Trial

Flag Cross Quran

God,

They started out friendly. Probably they still are. But the American president played an unexpected wild card, with developments still uncertain.

The US cut its military aid.

Trump has repeatedly praised Sisi, who has returned the admiration. But even so his administration followed an Obama pattern in holding back some aid pending better progress in human rights and democracy.

One reason: The controversial NGO law. Sources said they were told by Egypt it would not pass.

God, international relations are built on interests, but also through relationship. Strengthen communication between the two leaders.

Did Egypt promise and not deliver? Did she deceive to begin with? Or is it an erroneous report?

Let there be clarity in the relationship, God. Let Egypt know exactly what the US requires, and act accordingly.

No games. No guessing.

But also no free ride. Help Egypt judge the demands of her sovereignty. If accepting aid, in exchange for what? Is it a price worth paying?

Help her reach a place no aid is needed.

Develop Egypt in human rights and democracy, God. Develop also the American understanding.

Where there is a gap, narrow it.

Preserve friendly relations, God. In international relations, wild is risky. Put cards on the table, and play them well.

All is uncertain, but you know the way. Lead Egypt to the right and good.

Amen.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Trumping Protest

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Bless the president-to-be of the United States of America. May he govern wisely. May he engage Egypt well.

But though many are troubled in America at his arrival, many in Egypt welcome his opposition to the Brotherhood and his favor expressed toward Sisi.

And he comes at a moment when many in Egypt are troubled. An inflationary economy. A protest threatened.

A protest fizzled. A few answered mostly anonymous calls to fill the squares and overthrow the government. They were quickly subdued.

Among political forces only the Brotherhood endorsed the effort. The streets fell silent, save for the bustle of those who went about their business.

Issues remain, God, though an IMF cash infusion has been approved. May it begin to restore equilibrium, starting with those who need it most.

Until then, God, help many make due. Give them voice, that they might help shape policy.

And give wisdom to Trump, by whom so many in the world will now be affected. May America, and Egypt, to all be a blessing.

Amen.

 

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President Sisi Welcomes the Anglican Global South to Cairo

anglican-global-south-with-president-sisi
Credit: Egyptian Presidential Office

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt welcomed yesterday a delegation of 16 archbishops from the Anglican Global South, led by Archbishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, chairman of the Global South Steering Committee.

In a discussion lasting 90 minutes, Sisi affirmed the important role religious leaders play in peacemaking, helping spread a culture of tolerance and accepting the ‘other’.

Unfortunately, he said, extremists in religion do not accept diversity, calling anyone who disagrees with them an ‘infidel’ worthy to be killed.

Sisi told the archbishops that Egypt is keen to guarantee freedom of belief and worship for all its citizens, stressing the need to reform religious discourse to confront such extremism.

The archbishops commended Sisi for visiting the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo for Coptic Christmas on January 7, to which Sisi replied it was his joy to be able to bring such joy to others.

Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo of Sudan and South Sudan thanked Sisi for looking after the refugees in Egypt, the majority of whom are Sudanese.

At the end of the meeting Anis thanked Sisi for their warm reception, and spoke of the efforts of the Egyptian diocese to build bridges between the different faith communities.

The meeting was also attended by the British ambassador to Egypt John Casson, joining Bishop Paul Butler of Durham in the UK, a member of the House of Lords.

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Strength in Weakness: Egypt President’s Apology Spurs Hope

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

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.

Belhasa Church
Top-of-the-line construction in Belhasa

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.

Abuna Yu'annis at Belhasa
Fr Yuannis (R) inside Belhasa’s restored church

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.

Priority

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
‘Our country appreciates us’: Bishop Biemen

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.”’

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Coalition

Flag Cross Quran

God,

After campaigning comes positioning. Perhaps after that will come legislating and querying. But help Egypt’s newly elected representatives to get this interim period right.

An effort is underway to draft members into a grand coalition to support the presidency of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. This would be consistent, as many campaigned on this very point. They want the Egyptian state to succeed, and believe unity between the executive and legislative branches is essential.

