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Culture Current Events

Art after Terror: Meet the Egyptian Church that Welcomes Muslims

This article was first published at The Media Project.

Art after Terror Alexandria

Two weeks after the Palm Sunday suicide bombing in Alexandria, security at the St. Mark’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral was tight. Police cordon, metal detector, bags checked – even eyeglasses needed to be removed.

But inside, tucked away behind the expectant bustle, volunteer leaders circled with hands together and let out a shout, as if to the whole world.

“Believe me, the solution is love!” they cried, raising their hands to heaven.

Ninety percent were Muslim.

Widely known in Egypt as an Islamist stronghold, for decades many Muslim youth in Alexandria had proclaimed the Muslim Brotherhood slogan: Islam is the solution.

And similar to churches throughout the country, St. Mark’s is couched behind thick, high walls. Save for official visits on Christian holidays, few Muslims would need to enter.

But society needed it, decided Nader Wanis. In 2012 in cooperation with church leaders, he opened the Corners for Creativity cultural center in the 150-year-old cathedral, seizing on an opening in the Arab Spring.

Despite the positive signs of youth engagement and interfaith cooperation during the Egyptian revolution, at the time there were also marks of tension. A year earlier conservative Salafis burned a church in Cairo believing a Muslim woman was kidnapped inside. Before that the Two Saints Church in Alexandria was bombed by unknown assailants on New Year’s Eve.

“The church has been misunderstood by the Egyptian street,” said Wanis. “There are rumors we have weapons, fornication, and sorcery inside.

“As long as the church stays closed, Muslims can think whatever they want. But the cultural center is a means to let people in.”

Welcome

Since then they have come in droves, and the community has welcomed it. Over one thousand each year have graduated from diverse training programs in singing, drawing, photography, acting, writing, fine arts, and graphic design. All are run by volunteer leaders.

On this occasion dozens of artists gathered for the monthly art exhibition and handicraft market. Paintings and sculptures lined the walls of the church in absolute reversal of their original purpose. Hijabed women offered their homemade crafts behind foldaway tables set up in front of the massive church door.

The volunteers’ pep talk met behind the welcoming ribbon soon to be cut by two deans from Alexandria University and a local businessman. And afterwards everyone gathered to honor participants in the sanctuary, where Muslims and Christians sang together about religious harmony and community service. “Believe me, love is the solution,” was one of their most enthusiastic.

But it almost didn’t happen.

The church attack ensured it did.

Nader was worshiping at St. Mark’s when the walls shook from the explosion at the Orthodox cathedral five minutes away, killing 17. Earlier the center had considered postponing the exhibition due to the university exam schedule. But after finishing communion he immediately called his team to determine the necessary response.

The 40 volunteer leaders gathered daily in discussion and decided to hold the exhibition and announce it as Masr al-Samida, Egypt the Resistant. Difficult to translate into English, it connotes the suffix ‘-proof’, as in ‘water-,’ or fittingly, ‘bomb-.’

“We insist on creating peace,” said Wanis. “As a church we will not be scared, we will not close in on ourselves again because of one or two incidents, we will not build more walls.

“Now, Muslims and Christians are together. If they explode us again we will die together.”

Message

Mohamed Moussa is one of the longest serving volunteers at the center. A fourth-year journalism student at Alexandria University, he is responsible to organize the exhibition.

“The message is that we are one people, persevering,” he said. “Every time something happens it only brings us closer.”

Moussa knew nothing of the center four years ago, but stumbled into a media course. Touched by the ethos he remains, now in charge of a medium far from his chosen education.

“When you are here you feel there is no difference between a Muslim and a Christian,” he said. “If anything they treat us better than them.

“We are one family, and we are getting bigger.”

Part of the allure of the center goes beyond interfaith unity. Volunteers are given additional training by Wanis and others in administration, marketing, and leadership. But this last word is anathema.

Volunteers are called khadim, the traditional word in the church that means “servant.”

“We are in a church, so they use our language,” Wanis said. “We reject the common terminology and its logic, because we do not lead, we serve.”

And the contrast could not be clearer for the newest volunteer.

“There is no ‘I’ here, we are all together and work together,” said Bassant Fawzy, a 21-year-old art student at Alexandria University.

“People with knowledge and skills tend to keep them to themselves, but here we teach each other.”

Only one week a “servant”, she brought along her friend Ibrahim Mohamed, who was surprised and impressed to see Islamic-themed art in a church building. Without his knowing, Fawzy borrowed his traditional drum and decorated it with a phrase from the popular song The Nation’s Heart is Wounded, “It is not for us to be silent.”

“We need hope to overcome the crisis,” Mohamed said. “We want everyone to know we support our country in all it is going through. And with terrorism in the churches we must say it here, in the heart of a church.”

Response

When Wanis started Corners for Creativity he did not know how Muslims would respond. Four topics were expressly forbidden: Religion, politics, sex, and soccer – four topics that divide society. But still today nervousness abounds.

“Some Christians are afraid for me,” said Bassem Mounir, a fine arts student and four months a servant. “After the bombings they are worried about Muslims coming into a church.

“But this church opens its doors to everyone, as if we are all brothers.”

At the ceremony each participant received a certificate, honored by the university deans. On the screen above flashed a prayer: God, remember the terrorists who love you and will even give their lives for you, but who neither know you nor your love for all people.

“There is a virus spreading through society to divide it, working through religion,” said Mohamed Helal, dean of the faculty of fine arts. “Religion builds walls, but art transcends them – and this is what Nader is doing.”

The effect has been transformative for Christian and Muslim alike.

“It makes people in our church feel like they are part of the community,” said Bishop Samy Fawzy Shehata, head of the Anglican churches in Alexandria. “It is not healthy to have walls around you, it is a kind of sign that you are an exclusive group.”

Instead, he believes, the church must present an essential message, in light of extremism that pulls people apart.

“We’re trying to show the community that it is possible to live together in peace,” he said.

“It’s not that difficult, you just open the door.”

 

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Current Events

Copts Pick Up the Pieces: An Interview with Bishop Thomas

A condensed version of this interview was first published at The Media Project on May 4, 2017.

Bishop Thomas
Bishop Thomas

Coptic Christians, the Middle East’s largest Christian community, account for roughly ten percent of Egypt’s population and have endured generations of exclusion and restrictions. Their struggles for equality have been aggravated by a series of gruesome and deadly attacks carried out by ISIS criminals. The latest act was a pair of bombings on Palm Sunday targeting packed churches in Alexandria and Tanta, which took the lives of 45 Christians and wounded more than 100 others, according to Human Rights Watch. ISIS previously targeted Copts in Cairo in a December, 2016, bombing that killed 30 and in a January, 2017, attack in the Sinai peninsula that killed eight. ISIS has stated its intention to extirpate Christianity from the Middle East.

TMP Egypt contributor Jayson Casper spoke to Bishop Thomas, head of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Qusia and Meir, 170 miles south of Cairo, to find out how Copts are reacting to the latest attacks and what they expect for the future. Born in 1957, Thomas became a monk in 1985 and bishop in 1988. In 1999 he founded Anafora, a retreat center along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, which became a community dedicated to ecumenical welcome and human development. Fluent in English alongside his native Arabic, he is a key source of insight on the situation of Christians in Egypt.

The Easter holiday is a joyous occasion but Egypt and her Christians are going through a difficult time after the Palm Sunday bombings. How are Copts doing these days?

There was a blend of grief, shock, anger, and question marks about what’s happening. People recall similar incidents from the past – the December bombing at St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo, the 2010 Alexandria bombing, and further back in history. There has been a development in the attacks against Christians, and people are comparing it to what is happening in Syria and wondering if this will come to Egypt.

But the church holds to Christian principles, giving the people a Christian message. Love, and conquer evil through good. If we believe in the forgiveness Christ gave to us, we have to give it to others. Think positively, and do not be afraid. Don’t generalize but be fair. We cannot put the work of Islamic extremists on normal Muslims who haven’t done anything.

And normal people from the families of the victims have made statements that are very powerful. The widow of the doorman at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria said she forgives them. There is the question: How can Copts forgive like this? We are trying to nurture a holistic faith in society. Believing our life is not limited to this world makes it becomes stronger.

It will be good to come back to the teachings of the church, but first I want to ask about what is seen in the media. Coptic reactions are portrayed as fear, anger, and disillusionment. Things aren’t getting better and the government isn’t taking care of us. Is this an accurate picture? How strong and widespread are these feelings?

The Copts have a clearer understanding because we know the growth of Islamic fundamentalism has to be dealt with in a deeper way than just police or military forces. Security measures are only a part. The foundation is the ideology, needing the reformation of education. Copts are angrier at the education system than the security situation.

We look at things realistically, even though we were hoping for a calmer, more peaceful situation with the new government after the Muslim Brotherhood regime. We hoped it would be more active in reform. Some Copts are disappointed, but we are aware it is a long-term change, needing the support of the private sector, NGOs, and the religious sector. The curriculum of al-Azhar has to be looked at, in how they portray Christians, as does the public school curriculum.

We see also two kinds of media. One is trying to understand the situation and sympathize in the tragedy. The other is condemning Christians and encouraging more of the same. This must be dealt with firmly. If someone encourages attacks on others this is a crime against humanity, and it must be declared as such.

These things are being discussed among the youth and on the Coptic street. Even still, we are saying we love and we forgive—Jesus told us to love our enemies and do good to them—so his love encompasses the whole world and our fight is not against flesh and blood. It is against evil principles and thoughts; it is a struggle of ideology. Humanity must be linked with religion, and not to a particular religious group. As Christians we view everyone within the circle of God’s love, so we must love everyone, even those who persecute and attack us. We are against evil, but not against human beings. Instead we pity them.

There are some voices in Egypt who are promote this idea, but will it always be within the elite? It has to be implemented at the grassroots through the educational system.

You mentioned the importance of ideology. The president has spoken many times about the importance of reforming religious rhetoric, it seems he is aware of the comprehensive nature of this issue, beyond a military solution. But we see crimes against Copts go unpunished and a failure to pursue educational reform. Do the Copts still have optimism the government will move in this direction so that it will reach the grassroots, over time? Or is their frustration it is either only talk and politics, or that the state is unable to address ideological reform?

There is a group of people who hope it will change, who say we should encourage the process of reformation. There is another who says it will not happen, it is too long-term and the ideology is fixed among too many scholars. Personally, I think those who are disappointed are thinking about emigration, and I think another wave will come very soon, which is very bad. Christians have to stay in Egypt and be empowered here.

The process of reformation goes beyond just a president. He is trying to do his best but the society has many layers, and the undercurrent is stronger than what the official government says. What we need is to focus more on the undercurrent, which requires lots of work.

This gives Christians the responsibility to build up society. We have to be more active in peacemaking. This is an art that needs training, and helps build trust in the community. But we must also address the power balance, which aids the stability of society. Christians abroad and the international community can help Copts achieve this. We must work on projects and fill professions that the society needs.

Such as?

In my area of Qusia we created a school that provides education in languages and an open, creative atmosphere, not dictation. Many Christians and Muslims started to come. It is run by the church, but society needs it, and it is unique in the area.

People meet and interact, but not in a religious framework. They come for the sake of their children, and discuss ethics and childrearing. We create many educational programs through this platform, and this gives us hope that these meeting points help give us status in society.

Similar things like hospitals and social events help society unite, and the church should take the lead. It presents us to society in a new way and counters disinformation against us.

But this problem is bigger than Egypt, and we have to look at it from a global perspective. Islamic fundamentalism and political Islam must be addressed. We have seen the results over several decades, in addition to the recent developments in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine. The Middle East has been almost depopulated of its Christians, and in Egypt we are the largest community left. Will these conservative forces succeed in pushing our Christians to the West, or not?

Let’s return shortly to immigration, but first address some of the spiritual teachings you mentioned earlier. The wife of the doorman in Alexandria gave a phenomenal testimony of forgiveness, that came from her faith. But as we judge the Coptic mentality between anger and frustration and the church teachings to resist fear and hold on to joy, to what degree does the Christian message of hope truly permeate them as people?

One of the spontaneous reactions has been the full attendance of Sunday evening prayers, right after the Palm Sunday morning bombings. All during Holy Week our churches have been packed. People are praying with enthusiasm and demonstrating persistence that we are here, we’re staying here, and this is our faith. Through their actions they are demonstrating their hope.

No doubt there have been tears, but still they come. There is sadness in their hearts, but they still hold to the responsibility that God has given: We are not afraid, we love, and we ask for justice. These are the three folds the church has been teaching, and the people’s reaction has been a beautiful portrayal.

Many people see only the church teaching suffering and martyrdom, but within this there is justice, a very important aspect that balances with love. Love and forgiveness create peace and positive attitudes, but at the same time love is not weak, it is strong, that is why there is no fear. Love and justice must be intertwined. I love, but I ask for my rights. I’m a human being, and I must be dealt with in my home country like a citizen, with security and equal rights.

The heritage of martyrdom in the Coptic Church promotes acceptance and forgiveness. But what is its connection with justice?

