World attention has turned to the Coptic Christian community of Egypt, following the beheading of 20 of their migrant workers in Libya at the hands of the so-called Islamic State.
The Coptic Orthodox Church considers them martyrs. A new icon venerates their death and their names have been added into the Synaxarion, the liturgical church history commemorating the saints.
But who are the Copts, and what is their understanding of martyrdom?
The word ‘Copt’ derives from the Pharaonic word ‘gypt’, which through the Greek ‘Aigyptus’ became the modern-day ‘Egypt’.
Copts are therefore Egyptians, descendants of the ancient Pharaonic civilization. As such, the Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic Egyptians call themselves Copts, as do some Muslims.
Coptic population figures are highlycontested. Some Muslims estimate as low as 3-4 percent; some Christians as high as 20-25 percent. The CIA world factbook estimates 10 percent. Official Egyptian ID cards list the religion of every citizen, but these figures are not released. Roughly 90 percent of Copts belong to the Orthodox denomination.
Coptic tradition says the church was planted through the missionary preaching of St. Mark, writer of the second Gospel in the New Testament. He was martyred in Alexandria in 68 AD.
The Coptic Orthodox Church dates its calendar from the year 248 AD, the first year of Roman Emperor Diocletian. His reign witnessed up to 800,000 Christian martyrs in Egypt.
According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad said that after conquering Egypt [649 AD] the Muslims should treat its inhabitants well. To come under the protection of the new rulers Copts had to pay the jizya tax. Those unable had to either convert or risk death.
Historian Phillip Jenkins, author of The Lost History of Christianity, says that periods of persecution waxed and waned until the end of the 12th century, when Islam became the dominant religion.
Islam considers a martyr to be one who is killed while striving in the path of God, often interpreted as participation in jihad.
In Christianity, the early church defined martyr as a technical term to mean one who was put to death for their faith, in imitation of Jesus.
Christology was an issue that divided Coptic Orthodoxy from emerging Roman Catholicism. In 451 AD at the Council of Chalcedon the Copts were anathematized over the issue, but in 1998 the two churches reconciled. Copts prefer to be known as ‘miaphysites’, where Jesus’ humanity and divinity unite to make one nature.
In many issues the Coptic Orthodox are similar to Roman Catholics, following a traditional liturgy, holding to seven sacraments, and believing that during Eucharist the bread and wine become Jesus’ actual body and blood.
They differ in that the Copts have their own patriarch. Pope Tawadros II is the 118th in a line stretching back to St. Mark. Coptic priests are free to marry, though bishops must be celibate and are drawn from monastic communities.
Coptic ascetic spirituality is exhibited through the practice of fasting. But unlike complete abstinence as in Islam’s Ramadan, faithful Copts maintain a vegan diet while fasting 210 days of the year.
Monasticism as a Christian expression is traced back to St. Anthony in the Third century. St. Benedict and John Cassian visited the Egyptian desert monks and introduced the practice to Europe.
Being a bishop-led church independent from Rome has also contributed to close relations with the Anglican Church in the UK. According to Heather Sharkey, author of American Evangelicals in Egypt, the Church Missionary Society worked to revive the Orthodox Church in the Nineteenth century, as opposed to US Presbyterians from whom most of today’s Egyptian Protestants are descended.
Competition between denominations has often led to tension, but especially since the Arab Spring Copts have deemphasized distinctions in light of the challenges of Islamism.
It has also resulted in a surge in spirituality. The late Pope Shenouda III encouraged biblical literacy and winsome preaching. Today the Bible Society of Egypt is the fourth largest in the world.
Over the past 30 years the Coptic Orthodox Church has spread throughout the world, establishing over 15 dioceses in Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Commenting on the martyrs in Libya, Bishop Angaelos of the UK demonstrates Coptic—and biblical—spirituality.
‘As a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness,’ he said to CNN. ‘We do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.’
Every day Egypt steps closer to the referendum on a constitution, which if passed will validate the roadmap to restore democracy established by the military. And every week supporters of Morsi march against the new order, often met with tear gas, minor clashes, and subsequent arrests.
It has become a normal pattern, but this week three diverse events highlight something different.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s dominance of the Doctors’ Syndicate came to an end. Although protesting the overall difficulties their wing has faced, they admit being outvoted and cede control of the board for the first time in decades. A female Copt was elected as secretary-general.
