Upper Egypt Imam Confronts Conversion

From Ahram Online, following up on a story in which Muslims surrounded a church in Kom Ombo, Aswan, to demand the release of a local woman they believed was held against her will, forced to convert to Christianity:

A sheikh addressed a crowd of men in Kom Ombo to explain the events and dispel any rumours that had been circulating.

“Some say that she had a relationship with a man [who convinced her to convert] and others claim that a woman used to visit her and talk to her about Christianity,” he began.

He said that a man from Cairo, a former Muslim and Christian convert, communicated with her via the internet and the phone.

Allegedly, the divorcee in her mid-30s, had expressed thoughts about converting to Christianity.

“He told her that no one will be able to help, not even Christians, except one priest in Cairo who is [expelled from the Church] because he’s been attempting to convert Muslims,” the sheikh said.

The crowd reacted angrily to this information, interrupting the Sheik.

“When we sat with [Church leaders] they told us that they [do not encourage] such acts and explained to us that this priest is expelled from the Church,” he continued.

“This is a mere financial issue, the [man] came and told her ‘I will help you’ in exchange for EGP 3,500’

“We will bring the man here so that everyone can take revenge on him,” he added.

The sheikh then talked to the crowds about Islamic values and presented some counter-arguments to issues in the Christian religion that affected the girl during her absence.

“The woman told us that she was not fully convinced of several things she was told [by Christians] including the concept of the Trinity,” he said.

“She came and talked to us clearly, she said ‘I do not know if I am right or wrong,'” he added.

“We asked her to write down every point of confusion and we replied to all her concerns – everything has an answer in our religion.”

The sheikh said that curiosity had prompted the woman to leave; it is not known exactly where she had been staying during the past week.

“The woman’s brother had found a Christian hymn on her phone; when we asked her about it, the she said that she had asked for it… She obviously was… You see, the devil manipulates people’s minds. She was curious,” he said.

As the sheikh spoke, men from the crowds raised questions and points of concern to them.

“Do people who [encourage others to convert to Christianity] work through the internet?” one asked.

“Look, so that you know, the nearest person on such a network is from Luxor and the rest are from Cairo and Alexandria, they log on with fake names and we can’t –” but he quickly reassures, “We will get to them all.”

“Because we have already found three of them,” he added.

Additionally, the sheikh responded to the crowds several times saying, “Anyone involved will be held to account.”

This is a fascinating transcript. Very often in Egypt conversions in either direction are due to non-religious reasons such as love affairs, escaping difficult family situations, or securing a better financial situation.

Here, however, this woman appears to have simply been attracted to Christianity, likely through her association with Christian friends.

That which the imam speaks of also likely exists. Both religions have those who promote conversion on the internet, as well as individuals working to gain converts. In Egypt, of course, only the Muslim efforts are welcome.

The church probably had nothing to do with the woman, but needed to present official denials anyway. To placate the people, the imam needed to promise investigations and justice, even retribution.

In the West we would say ‘that poor woman’, and so we should. There appears no conspiracy here, just an individual with religious curiosity and inter-religious friends. Such trouble.

But here, they say ‘that poor family’, over what this innocent curiosity has done to the community. Such a description would apply equally if a Copt was found exploring Islam, though the scope here is much wider.

In both responses there is virtue, but where in all this, if anywhere, is God most pleased? The Muslim and the Christian may have very different answers, let alone the Egyptian and the Westerner.

It is a shame, I think, we have to know about this incident at all. And I’m the one sharing it. It is just too descriptive of Egyptian reality on the subject of conversion.


Touring Egypt with Egyptians

Our family recently had the privilege to go on a Nile tour from Luxor to Aswan.  With my parents visiting from the US, one of the sites my Dad wanted to see was the Valley of the Kings.  At first we said it was too far to try, but then Jayson heard our local Orthodox church advertise a trip to Luxor/Aswan, and so we enquired.  Turns out, no one else in the church signed up, but the travel agent, who worships at this location, was able to get us the same good price as he was offering to the Egyptian congregation, and so we made the arrangements for Mom, Dad, Jayson, me and our three little girls to embark on this great tour.

First step was getting to Luxor which is located about 8-9 hours south of Cairo by train.  We debated going by train or plane – big difference in time and price – and in the end, went with the more adventurous route.  We weren’t sure what to expect as we boarded the sleeper train in Ramses station, but we had three sleeper cabins which were quite comfortable and roomy.

Sleeper Car in the Train to Luxor

Since we left town around 8pm, we got our girls to bed as quickly as possible, anticipating a 5am arrival in Luxor.  Then we enjoyed a good dinner before retiring to our different beds.  I don’t think I slept too much and among the adults, we got varying hours of sleep.  The beds were comfortable enough, but the train was really rough.  We stopped and started all through the night, and felt like we were going to blow right off the track at different points.  About an hour before Luxor, we got some breakfast, then woke and dressed the girls before arrival.