There have been many saints who were martyred because they asked for their rights. St. George, St. Mina, St. Mercorious – they stood up for their faith, defending other people. This is why it was their fate to become martyrs. Martyrdom is not just someone putting a bomb in a church. It is mainly people declaring their faith, hold to their rights, asking for justice, but ending in death.

So I don’t see a contraction, and many in the Coptic community are asking what we must do to achieve justice. I don’t know how it will be implemented. Communication with scholars, writers, and journalists from the Muslim side, to empower the cause?

If I take an American example, in achieving justice for the black community there were three main aspects. The first is Rosa Parks, and how she was made able to ask for her rights. Our teachings can help prepare the individual and create many more.

The second is Martin Luther King, who was a man of faith, but also of truth. He was able to communicate love and Christian principles in a context of injustice. The church has to give the message.

The third, which is very much needed, is Elanor Roosevelt. She represents the political arena and media, which were not of the black community. If the Christians in Egypt make a better effort to reach out to the Muslim community, its intellectuals and scholars, and discuss with them in more openness to empower them to join in the faithful fight for justice, it will be a great help.

But it is also needs an international effort, for the ideology is global. If conservatism is strong in the world there must be collaboration in the reformation of thought and the interpretation of texts in light of citizenship and humanity. There is much work ahead of us, and if it is not undertaken we may end up in a worse situation.

Is there something that makes the Copts of Egypt different from the Christians of the rest of the region, something that has enabled them to survive and resist the temptation to violence?

We don’t want to blame the victims, which is important to state clearly. We stand in sympathy and solidarity with the people of Syria, Iraq, and the region. We have seen what happened in Sinai, when the Christians evacuated from the area. We don’t know if this will continue.

A faithful attitude of ‘love your enemies’ and forgiveness gives a positive message to the other side, but we don’t know what will happen. It is a big question mark. Allow me to be spiritual and say it is the hand of God that is protecting this people here for a reason. I don’t know why, but keeping the Christian community in stability in Egypt may give a message of stability to the whole Middle East.

Yet over the past few decades, as you mentioned, Coptic immigration to the West has increased dramatically.

And it will continue to increase, no one can say it will stop. This makes us weaker, because who emigrates? Those who are able – the rich, the educated, those able to make a living outside. But they leave behind the weaker ones. If someone wants to care for their family we cannot tell them stop, to stay. We can encourage them it will get better, but if they have decided to go, they will.

But we recognize the negative impact. Still, Copts in the diaspora help with financial support, educational programs, and are a voice in the international community. This is very much appreciated. The presence of Christians in the Middle East remains a big question mark these days. If things continue, I don’t know how long we can last.

Yet in Egypt we have a very strong belief in the promise found in Isaiah 19, that there will be an altar in the land of Egypt. This gives the Christians a very strong hope that we will always be here and nothing can break us. This belief gives us power and helps explain why the church is flourishing despite difficulties, attacks, and persecutions. The church is strong, and people are determined to stay and stand firm in their faith.

Thank you, Bishop Thomas.

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Current Events

ISIS Church Bombings Kill Dozens at Palm Sunday Services in Egypt

Tanta Bombing
Photo: Nariman El-Mofty, AP

This article was first published at Christianity Today on April 9, 2017.

Attacks at two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt’s Nile Delta killed more than 40 people and injured more than 100 others during Palm Sunday services—including the one where Pope Tawadros II was worshiping.

ISIS claimed responsibility. In February, the Egypt chapter of the Islamist extremists had released a threatening video calling Coptic Christians “our priority and our preferred prey.” Soon after, about 100 Christian families fled their homes in the Sinai Peninsula amid a string of murders.

Reuters reports more details on the bombing in Tanta at Mar Girgis (St. George) Church, which killed at least 27 and injured more than 70. CNN reports more details on the Alexandria bombing at St. Mark’s Cathedral, which killed at least 16 and injured more than 40. [Before ending its live updates, state media outlet Ahram Online put the final toll from Egypt’s health ministry at 29 dead in Tanta and 18 dead in Alexandria.]

Nader Wanis, director of the Arkan Cultural Center in Alexandria, was worshiping at the Anglican Pro-Cathedral only two streets from St. Mark’s when the bomb went off. “It was only a few minutes before serving communion and it shook our whole church,” he told CT. “We were scared, but insisted to continue.”

Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Russia, Floods

Flag Cross QuranGod,

It is sad to pray that a tragedy will have resulted from negligence. It is sad to pray about negligence that helped produce a tragedy.

In the space of a week, God, Egypt witnessed both. May the former not have long term consequence. May the latter bring long term change.

A Russian tourist plane crashed in the Sinai on its return trip home. Scores are dead, including children, with rescue operations ongoing. Initial reports suggest technical problems with the airplane.

But the crash occurred near the focal point of Egypt’s terrorist activity. Soon it will be clear, but God, may all have been a tragic accident.

Either way, God, comfort the families. Rescue those still alive. And for the sake of Egypt and her economy, may vital Russian tourism not be scared away.

Only a few days earlier exceptional floods swept through the city of Alexandria. Torrential rainfall overwhelmed a drainage system ill equipped and unaccustomed. The governor resigned, though he had inquired about capabilities in advance. Several people died, damage is extensive.

God, comfort the families. But hold responsible the officials high and low who failed in due diligence. May this tragedy result in a city stronger in infrastructure. May it result in a nation unwilling to sweep problems under the rug.

And God, may it not take tragedy to spur Egypt to action. Grant Egypt stability, but lift her from lethargy.

As people fail to vote and candidates fail to inspire, instill in Egyptians a sense of deep personal responsibility. May they engender reform to hold the rest accountable.

And where there is only accident, God, help Egypt to rally. Spare her further suffering and may better days come.

Amen.

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Current Events

The Egyptian Family House: Fostering Religious Unity

Family House Port Said

From my recent article at the Middle East Institute:

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has not been shy about the need to reform religious discourse and relations. He is concerned about how the image of Islam has been marred by Muslims themselves, and how extremist thought has torn the fabric of Muslim-Christian unity. Visiting the Coptic Orthodox cathedral on Christmas Eve, he told the cheering audience, “We will build Egypt together. We will love each other, so the people can see.”

If these words are to become reality, the president may have a tool in an organization called the Egyptian Family House.

The article then describes the basic structure and activity of the Family House, which is mandated both to advise government ministers and replicate itself at the grassroots level. I have written about this before from Cairo, but here is an excerpt from Alexandria:

But examination of the Alexandria branch, established in December 2012 as one of the first regional chapters, shows that these efforts, while promising, are challenged by the precedent of people of different faiths not often working together.

In Alexandria, the governor provided the Family House with a building and four employees from the public payroll. The approximately 100 members meet once a month and work with deputies from the local ministries of culture, health, and social solidarity to plan how to collaboratively serve disadvantaged populations.

But at the same time, the Alexandria branch has been slow to organize activities. One conference on citizenship was held in the presence of the governor, but attracted an audience of only 150. The branch’s family committee has also conducted two visits to lower income neighborhoods, presenting a positive image of religious unity. But little else has been done. Members are encouraged to travel together to each monthly meeting to display their cooperation publicly, but only around half are doing so, according to Father Boulos Awad, co-head of the branch.

Even within the Family House, the culture of separation and ignorance of the religious other has not been easy to overcome. Awad explained that the members have spent much of their time getting to know each other and learning how to communicate. While many imams and priests in the organization have succeeded in forging friendships—calling each other on holidays, for example—they have reported few examples of practical cooperation.

A non-clerical member of the Alexandria branch added that the deliberate pace of the group’s activities reflects the nature of the members in that they are not pragmatic, fast-acting professionals and have the mentality of religious caution. But he and Awad both agree that the participants have good intentions, and they anticipate greater success in the years to come.

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

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Current Events

Poetry on the Third Anniversary of the Alexandria Church Bombing

Blood on the church wall in Alexandria (L); Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (R)
Blood on the church wall in Alexandria (L); Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (R)

At midnight of New Year’s Eve celebrations at the Two Saints Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt, a bomb exploded as the crowd began to exit, killing 23. The horrific event birthed a tremendous display of Muslim-Christian unity, as a week later on Coptic Christmas churches were packed with Muslims showing solidarity, willing to die with their Christian friends should a similar attack happen again. The local priest in Maadi said that Christmas was the ‘happiest of his life‘.

The unity following the bombing spilled over into the January 25 revolution, giving a power to the demonstrations that has long since dissipated. But at the time it was contagious, capturing domestic and world attention alike, launching the Arab Spring after its birth in Tunisia.

One of the celebrants was Ahmed Fouad Negm, known in Egypt as ‘the poet of the people’ and a firm revolutionary supporter. He died this month on December 3, but is mentioned here for his poem lamenting the Alexandria attack. Thanks to Paul Attallah for bringing this beautiful work to my attention:

These people say God is love

And we all know how dangerous love is.

So, victorious hero, you had to murder helpless women,

Unarmed pensioners and innocent children to save us all

From the terrible possibility of love.

Botros and Mina should be killed.

Their brothers are already dead in Sinai

And their sons danced at your wedding

And offered their condolences at the funerals.

Marie and Aunt Thérèse deserve to die.

They are people of little virtue.

They always smile in a certain way

And say: Welcome. We value your visit.

And what about your Uncle Hanna?

Whatever the dispute, he intervenes to defend you.

He is so keen on reconciliation

That he cannot be admitted into paradise

You had better murder Sami Nagui Nagib too.

To be honest, I have my doubts about him.

He might be one of them.

He might even have a cross tattooed on his arm.

No, even better, bomb Shubra;

The Kit Kat and Opera House Squares;

Make a grave of the crater in each of these places.

The locals can take it as a warning.

Our God is called The Generous One.

One day you may appear before Him.

You will stand in His presence

And He will ask: What did these people do to you?

For what crime did you kill them who and how and why?

So tell me, hero, how will you respond, what will you say?

May God comfort the families of the victims, bring to justice the culprits, and protect Egypt from similar violence this Christmas season.

Categories
Culture Jayson

Church Photography by Alexandria Muslims

One of the more unique churches in Egypt is located in Alexandria, home of St. Mark’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral. St. Mark is cherished among Egyptian Christians as the apostle who brought the Gospel to Alexandria, from which it spread throughout the Nile Basin and North Africa. A ‘pro’ cathedral is a parish church that serves as a temporary or co-cathedral in a diocese. The primary Anglican cathedral in Egypt is the Church of All Saints located in Zamalek, Cairo.

The first reason for the uniqueness of the church in Alexandria is its history. Its cornerstone was laid on December 17, 1839 following an agreement between the ruler of Egypt, Mohamed Ali, and Queen Victoria, who provided extensive donations for its construction. Various delays complicated completion, however, and its first service was not held until Christmas, 1854. St. Mark’s also received the services of the first Egyptian ordained as an Anglican priest, Girgis Bishay, in 1925.

From Left: St. Anthony, St. Athanasius, and Origin

The second reason for the uniqueness of the church is its interior design. Straddling the Protestant and Catholic traditions, in imitation of local Orthodox the church is full of icons. The entrance to the sanctuary his headed by the icons of heralded Egyptians St. Anthony (the founder of monasticism), St. Athanasius (defined the canon of scripture), and Origen (the controversial Biblical exegete). Behind the altar St. George and St. Patrick represent the eastern and western reaches of Christianity, while David and Andrew represent the unity of Old and New Testaments in the Bible.

From Left: St. George, St. Patrick, David, and Andrew

The third reason for the uniqueness of the church is its architecture. Though clearly a church, it honors both the Egyptian Jewish and Muslim communities. The archways and other elements draw from Islamic patterns, while the Star of David is prominently chiseled both into external stone and internal woodwork. The Jews of Egypt have almost entirely disappeared, leaving these marks either a memory of past realities or a possible current source of sectarian misunderstanding.

Star of David Alternating between Crosses

The final reason to highlight the uniqueness of the church comes from its contemporary example. St. Mark’s has opened its doors to house a community cultural center. A church lay leader oversees a team of Muslim artists, who train anyone who comes in drawing, photography, acting, fine arts, and other disciplines.

I wrote about this effort for Christianity Today here, but have wanted to show more of their product than that site allowed. Namely, I hoped to feature the pictures of the church taken entirely by local amateur and professional Muslim photographers.

For those who missed that article and are wondering what the big deal is, in Egypt, this is a very unique happening. While Muslim-Christian interpersonal relations are often fine, people do not ‘hang out’ in the house of worship in the opposite faith. The church, especially, has been a haven of escape for the Coptic community, with its social service centers largely serving only their own.

Muslims, meanwhile, while having Christian friends, often know little to nothing about the faith of their fellow citizens. Soon I would like to return to Alexandria to ask these photographers to comment on their pictures, what the experience meant to them, and what their pictures represent of Muslim-Christian relations (if anything). It would then be submitted as an article for Orient and Occident, the online magazine of the Anglican Church in Egypt.

Please laugh and notice the difference in quality between these photographs below, and mine above. Fortunately, though God is honored by all things beautiful, he judges primarily from the heart.

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Culture Jayson

Muslim Creativity Comes to Church in Alexandria

One of over 40 award winning pictures taken by Muslim photographers at a recent exhibition at an Alexandria cultural center. All photos were of some aspect of the historic church which hosts the center.

This article was first posted on Christianity Today on July 19, 2012.