Two clashes, meanwhile, resulted in an ugly loss of life. The ongoing violent conflict in Sinai resulted in the killing of a soldier whose body was paraded through the streets by local jihadists. And in the Delta a taxi driver drove into a pro-Morsi protest, injuring a woman, and was pulled from his vehicle and killed by the mob.
A news leak, additionally, released an audio recording allegedly of the military head Gen. Sisi describing his dreams from years earlier in which he knew he would one day be president of the republic. Some believe the leak was meant to discredit him as of superstitious ambition; others believe it will help his standing with ordinary people.
God, within the normal pattern, give Egypt stability, and give protestors peace. As each seems to threaten the other, decide between them by what is right. If this is to be through the vote of the people, protect the referendum and make its process and results fully transparent.
For the doctors, God, make smooth the leadership transition. Help the new opposition to be critically supportive, and the new heads to be magnanimously effective. Bless both their efforts in charity and practice, that Egypt might enjoy a better future in health care.
But conflict, God, can reduce the humanity of the opponent. Save Egypt from this path, where deaths are celebrated and easily provoked. May the determination of protestors not slip into rage; may the crimes in the Sinai be met with justice and peace. Protect the state, and protect the people. May each reinforce the other.
For it appears the current symbolic strength of the state is having dreams. Are they of you, God, or of his ambition? Along with the leak, do they mean to hurt him, or help? Are they innocent, or a manipulation? God, bless Gen. Sisi, the interim president, and all who are currently running the state. Give them wisdom to govern well. But give a collective wisdom to all concerning his possible candidacy. Speak to his conscience and speak to the nation. Bring good governance to Egypt, God, through both man and system.
For Egypt is in great need of healing. Many have died, and others are falling. May the nation’s dreams not perish alongside.
From my latest article in Egypt Source, culling attitudes on emigration from a recent trip to Upper Egypt:
“I have nightmares every couple of days,” said Sara Shuhdi, a 23 year old assistant professor of analytical chemistry at the German University of Cairo. “I don’t see a bright future for Egypt; maybe it would be better for me if I left.”
Fifty-five days of fasting concluded on Coptic Easter, celebrated this year on May 5 according to the eastern calendar. Always a period of reflection and joy for Egyptian Christians, this year the community is deeper in the former and subdued in the latter.
Here are the photos of each person sharing, with a quote from each:
“Of course we must stay here,” he said. “Our history, family, and churches are here – we cannot leave Egypt.”
“The civil current – Muslims and Christians together – must provide a different way of thought and raise consciousness through business,” he said, “especially in poorer areas susceptible to extremism and ignorance.”
“Twenty years ago, I tried to convince Copts not to emigrate, but now because of the bad economy I bless them if they want to go.”
“I raised people here, trained them, and watched them grow and become productive members of society,” he said. “And then they leave? It is sad.
“I can’t prevent them but I encourage them to stay. I try to speak to their conscience to make their land a better place. Why would someone leave their home and become a foreigner forever?”
The article concludes with a stinging quote by Bishop Thomas for the conscience of humanity; please click here to read the whole article at Egypt Source.
From my article on Arab West Report, on the recent attack on the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral:
Sectarian violence struck Egypt again on Friday, April 6, as at least four Christians and one Muslim were killed in an incident in Khusūs, in the governorate of Qalyubia, to the north of Cairo. Clashes continued on Sunday, and spread to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Cairo, where a funeral procession was attacked by unknown assailants. Religious and political leaders have condemned the violence and called for calm, but much about the original incident remains unclear.
The report aggregates information from varied local media sources, with links provided. But the unique contribution is the report of an investigative reporter who visited and spoke with local sources. His testimony is quite specific:
Many of these details are difficult to sort, but investigative reporter Rā’id Sharqāwī visited the area and offers a possible explanation. He collected testimony saying Muslim youths drew the Nazi swastika on the wall, and were confronted by authorities. A crowd gathered, as is common during disputes, and drew in local residents including members of a prominent Christian family living opposite the Azhar institution.
A younger member of this family confronted the Muslim youth, asking him why he was drawing offensive symbols on the wall. In the heated exchange this Christian drew his gun and shot the Muslim, killing him. This produced great tumult in the area, and took place around 12 noon.
The Christians, however, were not killed until around 4pm, and in a manner Sharqāwī found mysterious and perhaps conspiratorial. A group of men armed with automatic weapons drove in from outside the area on motorcycles and fired, somewhat randomly, at a group of assembled Christians. At this time stores were broken into and looted; Sharqāwī surmised it was an organized effort to take advantage of the chaos. The situation was not helped by the diffusion of rumors throughout the village, that each religious community was attacking the other.