Others suspect an agenda to recreate the non-ideological party that surrounded former President Mubarak. Some even accuse the effort of imitating the Muslim Brotherhood tendency to exclude other voices.

But to a degree, coalitions are necessary. The constitution gives the parliament the right to approve the president’s cabinet. If not, the leading party or coalition has the right to form the government. There is currently no party with a majority.

Therefore, God, be present in all negotiations.

Weigh the motivations of leading and lesser players. Give them discernment against personal interests. Guard them against partisan manipulation. May they politic truly, but politic well.

Support the state, God. Empower just institutions, promote humble individuals.

Help Egypt’s coalitions to move, in time, from people to policies. But may the policies always be conscious of the people.

And soon, regardless of how coalitions emerge, inspire parliament to accomplish its constitutional mandate. Give wisdom in the reviewing of law. Give courage in the accounting of government.

God, with greater stability comes greater responsibility. Fulfill Egypt’s promise, and the many promises she has made. Position her – and her representatives – to do good to many.

Amen.

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The Transitive Property of Journalism Principle

(from Daily News Egypt)
(from Daily News Egypt)

Double standards are human nature, but seem also to be evident among some of Egypt’s journalists. Consider these two articles from Ahram Online.

Two weeks ago President Sisi made a speech in which he criticized the media:

“I heard a media personality saying that the president was holding talks with representatives of foreign companies while Alexandria was sinking. Speaking like that is totally unacceptable. We can’t deal with our problems this way,” he said, referring to TV host Khaled Abu Bakr who criticised him during the flooding in Alexandria.

But the syndicate held its ground, and responded:

“Constructive criticism is the way to build a state with justice and freedom regardless of how strong it is or its nature or the person who is being criticised,” a statement issued by the syndicate read.

All well and good. But consider the syndicate’s reaction when a member receives apparent ‘constructive criticism’:

Egypt’s Press Syndicate announced on Monday its solidarity with the Chamber of Audiovisual Media Industry’s (CAMI) decision to ban lawyer and Zamalek Club chairman Mortada Mansour from appearing on its TV channels.

“We call on all journalists who are members of the syndicate to boycott any pressers held by Mansour as well as not report on any of his statements,” the syndicate said in a statement.

There is a history here, of course:

The Press Syndicate’s statement also announced its solidarity with CBC “especially since Mansour has returned to attacking journalists and media personalities.”

For his part, Mansour decided late Monday to cancel the membership of several prominent journalists at Zamalek Sport’s Club in response to the CAMI and Press Syndicate decision.

Mansour is certainly a firebrand, not averse to making controversial and often ill-founded statements. But what was his concern in this case?

Mansour had accused El-Hadidy of intentionally not giving a voice to his son Ahmed Mortada Mansour while he was running for parliament last month.

Mansour claimed that his son, now an MP, wanted to make a phone call on El-Hadidy’s show, which she refused while at the same time hosting  his rival in the electoral race, Amr El-Shobaki.

At issue, of course, is whether or not the accusation is true. The article gives no indication either way.

But it appears contradictory for the syndicate to insist to the president on the right of free and open coverage, including criticism, when it calls for a media blackout against one who criticism them.

Consult the Sermon on the Mount for more information.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Statements Abroad

Flag Cross QuranGod,

At the United Nations and in interviews with Western press, President Sisi issued many positive statements. Egypt is improving its economy. Parliamentary elections are coming. Freedoms are being protected. Terrorism is being fought.

May it all be true.

Moreover, God, may it set an agenda. May the president’s rhetoric signal initiative to make it fully true. May it speak to ministers, officials, police, activists, politicians, and ordinary citizens that the promises of revolution are priority.

For back in Egypt, there are areas where it is not yet true. Activists have disappeared. Judicial trials are disputed. Inflation strains the economy. Terrorism is a lingering threat.

God, help Egypt balance between encouraging word and wounding critique. Let the president’s rhetoric speak of hope that launches new momentum. Let his policy implement reform that creates new culture.

Give Sisi wisdom, God. Give him men of integrity and efficiency.