We were met in Luxor by a representative from the travel company and taken to a big tourist bus along with about 25 Egyptians.  Our agent in Maadi had told us he had a group of doctors going on the same trip so we would be with them.  After traveling together a bit, we realized that many of us were together in the same train car from Cairo to here.  We went straight to the Valley of the Kings while our tour guide, Mohamed, began telling us about Luxor and what we would be seeing soon.  He usually works with English groups, but of course could guide in Arabic as well.  And so, our little family had our own English translation from him each time he finished his Arabic spiel.

The sites that day were interesting, and the three girls did well despite it being hot and including lots of walking.  We were all enjoying the places we visited, but also curious to get to the boat where we would be living for the next five days.  It wasn’t long before we learned of a complication in this trip.  Due to a workers’ strike at the locks near Luxor, our boat was parked about one hour south of Luxor in the town of Esna.  This meant that we had to drive over an hour after touring before boarding the boat.  And so, the schedule I had worked out for day one was not going to work.  Fortunately, our littlest one was able to nap during the long bus ride, and we all made it till the 3pm lunch when we finally got to the boat.

Exhausted on the Unexpected Bus Ride

By that first evening together, Emma and Hannah had made friends with a young single Egyptian named Mahmoud, who was traveling with his two sisters, parents and grandmother.  He quickly became like an uncle to them and throughout the week I often heard Emma call out, “Mahmouuuud, Mahmouuuud” as we walked around the temple ruins.

Mahmoud, with Hannah our Future Archaeologist
Mahmoud, with Emma our Future Captain

Day two was another complicated day due to the lock strike.  Since we had more to see in Luxor, we now had to drive an hour each way making for a long morning.  Or so I thought.  We were supposed to leave by 8 or 9 am, but by 10am our whole group was waiting in the lobby of the boat as the tour bus we were supposed to ride was having trouble finding gasoline due to a gas shortage.  I don’t know exactly what time the bus arrived to pick us up, because the boat left the port for about half an hour to allow another boat to set sail, and when we docked once again closer to noon, our tour guide was more than ready to get on with the tour.

(Click here for a tour of our Nile cruise boat, and here for a lazy gaze at a pastoral Nile River island.)

During our waiting time, the girls were once again playing with Mahmoud and this gave me a chance to meet him and his family and we had a nice time getting know each other.  I wasn’t sure if I was the only one stressed out about such a late start to our day since the boat was supposed to sail for its next destination at 3:30.  I knew we had two places to tour in Luxor and at least two hours of driving.  How could we possibly do it?  I was relieved to hear the concern of others in the group too, but they said that the sites we were to see, the Luxor and Karnak temples, were among the most important of the tour.  We couldn’t just skip out on these sites.  I quickly tried to refigure Layla’s eating and nap plan as it was obvious she would not be doing either of those things on the boat this day.

Out of the six or seven families in our tour group, there were four young children: our three girls, and a 1 ½ year old boy, Yusuf.  He was traveling with his parents, aunt, and grandparents, and Emma and Hannah really took to him.  By day four, Hannah practically looked like she was in their family as she walked along with them at the sites and played with Yusuf on the boat.

With Yusuf, on the Sun Deck

We also met up with them a time or two in the disco room and the kids all danced together.  On the final day, Yusuf’s dad delivered three black plastic bags to our girls, each one filled with the same assortment of snacks: a pack of crackers, a lollipop, a tube of chocolate, a small cake, some gummy worms and a juice box.  By that point, Hannah was too sick to enjoy any of it, but the gesture was so typical of the generous Egyptians we know.  It never even crossed my mind to buy something small for anyone, and yet, they bought all three of our girls bags of snacks.

Several other people in our tour group enjoyed playing with our girls as well.  One of the daughters in a family of three older girls often played with Layla when she was strapped to my back.

Layla, with One of Many Children Lovers

It wasn’t unusual to find Layla in someone else’s lap on a motorboat ride or as we were waiting in the lobby of the boat.  Even though we were the only non-Egyptians in our group, they welcomed us in and made the trip extra-special for our kids.

Not only were we the only foreigners in our particular tour, we were the only foreigners on the whole boat of three tour groups.  According to one of the workers on the boat, they’ve only had Egyptians riding the boat for quite awhile now.  One evening while I was in line for dinner, one of the servers asked me how I liked the food.  I answered that I thought it was very good, and he tapped the lady next to me in line and said, “See, she is American and she thinks the food is very good!”  I felt very strange when he said that like my opinion is more important than anyone else on the boat?!  But perhaps he was excited about the presence of foreigners in his restaurant for the first time in a long time. Tourism has taken a severe dive since the revolution.

Among New Friends

There were three or four elementary-aged girls on the boat, and after the first or second day, they became friends with Emma and Hannah.  Their time was limited together since we didn’t tour at the same time, but they could see each other on the sun deck or in the disco room.  One night there was a gallabeya party.  A gallabeya is a traditional robe-like dress which is a typical dress for men living in upper Egypt.  Technically the woman’s equivalent for that is called an abaya.  We weren’t planning on mentioning this party to our girls since it wasn’t going to start until 9pm which is two hours past their normal bed time.