Alexandria, Egypt, was once a lighthouse for Christianity, emanating from the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Now it is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more conservative Salafi Muslims.

So a Christian opening a cultural center for Muslim and Christian artists in Alexandria—within the walls of an Anglican church—demonstrates a stroke of boldness in a city where some 23 Coptic Christians were killed in a church bombing on New Year’s Day 2011.

“For many Muslims,” says Nader Wanis, founder of the Corners for Creativity cultural center, “it was the first time in their life they [had] entered a church. They were astounded we let them in; then they go and invite others.”

Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.

 

This article was very fun to research and write; it was a nice break from politics and the challenge of understanding what is happening in Egypt.

This is Our City’ is a new feature of Christianity Today, highlighting Christians who are working not just for the good of their church or the good of their faith, but the good of the whole city. It focuses on six American locales – Portland, Richmond, Detroit, New York, Phoenix, and Palo Alto – and then a ‘7th City’ which can draw on good examples from anywhere.

So when I heard about this particular cultural center in Alexandria, I inquired if Christianity Today was interested in highlighting an international effort.

They were. Bangkok, Thailand was first to the pole, but I am glad to help Egypt get the silver medal.

 

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Current Events Jayson

The History of Salafism in Egypt

The title of this post requires far more than this excerpt, but Project Syndicate gives a very useful article on Egyptian Salafism:

Al-Nour is one of two Egyptian Salafi groups that were organized and centralized decades ago, the other being the relatively apolitical Ansar al-Sunnah (Supporters of the Sunnah). The roots of the organization go back to 1977, when the Muslim Brothers dominated the Islamic Group at Alexandria University. In reaction, students with Salafi convictions, mainly studying in the faculty of medicine, formed the “Salafi School,” arguing against the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology and domination of Islamist activism.

By mid-1985, the Salafi School was calling itself the “Salafi Call Society.” It had its own educational institution, the al-Furqan Institute, a magazine entitled Sawt al-Da‘wa (the Voice of the Call), and a complex social-services network. The Zakat Committee (Islamic tithe) was in charge of funding and administering orphanages, support of widows, relief work, and free health clinics and other community facilities.

To manage its operations in Alexandria and elsewhere, the SCS leadership established an executive committee, a governorates committee, a youth committee, a social committee, and a general assembly. All of this was accomplished under the hazardous conditions of Mubarak’s rule, which banned the movement’s leaders from leaving Alexandria without travel permits from the State Security Investigations Service. The regime regularly closed their institute, banned their publications, and arrested their leaders.

This oppression perhaps explains the SCS leadership’s initial reaction to last January’s revolution. “They would have bombed us from the air if they saw our beards in Tahrir!” said one of the SCS leaders. Indeed, the SCS leadership did not officially back the revolution until the final days before Mubarak’s fall, although their mid-ranks and grassroots activists did join the protests. This includes Emad Abdel Ghafour, the head of al-Nour Party.

The article goes on to describe possibilities following elections, including whether or not the Salafis will align or collide with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is an informative discussion; read the rest here.

I hope to continue to study this topic, not in the least because it is easy to label Salafis as ‘ultra-conservative’, and have already become a prop in the propaganda of ‘support us (the old regime/Muslim Brotherhood/military council) or face the Salafis’. They may well be ultraconservative, they may well be a worse political outcome than any of the above. At this point, however, I can state that among those I have spoken with, they are all nice people. Nice does not mean politically capable or desirable, but it is more than they are often given credit for.

In the days to come I hope to share some of my findings.

Related Posts:

Thoughts on Belonging and the Salafi Label

Categories
Current Events Jayson

Remembering Alexandria

Translation: Martyrs of the Two Saints' Church; New Year's Eve, 2010

One year ago this evening Egypt was rocked by an explosion in Alexandria, killing twenty-one and injuring over 170, at the Two Saints’ Church in the Sidi Bishr region. One year before that, at Coptic Christmas on January 7, six Christians were killing along with a Muslim security guard at a church in Nag Hamadi, in the governorate of Qena, when a Muslim opened fire as they exited following mass.

It has been a difficult spell for Egypt as a whole, and for its Christians in particular. This year opened with a revolution holding great promise of Muslim-Christian unity, but has been largely displaced with liberal-Islamist political competition and attacks on Copts in Atfih, Imbaba, Maspero, and elsewhere. The nation is trembling, but some hopeful Copts see connections, in which God intervenes to avenge his children.

In Egyptian culture a death is commemorated on the 40th day, as loved ones gather to remember the deceased. Back in September of 1981 then-President Sadat arrested over 1500 political opponents, and within this sweep he banished Pope Shenouda to a monastery withdrawing official recognition of his leadership. Before the 40th day fell, Sadat was assassinated by the hand of a Muslim extremist.

Fast forward to Alexandria, and a similar pattern emerges. The Two Saints’ Church was bombed on January 1. Though the government blamed Islamic extremists from Gaza, it is widely believed to have been the work of Habib al-Adly, President Mubarak’s Minister of the Interior. Roughly forty days later, on February 11, President Mubarak resigned his position following a revolution which appeared out of nowhere.

Incidentally, it was also roughly forty days after the massacre of mostly Coptic protestors at Maspero on October 9, that the government of Essam Sharaf fell during the clashes of Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

Has God been at work in Egypt, redeeming the blood of Christians through political events? While largely open to interpretation, it is noteworthy this has not been the desire of the Two Saints’ Church.

Cross at the Entrance to the Memorial; See Translation Below

The Coptic Orthodox Church maintains its identity as a church of martyrs. The church calendar begins Year One counting from the time of the Roman Diocletian persecution in the 4th Century; saints are commemorated in icons, relics, and hymns of praise. Following this spirit, the Two Saints’ Church dedicated space to the memory of these modern day martyrs.

The cross in the picture above houses a bloody cloth salvaged from the bombing, but the selected verse is telling. Quoting Steven, the first Christian martyr, it calls out: Oh Lord, do not hold this sin against them (Acts 7:60).

It is very powerful, considering further the commemoration to the right of the cross.

Jesus, Surrounded by his Slain Children

The mural of Jesus was originally outside the church at street level, when it was damaged by the blast. Damaged also was the façade of the church, splattered with blood. Damaged completely were those whose pictures now ring the mural of Jesus, having received the crown of martyrdom. They now have their own hymn of praise to the left (translated below), and the maroon box overflowing with paper represents prayer requests for which their intercession is asked.

When the explosion happened I had never been to Alexandria. Inquiries about the area gathered that the Sidi Bishr area in which the church was located was a poorer district, and I imagined the church to be along these lines as well. Original video from inside the church at the time of the explosion does not suggest a place of great wealth either. It appears to be just a simple place of worship.

A recent visit to Alexandria revealed it to be quite the opposite.

Sanctuary of the Two Saints' Church
Jesus, with the Four Evangelists in a Mural above the Sanctuary
Facing the Street are St. Mark and Pope Peter, Patrons of the Church
The Church is Directly Opposite an Equally Massive Mosque

Upon reflection, it is fair to wonder about the oft-repeated Coptic practice of building elaborate churches amidst areas of poverty. It is also fair to wonder about the dueling massive places of worship on opposite sides of the street, and what this conveys of Egypt. Yet the primary impression I received from my visit was the audacity of the attack in its chosen location.

Alexandria as a city is the birthplace of Christianity in Egypt and the original seat of the Coptic papacy. I cannot say why the Two Saints’ Church was chosen out of the many places of Christian worship in Alexandria. Clearly, however, a message was delivered – striking at a place of Coptic ecclesiastic pride. This was no small and easily targeted church. It was a slap in the face targeting Coptic comeuppance.

What was the message exactly cannot be known, at least until the perpetrators are properly convicted. Until now the revolutionary government has not reopened investigations, despite repeated legal requests from Alexandria’s local church leadership. Yet given the uncertainty, and given the carnage, the response is all the more Christ-like:

Oh Lord, do not hold this sin against them.

As the Egyptian revolution sputters along, at times bloodily, this is a message in dire need of remembrance. One year following Alexandria the blood of these pre-revolutionary martyrs calls out from the ground, saying, ‘Where is your brother?’ Muslims and Christians must rediscover such unity, if the gains from the revolution are to be preserved.

Song of Praise for the Martyrs of the Two Saints’ Church

Note: After each line is a repeated refrain: The martyrs of the Two Saints’ Church

  • In the Church of the Two Saints – There are victorious martyrs – We praise them every moment
  • Our Coptic Church – Is worthless in Alexandria – Martyrs of Christianity
  • At the beginning of the year – Their spirits rose peacefully – With the Lord of humanity
  • The time of St. Mark has returned – With the beginning of celebrations – With our new martyrs
  • Your blood dripped like liquid – Like of St. Mark the Apostle – In the surrounding streets
  • Oh children of the seal of martyrs – Heaven has called you – And you answered the call
  • The oppressors killed you – And we ask of God – Always lifting up prayer
  • Give all consolation – To the families of the martyrs – And give us faith and hope
  • With shouts and wailing – Rachel has cried once more – Over all martyrs in this generation
  • We all announced our mourning – Throughout the whole country – After the explosions
  • Their limbs flew off – As their intestines also exited – From the bodies of the children
  • You have consecrated our lands – We in the midst of your blood – For the sake of our Redeemer
  • We make a record of – Our patience over the departure – of the martyrs of Iraq,
  • Nag Hamadi, Umraniyya – Kushh and Alexandria – Rejoice Oh Orthodoxy
  • Hearts have been broken – Over every beloved martyr – Blessed are you, children of Job
  • Your path is sweet and beautiful – We sing it in our hymns – A bouquet of long remembrance
  • In your remembrance we welcome you – As you arrive to your Redeemer – And we call to you in our prayers
  • Light us to be a candle – As our eyes are full of tears – Mention us before Jesus
  • Today St. Mark is joyous – As well as Pope Peter – That you have joined them now
  • You have become our intercessors – In the monastery of St. Mina – With Pope Cyril and St. Mina
  • Pray at all times – For Pope Shenouda the faithful – That the Lord the Helper will support him
  • Oh children – You have become our treasure – Mention every soul

The final refrain: The mention of your name in the mouths of all believers – Everyone says: Oh God of the martyrs of the Two Saints’ Church, take care of us all

Related Articles:

Reflections on the New Year’s Eve Massacre in Alexandria

Christian Responses to Alexandria: Irony, Violence, and Love

The Happiest Christmas of my Life

Contemplating a Terrorist Strike

Categories
Current Events Jayson Religion

Early Warning and Early Response Training in Cairo and Alexandria

Imam Mohamed Ashafa describing Alternative Dispute Resolution

Disagreements abound in every society. Properly handled, they result in consensus, healthy competition, and increased understanding between diverse groups. Improperly handled, they result in tension, conflict, and civil discord. If religious overtones come to characterize the disagreements, the effect can be even more troublesome. This negative description came to characterize relations in Nigeria, in which Muslims and Christians descended into rioting and violence in response to claimed affronts, both material and religious. Yet within this environment two leaders, Imam Mohamed Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, were able to overcome their own differences, forgive each other, and work together for peace.

While the Nigerian reality does not resemble the situation in Egypt, Ashafa and Wuye have developed techniques useful in addressing disagreements in any society. Beyond the power of their personal testimony – Wuye had his right hand chopped off in militia fighting, while Ashafa’s spiritual teacher was murdered by such militias – they are able to enter diverse locations, share the tools of their peacemaking efforts, and leave practical application to the nation’s citizens. Disagreements exist in Egypt, as they exist everywhere. It is the hope of Ashafa and Wuye that Early Warning and Early Response (EWER) Training will prevent disagreements in Egypt from deteriorating into outright conflict.

It is in this spirit that the Center for Arab West Understanding, an Egyptian NGO, invited Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye to conduct two workshops in Egypt, in collaboration with Initiatives of Change in the UK and its Egyptian sister organization, the Moral Rearmament Association. The first workshop was in Alexandria, June 13-14, hosted by the Alexandria Intercultural Dialogue Committee. The second workshop was in Cairo, June 15-16, hosted by the Center for Arab-West Understanding and the Goethe Institute. Over sixty people received training at these locations.

Introduction

Ashafa and Wuye repeated the same training course in both Alexandria and Cairo. They began with a description of alternative dispute resolution stages, seeking to emphasize the need for Early Warning and Early Response in effort to head off the more damaging stages as conflict escalates. They then proceeded to describe Conflict Mapping Tools, which are useful in breaking down a disagreement into manageable parts which divest it of the emotional fervor so often preventing understanding and agreement. Along these lines, they helped each person gauge his or her readiness to participate in the process through self-evaluation along different Levels of Identity and the Ladder of Tolerance.

Ashafa and Wuye then moved directly into the concept of Early Warning and Early Response, describing it as a systematic collection and categorization of social indicators, in order to anticipate and prevent escalation of problems. They spoke of the Cyclone of Conflict, describing why it is best to intervene early. They also encouraged efforts to engender EWER, to include all segments of society. They led participants in outlining the structures of EWER unique to Egypt, and concluded by getting participants to self-organize into an EWER Committee. Each of their training techniques will be described below.