Give Egypt justice, God. Give her systems of transparency and accountability.

Preserve Egypt. Bless her president. Establish all that is right and true. May those abroad bear witness.

Amen.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Remembering Rabaa

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Two years are past, hundreds are dead. Help Egypt to remember correctly.

In response to massive protests against then-President Morsi, his supporters rallied in protests of their own. They continued several weeks after he was removed by the army. After several warnings to disband, the camp was cleared forcibly. Some policemen were killed, but so many more protesters.

God, give justice for every innocent life. Hold accountable every unjustified killing. Help Egypt recover and heal from a terrible wound.

But the call to remember Rabaa implicitly ignores other troublesome events. A second campsite also witnessed much loss of life, as did demonstrations before and after. Retaliatory attacks struck at police stations and churches throughout the country. Dehumanizing and sectarian rhetoric was hurled in multiple directions.

God, it was ugly.

Two years later much of the country has moved on. A new constitution was written and ratified. The military hero who overthrew Morsi was overwhelmingly elected president. Pro-Morsi demonstrations long continued, clashes ensued, and arrests multiplied. Things are much quieter now, but a terrorist insurgency feeds off the memory.

Some memories are selective, others choose to forget. But two responses are necessary, and seem purposefully ignored: Accountability and forgiveness.

In their place a sole word reigns: Retribution. One side enacts, the other calls.

Justice, God, could take its place, if agreement could settle on a definition. Mutual acrimony and mutual culpability sideline the possibility.

So what can be done, God?

For those aggrieved, touch their hearts. Direct their ire and guide their response, but let not their souls be poisoned. May they overcome hatred, and transform anger. For their own sake, Egypt’s, and the path of righteousness, help them forgive and respond in blessing.

For those aggressing, touch their conscience. Honor their duty and gird their devotion, but let not transgression be swept under the rug. May they be stricken in soul, and find restoration. Give all authorities wisdom, mercy, and firm commitment to rule of law.

But all this may not be enough, God. Behind Rabaa is also a clash of ideologies. Help Egypt to remember, but also to know herself. Guide all in creating the proper society, inclusive of as many as possible.

There, and in getting there, may Egypt heal.

Amen.

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The Real Threat to Sisi: His Own Inept House?

President Sisi meeting with his first cabinet officials following election as president in June 2014
President Sisi meeting with his first cabinet officials following election as president in June 2014

The title of this post summarizes the opinion of an article in International Policy Digest, describing two main camps among Sisi’s power base. Both the military/institutions of state and the business/media/political elite are used to cooperating, but are so used to the rules of the old game they don’t realize the world has changed.

As such, they take bizarre decisions that — in support of Sisi — only serve to undermine him. One prominent example:

An example of that is the appointment of the prominent Egyptian scientist, Dr. Essam Heggy, as an advisor to Egypt’s interim president. Dr. Heggy’s appointment coincided with the scientific scandal in the Egyptian army which claimed to possess (false) medical invention to treats AIDS and Hepatitis C which was supposed to enhance Sisi’s image locally and internationally.

Dr. Heggy harshly criticized the disreputable invention. As a result he was accused by the institutions of being an American spy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood member and of undermining Egypt’s national security.

The crux of their argument:

In the past, institutions functioned under the authoritarian command of Mubarak whose regime was experienced in handling their behavior. But in Sisi’s case, the rampant level of delinquency and irrationality that surrounds his regime runs counter to his interests. He is simply unable to control them for multiple reasons that could vary from lack of will to his inability to realize the problem itself.

Sisi himself is a product of those institutions. He was raised, educated and is an integral part of their doctrine so chances that he realizes the fatality of these flaws – let alone the need to reform them – remains slim.

This article hits at a theme that has long plagued analysis of the Egyptian scene. Since 2011, in lieu of facts I have struggled to wade through conspiracy theories because a common axiom was so consistently violated by so many players: Do not act contrary to your own interests.

One question is fair: Blindness is possible, but is Sisi’s house really so inept? One could argue that Egypt has navigated great social upheaval relatively well in effort of securing the most important locus of support — domestic. Even if academics, activists, and idealists groan.