However, the young girls on the boat, as well as the older girls in our group, were very excited about this party and asked Emma and Hannah if they planned to attend.  Not only did this mean staying up quite late, but also buying a gallabeya!  Following the lead of those in our group, we purchased a gallabeya for Emma and Hannah at one of the shops during our stop in Kom Ombo.  We later purchased some more on the boat and then some fancy head-ware at the market in Aswan.  Although it wasn’t in time for the party, by the end of the trip, our whole family was properly outfitted.

At dinner, just an hour before the party, Hannah was too tired to eat and decided to go to bed rather than attend the party.  This meant only Emma had a chance to participate, and she had a great time with her friends.

Dressed up for the Party
Dressed Up at Home - Adults have more Inhibitions

We had a wonderful trip and saw amazing sites in the south of Egypt, but probably the highlight of the trip for our entire family was the living people of Egypt, rather than its ancient monuments. You can see pictures of the temples anywhere, but how else could you get memories like these?

Our Touring Party

(Too bad the normally punctual Americans were late for this group shot. Oh well.)


Instability in Upper Egypt, Experienced

Ever since the revolution Egypt has suffered / benefited from waves of popular protest. The expressions in Tahrir Square were largely political, yet included a significant expression of social and economic discontent. The original chant which rang through the streets demanded, ‘Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice.’

Most focus since the revolution has been on political matters, and these have yet only partially been achieved. The achievement is significant, as Egypt now has a parliament freely elected by its people. Yet the primary lesson learned by the population is that if you have a grievance, fill the streets.

‘One Hand’ on the Railroad

A few weeks ago I was assisting American documentary filmmakers obtain an interview with a Coptic priest and a Salafi sheikh, the latter of which was running for parliament with the former’s support. The couple is producing a film entitled ‘One Hand’, which focuses on youthful and unique expressions of national unity. They had other business in Asyut, and I was to meet them with the priest in Maghagha.

My train arrived as usual from Cairo, but coming from Asyut was another story. With the priest I waited at the station, and waited, and waited. Finally we learned that nearby villagers decided to escalate their protest against the local government for failing to deliver the normal supply of gas bottles needed for cooking. The shortage prompted a huge increase in price on the black market, so they decided to block the railroad tracks.

At this news we knew it could be hours, though probably not days, until the track was opened again. The priest and I drove an hour south to collect them on the side of the tracks. For whatever reason, the task was complicated by the fact there was very poor cell phone coverage, but we managed to speak with their neighbor who assisted them in their disembarkation. The filmmakers spoke very little Arabic.

Eventually they made it over to us, surrounded by a group of young men who were offering to ‘help’. They may or may not have been, but once we got them in the car one of them asked where we were from. Oddly, I felt a bit unnerved out of concern for the (young) couple, answered ‘America’ with a smile, and received a reply suggesting his ‘help’ may have been variable. ‘F*** America,’ he said, ‘We hate America.’

‘I know,’ I replied smiling still. We got in the car quickly and drove away, with both exhaustion and a sigh of relief. The long delay made little impact on their work, as the sheikh was not free until near midnight to begin a very friendly and welcoming interview.

Lock the Lock

The next two examples come from a Nile cruise on the occasion of Julie’s parents visit to Egypt. We boarded the sleeper car from Cairo and unloaded in Luxor, very pleased there was no railway protest to extend the journey.

Yet after the first few local sightseeing locations we noticed something strange. We got on a bus and drove over an hour away to board our cruise and spend the night. The next day we repeated the same ritual, only delayed an additional two hours. There are many ancient Pharaonic sites to see in Luxor, and both the delay and the absurd driving distance played havoc with our scheduled itinerary.

Mother and Daughter Exhausted from Extra Travel

The normal agenda is to get off the train, see the sites, and then board the boat right there in Luxor, stopping at all the tombs and temples along the way.

Unfortunately, we learned the workers at the canal lock in Isna were on protest, refusing to let any boats past. They began their sit-in on the 25th of January, to commemorate the revolution.

This left the boats in Luxor stranded, but fortunately our boat was trapped on the other side. This explains the hour plus bus ride after we finished sightseeing. We had to drive south to Isna in order to spend the night in our cabin, and then return the next day for Luxor sites, day two.

Only the next morning we encountered another post-revolutionary difficulty. The nation as a whole, but Upper Egypt especially, has suffered periodic gasoline shortages. The bus, we learned, was desperately searching for an open tap.

After several hours delay, a different bus met us at the dock and filled up from the boat’s supply of gasoline. I’m not sure there weren’t other shenanigans we weren’t being told, but we did see long lines of vehicles at the gas stations we passed on our way back to Luxor. I’m also not sure who’s bottom line must accommodate the extra costs of bus and gasoline – travel agent, cruise, tour guide – but the blow to tourism is substantial.

Other tours which knew of the lock strike at Isna cancelled their trips altogether.