Following the summary of their presentation will be examples of interaction the participants had with the ideas of EWER as presented by Ashafa and Wuye. In both questions and breakout groups Egyptian applications were sought by those in attendance. Finally, to close the report, testimonials from the participants will be listed, highlighting the chief gains and areas for improvement for any coming workshops.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

The importance of an Early Warning and Early Response system is clear when one considers the natural progression of conflict. Initially, all disagreements are dealt with in the communication stage, in which matters are discussed rationally and on friendly terms. Only slightly more complicating is the collaboration stage, in which parties admit the presence of an issue to solve together, and then seek win-win scenarios all can agree to willingly.

If this effort breaks down, parties enter the negotiation stage. At this level things are still friendly, but now each side must consider what must be given up in order to reach an agreement. Win-win is still a possibility, but in all likelihood it involves some loss.

Should the losses become unbearable, the next stage involves mediation. The disputants call on the assistance of a mutually acceptable third party to help them work through the issue. If necessary, this can develop into a hybrid mediation/arbitration stage, in which the parties agree to be bound by his or her decision. While this may solve the issue, should the ruling fail to satisfy one or both parties, they enter into strict arbitration in a court of law. Should that ruling fail to suffice, litigation/adjudication takes over as both sides hire lawyers to represent their interests. By now they are a long way from friendly communication and collaboration.

Unfortunately, there are stages of devolution still possible. If the court ruling fails to bring agreement, parties may seek their interest through violence or, even worse, war [this last stage does not apply to Egypt as Egypt has never entered that stage] Violence often results in neighboring parties leveling sanction against the disputants, in order to end the conflict, but which also humiliates and possibly impoverishes the two sides.

At this level, with all possible resolution strategies exhausted, the only option is for the two parties to be forced back all the way to the beginning: They must communicate. This fact reveals the near futility of ratcheting up the pressure to secure one’s interest; while solution can be found at any level, at each step more and more control is lost over the proceedings. Furthermore, more and more damage is done to the relationship between the two parties.

With this schema in mind, parties to a disagreement will realize the great importance of solving their issues in the early stages of communication and collaboration. Having now received Early Warning and Early Response training, those walking alongside them can help them to see this likely progression. By itself, it may encourage all parties to peace.

Tools for Mapping Conflict

Once the necessity of alternative dispute resolution is understood, tools are needed to move the disagreement from the level of emotion to the level of analysis. What is the issue, and what is at stake? Ashafa and Wuye led participants through four analysis methods: the Onion, the ABC Triangle, the Carpet, and the Circles.

The Onion

In order to get to the center of an onion, layer after layer must be pulled back, and the operation can be somewhat unpleasant and tear-inducing. Similarly, most problems are not immediately apparent at first glance, and there can be resistance to digging deeper.

The first level of the issue is a person’s position. This seems straightforward, but it masks the real issues. This layer must be peeled back, so that a person’s interest is revealed. Why does the individual or party state their position so? What interest are they pursuing? Even this level is not sufficient for conflict resolution, however; the essential need must be discovered. If an issue can be reduced to one’s interpretation of legitimate need, communication now proceeds on the basis of reality, not propaganda. When the need of each one is similarly identified and discussed, solutions become possible.

The ABC Triangle

The three parts of the triangle are labeled attitude, behavior, and context. The usual first look into a disagreement finds attitudes entrenched and behaviors counterproductive. Efforts to change either of these – though of worthy intention – will not succeed long term. Instead, context is at the head of this interconnected triangle. If change can be brought to the context of the issue, then the behavior of the disputants will change as well. Similarly, once behavior begins to change, hostile attitudes will also begin to give way. The key point for EWER is a matter of perspective. Resist the temptation to judge a situation by the attitudes and behavior of those involved. Analyze the context of the issue, and the others will more readily fall into place.

The Carpet

The picture of a carpet illustrates how various parties of a dispute interact. In the center of the carpet is the issue at hand, and the two disputants sit opposite each other, close to the issue. Conflict, however, is usually not isolated between two parties; others come alongside to support or oppose, with some relation to the issue in the center, though a bit farther removed from it. What drives this interaction?

Along the thread line that connects each party to the issue should be noted the interests, fears, and needs of each participant. Such analysis again serves to de-emotionalize a disagreement, but also is useful to judge the involvement of parties in alignment with the main disputants. As such mapping provides clarity to the reality underneath appearances, finding solutions becomes less difficult.

The Circles

Drawing circles is a method to connect and illustrate the various relationships amidst a disagreement. The manner of drawing signals the nature of relationship. Each circle represents a person or party, and a line between them designates a relationship exists.

The larger the circle size, the more power is held by the party encircled. An arrow between two circles illustrates the direction this power is exercised. Meanwhile, a zig-zag line signals conflict exists between the two parties, whereas a double line represents an alliance. If the line between is dotted, this shows a weak relationship, and for all lines, if an issue exists between the two parties, it is written in a box connecting the two circles.

A circle drawn with dotted lines indicates the presence of a ‘shadow’. A shadow party is not actually there in the field of the dispute, but influences surrounding relationships all the same. These can have great effect on the outcome, but can easily fail to be identified if the analysis is not objective.

Drawing circles, in addition to the other tools mentioned above, allow for all parties to achieve a description of the disagreement in terms as objective as possible. As they communicate their findings with each other, discoveries are sure to occur revealing differences of perspective. Yet within the effort to depict reality, a basis is created for finding the essential solutions that meet the needs of all involved.

Essential Self-Analysis

These tools are useless, however, in the hands of an unprepared craftsman. Yes, they can be utilized in order to help conflicting sides come to terms. But what about the bias of the to-be peacemaker employing EWER? He or she must first self-reckon on two levels. First, what is his or her understanding of self-identity, from which help is offered to others in navigating theirs? Second, what level of tolerance or intolerance does he or she harbor? Many times disagreements escalate due to conflicts in identity; without self-analysis the peacemaker may trip up.

The Levels of Identity

Ashafa and Wuye explained that the human identity is a fluid amalgamation of several relationships. Everyone negotiates these differently, and manages them according to circumstances and context. Yet if one gets stuck or overemphasizes a particular aspect of identity, it can cause conflict with the self or with others. While the order to be described should not be held as hard and fast, generally speaking, as one moves up the levels, he or she becomes better equipped to negotiate all of them.

The most basic and essential level of identity is family. One’s identity then expands to include tribe/language groupings, in which the individual moves about comfortably. Then comes the larger community group of a particular area, taking greater geographical scope in nation. In these labels it is clear to see how one conducts relationships of peace in wider and wider comfort zones, the more one’s overall identity expands.

The next levels of identity are gender, race, and profession. These bonds help one to further traverse barriers in identity, as a woman might easily take refuge in another woman, no matter the national differences. Professional bonds can do similarly. Yet while race as an identity marker can also help one broaden relational ties, it and others below can be found to divide and separate, rather than unite.

For this, the last two levels represent higher planes: Humanity and spirituality. To the degree that individuals see each other as fellow humans, rather than through defining and limiting lower identities, they are able to build bonds of peace. Spiritual identity, grounded in the paths of the great religions, also help to overcome lesser identities, uniting the individual beyond the material human nature into the fabric of the cosmos. It is at these levels the EWER peacemaker does best to ground his or her identity, granting patience for those worked with as they negotiate their essential identity level.

The Ladder of Tolerance

The Ladder of Tolerance asks the individual to consider his relation vis-à-vis the other, however defined. The relationship can issue from the fear of the unknown, driving attitudes and behavior downward toward intolerance. At a basic level this issues forth rejection, but can increase in severity producing oppression, dehumanization, murder, and genocide.

It is not likely the participants at the conference suffer from placement on the intolerant side of the ladder, but depending on the other in question, a review of their positive tolerance level is beneficial. First and foremost, an open posture toward the other results in examination of differences. As one ascends the ladder he or she is able to welcome the place of the other in acceptance. Still higher develops the posture of learning from the other, with the differences in question.

More difficult to achieve, however, is the valuing of the other. At this level one’s self identity can be challenged, threatening the comfort zone of associations lower than that of humanity. The peak step in the ladder culminates in celebration of the other, especially of all commonalities discovered. It is here that solutions to disagreement are all the easier to achieve. Getting there, however, requires work and vigilance, both internal to self and external in society.

Early Warning and Early Response

As mentioned above, Early Warning and Early Response is a systematic collection and categorization of social indicators, in order to anticipate and prevent escalation of problems. Escalation can be visually depicted through a cyclone, as early effects do not appear severe, but widens in scope and severity until all are aware of the problem. The most essential work, therefore, is to be done at the pre-conflict stage when the cyclone has not yet developed. This work can be thankless, as few people at this stage are even aware of a problem. Yet it is vital; once the cyclonic conflict is underway, many people look to help but the damage has already been done.

Ashafa and Wuye also encouraged participants to involve all segments of society into the effort to head off conflict before it explodes. Specifically, this means deliberately enrolling women in the effort. Women often suffer the most in times of conflict, and have great influence on their families, especially the young, to curb emotional, destructive tendencies. But it also means creative thinking to involve other groups as well; Wuye, having lost his hand, emphasized the role of the handicapped in keeping conflict at bay.

The Structures of EWER

Ashafa and Wuye led the participants through sessions in which they discussed their local context, trying to put their fingers on indicators that could potentially lead to conflict. The brainstorming was useful to get people thinking, but it led into a basic question: From where do you obtain your information, and to whom do you pass it on? Ashafa and Wuye emphasized the success of Early Warning and Early Response depends upon contact with sources of information, as well as contact with sources of authority. EWER is an effort to connect the two – to be a social middleman in the management of conflict.

Early Warning

The following is very basic, but unless one thinks deliberately to connect with sources of information, he or she will likely overlook vital indicators. Where does one hear about possible troubles to come? Here is the assembled list of participants: Media, the street, church and mosque, social clubs, NGOs, schools, previous research, taxi drivers, family meetings, cafés, cybercafés, public transportation, work, market, on the beach, restaurants, hospitals, conferences, jokes, the street, foreign media, posters/flyers/pamphlets, family meetings, friends, markets, SMS messages, advertising, cultural centers, and professional syndicates.

While it may be difficult for any one person to monitor all these outlets of information, this demonstrates that EWER must be a group effort. More will be described about this below, but Ashafa and Wuye emphasized that those concerned to be on the watch for early warnings of conflict must have sources in all these areas. Together, it is not difficult, for these are all normal facets of everyday life. The key is simply being connected.

As an important aside, Ashafa and Wuye also took the time to address the difference between EWER and intelligence gathering. They emphasized that intelligence is the realm of spies who work in secret, on the behest of the state and its security. EWER, however, is done openly by volunteers who work in conjunction with the state for the security of society. While there are lines not to be crossed, assurances were given this work is not illegal, especially if reported properly, as described next.

Early Response

Similarly, a list of viable outlets to inform amidst signs of conflict is also basic. While the ordinary citizen has little power or authority to curb negative indicators, he or she is connected to several community organs which do possess influence and strength. Participants listed the following possibilities: Community leaders, government, NGOs, journalists, religious leaders, God, colleagues, courts/lawyers, teachers, lobbying groups, policy makers, political leaders, specialist institutes, media, activists, businessmen, social media groups, syndicate bodies, famous people, tribal/family heads, and parents.

Again, few people can maintain active contact with such a diverse group. What is essential is that those concerned with EWER group together, comparing sources on who knows which authority. In combination, all of these groups can be covered, and must be renewed in contact at least once a month.

Thus, when trouble emerges, rumors are heard, or palpitations are sensed on the street, EWER volunteers will seek intervention through the appropriate channel. Choosing the correct channel is important, so that the one informed actually has influence to rectify a situation. If the problem is urgent then obviously all concerned citizens will contact police to pacify the situation. It is the not-quite-right scenario, however, which activates EWER in its formal sense, described next.

Central and Subcommittees

Those committed to EWER must move beyond the plane of individual awareness. Though the tools provided produce a conscientious citizen, he or she can do little alone. Instead, Ashafa and Wuye sought to give participants a group identity, asking them to divide into subcommittees from which they can monitor developments in their community.

Three subcommittees were suggested: Youth, women, and political/religious. Participants signed up based on their interest and preference, but with an eye toward their area of influence. What circles do you already inhabit, and what contacts do you already have?

Once these subcommittees become active, they should choose among their members to designate a few for participation also in the central committee. The central committee can be of variable makeup – five, seven, eleven members, etc. – but is tasked with the decision making authority for the EWER team. It is the central committee which should convey any early warning to authorities, assisting them in taking the necessary early response.

Each subcommittee is tasked with finding the spark which can ignite a fire in its community, and to put it out before damage is done. These should be people already involved on the ground, who know how to feel the ebb and flow on the street. They should be connected to local community and religious leaders, so as to be able to act quickly in times of budding tension.

Conversely, the central committee should be composed of individuals with credibility, leadership, responsibility, and experience. They should have developed contacts with higher level authority figures, to help bridge the gap that often exists between administration and the street. Information, strategy, and creative solutions should flow frequently between the subcommittees and the central committee, but decisive and official communication must be delivered by the central committee leaders.