But another question is necessary: Does Sisi not know? I would guess he fully realizes the nature of Egyptian bureaucracy and is working to instill fresh blood.

If the author’s thesis is correct, he still may not be able to do so, as Egyptian institutions guard their independence and the new constitution weakened the traditional centrality of the state. But it could also be it is not fully time yet. If he needs all on his side, then how can he slice through a bloated bureaucracy?

But look at the steps taken on subsidies. Look at the reform of the bread market. Look at the appointment of civilian governors. The author is ignoring difficult decisions neglected by previous administrations.

Then again, look at the introduction of coal. Look at the absence of a parliament. And analysts say the army is better equipped for traditional conflict than it is for fighting a terrorist insurgency. It is a very mixed bag.

But is it not time yet? That is not Sisi’s spoken perception. Upon his election he asked for two years to get the Egyptian house in order. The clock is ticking, but he is aware of its hands. He constantly demands something be done now, very contrary to Egyptian culture.

But through it all there are still few facts, and not enough transparency, so the article remains plausible even as it ends with its own conspiratorial prediction, though one more easily swallowed by academics, activists, and idealists:

Sisi’s regime will only recognize this fatality when the international community further downgrades his posture and when Egyptians run out of patience and recognize that no single progress has been made in any field including security – which was a prime reason why people voted for Sisi. By then, it will certainly be too late for him to reform or repair the damage.

Your thoughts?

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When Sectarian Conflict Finds a Local Solution, Copts Lose

EIPR's Ishak Ibrahim; Arabic translation of press conference title: Whose Customs?
EIPR’s Ishak Ibrahim; Arabic translation of press conference title: Whose Customs?

This article was first published at Egypt Source:

What is the value of a presidential visit to the papal cathedral for a seventy-year-old Copt driven from his village? What good are warm relations between Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Pope Tawadros if relations remain tense between Youssef Tawfiq and his Muslim neighbors?

A new report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) says this problem runs far deeper than Sisi and Tawfiq. Over the past four years, twenty-three other Copts have been forcibly displaced from their homes out of forty-five cases examined by EIPR where community justice—rather than legal procedure—has mediated sectarian clashes.

In Jordan, far from the village of Kafr Darwish in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo, Tawfiq’s son Ayman was alleged to have shared insulting pictures of Muhammad on his Facebook page. Upon hearing the rumor, which Ayman denies, a mob gathered and set fire to his family’s homes and fields. An overwhelmed mayor and village officials, with police present, conducted what is known as a ‘customary reconciliation session’ (CRS). Meant to subdue tensions and restore order, village elders debated a just solution.

Ayman’s father, mother, and sixteen other relatives were ordered to leave town.

“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdel Rahman, head of the civil liberties unit at EIPR. Report author Ishak Ibrahim was even more explicit. “If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian conflict, but it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions,” he said.

As EIPR details in its forty-five cases, rarely are individuals from the mob arrested. When they are, many times the reconciliation agreement stipulates the relinquishing of judicial procedure. All of this is contrary to the law. Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. While Article 185 of the penal code allows a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

The EIPR report shows two primary controversies: The first is the free practice of religious ritual, including the building, expansion, and renovation of churches. At 31 percent, it is only slightly more frequent than clashes involving romantic relationships between a Muslim and a Christian, at 29 percent. Land and property disputes constitute 16 percent and expressing opinions on religious matters make up 8 percent, as in the case of Ayman.

At times sectarianism is at the heart of the problem; at times normal community problems escalate along sectarian lines. But among the most controversial aspects of CRS is the presence of police.

“Traditional sessions do not conflict with the law at all, they have to do with the prevention of bloody conflict,” former security director for Minya Sayyid Nour el-Din, told OnTV, defending police practice. “The security presence is to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.” But in some cases EIPR studied, the police participated in issuing decisions. In others they randomly arrested people on both sides to exert pressure to accept the CRS process.