A Free Pass at Edfu

The Massive Temple at Edfu

Later on in our tour we had a pleasant outcome from local instability. Our boat docked in Edfu, but the captain told everyone the tourism workers at the temple were all on strike. The rumor circulated but before it had time to settle in the guide rounded everyone up and we went ashore. From there, we rode horse drawn carriages to the site of the temple.

What we didn’t realize until later is that our carriages stopped at the back side of the temple. We passed along an open area along the wall of the massive complex, circled to the temple gate, and moved through en masse.

At the entrance of nearly every tourist location there is a small area to mill about where the grandeur is open to all onlookers. Then there is a welcome center where a ticket is purchased and then a souvenir section where tourists – foreigners especially – are all but assaulted by desperate sellers.

We skipped all this. By coming in the back we avoided whatever protest prevented entry from the front. At the temple gate some semblance of guard took money from every tour guide, but then allowed the group in without tickets, no questions asked. Ticket prices for Egyptians range from 1-5 LE ($0.18-0.80 US), but foreigners must fork over between 35-80 LE ($6-13 US) depending on location. It is still minimal, but it was a nice surprise – pleasant also, as we avoided the souvenir gauntlet.

Groups Moving Past the Entrance as Tour Guides Give a Little Baksheesh (Tips)

The Big Picture

It is difficult to know what to make of these protests. On the one hand, they are at the least annoying and disruptive, and perhaps even damaging to the local economy. Several people, especially in Cairo, criticize such strikes. They say people should be patient: ‘We waited thirty years to get rid of Mubarak, we should not expect things to get better immediately. In fact, such continuing ‘special interest’ protests are only making things worse.’

Fair enough, but how can this point be enforced when there is a window of opportunity now? Forty percent of Egyptians live on under two dollars a day, wages are low even in the middle class, and few people have benefits of any kind. The revolution has changed political leadership, but not so much at the regional level. Protests have proved effective for many in getting what they want – which could be as basic as a living wage. Who knows but if they wait longer the system will reset itself and local leaders will pay as little concern to their needs as before?

In many ways, the problem is one of trust. President Mubarak allowed the failure of the social contract which ensures domestic stability. Open political participation was minimal, but so was food on the table. As Egyptian institutions eroded from the inside, it will take a long time to rebuild following the revolutionary collapse. Unless such a contract is widely renegotiated, small and localized strikes will – and perhaps reasonably – continue.

Who pays the bill? Is it reasonable for the average working Egyptian to wait until the Muslim Brotherhood, elite liberals, and the armed forces get around to a new economic policy? If so few cared for their needs then, should they trust anyone will care now?

Perhaps they will. The only one of the three to demonstrate practical concern for the poor were the Islamists, who have now been widely elected to parliament. It is fair to ask if Islamist concern is opportunistic or transformative, but many have worked sincerely. Will they follow through? Will they be allowed to? Will the people wait? If so, for how long?

Revolutions are not easy, and the pain can linger even after resolution. Egyptians are among the most patient people on earth; they are now being put further to the test.


On the sleeper train ride home I woke at about 2am from a lack of movement. It is difficult to catch shut-eye while the car lurches back and forth, but I was able. After about 45 minutes of standstill, however, I inquired. A baggage handler told me there was a train driver strike over assignments on the newer cars, which also came with a higher compensation.

Our car was newer, and despite my complaints above was much smoother than the older model we semi-suffered on the way south.

The handler assured me things would be settled soon, so I used the calm to get back to sleep. It worked, as I was unaware of another long delay that woke my wife around 4am.

In the morning I asked the porter about the delays. He replied there was just a normal backup of several trains at a particular station. Asking more specifically about a strike, he denied anything of the sort. I think I ran directly into the noble Egyptian quality of saving face.

In the end our scheduled twelve hour trip took sixteen. I don’t know if the drivers got what they wanted, or how it came about we did not spend an additional evening or two in the sleeper car. I just hope Egyptians remain patient as their lives accommodate such disturbances at an increasing frequency.

I suppose if everyone is doing it, it is easier to forgive.

Fortunately, They Slept Through the Night

Final Postscript

Today the media carried the news that a Luxor-Cairo train the day after our travels was attacked by thugs who tried to steal luggage from car number five. The passengers successfully beat them off.


Marinab, Maspero, and Faith on the Earth

Please note: The following was written a few days ago following a largely Coptic protest at Maspero. Obviously, it must be reconsidered in light of the horrible events of this evening, in which several were killed. All the same, this should do well to set the context for what happened today.


Outraged at the burning of a church in Marinab in the governorate of Aswan, over 1000 Copts and Muslim supporters marched in Cairo on October 4, 2011 from the heavily mixed Muslim-Christian neighborhoods of Shubra to the Court of Cassation in Ramsis. Afterwards, several hundred moved to the Egyptian Radio and TV Building in nearby Maspero, announcing a sit-in at the site of several previous Coptic protests.

The Setting

Unfortunately, the immediate spark that ignited this protest in Marinab is not at all clear. Many if not most demonstrators believed otherwise. A common interpretation claims  extremist, likely Salafi, Muslims surrounded a church and torched it, besieging their minority Christian neighbors in an effort to keep them from having a place of worship and perhaps to drive them from the area. This despite the fact that local Copts possessed official documents authorizing building renovation.