By the conclusion of the two workshops participants were excited about their potential roles in the EWER effort. Leadership and continuity, however, were left for later development. CAWU will first submit the report of the workshop to the ruling Supreme Military Council, and will coordinate any future planning under the auspices of the proper authorities. A foundation, however, has been laid among the now-trained participants; it is for them, as concerned Egyptian citizens, to continue and enroll others in the process.

Attendees listening attentively

Egyptian Interactions

Throughout the workshops Ashafa and Wuye encouraged participants to ask questions and respond creatively to the material based on their Egyptian context. Early on they were asked about the concept of Early Warning and Early Response, and what this meant to them. Several aspects were given, both in terms of tremors that could be sensed early on, as well as structural issues requiring efforts at reform.

In terms of early warning signs, participants mentioned the presence of extremists in an area, rumors, and manipulative teaching coming from places of worship. Broader issues included poverty, unemployment, discrimination, draconian laws, lack of security, lack of transparency, and a lack of social justice. Given the latter, the early warning signs become more critical, and necessitate action.

Participants also interacted with Ashafa and Wuye over two well known Egyptian religious issues: mixed marriages and conversion. Concerning mixed marriages, they counseled simply to obey the dictates of religion, which cannot be changed, and which encourage husband and wife to be of the same faith. They did give an example from Nigeria, however, which illustrates how they worked through a tense situation.

A Christian woman married a Muslim man and converted to his religion, and they lived in peace with neighbors all their life. At the woman’s death, however, a dispute arose whether to bury her in the Muslim burial plot, as per her religion, or the Christian burial plot back in her original village, as per her tribal affiliation. The woman’s tribal family demanded the body, and Muslims of the area were also prepared to fight for it.

The issue was heated especially in that Muslim rites call for a burial within twenty-four hours, but negotiation could not resolve the issue that quickly. Ashafa and Wuye invoked the Muslim law of necessity, postponing burial until harmony could be achieved, given that the body will rest until the Day of Resurrection. In the end, after two days, an agreement was crafted to allow the tribal family its burial customs, but to also allow respect to the woman’s chosen faith, and have Muslims perform Islamic burial rites there. This decision was accepted by all, and a potential crisis was averted.

In terms of conversion, participants mentioned that especially sensitive in Egypt is the movement of a Christian into Islam. Applying the principles learned in the workshop, the Alexandria delegation decided they should divide the city into different regions, and seek wise Muslims and Christians in each who are non-political and accepted by the majority. For the neighborhood in question, then, whenever a rumor surfaces about a conversion, they wise leaders must be informed, and investigate together. Regardless of the details, they then must speak publically into the rumor, to disarm it, and promote peaceful solutions acceptable to the community.

Ashafa and Wuye allowed time during the workshop for the participants to divide into groups and discuss issues and possible EWER solutions. They were asked to especially consider Egypt as they knew it in their local environments.

One group considered the presence of a religious extremist in an area, disseminating hateful teachings. The solution was to be able to inform mainstream religious leaders about this quickly, so they could formally denounce and religiously counter such thought. Then, the media should be employed so that these moderate voices receive primacy in contradistinction to the extremist preacher, who gets discredited.

Another group considered a situation in which a threat is issued against a place of worship. Should even a rumor about this be heard, residents should quickly be assembled to create a popular committee to protect it, while security forces are contacted to also be on alert.

A third group referenced the recent trend in which some Christians have placed the sign of a fish – an ancient Christian symbol – on their cars as an expression of religious identity. They then related that some Muslims have responded by placing a shark sticker on their vehicles. While no violence has been committed, it is a worrisome sign of increased division.

This group recommended that NGOs be utilized to advance peace education, hoping to counter the drifting apart of communities. They also promoted the government use of reconciliation committees headed by recognized religious leaders, following incidents of tension. This latter solution, however, was not accepted by all, as some believe this practice only contributes to the sectarian issues of Egypt, by setting aside the rule of law necessary to punish infractions.

Another topic of discussion concerned how to work with extremist elements of society. Ashafa and Wuye spoke of two possibilities. In the first, the extremist leader is motivated by greed and/or power. In this situation there is not much that can be done with the leader himself, but instead they go to his followers, and educate them about how they are being used. They have also made local monitoring groups, so as evidence is gained about his ill motivation, it can be exposed to the people.

In the case of an extremist in sincere ideology, however, they do not move away from him. Instead, they stay in dialogue, admitting that intra-religious peace is often harder to craft than inter-religious peace. Ashafa and Wuye have been criticized as traitors by their respective religious communities, or else as compromisers who benefit from funding from the West. The majority, though silent, believes they are doing the right thing.

Another participant noted Wuye’s artificial right hand, suffered in clashes with Muslims, and wanted to know what Wuye would do if he met that individual. Wuye stated he had no idea who cut off his hand, given that the clashes were mob violence, but that if he were to meet him, he would forgive him. He stated that earlier he had hate, but that God changed him, and now he would seek to love that individual – excessive love is the means to disarm an enemy.

Along similar lines Ashafa sought to answer the best way to deal with your enemy. He stated that he no longer had enemies in this world, only friends he has yet to meet. To adopt this attitude you must break the barriers of fear and insecurity, but the best way to defeat an enemy is to turn him into a friend.

A particularly astute participant, in a different context, gave practical application to these ideas. He recommended that following any sectarian conflict, efforts should be made cross-religiously to visit the victims of violence. Others spoke positively of the Family House initiative, which aims to bring together the heads of Egypt’s various religious communities. Some, however, emphasized while love and dialogue are good, it is the rule of law and better education which must be cornerstone for diffusing interreligious tensions.

Conclusion

Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye have been successful in implementing such techniques in communities throughout Nigeria and other countries, and in some areas have curbed violence almost entirely. As they and the participants of the two workshops emphasized, Nigeria is not Egypt. Yet it should be clear from the description of the training that these are location-neutral tools which can be applied regardless of context.

Egypt has witnessed community tension since the revolution; given the breakdown of security provision it is not surprising some disagreements have sparked wider conflict. This situation helps explain the great usefulness behind EWER as a community based strategy. Egyptians have already grouped themselves into popular neighborhood communities during the revolution to protect their homes and properties. If marshaled and trained, this same spirit can provide increasing levels of cushion to keep both ordinary disagreements and targeted bigotry from escalating and dividing the citizenry. It can be a safety valve to keep authorities aware of the situation on the ground, but yet find solutions before they must become actively involved.

EWER is a tool to keep the community peace. If effective, its necessity will never be noticed. If absent, its necessity may become painfully obvious. EWER is only one tool among many, yet it is hoped the principles therein may become successfully translated to address perfectly the needs of Egypt. Nigeria is like Egypt, and like nations everywhere, in that they are filled with ordinary people, with ordinary disagreements. Though circumstances differ, the solution is common: Community cooperation keeps disagreements from becoming divisions. Early Warning and Early Response encourages this reality.

Categories
Current Events Jayson

Police Day Palpitations

Last year Egypt added a 16th day – Police Day – to its official list of public holidays. It may prove that this designation will backfire on the government.

The day was created to honor the memory of fifty police officers murdered by the British in 1952, which provoked an uprising eventually leading to the Free Officer’s Revolution and establishment of the modern Egyptian Republic. Since then, however, the police have been a primary object of contempt for opposition figures and the general man on the street, who consider them the enforcers of the Emergency Law, by which, it is said, the government squelches all opposition. Others say the Emergency Law is necessary to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, such as government supporters and members of the National Democratic Party. They believe the police allow the people to sleep soundly at night. Many Egyptian Christians, meanwhile, find the police and security forces to be biased and unresponsive when aggression is directed at their community or churches. Regardless of religion, though, the complaint of random arrests and brutality is circulated widely.

Inspired by the recent uprising in Tunisia, and frustrated by what were understood as deeply fraudulent legislative elections, Egyptian opposition figures have chosen to launch nationwide protests on the occasion of Police Day. The reverse symbolism is poignant – demonstrators will demand the repeal of the Emergency Law and the dismissal of the Interior Minister. Additionally, they call for a rise in the minimum wage and terms limits on the presidency. Activists hope that, as seen in Tunisia, initial protests for limited concessions might lead to a wholesale rejection of the regime.

Will they succeed? Over 80,000 Egyptian Facebook users have pledged to participate. So have leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organized opposition party in Egypt. They will be joined by the Wafd, Karama, and Ghad parties, the movements of April 6 and the National Association for Change, as well as representatives of the labor movement. Reluctant presidential hopeful Muhammad al-Baradei has signaled his approval of the protest, but will not participate.

Trepidation is understandable. The government has announced the demonstration to be illegal, and will deal strictly, though within the law, against any violators. At least three activists have already been arrested for promoting the campaign. Fresh in the minds of any protestor will be the recent deaths in police custody of Khalid Sa’eed, accused of drug dealing but purported to have informed against police corruption in drug deals, and Sayyid Bilal, an Alexandrian Salafi rounded up after the church bombing on New Year’s Eve. Investigations into their deaths are ongoing.

Other objections are raised. The Tagammu Party rejects the protests on the grounds that the nation’s policemen deserve a day of honor. Meanwhile, the ruling National Democratic Party has announced its intention to hold a counter demonstration of loyalty to President Mubarak, in which half a million of its younger members will participate. Additionally, the heads of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches in Egypt have urged their members not to join the protests, but instead to devote the day to prayer asking God to bless Egypt.

The weight and immediacy of the protest is in the air, especially in light of the events in Tunisia. One friend, an older gentleman, believes that nothing substantial will happen, though some may try to force the issue. He said this, however, on his way back from the bank, where he withdrew money ‘just in case’. Another friend spoke of the protest by listing a litany of common Egyptian complaints about the government. A sensible journalist, he spoke with a passion which betrayed his normal demeanor. Yet he has a wife and children, a reasonable income, and much to lose. Even so, he was itching to participate for the benefit of his country. Wisdom is necessary.

Yet where should wisdom lead? Certain factors suggest that a Tunisian style uprising is not imminent. First of all, the Tunisian demonstrations were by all appearances spontaneous developments arising from a disenfranchised lower class. Efforts at imitation in Egypt, however, are led by political elites looking to move the masses. Perhaps they will succeed; public frustration with government is widespread. More likely, however, is though the social media dissemination of dissent is spontaneous among the upper class, it will fail to mobilize greater society to any substantial degree.

Second of all, when the Tunisian demonstrations began to gain steam, they were joined by the middle class, which transformed an originally economic protest into one fully political. Critical mass was reached, and the president fled. Here, however, the middle class will be asked to lead, not support. Their cause is political, not economic. Though certainly the poor in Egypt could stand a drastic improvement in their condition – far more than in Tunisia – will they follow the comparatively rich into an unknown future, for political freedoms that do not generally concern them anyway? Can the family man mentioned above command their allegiance? Will he even be willing to try?

In which light, then, should the decision of the church to abstain from protest be understood? Church leadership is also frustrated with the government, especially following the use of live ammunition on Coptic protesters in Umraniyya, a suburb of Cairo. The Alexandria attack, however, may have served as a reminder that church security is tied to good, secure governance. Perhaps a known stability is preferable to a chaotic, unknown future.

The government can also be seen as solidifying its relationship with the church following the Alexandria bombing. The prime suspect in the Nag Hamadi Christmas killings from last year was recently sentenced to death – the first such sentence rendered against a sectarian criminal in modern Egyptian history. Furthermore, the government has stated that a new law to govern the contentious issue of church building will be introduced soon. For its part, the church has rejected the efforts of the US Congress to conduct a special hearing on the Alexandria attack as interference in domestic affairs – exactly the same language used by the government. The church’s longstanding position is that Coptic affairs are a matter of concern to Egypt only, interpreting even sincere international efforts at assistance as detrimental to the national unity between one people of two religions.

It can also be said that the Bible itself is an anti-revolutionary document. Many verses encourage believers to submit to the king, whether he is just or unjust. While undercurrents of protest exist in Biblical interpretation, the Egyptian church perspective is well within the mainstream of historical Christian understanding. It may well be within the mainstream of wisdom as well, but this is a pragmatic, political matter. Should the church throw its hat in with the uprising? Where will the repercussions be greatest should the effort fail, or succeed?

Fr. Matta al-Miskeen represents a minority position in the church today, but one that has been forged by an intense monastic spirituality. In his book ‘Church and State’, he urges Christians to become full participants in the life of society, and devote themselves spiritually in the life of the church. A mixing of the two identities, however, pollutes the two streams in which Jesus said to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar, and the things that are God’s, to God’. Though now deceased, he recognized the increasing politicization of the church, and warned against it.

As things stand now, the church is tied to the ruling political establishment, no matter how frustrated it is in this relationship. Alliance with government makes proper sense; after all, having suffered through sectarian and terrorist attacks over the past three decades, it is only the ruling power that controls the forces of security. Witnessing great police commitment to defend the sanctity of churches during Christmas Eve services testifies to this fact.

Yet Matta al-Miskeen hints at the greater strategy. If the church is apolitical, then individual Christians can be as political as they desire. The government can trust the church not to mobilize its members, either for or against government policy. Society, including the Muslim majority, can trust the church to urge its adherents toward morality and cooperation. Then, if a Christian becomes a government loyalist, he is free. If a Christian takes opposition leadership and calls for regime change, he is free. For his actions he is responsible to God, as well as the state and society. Yet this responsibility is his, it does not belong to the church. The church is responsible for nurturing the spiritual life of believers, not securing their political rights.