The article continues by summarizing details of the attack on the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of the pope, during a funeral procession for the slain Copts. It was an ugly, ugly incident. The response of the presidency will be closely monitored, but in immediate rhetoric he declares the attack on the cathedral was an attack on himself. Most Copts would say this is well and good, but nearly all previous, smaller scale attacks on Christians have gone unpunished.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood protests and claims conspiracy against the stability of the state. This is from the conclusion:
Is there a conspiracy leveled against the Brotherhood to spark sectarian tension and drive the country to chaos? Or, must they invent a conspiracy to cover over the latent sectarian tension which exists and erupted naturally, in order to blame hidden hands for the failures of their governance? These questions are far beyond the scope of this report or any subsequent investigations. But they are the questions asked accusingly by both sides of the Egyptian street.
The nation is awash in conspiracy, allegation, and rumor, and who can say it does not exist? But it is hoped this report provides a first step at least in gathering the purported facts, to prevent manipulations based on only a sampling of the above.
Please click here to read a high ranking Coptic bishop’s spiritual response to recent events, and my brief reflection. Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report. May God protect Egypt.
As President Morsy settles into office, he is striking a conciliatory tone. He has announced he will appoint both a Copt and a woman to vice presidential posts. Furthermore, he is filmed frequently with the military, offering praises for the stewardship of the transition.
Many scoff, God. Perhaps they have good reason. These are not messages of substance, at least not yet. But they may be indications.
As for Copts and women, may they be indications of encouragement. Help Morsy to reach out and demonstrate with good will. May he honor this promise with a Copt embraced by their community. May he treat all Coptic issues with justice and equity. May they find in Morsy a man who fears you and honors humanity, without distinction. May there be real reconciliation between all.
As for the military, the scoffing is louder. Revolutionaries vary as to accepting these actions as a necessary part of the game to unseat the military eventually, or finding in them a complete betrayal of Tahrir and an embrace of power now that he has it.
Or, perhaps it is a reconciliation in fact. Perhaps the military has been guiding to democracy all along, and perhaps the Brotherhood sees itself as the conduit to a diverse future of competitive power sharing. May Egypt hope and pray for the best.
But there is a fine line between reconciliation and a deal. God, like all fields of human activity, politics belongs to you. May those who choose to navigate it do so with integrity and transparency. May the people of Egypt be honored with real choices, not backroom negotiations. If politics cannot be purified, keep pure those brave souls within it.
Not much has happened yet, God. A government must be appointed. Solution must be found for parliament and constitution. Guide these decisions and present Egypt representatives who will serve the national good.
You have given Egypt a president, God, help him to be a good one.
Just to pass on briefly, with no verified authenticity or knowledge of details, here is a picture taken of a solidarity demonstration over Christian deaths at Maspero. If a Salafi, as the original link asserts, it would represent a very necessary coming together of two sides almost completely isolated from each other. May they be brought closer, though through other means than this.
Fadi Philip is a 26 year old veterinary physician, but his priority of love and labor is as an activist with the Maspero Youth Union (MYU), for which he serves as English language media spokesman. I became acquainted with Fadi and the MYU through several visits in May during their sit-in protest at the Maspero Radio and Television Building in Cairo, protesting the Imbaba attacks. On this occasion I introduced Fadi to a visiting researcher from George Washington University, and took the notes necessary to record his views here. To note: this interview was conducted in early June.
What is the philosophy of the Maspero Youth Union?
We aim to be a political face for Egyptian Christians, doing so away from the church. We are not trying to be leaders in place of the church, but rather to show people they do not need to run to the church when they meet with difficulties.
What is the role of liberation theology in your movement?
After the Egyptian revolution many Christians have adopted liberation theology, but in Egypt today, right and wrong are determined in the street. The problem is that the church will not go into the street. Christians aim to have a secular state, but how can we say this when we run to the church to solve all our problems?
Do you want to change the church?
The problem is that the Christians do not have leaders in any significant way. We must have these leaders, but we must have them outside of the church.
Is this then a rejection of the church?
No, what is necessary is that Christians get involved in politics, but when the church gets involved in politics things become very complicated. Some priests of the church are with us, but others are worried our actions could increase fundamentalism among Muslims, who might get upset when Christians do not simply sit quietly. Unfortunately, many Christians have become negative, thinking that they can move God and change things simply by praying and singing. I believe praying and singing is important, but we must do more.