A full report on what transpired will be published soon, based on the findings of Cornelis Hulsman and Lamis Yahia during a visit to Marinab. What is emerging, though, is a far more complicated tale. While it appears the Christians of the village may have had authorization, this may have been gained on false pretenses. Or, it could have come through a ‘deal’ made between the governor and the deputy priest of the bishop to keep quiet a conversion case – which often result in sectarian tension – in exchange for authorization to construct a church. Stay tuned for full analysis of documents and testimonies, but regardless, the burning of the building occurred on a slow boil.

Christians in Marinab had long used a nondescript structure as a church, which was well known to the Muslims of the village. Negotiations had been underway to tear down the building and replace it with a formal church building. Muslims objected not to the conducting of religious rites but to the physical markings of church architecture. Confident in their authorization, the Christians began to build. Then, in light of the security void in the region following the revolution, they began to exceed their mandate.

Muslims brought this to the attention of authorities: Christians exceeded the approved height of the structure, and added four unauthorized domes to the roof – typical of Coptic Orthodox architecture. This was not disputed by local Copts, and they began to dismantle. Two of the domes were removed and the walls lowered. Copts stated this required careful, painstaking effort, lest the building collapse. Muslims felt they were moving slowly, stalling, and perhaps deliberately leaving some domes untouched.

On Friday, September 30, something set the Muslim community off, which will require more investigation. Perhaps fearful Christians would circumvent agreements and get away with it, a group of 200-300 youths took the matter into their own hands, using simple tools to tear down the building. This eventually swelled into around 1000 strong, and security looked on doing nothing. At some point some Muslims arrived with gasoline, and used it to set the structure ablaze. As the church-to-be is in a densely populated area of the Christian ‘quarter’, the flames spread and consumed much inventory in the neighboring warehouse. Christian properties were also damaged, and looting took place. The general sense – which can be disputed – is that Muslims wished to target the church, and some wayward youths engaged in violent excess. It is clear, however, that Muslims could have done far more damage to Marinab Christians had they wished, and did not do so.

There is nothing redeemable in the actions of these Muslims, as their Islamic chauvinism led them first to oppose a physical Christian imprint on their village, and then to take the law into their own hands. Yet perhaps law is a misnomer, for it seems both Christians and Muslims abused its absence. Application of law had long been a neglected feature of Egypt; after the revolution the ongoing security void is a deep mystery.

The Protest

It is this lack of government that gives legitimacy to the Coptic protest at Maspero. Marinab is the third church to be attacked since the revolution, following Atfih and Imbaba. Christian hopes raised during the revolution, which appeared to portend a new spirit of cooperation and national unity, are being dashed as frustrations with the former regime re-circulate, and perhaps increase. Yet the response of anger to the Marinab attacks reflects a lack of understanding and a jumping to conclusions. Neither the state nor the church provided (or were able to provide) the depth of complexity and shared complicity which led to the unjustified Muslim attack, however much both groups felt they needed to take the matter into their own hands. Yet a simple narrative of persecution and extremist opposition is more easily digestible.

Unfortunately, it is a narrative which is polarizing, even as it bears marks of true suffering. It is a tale that isolates Christians, even as it is self-fulfilling. It was also clearly evident at the Maspero protests.

I was in attendance with Cornelis Hulsman, who supplies many of the remarks which follow. I also know a few of the Coptic organizers, and find them to be good people who are not manipulators. Yet that might not be true of all.

Whether or not they possessed a true history of the Marinab conflict, Fr. Philopater, Fr. Mityas, and Fr. Abram Suriyani, a monk, are all Coptic Orthodox clerics with strained ties to church hierarchy. They, along with other priests from Shubra, Ma’asara, Beni Mazar and elsewhere, appeared to be coordinators. While they were celebrated by many, followed by large gatherings, one protestor in particular upbraided the priests as bringing trouble on the Copts. He said this while repeating the frequently heard Coptic chauvinism of being ‘pure-bred’ from the Pharaohs, as opposed to the Muslims of mixed Arab blood.

Since the revolution there has been a movement among Christians to rejoin society as opposed to remaining walled in the church leaving Pope Shenouda to represent Coptic interests. This, I find, has been a largely positive development, even as it imitates the popular activist techniques of protests and sit-ins. The above priests appear to reflect this trend, and constantly remind both Copts and media their presence does not infer church sanction of the event. I do not know the priests well, and must be reticent to cast accusations. Yet an activist by nature is often single-minded; as he may have the tendency to neglect greater context, he may also face the temptation to simplify a narrative. This is no sin, yet it may not reflect wisdom.

Their fellow activist, Rami Kamel, general coordinator for the Maspero Youth Union, received a phone call from the office of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, seeking to know their demands and sit for dialogue. He refused, stating he would offer demands the next morning. At another point during the evening Fr. Philopater was removed by security, apparently for negotiations, but later returned and the sit-in continued. The entire time the Maspero area was surrounded by military police and central security; veterans of public demonstrations we know – one an activist, the other security – conjectured appearances suggested they would violently clear the area.