Police Day is January 25. Tension is afoot. Different strata of society have chosen sides, and the church has declared its allegiance. Perhaps the day will pass insignificantly; perhaps this is the first step towards Tunisia. Will society follow the lead of the elitist agitators, no matter how deep their dissatisfaction with government? Will Christians follow the lead of the church, and continue their submission to the ruling powers? For all involved, where does wisdom lie?

For the good of Egypt, may the right answers become clear. May all have the courage of conviction and the goodness of heart to act on such wisdom.

Categories
Current Events Jayson

Preparation of Tinder: The Umraniyya Riots as a Prelude to Christian Violence following the Alexandria Bombing

Since the 1970s Christians in Egypt have felt under pressure from a perceived Islamization of society and patterns of discrimination from the government. In recent years they have registered complaints about restrictions in church building, irregularities in prosecuting crimes against their community, and other issues. Until recently, however, Christian criticism was expressed only within their community or with the media. On the rare occasions when they have demonstrated, it has been almost exclusively restricted to within church grounds.

The murder of six churchgoers in Nag Hamadi on Coptic Christmas,  January 6, 2010, provoked small scale demonstrations of Christians in that Upper Egyptian town. This vulgar attack, however, precipitated the beginning of public protest elsewhere, as was witnessed in a peaceful demonstration in downtown Cairo in February. Over the course of the year other events – Christian homes burned in Abu Tisht, public polemics between religious leaders, conversion cases concerning wives of priests – all contributed to a deepening of tensions and a feeling of isolation among Christians. If tinder is present in abundance, only a small spark is necessary to cause an explosion.

November 2010, one month prior to the attacks in Alexandria, the first spark occurred in Umraniyya, a poor, traditional living quarter in a Cairo suburb. Rumors abounded that the church was attempting to transform a service building into a place of worship, and government authorities interfered and stopped the proceedings. This is a common occurrence in Egypt; church building regulations are restrictive, and there is often much subtle maneuvering between the circumvention of law and its enforcement. This time, however, violence exploded. Again, though not regular, this is not uncommon; what distinguished this event was that the violence began with Christian initiative.

At first the demonstration was led by disgruntled Christian workers, according to sources from within the church. Media reports, however, state that they were joined by up to 3,000 area Christian youth. They did not remain on the church grounds, but instead exited and blocked the ring road not far from the church. Reports also describe vandalism against local government buildings and vehicles.

When the security forces arrived to subdue these riots, the result was an exchange of stone throwing between the protestors and the police. Reports also describe Christians hurling Molotov cocktails at the guards. In an excessive show of force, the security responded by using tear gas and live ammunition. Two Christians were killed, dozens wounded, and scores were arrested.

As with most news events in Egypt, determining facts and placing guilt is a difficult matter. Whether or not the Christians, or even the local priests, bear fault, the overwhelming Christian response to the Umraniyya incident was horror at the unnecessary death of two individuals. Many Muslims and other activists also condemned the heavy hand of security in putting down otherwise containable protests, as had happened repeatedly in all nature of demonstrations over the previous year. Christians in particular, however, viewed it as one more piece of evidence that their community is beleaguered, if not persecuted.

This is the prevailing attitude among many Christians of all classes. Yet where this sentiment exists among the lower class and uneducated segments of society, it mixes with the problems of poverty and unemployment to create a dangerous tinderbox. This was seen on a minor scale in Umraniyya. The explosion was witnessed in Alexandria, and then elsewhere in Cairo.

The unprecedented bombing that took place at the church sent immediate shockwaves through the Christian community. How should one react when a place of worship has been desecrated, when fellow religionists have been ripped to pieces? Even if most victims were unknown to the majority of rioters, Alexandria represented an attack on the Christian community, and the spontaneous response in defense of Christian identity was to take to the streets.

Again, it is difficult to be precise. Did security fear the worst and clamp down, provoking the violence which ensued? Were the Christians bent on destruction, and thus needed to be subdued? Were local Muslims agitators, or innocent bystanders swept up in the fury? Certainly the combination of these factors intertwined to produce the riots widely held in Egypt’s urban centers. What is clear is that the preparation of tinder had been underway for some time.

Now that it has burned itself out, will Egypt – Muslims, Christians, and government – be able to find avenues to legitimately express grievances and seek common solutions? If not, the collection of tinder will quietly begin anew.

note: Shortly after the Umraniyya incident I wrote an article for Arab West Report summarizing the official church version of events. Having neglected to post that here originally, if you desire to read more I will look to do so in the next day or so.

Categories
Current Events Julie

Contemplating a Terrorist Strike

SUICIDE BOMB
Image by wannaoreo via Flickr

Jayson and I attended St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church here in Maadi, Egypt on Coptic Christmas Eve.  This is not so unusual, as it is the main church we attend weekly, but this particular night was a little different.  You may have heard in the news about the suicide bomber who attacked a Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt on New Year’s Eve.  Egypt’s churches had been threatened by terrorists back in November, and on New Year’s Eve, that threat became reality!  The week that followed was interesting reading the news reports and hearing about the heightened security as Coptic Christmas approached.  Each day as I took my girls to preschool across the street from the Coptic Church, I noticed more and more security measures.  The teachers told me about bomb-sniffing dogs and scanners to be put in place for the Christmas Eve service.  We had planned to take a trip three hours south of Cairo for the holiday to celebrate with the same priest’s family we had celebrated with last year, but were advised to change our plans due to the threats.  And yet, we couldn’t forsake the place where we had been striving to belong over the last year.  It was Christmas Eve, the second biggest Christian holiday, and threats or no threats, it was time to attend church.

It was a long day in many ways.  I began work making a “contingency plan” over a year ago, and yet, with the immediate cares of everyday, I usually forgot about it and certainly didn’t make it a priority.  And yet, that day, with the thought of attending church under threat of attack, my thoughts turned to our three little girls, and what information people would need if something happened to Jayson and me.  I finally got around to writing down where our important documents are kept, phone numbers of parents in the states, and contact information for other connections we have.  I even wrote down phone numbers of friends in the country who I knew would be able to help with babysitting, even though I never asked them if they would be on my contingency plan.  It was necessary, but foreboding, to be writing down the girls’ daily schedules:  Emma and Hannah go to bed at 7pm, Layla is eating squash and peas … things people would need to know IF something happened.  But yet, the thought of this information being needed was very disturbing!

I lived that day a little differently I think.  I prayed more.  I hugged my girls more.  I had realized in the past that I didn’t have many pictures of me with the girls simply because I am usually the one taking the pictures.  And I knew I didn’t have any recent pictures of me with Hannah, my second girl.  So, one of the things I did that day was take some self-portrait shots with Emma and with Hannah.  I figured IF something happened, at least the girls would have these photos to hang on to.  How depressing!  But it was the first time I really went through a day thinking, this COULD be my last day.

I even taught the girls a song that day which I had recently remembered when reading Psalms.  I heard this song years ago on one of Steve Green’s Bible Verse Song tapes and it goes, “When I am afraid I will trust in You, I will trust in You, I will trust in You….”  I thought it a perfect song, not only for when they wake up at night with bad dreams, but especially today … IF something happened to me, I wanted them to have a song to sing as they were afraid without their Mommy and Daddy.

I tried not to think about the possibility of this being my last day on earth too much, but it really was a strange feeling.  I wasn’t overcome with fear, but I really did want to be prepared … or have my girls prepared for what COULD happen, without letting them think about what COULD happen.  My “I love you’s” to them when we put them to bed had a little more weight behind them than normal, and I looked at them just a few seconds longer than usual as I left their room.

I wasn’t sure if I would be nervous the whole time we were in the church, as the best time for the attack would be as people were exiting the building, but while I thought about it some, it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.  I was impressed by the security presence at the entrance.  I was impressed by the number of people who were in the church, and the numbers who just kept coming and made it standing-room-only for a time.  I felt proud to be there and proud of the others who came despite the threats.  I was grateful to the Muslims I noticed in the crowd, for their standing with their Egyptian brothers in a possibly dangerous place.  And I enjoyed what I could understand of the sermon.

I got a little nervous toward the end as the priest made several announcements to the congregants to exit and go straight to their cars following communion.  They reminded them not to stand around and chat either inside or outside the building.  They wanted to cooperate with security as much as possible and get people home safely.  I felt comfortable inside and couldn’t imagine something happening at that point, but still, we had to leave the church and walk through the barriers before we were “safe.”

And you all know, since I am writing this post after the fact, that nothing happened and I am still alive and well and still able to be a Mommy  to Emma, Hannah and Layla, for which I am very grateful. But I now have a good start on our contingency plan, and a good reminder of what it’s like to live more “in the moment,” realizing that any day COULD be my last day here.  I don’t want to live in the depressing “what if’s” of thinking about death, but I want to hug my kids hard each day, tell them I love them truly each day, teach them songs and take pictures with them each day.

I’m thankful for the days God gives me here, but I don’t want to live in awareness of this only when the thought of death becomes a possibility.  Though there are many good things to live for, sometimes we only recognize it when the status quo is threatened. Terrorism can do that to you, but it can also lead to paralysis. Hopefully, in the days to come, we can find the balance.

 

Categories
Current Events Jayson Religion

The Happiest Christmas of My Life

You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.

How is Christmas held in mourning? For the Coptic community of Egypt, Christmas is traditionally a time of celebration. Midnight on Christmas Eve ends a forty-three day period of fasting, concluded during mass in which the Eucharist is served. Afterwards, families congregate and break the fast joyfully, eating the meat, fish, milk, and eggs from which they had previously abstained. Early the next morning parents return to church with their children, who play games and receive gifts, all wearing their new holiday outfits. And since 2003, Christmas has been a national holiday, with all Egyptians receiving a day off from work. Along with Easter, it is a centerpiece of the religious year.

Yet all this merriment was threatened one week earlier when a bomb ripped through worshippers at a Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria at the conclusion of the New Year’s Eve mass. Twenty-three people were killed, dozens more injured, and threats were issued for continuation at Christmas. At first Pope Shenouda, pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, considered cancelling Christmas celebrations altogether. In the end, the church decided to push forward, although the churches of Alexandria decided only to conduct the Christmas Eve mass, and cancel the next day celebrations. How can Christmas be held in mourning?

If one returns to the Biblical story, there was little joy in the coming of the first Christmas. Forced into a difficult period of travel, Mary gave birth to her child in the dingiest of circumstances. Later, that child would grow, and warn his friends of his coming death, promising them their grief would turn to joy. Approaching Christmas, few Copts could anticipate a similar transformation. Even if they attended mass in defiance of terrorist threats, it would be in the shadow of death and the fear of repetition. Grief, not joy, would mark Christmas 2011.

A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come.

St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Maadi, Cairo has become our church home in Egypt. It has not been easy adjusting to Orthodox traditions, and though an open, friendly spirit exists among the congregants, they are not used to making foreigners welcome in their midst. Over time, though, our girls have attended the church preschool, and we have made friends. Of course we would attend Christmas Eve mass.

The newspapers had warned that extensive security procedures would be in place, so as we walked to church, passports in pockets, we did not know if we would be allowed entry. There had been a groundswell of support from Muslims in Egypt, condemning the bombing and seeking to stand in solidarity with their brother Christians. Many had expressed a desire to attend Christmas Eve mass, either in defense of the church, or else to die together. Yet rumors abounded that either security or the church would not allow Muslims entrance. Pope Shenouda strongly refuted their rejection, but who could know? If Muslims were to be barred, what about foreigners? While we are known to church leadership, and the regular guards outside the church see us every week, what about their amplified staff? Would they risk the death of foreigners on top of all the other bad press associated with this terrorist crisis?

Approaching the church, we marveled at its military headquarters-like appearance. St. Mark’s Church occupies a place on al-Nahda Circle, between two side roads which receive regular, but minimal, traffic. Since the Alexandria attack took place outside the church, originally believed to be from a car bomb, traffic barriers were placed along a full half of the circle. No cars were allowed to park anywhere, and the two side roads were cordoned off entirely. The barriers were erected to also serve as a channel for approaching pedestrians. As we stepped forward, we were asked for identification.

The checkpoint experience was strangely odd. Security personnel were all around, but we were inspected by plain clothes individuals with badges hanging from their necks. As it turns out, the church had organized its own security team, which helped identify regular congregants from questionable interlopers. We did not recognize the woman who took our passports, but in retrospect there seemed a note of awareness in her eye. Whatever the reality, we were allowed to pass.

But when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.

We arrived at the church about 8:00pm, hopeful that by arriving early we would secure a good seat in the balcony. Instead, there was hardly a place to be found. Though we found a place in the last row of the side balcony, by the end of the evening every place was taken, as well as every step in every ascending aisle. Two lower rooms were also packed, watching the mass projected live on screen. Terrorist threats, security concerns – at St. Mark’s, at least, Copts were observing, if not celebrating, Christmas.