What about the opinion of Pope Shenouda? Didn’t he speak against your sit-in?
Well, the pope is not the leader of the MYU. In any case, we don’t believe he really spoke against our efforts, but that he was pushed to say what he did.
What convinces you of this?
Our representatives went to the cathedral and asked him his opinion. He did not ask us to end the sit-in, but that he was afraid his sons and daughters there would be in danger. Furthermore, when Bishop Yu’annis related his message, he quoted the pope as saying ‘And God is the one who makes prosper.’ This is a very well known army phrase, used after all their public statements. It is not an expression the pope would use.
In any case, the church is trying to avoid problems, and many people believe that problems can happen when Christians are in the street. But we believe there is no freedom without cost, and we are willing to pay the cost.
By identifying yourselves as Copts do you identify yourselves as a minority, or against your Egyptian identity?
The word ‘Copt’ means ‘Egypt’ etymologically, but yes, it is true we are working for Coptic rights. We are a Christian movement in what we work for, though, not in our composition. We have Muslim members, though they are a small percentage. Yet we do receive much spiritual support and encouragement from Muslims, as well as media support from personalities like Nabil Sharaf al-Din and Fatima Naout. It must also be mentioned that several Muslims came to defend our group when we were attacked.
Currently, though, we do not have open membership, and there is no particular profile about the Muslims who have joined us. At this stage we are less interested in enrolling those who ‘love’ us in favor of those who know our issues well. Currently, we are pursuing legal registration as a human rights organization, and not as a political party.
What is the composition of your group?
We are between 200-300 people who bear some sort of responsibility within the MYU, each of which oversees between 10-15 people. We are not looking to expand too quickly, but we have opened branches in Alexandria, Ismailia, and Asyut. We will look into expanding our membership once we have completed the registration process.
What is the role of Fr. Philopater and Fr. Mattias?
These two priests have been with us from the beginning, when the MYU was created by merging several groups, including the one around the magazine they founded, al-Katiba al-Tibiyya. Though they are with us, we do not constitute that they represent the church in being with us. They have joined us as Egyptians. Yet at the same time, in being a priest they do confer legitimacy upon us in the eyes of many Egyptian Christians.
It is not true to say they work as ‘double agents’, but they are trying to work on both sides – the people and the church. They can certainly help us with inner church workings.
Fr. Philopater is a very outspoken person. During the Mubarak regime he spoke harshly against it and was suspended for one year. Yet he would not accept to be sent abroad, such as to America, in the manner which Fr. Marcus Aziz was sent to serve the church in Australia. To be clear, though, both Fr. Philopater and Fr. Mattias are still practicing priests.
al-Katiba al-Tibiyya is very popular in the Coptic Diaspora. Is the Maspero Youth Union connected to the Diaspora as well?
al-Katiba al-Tibiyya is concerned about what is happening, speaking the truth as it is; I believe it is also popular here in Egypt. People living abroad do not know what is happening here, but they trust the magazine since those here do.
We do have connections to Copts living abroad, and we have met with Michael Munir and Michel Qilada, for example. We will not push anyone away from us, and all are welcome to cooperate with us. Yet there is a problem in that many of these call for international protection for the Copts, wishing for UN involvement and calling for sanctions. This, however, does not meet with our needs. Perhaps they can help with human rights issues.
I reject the call for international protection because I will not risk the security of Egypt for my own security. Some Muslims hear ‘international protection’ and understand it to mean what is happening in Libya. These might then interpret that Copts are looking to make trouble, attack us, and this will harm the stability of Egypt.
What can the Diaspora do to support the MYU?
The most important thing is media coverage. 60-70% of the revolution’s success was based on the media’s attention. It prevented Tahrir Square from becoming Tienamen Square. Good media overage can help overcome the general illiteracy about Christian rights in Egypt.
Young Egyptians abroad were helpful with the revolution. Are you connected to them?
The image of the revolution being made by the young was just a play. The revolution was not made through the internet but from the hatred directed toward the Mubarak regime and its inept handling of the protests.
Yes, many Egyptians abroad ‘felt proud’ to be Egyptian, but did they feel any pressure or help in any real way? Not really.
What is the final summary of what you would like to say?
We have discussed the most important matters. I would like to emphasize that we are looking to take pressure off the church. The greater our success in representing Coptic issues, the less pressure the government will put on the pope concerning us.