Meanwhile, the Maspero Youth Union had drawn up and printed demands, reflecting a simplified and exaggerated narrative. It stated, for example, that though noble Egyptians have followed the news of the Marinab church, ‘we Copts follow with weeping hearts as our churches are daily exposed to burning and destruction’.

Furthermore, a threat was issued: ‘We know full well that the events of Marinab will not be the last as long as the military council and those running the country remain incapable of protecting Egyptian Copts’ churches and the lives of their sons. … As such, we have no choice but to struggle for our just cause by taking all possible measures of political escalation until we gain all of our squandered rights.’ They then list the following six demands:

  1. Arrest of criminals who incited and caused the incident (in Marinab).
  2. Resignation of the Aswan governor and investigation into his inflammatory statement to the media against the feelings of Copts, and of his lie about the truth of what happened.
  3. Immediate investigation of Officer Ahmed Fathi, security detective in Edfu, and the security director of Aswan, and their collusion in the sinful aggression.
  4. Rebuilding the church of Marinab on state expense.
  5. Rapid issuance of a unified law for building houses of worship, as well as laws to criminalize incitement and sectarian discrimination.
  6. Setting a specific timetable to implement the above mentioned demands.

The October 4 sit-in was in fact an escalation, though no more than the Maspero Youth Union had organized in the past, and no more than countless other groups have done since the revolution. Taking up residence in front of the Radio and TV Building, 1000 Copts lingered here and there, unimposing in terms of sheer mass, but blocking the busy Cornish Road along the Nile River all the same. Hundreds of security personnel actually stopped the traffic, with tension in the air if their presence was to deter an attack against the Copts, as happened during their last sit-in, or in fact to remove them.

A sit-in protest requires large numbers to solidify presence, and a few Copts murmured their disappointment at the turnout. They pressed forward all the same, but most appeared subdued, even dulled to the effort. Some said people were getting tired of protesting.

Not all. There appeared to be a group of fifty or so, never organized as such exactly, but asserting themselves right at the front lines of the security cordon. There they would chant in their faces, provocatively – ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!’ or even ‘the people want the fall of the field general!’ (i.e. Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council). One protestor even went as far as to slap a policeman in the face. Showing great restraint, the army removed him without incident.

The restraint did not last, and the agitators continued. Earlier in the day Fr. Philopater urged the Copts to be peaceful, and several stated security was itching for conflict as an excuse to remove the protestors, and slander their reputation in the process. Yvonne Mossad, a media coordinator for the Maspero Youth Union, showed great courage to put herself in the middle of nearly every run-in, urging Copts to back down. They did not always, and in one flare-up the military police began hitting a protestor with his shield, and gunshots were fired into the air.

This was about 12:30am, and we had already made the decision to begin leaving in order to catch the last metro at 1:00. At the sound of gunfire everyone scampered chaotically, but things calmed down again. We left, hoping for the best, hoping the sit-in would proceed peacefully. As it turns out, I wish we had stayed, though it was probably for the best we left.

According to media reports the sit-in was dispersed forcibly around 1:00am. Other sit-ins have been dispersed by security, so there is nothing anti-Coptic in the government response. Force, to be sure, is required when resistance is met, even if that resistance is passive. Having left the area, we cannot comment on the behavior of the protestors. One video circulating afterwards on the internet, however, clearly shows an excess of violence. Even if the man in question was one of the agitators, surely an internal military investigation will be forthcoming.


In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’

And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’ (Luke 18:2-8)

What then for the Copts of Egypt? How should those in Marinab be judged, or in Maspero, for that matter?

Let us imagine the Coptic villagers to be completely innocent in this case – victims – as investigations may yet conclude. Certainly their situation is not easy, and one Muslim in Marinab allegedly told his neighbor, ‘May God rest the soul of Islam. If we let this church be erected then Islam is buried in this village.’ Testimony on both sides seems to point to a shared causation, if of a different manner, between Muslims and Christians, but in such an atmosphere, Christians may wonder if they are equal citizens under the law. Difficulty in building churches has been long established.

The history and commonality of this difficulty should not numb the reader, as if it is a normal, simple inconvenience. Add to this slight the tales of discrimination, educational and media bias, and the pressures of a growing extremism, and the picture is painted of the Copts as the widow in the parable, calling out for justice. The sit-in at Maspero was not just about Marinab, it was about accumulation of grievances and frustrations. It is the experience of a community; legitimate or not it is the perception of many. Not a few Muslims agree with them as well; there are issues between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.