I have heard reports that in many churches the congregants wore black, to symbolize their mourning. Here, the term ‘celebrating’ may not be inappropriate. Many people were dressed to the nines; new outfits were visible in abundance. St. Mark’s in Maadi has a reputation as one of the more well-to-do churches in Cairo; economic stability allows festive possibilities. All the same, people seemed determined to defy terrorism not only through presence, but also through insistence on celebration. Surely their hearts were heavy, but life, including holiday, must continue unabated.

As we scanned the audience we noticed what appeared to be two Muslim women, distinguishable by hijab, seated in the upper opposite corner from us. We wondered if there were others, as religious identity is not determined by physical characteristics. Everyone else seemed to blend together. As will be seen, this was quite appropriate.

The mass continued as it always does, and always has, for hundreds of years. There seemed to me to be more Coptic language chanting than normal, which could result from a desire during times of crisis to reassert original community identity. As a language, Coptic fully gave way to Arabic in about the 14th Century, and the tongue withered away until its liturgical revival in the 20th Century. Or, the Coptic chants may have meant nothing special in particular – I should reemphasize our newness to the tradition. All the same, along with the Muslims in the corner, it felt like a slight divergence from the norm.

As the time for the sermon approached, it was introduced, as normal, by a reading from the Psalms and the Gospels. Then, an unusual but timely procession advanced. Twenty-three individuals, each carrying a lone candle, advanced toward the pulpit and sat down in a vacated pew. One, we noticed, was wearing a hijab.

When they sat Fr. Boutrus began his sermon. This Christmas was wrapped in sorrow, he spoke, but we must always look in hope for good to arise from evil. Indeed, he continued, Jesus promised his followers that there would be grief, but that grief would be turned to joy. Just as a mother suffers labor pains, so Egypt is groaning under the weight of this tragedy. The newborn baby, however, displaces the pain. What will displace the pain of Egypt? Where is the new baby to be born? It is here, in this church, in churches throughout Egypt. It is Muslims greeting us in peace and consolation. It is a national unity that will emerge from the challenge of sectarian tension. I have received so many phone calls and messages, he said, from Muslim friends who have wanted to be a part of our celebration tonight. It is their presence here that fills me with joy. In fact, I must say, today is the happiest Christmas I have had in my life.

Fr. Boutrus acknowledged that there were differences, but he spoke of Jesus on the cross demolishing the dividing wall of hostility, making the two one. We each have our faith, and we must respect each other. Yet we may all follow Jesus in good works, among which is the ministry of reconciliation. Fr. Boutrus thanked the Muslims who had joined us, and reiterated his feelings again: It is right that Egypt is in a period of mourning, but today, in what develops, this is the happiest Christmas of my life.

Ask, and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

As Fr. Boutrus ended his sermon, the procession of twenty-three, representing those who perished in the bombing, exited down the center aisle from which they came. As they did, tens of others from around the sanctuary also rose and exited. Caught off guard, we realized, these were Muslims seated everywhere in our midst.

It is traditional in the Coptic Orthodox mass that non-Christians are welcome. Visible in the ancient monasteries, but not so much the modern churches, the sanctuary was divided into sections. Up front is the place for the priests to administer sacraments, and behind them are the deacons who facilitate. Next come the believers, who are in fellowship with the church, living Christian testimony. Behind them are other Christians, but mixed also with the curious of other or no faith. These Christians are the ones who do not partake of the Eucharist, due to issues of unconfessed sin and evidence of broken fellowship. Known as the ‘Preached-to Ones’, they with non-believers listened to the Bible readings and the sermon. Immediately afterwards in the liturgy proceeds the preparation for the Eucharist and the transubstantiation of the host. Only baptized Orthodox believers may partake. Traditionally, everyone else leaves.

The tradition is not hard and fast in the modern world. We are not baptized Orthodox, and as such we do not advance for Communion, but neither are we expected to leave. In fact, not all Muslims left either; a few hijab-ed women were seen remaining in the pews. Yet it is customary for figures of state to attend Pope Shenouda-led masses during holidays, and at the appropriate moment, he acknowledges them, and they leave. For years this was a perfunctory, if admirable, feature of church-state relations; today, at St. Mark’s, it seemed poignant and appreciated. Officials from the governorate and district, friends of the priests, friends of the people – all were welcomed, and present in abundance.

In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.

After the Muslims’ exit, the liturgy proceeded as normal, but towards its conclusion we were reminded of reality. Before serving the Eucharist the priests asked each congregant not to leave their shoes behind in their seat as is customary. (Coptic Orthodox remove their shoes at Communion.) Instead, they distributed plastic bags in which they could carry their shoes while taking Communion. Following the bread and wine, they were to exit the church, don their shoes, and leave quietly one by one.

It is common following a midnight mass for the Copts to congregate outside the church as they wait for their friends to finish Communion. Having fasted, having waited through a lengthy liturgy, they finally meet up together and begin Christmas celebrations. It was this fact that led to so much destruction in Alexandria. Many people had exited church early, and were just hanging around outside when the bomb detonated. Anxious to avoid the same fate, the priests and security agreed to have each person leave immediately after their Eucharistic share.

Not all did, but many obliged. As we left we filtered through a subdued, porous crowd amidst reminders from the priests to leave. We passed through the gate, navigated the erected corridor, thanked a few security guards as we left, and headed home. It was a somber evening, despite the signs of hope and promise. The questions could not be dismissed: Will this same encampment be present next week? Will the terrorists simply delay until the next mass when both people and security let their guard down? Can the guard ever be let down? What about tomorrow morning, when celebrations should take place?

We woke early to bring our girls to the festivities. Indeed, they were festive. A puppet show was arranged for the youngest children. All age groups had activities going on. The high school students prepared to visit a local home for orphans. As before, people were dressed well, decked out in new outfits. It was enough to make me forget the circumstances; upon seeing some friends, I asked an impertinent question.

One’s guard is lowered quickly. The same security layout was present as the day before. Once again we presented our passports for a security check. At the gate Fr. Boutrus greeted each coming congregant, standing with a contingent of policemen. One policeman, though, produced a pink flower he offered to our four year old daughter. Throughout the day I saw several sporting theirs somewhere on their person. Greetings were exchanged; children played and laughed. Christmas was here, held amidst mourning.

I stumbled. “Are you having a joyous holiday?” My friends lost their smiles produced upon our meeting and replied, “Half and half.”

—–

Perhaps Jesus has overcome the world. Perhaps if these Copts ask, their joy will be complete. Did Fr. Boutrus speak from a sincere heart, or was he trying to will his words into reality? Has a newborn baby entered into the world?

One year ago six Christians and a Muslim security guard were killed in Nag Hamadi when alleged Muslim assailants opened fire upon Christian worshippers exiting Christmas Eve mass. Following the incident many similar expressions of condolences were offered by Muslims, and national unity was asserted in the face of tragedy. One knowledgeable Muslim journalist friend stated that he felt something was changing in society. The outcries were louder, more sincere; he expected the sectarian situation to improve. Yet the year that followed was filled with incident after incident of tension and conflict. This can be traced to a number of factors, far broader than religious difference. If at that time, though, the baby was stillborn, what gives hope this one will survive?

Certainly this occasion is different. The scale is far more serious and the stakes far higher. The past year was filled with recriminations, each to the other. Perhaps, on their part, the Copts never asked. They rallied, they worked, they sought legislation – did they seek God?

In his sermon Fr. Boutrus praised the Muslims, quoting Scripture: “He who loves, knows God.” He continued, expressing his wish, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

The message is Christian, but its borders are porous. Have Copts sought unity? Have they loved? The tragedy in Alexandria has brought substantial love to them; what will they do with it?

Certainly some of this love is perfunctory. Some of it is surface level condolence. But much of it is sincere. It is a love that brought Muslims to enter a church so as to express their solidarity, in the middle of heightened tensions and personal risk.

A Christian skepticism is warranted. They came, but they left early; the bomb would have gone off near the end. If they don’t condemn the massacre they will be perceived as supporters of it. It is the reputation of Islam they are concerned to defend primarily, not us. If they entered a church under normal circumstances, they would run afoul of security, and we would be accused of evangelizing.

Perhaps. But what Copts do next is of the utmost importance. If rebuffed, those Muslims who have sought reconciliation will have little reason to try again. The cycle of mistrust and mutual accusation will begin anew. Can they, with Jesus, overcome the world? Can they overcome themselves?

It is no easy task, but the life of a newborn baby is at stake. The mother, however, remains in critical condition.

Bible verses taken from John 16-17.

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Current Events Jayson Religion

Christian Responses to Alexandria: Irony, Violence, and Love

Irony can emerge from the midst of tragedy. While the world awaits the emergence of good – from somewhere, somehow – irony is often first to make its appearance on the scene.

On Monday, January 3, two days after the horrific bombing at the Church of Two Saints, St. Mark and Pope Peter in Alexandria, the government sent a construction crew to repair damage caused to the church by the blast. Christian demonstrators, however, prevented them from entering the premises, stating that damage and blood must remain until the perpetrators are brought to justice. While their response is understandable in light of the circumstances, other observers may notice another angle: Christians often criticize the government for complicating or preventing church construction, repair, or renovation. In this instance, it is the Christians who prevent the government from restoring the church to its original state.

Since the bombing there have been angry Christian demonstrations throughout Egypt, many of them violent. A representative video, with English subtitles, can be found on the al-Masry al-Youm website. The following is a sampling of recent events. All statements are as reported in various Egyptian newspapers; sources can be tracked by following the links.

Immediately after the bombing area Christians swarmed to the scene and clashed with security forces. It is also reported that they stoned a nearby mosque.

On Monday the demonstrations began in earnest. During the funeral of the deceased, Christians chanted anti-government slogans. Demonstrations broke out at the papal cathedral in Cairo, in which 43 policemen were injured. Three of the most prominent Islamic leaders in the country had come to pay their condolences to the cathedral to Pope Shenouda, but their cars were assaulted while there. 90 people were injured during demonstrations in Shubra, a section of Cairo with a large Christian population. Thousands of Christians joined with activists in a protest in downtown Cairo, during which time 47 were arrested and 20 cars smashed in. One headline read: “Angry Coptic demonstrations sweep Cairo and governorates.” A popular protest chant was: “With our souls and our blood, we will defend the cross.”

On Tuesday the violence continued. In Giza protestors blocked the ring road around the city. In one location in Cairo demonstrations led to the injury of 20 Christians and 37 policemen. Throughout the country 125 policemen were injured.

Immediate context can be traced not only to anger stemming from the bombing, but to Christian anger that has been swelling for some time. The action in Giza to block the ring road is the very same strategy employed a month earlier in late November, to protest what was understood as government interference in a church building project. This, and other more violent Christian protest, eventually led to government security forces using live ammunition which resulted in the death of two protestors and the hospitalization of dozens.

Other events could be summoned in which Christians have been largely passive recipients of violence, at times accusing security forces of lending a hand. Other times still they have been left wondering why justice was never served to perpetrators. In many of these cases the violence was due, at least partially, to normal community tensions, during which religious differences caused the spark that exploded the conflict. All the same, many Christians view security as their problem, rather than their protection.

There is substantial irony in the Christian community, self-understood to be beleaguered by security violence, now violently confronting the security apparatus. Elsewhere, there are emerging signs of good. The sources above also describe significant outpourings of interreligious protest against the bombing. Thousands of Muslims and Christians demonstrated together, in both Cairo and Alexandria. They carried signs uniting the cross and the crescent, lifting high their Bibles and Qur’ans.

Certain Muslim groups have even responded creatively. Eight thousand Muslims have signed up for an initiative to ‘go to the churches and die with them’, proposing to create human shields around church locations. In the aforementioned neighborhood of Shubra, Muslims went to the churches and distributed sweets and flowers to entering churchgoers.

It must be understood that the majority of violent Christian protestors come from poorer and underdeveloped sections of urban Egypt. These tend to be young, and their poverty and lack of education, shared by all Egyptians in their areas, contributes to their easy radicalization. In one particularly disconcerting scene, depicted on the video at about the 3:50 mark, Muslim counter-protestors chanted at Christians, “With our blood and our souls, we defend you Prophet Muhammad.” Though not captured on the video, clashes erupted between Muslims and Christians in circumstances like these. Religion plays a role, but social, political, and economic factors lay the groundwork.

Christian leadership has done its best to counsel patience and calm. Bishop Bisanti of Helwan, a large area on the southern outskirts of Cairo, states that this agitation of Coptic youth is due to shock, and is a temporary phenomenon. Pope Shenouda urges the Christians to have self-control, and priests in general have been urging their congregants to resist anything which leads to further sectarian tensions. This is necessary advice, absolutely required given the circumstances.

It would be difficult to expect more, but the thousands of Christians who have joined Muslims in denouncing the action are beginning to act upon the advice of Bishop Musa, bishop of youth. Imagining the bomber to be an Egyptian, he declared him to be a traitor to the nation, not just a criminal against Christians. Furthermore, he urged the people: Love is the answer.

It is an act of love to join with fellow citizens to set aside religious differences, even religious tensions, and project one voice to renounce violence and assert national unity. But it is also true that this author has not yet seen reports of Christian creative love, such as that evidenced by the Muslims mentioned above. There is little fault, for who can think of blessings when the natural human instinct is to curse?