Yesterday while visiting the Copts at Maspero, Ramy Kamel, General Coordinator of the Maspero Youth Union, beamed with a smile on his face. ‘The sit-in will end tomorrow. They have agreed to our demands.’
Today I saw Kamel again, sitting dejectedly on the sidewalk. ‘There is one church that is not yet opened. They agreed to it, but Salafis are blockading it. If we can’t trust the government to follow through on their demands due to Islamic opposition, what can we do moving forward?’
In a previous report I wrote more comprehensively about the demands of the MYU, but in negotiation it came down to this: Originally, the MYU requested 250 closed churches to be reopened, and that their arrested colleagues from their first sit-in be released. The government stated the opening of 16 churches was possible, and agreed to retry the Copts (and their Muslim colleagues) in custody.
The MYU then agreed to suspend the sit-in provided the sixteen churches were opened within a week, and three churches opened immediately. The St. Yu’annis Church in Beni Mazar did open, and priests and people entered to conduct officially licensed prayers. The bishopric church in Maghagha was approved, but there was a minor official who seemed to be holding things up, but the MYU did not seem overly concerned about problems there.
The issue, it came down to, concerned the Holy Virgin and St. Abram Church in Ain Shams. Agreement was given to open it, but then it was announced Salafis had surrounded the church to prevent it from happening.
This information was provided by Fr. Mattias Nasr, spokesman for the MYU, during a press conference announced earlier in the day. From the expectations of Rami Kamel and others, Copts had begun disassembling their tents, taking down their banners, and cleaning up the area. Now, all was in question again.
Many press personnel came in expectation of a closing word that the sit-in was over. The crowd of Copts, however, would have none of this talk, and shouted down the preliminary speakers, including George Ishaq of Kefaya, a veteran reform activist from years before the revolution. He and others spoke of the political compromises necessary in securing rights, especially when 80% of their demands had been met. Not only did the people declare they weren’t leaving – many MYU organizers led them in chanting from the stage. It was a rather disjointed scene.
Fr. Mattias quieted the crowd, and stated that no, the sit-in is not suspended, not until each of the promised three churches are opened.
With this announcement the press conference ended, but information was still coming in real time. The MYU announced over the loudspeaker only a quarter hour later that the promise given to open the Ain Shams Church was oral; the sit-in would continue at least until it was signed and sealed on paper.
I left the area and tried to find my way to the Holy Virgin and St. Abram Church in Ain Shams, which is located on the metro line in northeast Cairo. I learned the church was in an area called Ezbet Atif, and hoped I could find my way from there.
One of the advantages of most Muslim women in Egypt wearing the hijab is that if you are looking for a Christian, you can usually identify their bare-headed women. This woman and her son did not know where the church was, but did bring me to one nearby where surely someone could direct me better.
They did, and helped arrange transportation in a tuk-tuk, a three wheel vehicle operating like a taxi but in crowded city streets.
In my imagination Ain Shams was an urban area, but locating the church in Ezbet Atif reminded me of perhaps a more rural area outside the city. In learning that Salafis were blockading the church, I imagined a ring of people holding their ground in an open area, and that I might be able to speak to someone on the edge to gain their perspective.
As the tuk-tuk driver weaved his way through Ain Shams, I realized the area was even more urban than I imagined. Streets were narrow and crowded; this was a low income area where I had little experience, and stuck out like a sore thumb. Yet along the way the driver told me that Muslims and Christians are one people, and that all get along. He did not know much about the closed church, but he had heard the rumors of the army getting involved somewhere in the area.
I asked him about Salafis. I told him, yes, I’ve lived here a while now, and I know that Muslims and Christians have good relations. But people are saying that Salafis, at least some of them, are making trouble. Do you know of their activity here?
He did not know exactly, but did speak against Salafis as pursuing their individual interest as opposed to that of the nation at large. They are troublemakers, he stated, and may well be being paid to be troublemakers.
Eventually we reached the location, or at least what appeared to be from the commotion. We drove past five or six riot police with shields and batons, walking steadily toward the area but seemingly without strict instructions. The tuk-tuk then could progress no further due to the crowd; when he asked to continue to take me to the church he was told this was impossible; prayer rugs had been lain on the ground, filling the street.
My visit was very short, so any statements must be couched in utmost caution. The carefree tuk-tuk driver suddenly became very concerned for my safety, urging me to get back in so as to take me back to the other church. Why? I asked; he said he would explain along the way.