Allow a minute for the conspiracy to be advanced to undo this statement. Under Mubarak, many say, the security apparatus would play with religious tensions for political gain. These many now attribute the attacks in Atfih, Imbaba, and elsewhere to the remnants of the Mubarak system seeking to preserve their power base by discrediting the revolution. Enflaming Muslim-Christian tensions is among the best ways to do so both home and abroad. Noteworthy is the fact that the Aswan governor was a Mubarak appointee who maintained his job. Could the church insistence in building a church – with domes – come from subtle suggestions quite aware it could spark tensions? Could the individuals who brought the gas to burn the church simply have been paid thugs – as well as those who thereafter looted? It is unlikely investigations will uncover anything of the sort, but within a confusing post-revolutionary setting, questions of all natures are asked, and linger.

Either way – under a dominant Islamic chauvinism or a lingering security conspiracy – Copts have been crying out for justice for a long time. The parable encourages them to continue, for God is not an unjust judge. Surely he will grant respite – quickly, it assures – and without a begrudging heart. Do Copts believe this? Or has God proved himself unjust, unhearing, uncaring? Many Copts seem to believe God hears and answers better in America or Europe, for they are leaving their villages for cities, their cities for the capital, and the capital for refuge abroad. As one Copt stated in Maspero, ‘Egypt is rubbish; a garbage country!’ However difficult the plight, this is the voice of one having long given up on God; is he not the judge of every nation?

It is not that Copts must only pray. It is right for them to strive politically. It may even be right for them to demonstrate. Yet the question of Jesus must cut them to the marrow: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

Did the Copts in Marinab call out for justice, or did they seek to manipulate for their interest? Did the youths at Maspero carry forward the cries of previous generations, or did they take justice into their own hands? Yes, both are dealing with reality as best they can, as normal efforts, they find, are frustrated. Yet are they acting from faith? Are they acting in accordance with faith? Faith changes reality. Or, is God unjust?

It is a frightening question. Answers are not easy. It calls for humility and introspection. It calls for creativity and action. It calls for hope and love.

The Jews to whom Jesus addressed his parable were waiting for the restoration of the kingdom. They are still waiting. Their picture of justice – a people governing their own land – is surely commendable, but was ultimately faulty. They cried to God for centuries; some abandoned this for increased moral purity, others for political escalation, still others for isolation from society. Each of these responses is current to some degree in Egypt today. Yet all of them failed. The kingdom never came.

At least not as they expected it. Jesus’ kingdom was of the spirit, and it remains established around the world, including Egypt. What does God intend, then, as justice for the Copts? It remains to be seen. It is proper for Copts to pursue all manner of human justice, as long as they recognize this is not necessarily the same as the vision of God. His justice – whatever its fulfillment – is coming quickly. It only remains for Copts, and all Egyptians, to maintain faith on the earth, and to act accordingly.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Burning the Church Dome: AWR Investigations in Edfu

The Church Structure in Mari-Nab, Edfu

On Friday, September 30, 2011 a structure purporting to be a church was attacked and destroyed in the village of Mari-Nab, near Edfu, in the governorate of Aswan. Since then there has been much confusion in the media about what took place. Arab West Report editor-in-chief Cornelis Hulsman traveled to the village with Lamis Yahya, a researcher in Coptic affairs, and conducted interviews with Muslim and Christian residents, along with security. This report represents his notes taken and telephoned back to Cairo. A full report will be forthcoming following further research.

Mari-Nab is a large village with a population of over 50,000, but with a very small Christian presence. Muslim testimony estimated no more than 30 Christians in the whole village, while Christian testimony varied from between 30-50 families. Testimony from security personnel estimated 70 Christian people. Christians, along with the church-in-question, all reside in the same area of the village along the banks of the Nile.

The attacked structure used to be the home of the now deceased Muawwad Yusuf, who bequeathed it to his son who is no longer resident in the village. Muslims presented official documents stating the building to be a residence (manzil) and apartment (shiqqa), while Christians presented official documents stating its approval as a church. Christians also offered photos prior to the attack demonstrating the inside of the building functioned as a church, but from the outside there were no signs of distinctive church architecture. Arab West Report obtained copies of all documents and will proceed to investigate further.

The incident developed, it appears, from Christian efforts to modify the external architecture, specifically, by adding domes to the roof of the structure. Fr. Salib, deputy to Bishop Hedra of the Bishopric of Aswan, is responsible for the oversight of Edfu and its villages. He stated negotiations concerning the building have been going on for months, and that Christians have sought to be very accommodating. Christians agreed, for example, not to display any crosses on the building, but Fr. Salib complained that Muslim demands grew more and more strident. Construction of the domes proceeded, beginning during the Muslim month of Ramadan (August 2011).

Following Friday prayers Muslim youths descended on the church and began to destroy the domes. Christian testimony puts their number at around 3000, while security estimated around 1000 youths. Christians provided pictures and video evidence of the attack. Initial Muslim testimony denied these youths to be from the village, claiming they had come from elsewhere. Security sources disagreed, stating they were indeed village youth, and this was corroborated by Sheikh Habib, imam of a mosque in Mari-Nab.

Sheikh Habib, however, denied the youth acted upon instructions of the mosque or village elders. It was noted, though, he appeared to suffer little regret about the destruction.