Yet it is hoped that Christians might be able to find expressions of creative love to offer to those beyond their natural Muslim allies who rallied together with them. Here is one idea:

Currently, collective Christian anger and frustration is aimed at security. Rightly or wrongly, many Christians view the security apparatus as negligent, if not complicit, in their sufferings over the last few decades. Following this attack, one week before Coptic Christmas, the government is sure to place the maximum security presence around each and every church, to prevent a subsequent attack.

Though intensified, this is not a new procedure. Each week as my family goes to church, we pass by two or three security guards at the entrance. These have been assigned their post in precaution; there have been attacks, though far less severe in scale, on churches before. Most all worshippers enter church without giving the slightest pause to their presence. Most often these guards sit idly and stare out into space. They have become part of the established church architecture.

This coming Thursday evening, January 6, Coptic Christmas Eve, everyone will be on full alert, and no Christian will enter church unmindful of the security presence. What will their visceral emotions be?

One year ago to the day, six Christians were shot dead exiting Christmas Eve mass in an attack on a church in Nag Hamadi in Upper Egypt. In this attack a Muslim security guard was also killed. One week ago to the day, a bomb exploded and killed 22 worshippers at a church in Alexandria.

For Christians, will your church be next? For security, will your church be next?

Christians have legitimate space to be frustrated with security as a system, but on January 6, they and the individual security guards at their churches will all be in the same boat. These guards are not volunteers; they are on assignment. All the same, their life is on the line.

Imagine the goodwill that might develop if each Christian worshipper shook the hand of a security guard on his way into the service. Imagine if he stopped, looked the guard in the eye, and thanked him for his service. What if they took a moment, realized the gravity of the situation, and cried together? What if this occurred in every church throughout Egypt?

I am not under the presumption that many Egyptian Christians will read this text. But if you do, and you believe this idea has merit, please sow this seed among your fellow believers. In times like these, hope must be found in creative expressions of love. Egyptian Muslims have taken the lead in certain places; it is fully understandable that Egyptian Christians are lagging behind. More than anything else, they need now to be the recipients of love.

Their faith, though, calls them to more. They believe they have been loved undeservedly by God. Having received, they must now give. In many of their eyes, security is among the least deserving of all Egyptians. May they embrace them unconditionally. May they find greater and deeper expressions that ring far more powerfully than this simple idea. May they transform evil into good.

Otherwise, it is only irony and sadness which will continue to emerge from this tragedy.

 

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Current Events Jayson Religion

Reflections on the New Year’s Eve Massacre in Alexandria

By now much of the world has heard of the horrific attacks perpetrated against Coptic Orthodox Christians in Alexandria, Egypt. As of the latest count, 21 people are dead and another 170 are injured following an explosion outside the Church of St. Mark and St. Peter, as the New Year’s Eve mass ended and people were filing out into the streets. It is yet unclear if it was a car bomb or the work of a suicide bomber. Various international terrorist groups have claimed responsibility on the internet, and Alexandria Governor Adel Labib claims that foreign hands are behind the massacre. Investigations, however, are ongoing.

In the aftermath of the October 31 attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, al-Qaeda in Iraq issued threats against the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church. They warned that due to the presence of Christian women converts to Islam held in monasteries against their will, attacks would commence if their freedom was not granted. The church denied this report, stating that the women in question, Wafa Constantine and Camilia Shehata, both wives of priests, remained Christians of their own free will. Both women were apparently fleeing bad marriages, disappeared, and Christians raised protests about their abduction. While Wafa officially began the process of conversion to Islam before yielding to church admonition, and Camilia is understood to have released a video confirming her adherence to Christianity, neither has appeared publically since the church intervened in their cases. The Coptic Orthodox Church has strict regulations concerning divorce, making allowance only for adultery or conversion to another religion.

While most analysts deny that al-Qaeda has any operational capability in Egypt, there has been intense Muslim protest against the church in certain quarters of the country, especially in Alexandria. This city is known as a stronghold of Salafism, which is a conservative, traditional interpretation of Islam calling for imitation of the Prophet Muhammad and his early companions, as well as reconstruction of society based on the order they created. While not inherently violent, many Salafis recognize Christians as Ahl al-Dhimma, a protected minority which accepts Islamic societal predominance. This was the arrangement for much of Egyptian history, though the modern secular state has disrupted their understanding and crafted equality on the basis of citizenship. Many Christians complain this concept is unevenly applied, but many Salafis see the church’s ‘comeuppance’ as defiance of God’s order. Certainly when Muslim women are prevented from living their faith freely, as they see in the cases of Wafa and Camilia, society has gone wrong.

Certain eyewitnesses in Alexandria have claimed that they heard the cry ‘Haya al-Jihad’ coming from the nearby mosque Sharq al-Madina. The typical closing call from the early morning minaret microphones is ‘Haya al-Salat’, or ‘Come to Prayer’. There is no similar call during the remaining prayer times, making this call to jihad, if accurate, especially chilling.

Rev. Radi Atallah, pastor of the Attarine Evangelical Church in Alexandria, knows nothing about this call, whether it was issued or not. He does report, however, that several non-government affiliated area mosques had preached recently that Muslims should not associate with Christians, a very conservative interpretation of verse 5:51 in the Qur’an:

O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.

This, however, has rarely been the practice in Egypt, where Muslims and Christians have maintained strong bonds for centuries. Sayyid al-Qimni and Muhammad Sacīd al-cAshmāwī, are among the prominent Egyptian intellectuals who declare this verse is taken out of context, and that other verses in the Qur’an establish the basis of respect, cooperation, and friendship between Muslims and Christians. Nevertheless, it is clear that al-Qaeda figures such as Ayman al-Zawahiri utilize such verses in defense of their ideology. Again, though not equivalent with violence, such Salafi thought is noted to be on in the increase in Egypt.

Coptic Orthodox ideology is rarely understood to conjoin with violence, but recent events have demonstrated that the ideals of faith can run up against the tensions and frustrations of reality. Following the massacre in Alexandria Christians rioted in the street outside the church, near the hospital where many victims were taken, and outside the Sharq al-Madina mosque, with some pelting it with stones. Several policemen were also hit with stones. These demonstrations were broken up by security with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The emphasis on rubber bullets is necessary in light of the recent riots in Giza, only one month earlier.  Christians, protesting security interference in their building of a church service center rumored to be converted into a place of worship, exited church grounds en masse and blocked traffic in a major thoroughfare of the area. They also damaged government buildings and vehicles, and sources claim they also threw Molotov cocktails at security forces which had come to subdue the protest. In their efforts live ammunition was used, resulting in the death of two Christian young men and the injury of dozens more. This incident sparked deep Christian resentment against the government, and even Pope Shenouda expressed his discontent by voting for an opposition party candidate in the recent parliamentary elections.

While in the Giza incident Christians were the aggressors against understood government discrimination, a better parallel is found in the Christian reaction to the Nag Hamadi killings which took place at Coptic Christmas on January 6 of this current year. Three Muslim gunmen randomly fired at worshippers exiting mass, killing six and a Muslim policeman stationed outside the church. In response the Christians there took the street and vandalized the local hospital where they believed the bodies of the victims were being mistreated.

Claims of mistreatment are also associated with the massacre in Alexandria. Some sources quoted the hospital public relations director stating that the Red Crescent refused to give blood bags to the victims. Other sources, however, quoted a hospital physician stating that the hospital ran out of blood bags.

The scene is said to be one of sectarian tensions. Christian protestors are quoted as chanting religious slogans, such as “With our body and blood we will defend the cross!” Meanwhile, Muslim groups are quoted as chanting “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great), which is an historic Islamic battle cry. Christians are also said to have attempted to burn down the local mosque. Christians claim that security beat them with batons in response to their chanting.

Christian testimonies of suffering and injury set the stage for this violence. A YouTube video captured inside the church at the time of the blast also shows the chaos that erupted. It is chilling, but noteworthy, to notice the cries of the priests. “Don’t fear, it’s nothing!” was repeated over and over. Finally, at the end, they respond by spontaneously breaking out into religious psalmody.

The priest is understandably trying to calm the crowd, but the refuge in religious worship is symbolic of an earlier age in Coptic negotiation with state and society. During periods of difficulty Copts were encouraged to respond in prayer and quietism. Thoughts turned to God, and perhaps also to the dangers of taking on a majority culture. In recent years many Copts have imitated an overall, though still marginal, Egyptian trend toward activism. The freedom, and perhaps excesses, of Coptic communities abroad have also encouraged Christians to voice their complaints and strive for their political rights. Within this rubric, confrontation has emerged as a viable Christian option. While usually attempted through legitimate channels, the attitude has opened an avenue for frustrations to boil over into violence.

President Mubarak has noted that both Muslims and Christians died in the massacre, and that this gives evidence that terrorism knows no religion. He vows that the perpetrators of this crime will be found and prosecuted, also alluding to the fact that the origin of the crime comes from outside Egypt. Many Copts will likely receive his words as an empty paean asserting national unity in the middle of obvious sectarian tensions. Yet Copts would do well to not give up the cause, and the overall reality, of national unity. After al-Qaeda issued its warning to the Egyptian Church and the government responded quickly to denounce the threat, Pope Shenouda praised God that the effect of the terrorists was to rally all Egyptians together as one people. Though the government failed in its promise despite measures to bolster security should not result in the wholesale dismissal of the social contract.

The universal human constitution is to cry for justice. This is an unassailable pillar of civilization, that law is respected and lawbreakers punished. Yet at times like this, people of faith must supersede the desire for justice with the cry for love. Justice must not be neglected, and Christians have worthy fears they may once again be disappointed. The mob attacks in al-Koshh in 2000 resulted in 21 deaths, but only the lightest of sentences were meted when individual culprits could not be adequately identified. Furthermore, the trial of the three accused in the Nag Hamadi killings are still awaiting trial one year later, after multiple postponements. Will justice come in Alexandria? If so, who will receive it?

The cry for love demands pause. If this is the work of a foreign infiltrator then there is no direct comment on Egypt’s sectarian issues. If it was a sole Egyptian influenced by al-Qaeda rhetoric then the larger community is to be excused. Regardless, many in the Muslim community have immediately expressed their condolences, with Nagwa Raouf, professor at Cairo University, even apologizing on behalf of her co-religionists. A Muslim, in all likelihood, is guilty. Some Muslims may have been accomplices. Many Muslims may hold an ideology which contributed to the atmosphere of tension in Alexandria. But most Muslims decry violence in the name of their religion, and more generally in the name of humanity. A cry for love must include justice, but it must carefully differentiate.

A cry for love must also seek reconciliation and unity. A fine example of this is demonstrated by Rev. Atallah, who in addition to his pastoral work is a member of the Alexandria Intercultural Dialogue Committee, and the local parliamentary committee on conflict resolution and crisis. In response to the attacks he met with his dialogue group and issued a statement condemning the massacre, urging reconciliation, and petitioning for a clear law against religious discrimination. Furthermore, the group announced the following six steps it would take in light of the incident:

1.       All imams and Muslim leaders in the city are invited to attend the funeral.

2.       A group has been formed to visit the injured in the hospital

3.       The families of those killed or injured will be consulted for any financial support needed in the wake of their suffering and the losses incurred

4.       University leaders will be asked to lead blood donation campaigns

5.       The governor will be asked to designate a citywide moment of silence to honor the slain

6.       On January 26 the first of monthly meetings will be held to unite Muslims and Christians in changing the sectarian climate of Alexandria. Currently, 35 people, including journalists, religious leaders, and young people are committed to attend.

Steps like these are necessary, and provide opportunity for moderate, peace loving people of both faiths to use this tragedy for good and knit relationships of cooperation that will marginalize extremism. May it be that the monthly meetings will create further good ideas to promote understanding and national unity.

Yet the cry for love must not stop there. While many Salafis can likely participate with full sincerity in condemning the massacre and binding together with Christians in dialogue, others will not. The imams, for example, who were recently preaching non-friendship with Christians will likely remain venomous. Average Muslims under their tutelage may condemn the violence but harbor animosity against Christians or Christianity, or even the secular developments of the nation. Somehow, these must be engaged. They will not come to meetings; people of faith must go to them. And when they go, they must go in full commitment to love, to understand, to bless, and to do good. Efforts to change their mindset must be wholly secondary. Perhaps the dialogue groups can consider how.

Yet these Muslims are not the only ones harboring resentment. Christians, too, must be engaged with this cry for love. Many of them have chosen the path of violence in response to their victimization. Those they have harmed, including moderate leaders of their own faith, must treat them with the same patience and commitment necessary for hard-line Salafis. They must walk with them through the difficulties of forgiveness.

This is a monumental, perhaps superhuman task. But in times of crisis the choices are clear. Members of both faiths will shrink back into their own communities and assumptions about the other, or, less negatively but equally futilely curse the darkness that is encompassing them as they band together with interreligious friends. Or else they may find the only meaning possible in suffering, which is the hope of redemption. It is the cry for love that can prevent a heart-hardening emphasis on justice and seek the freedom of those enslaved by violence and its various ideologies. Justice is necessary; interreligious friendship is vital. But love expressed tangibly to the least deserving is transformational.

May Alexandria receive this hope.