EIPR does not condemn CRS entirely, as in non-sectarian cases it has the potential to reach a consensual opinion and avoid lengthy legal processes. For Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani which helped break the story in Kafr Darwish, reaching a fair outcome in sectarian conflict is rare. “Usually it is humiliating, as it forces the will of the stronger party upon the weaker,” he said. “When security officials let this be done under their eyes and blessing, it is a very grave mistake.”

At stake is the sovereignty of the state, he said. But perhaps it is getting better? The report said there were twenty-one cases under transitional military governance after the fall of Mubarak, at a rate of one per month. President Morsi’s year in office witnessed fifteen, at a rate of 1.25 per month. Under Mansour and Sisi, only nine cases were reported over eighteen months through the end of 2014, when the reporting concludes.

Then again, Ibrahim said there have been six cases in the first half of 2015. The problem is not going away.

After a media outcry, the governor of Beni Suef intervened and security returned Youssef Tawfiq and his family to their homes in Kafr Darwish. Sidhom believes President Sisi acted quietly behind the scenes. “I don’t consider this a happy ending as the law is still not enforced,” he said, noting that to his knowledge, none of the mob are in prison nor have any in the police force been disciplined. “You cannot live under the mercy of the president rather than the rule of the law.”

As with much else in today’s Egypt, the issue falls to Sisi. He has done much to try to change a culture—visiting the cathedral and calling for the reform of religious discourse. But will he follow through to change a reality? Will he be able?

Egyptians have respect for the strong leader. They have less respect for those who ‘talk.’ If Sisi sets the right tone—backed by holding accountable those responsible for undermining state sovereignty—others will walk in step with him and help transform the culture over the long run.

But not if he is weak. The president has shown a strong hand in asserting control over the Egyptian state—despite international criticism over violations of human rights. Similarly, if Sisi is intent on a new relationship with Egypt’s religious minority (as implied by his rhetoric and meetings with Pope Tawadros), he will have to face possible domestic and institutional criticism to assert it further by arresting aggressors and disciplining enablers.

“We put responsibility on the government,” said Ibrahim. “It is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Europe

Flag Cross QuranGod,

It is Egyptians who must determine their leadership. Bless her with enduring independence and government of the people.

But Europe has a significant influence in legitimizing. President Sisi visited Germany and Hungary to strengthen ties and secure trade. Meanwhile a group of international Islamic scholars gathered in Turkey to give religious justification to resist and take retribution.

Egypt barred a human rights activist from a conference in Berlin. Meanwhile the world awaits the judgment of London if the Brotherhood has terrorist links.

God, make clear in Egypt both reality and righteousness. Let there be transparency over every crime and allegation. Let there be accountability for every failure and offense.

And in Europe, where transparency and accountability are presumably stronger, let there be more than interests and leverage. May they respect both rights and sovereignty.

Balancing both, may peace – with all legitimate pressure – prevail.

Preserve good relations, God. Preserve good government.

And may both ultimately be by and for the people.

Amen.

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Brotherhood’s Call for Retribution is ‘Religious Violence’

Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, a Salafi signatory of Egypt Call.
Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, a Salafi signatory of Egypt Call.

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.

Question

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.’

Press conference in Istanbul for Egypt Call. Ghoneim is back row, 5th from left.
Press conference in Istanbul for Egypt Call. Ghoneim (mentioned below) is back row, 5th from left.

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?

Ambiguity

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.

Perspective

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.

This article was originally published at Lapido Media.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Party Dynamics

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Two Egyptian granddaddies are going through growing pains. Both predate the modern state, and are striving to remain relevant.

The Muslim Brotherhood is taken over by its youth, who are forcing a revolutionary path. A new statement says resistance is an Islamic obligation, with all means possible to undue the fall of Morsi. There is no mention of peacefulness. A bid by the historic leadership to reassert itself appears to have failed.

The Egyptian Wafd, meanwhile, is also in crisis. Despite the intervention of President Sisi, agreements to reconcile two conflicting factions have fallen apart again. The wing which advocates reform is connected to historical families, while the current president is a prominent businessman – who has won elections. Though the party has a venerable name, its general support on the street is unclear.