Both Muslim and Christian testimony relates there has been an absence of government in the village. Cornelis Hulsman confirmed related visual evidence observed in his taxi ride to the village from Edfu, noting there were no checkpoints along the way, as is typical in Upper Egypt.

When the attack proceeded security arrived but stood around the church and allowed the destruction. The head of the security, a general, stated he did not have enough personnel to put a stop to the youths, and he appeared agitated he was required to come for intervention in this area. He felt it was below his status to sit outside Christian houses in a village. Fire engines also did not appear on the scene to douse the flames consuming the building.

There are some reports of damage to Christian properties within the village of Mari-Nab, though the indication is that the Muslim action targeted the church alone. Though restricted in his movements, Hulsman offered his camera to a local Christian to photograph other acts of aggression. Much was inconclusive. One shopkeeper brought evidence that his kiosk/small grocery had been vandalized, but it had not been burned. One Christian complained about the destruction of over 2000 mango trees, but photographs depicted damage against a small, newly planted area. Fr. Salib believed the mango accusation to be an exaggeration. Certainly it is possible that in the melee some youths extended their attack to Christian properties, but it was clear that if they intended to target the entire Christian community the damage would have been far more extensive.

By Friday evening Muslims and Christians came together in a traditional reconciliation session. They agreed, ostensibly, to return to the status quo in the village. This meant that Christian worship could continue in the building, but that the structure should maintain its anonymous appearance. Nevertheless, the purported ‘agreement’ did not hold much weight with Christians, as Fr. Salib later called a lawyer to inquire about legal procedures necessary to affect the desired changes.

Both Muslim and Christian testimony relates that relations between the two groups had been good prior to this incident, but other evidence reveals tensions and discontent. Hulsman met with a Muslim sheikh who referred to local Christians as infidels (kufara’), though such application was rejected by Sheikh Habib. Meanwhile in their ordinary discourse Christians were calling local Muslims ‘arab, signaling their status as Bedouins and not true Egyptians. Similarly, Muslims called local Christians ‘foreigners’ (khawaga), a term often applied to non-Egyptians resident in the country. By observation, Hulsman found both Muslims and Christians to be farmers, traders, and local businessmen, identical in all but religious identity.

Christians were very eager to speak with Hulsman, relating they were afraid and feel they are being targeted by Muslims. They spoke of persecution, though evidence was limited to the restrictions in their ability to build a church. Several inquired about how to emigrate and live abroad.

Muslims denied the above charges, but stated openly they did not want the church in their village, as it would change village identity. They complained also about how Coptic expatriates represent religious affairs in their nation.

The village of Mari-Nab is located 4km away from the nearest formal church building. Village Christians are visited by Fr. Makarious, who is responsible to serve surrounding villages on an itinerant basis.

Many media responses to this incident blamed the attack on ‘Salafis’. In his inquiries, Hulsman found some Muslims politically to favor the Muslim Brotherhood as the best option available. Other Muslims confessed to be Sufis, understood generally as a particularly inclusive and tolerant interpretation of Islam. Residents denied any local representation for the Nour Party, a recently created political party of Salafi orientation. Hulsman found Muslims of the village to be traditional, and certainly conservative. He did not find this attack to be ‘Salafi’, however, in any shape currently advanced in popular media discourse.

All the same, the incident is worrisome, regardless of the original and official license of the building in question. The Arab West Report investigation will continue, with significant questions remaining:

  • Why were local Christians insistent on transforming the external structure of the building?
  • Was this strictly a local initiative or from the greater diocese or church hierarchy?
  • What impact did the lack of security presence have on Christians to begin construction of the domes without community agreement? What impact did it have on the Muslim decision to aggressively end their efforts?
  • What pushed the Muslim youths to gather and attack the structure, on this particular occasion?
  • Was there encouragement, either direct or indirect, from village or religious leadership? Was there influence from outside the area, or Salafi trends in general, such as through satellite television?
  • Where is the mosque of Sheikh Habib located in reference to the church? Are other mosques in closer proximity? From which mosques did the youths exit?
  • What are the details of the reconciliation session, and why did Christians agree to its terms?

The final report will seek to include as much perspective on these questions as possible. For context about this type of incident please review a 2009-10 AWR investigation into a similar attack on a building/church in Ezbet Bushra, near Beni Suef. It is anticipated the final report will also seek to draw conclusions and posit recommendations in the aftermath of the attack.

For now, it will suffice to pose a question to each religious community. For Christians, will you win a church but lose its people? Though it may be possible to legally secure a formal church in the village, will the eventual result be increased tensions, greater emigration, and loss of Christian identity in Upper Egypt?

For Muslims, will you deny a church but scar a people? Though intimidation may be able to limit outward Christian identity, will the end result be social fragmentation, domestic and international approbation, and loss of Islam’s reputation as a tolerant religion in Egypt?

This is a challenging time in Egypt, wisdom is needed on all sides. Wisdom, however, is best built on solid information. It is hoped that continued investigations will illuminate the facts in Mari-Nab, so that agendas on any side are not inappropriately advanced.