God, forgive tepid prayers in others’ business. Where there is virtue, unity is paramount. Where there is discord, sin eats itself. Where there is partisanship, these distinctions are charged. Prayer can offer discernment, but it is dangerous to take sides.

So God, resolve these crises toward the good of Egypt, as you interpret best. Sideline those who prevent positions of virtue. Allow the mutual failures of those who compete in partnership with vice. In both, protect the innocent from all collateral harm.

And protect Egypt, God. Protect her from the spirit of retribution. Protect her from the spirit of subservience. Honor zeal. Reform society. Establish justice. Develop polity. Give stability.

The Brotherhood and Wafd have a long history of rhetoric toward these principles. May the principles outlive the parties.

And may the parties continue only as long as they are faithful stewards of this trust. They are both grandfathers; may their children act with the wisdom of the aged.

Amen.

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The Archbishop of Canterbury in Cairo: Offering Condolence, Bearing Witness

Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby
Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

Archbishop of Canterbury Rev. Justin Welby visited the Anglican All Saints Cathedral in Cairo and opened his sermon with a surprising comparison. Earlier he visited Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyeb, and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II.

“It has been an interesting and useful day,” the archbishop told the packed cathedral of his high profile itinerary, “but worshipping with you is the most important part.

“Here we meet with Jesus Christ and become his witnesses.”

Welby’s visit was to offer condolences for Egypt’s most recent witnesses, the twenty Coptic Christians and one Ghanaian martyred in Libya in February. The word ‘martyr’ is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘witness.’

Symbolically, Welby delivered to Pope Tawadros twenty-one letters written by grieving British families. One is believed to have been related to David Haines, the aid worker captured in Syria and beheaded last year.

“Why have the martyrs of Libya spoken so powerfully to the world?” Welby asked. “The way these brothers lived and died communicated that their testimony is trustworthy.”

The Most Rev. Dr. Mouneer Hanna Anis, archbishop of the Anglican diocese of Egypt, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa, hosted Welby and welcomed him warmly.

But an unfortunate symbolism coincided his visit with the release of another video from the Islamic State in Libya, this time of Ethiopian Christians. Two groups totaling twenty-eight people were martyred, one beheaded and the other shot in the head.

Welby paid tribute to them, along with others killed for their faith in Kenya and Nigeria.

He noted the certainty of their resurrection, but stated, “We must grieve for them, support their families, and seek to change the circumstances that lead to their deaths.”

Welby’s sermon did not go into specifics, but he has earlier defended military strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, while urging local governments to exercise their mandated use of force to restore order.

And concerning the flood of refugees to the region, “Europe as a whole must stand up and do what is right,” he told the BBC, and share the burden of accepting them.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, over 125,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt. Refuge Egypt, a social service arm of the Anglican Church in Egypt, extends food and medical care to those the UNHCR designates as of particular concern.

Welby praised the Christians of the Middle East for their trustworthy witness. But in order to be communicated, it must be acted out.

“If the church hears the world’s cries for help, but turns its back,” he said, “they will not believe in the love of Christ.”

Visiting with President Sisi, the archbishop heard him emphasize that Egyptian Christians are not a minority, but enjoy their full rights as all other Egyptian citizens.

Visiting with Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib, he heard that love and mercy are the two elements that must characterize both international and human relations, and that the true picture of Islam and Christianity must be presented to the world.

“When a community is full of light,” Welby said in his sermon, “people will see through it and perceive God, and know they are loved by Christ.”

During communion, he sought to demonstrate this. Aware the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic bishops present could not share in full fellowship, Welby went to them and knelt down, asking for a blessing. In response, the two reciprocated and each prayed for the other in turn.

So many are having hard times in this region, Welby said, he wanted to come and offer condolences. Finishing his sermon, hepromised the audience that he was praying for them in the Middle East, but closed with a request of his own, for the West.

“Please pray for us, that in our comfort we do not forget to be faithful witnesses.”

This article was first published at the Anglican Diocese of Egypt website.