There was a crowd, and there was tension. But I saw little potential for violence and no sign of the military (though it was possible they were there). When the tuk-tuk initially stopped, a bearded youth in jeans and a button-down shirt took my hand, sensing me immediately to be a journalist.
‘You want to see the church? Come with me. Look. There is no church. There is only a mosque, and the people are praying here. The Christians are trying to make problems, that is all.’
I admit I saw no church. Certainly not the type of church I imagined, that could be surrounded in blockade. The narrow street had all buildings tightly aligned, several stories tall. There was no steeple raised above them, but it was entirely possible one of the buildings was the closed Holy Virgin and St. Abram Church. After all, it was not time for prayers; why would so many people be in the area? Usually only Friday prayers will bring the excess of worshippers that require prayer mats laid on the streets. Today was Thursday.
The youth who took my hand was friendly, and spoke to me in English. I felt comfortable moving forward, but the tuk-tuk driver was not. I pulled away from the youth to pay the driver, but he insisted I get back in the vehicle and move away. Now, I was getting uncomfortable, but around me all seemed calm. Better to trust the local voice, I thought, and we drove away unhampered.
The driver explained that the group there would not be friendly to anyone seeking to photograph the church. I tried to ask him what made him so startled, but I think he misunderstood my question. ‘I am not scared,’ he said. ‘I could leave you there and drive away and be fine, but I am scared for you. They have laid down their prayer mats to fill the street, so that no one can enter the church. They mean business.’
I was very disappointed; thankful for an honest Egyptian guide, but again wondering about principles. I wrote earlier about hesitations in joining the Salafi crowd that protested the killing of bin Laden at the US Embassy. All there was calm also, just like in this crowd, assembled to make their point known, but people all the same. I was approaching seeking information; I have trust in myself to behave in honorable ways, giving honor to all around. I wanted not just their statement; I wanted their trust. Who will go to them and win this, when so many reject them?
Besides, the one who grabbed my hand to lead me wanted me to see the truth, at least his version of it. ‘Don’t be scared,’ he said, seeking to be reassuring. Quickly scanning the crowd, the majority of people seemed to be ordinary lower class Egyptians, not Salafis. These, it is said and is generally true, grow long beards and wear white robes and sandals. They could well have been there, but I did not see them.
Certainly the wise voice is to trust those around you. Time will permit later for learning and relationships. On the way back a Muslim woman in hijab got in the tuk-tuk as well, and my presence as a foreigner sparked conversation between the three of us.
She did not know the area exactly, but did verify there was a church there. Closed or not closed she wasn’t sure, but spoke of their being a problem between steeple and minaret. Specifically, Muslims believed the church would ring its bells during the Islamic call to prayer. This was the only information she had to offer, besides affirming that yes, in general, Muslims and Christians had fine relationships as neighbors. Many of her best friends, she said, were Christians.
We arrived back and I offered the driver double fare, for going and returning. He asked if I had change. ‘We agreed on the price’, he said, ‘I took you back out of concern, not for fare.’ I gave him a bit extra, and thanked him for his help.
Again, my impressions were far too brief to be substantiated. I may well have been on the wrong street. Yet much of this story seems wrong all over.
It is good and right for Christians as citizens to seek equal treatment. Let us suppose the church in Ain Shams was closed improperly. Yet before this, it should be mentioned that many churches in Egypt are built sidestepping the law, rather than in accordance with it. Christians rightly complain the law is a discriminatory encumbrance, and yes, many Egyptians sidestep the law when they feel it unjustly works against them. This is only to say that in the protests of Maspero, Copts demanded the rule of law. It could be that, if applied, not only this church but hundreds of others would need to be closed for their original contravention.
Yet put this aside. At the church which helped arrange my tuk-tuk, I asked how many churches were in Ain Shams. The gentleman there did not give me a number, but listed them one after the other, reaching eight or nine. Ain Shams is a very populated area, and I have no figures on the percentage of Christians. Yet it cannot be said they are without a church.
Maspero and Ain Shams seem a world apart. It is right for the Christians there to demand their churches be opened, but at what cost? Must they demand the army now come and evict these protestors, likely using violence against them? The army has promised not to use violence to evict Copts from their sit-in, and Copts rightfully complained when they reportedly met with violence when ending the sit-in the first time. Must the government’s hand be forced to choose?
Copts desire to see the government choose them over the Salafis, as they interpret events since the revolution to be pointedly in favor of Islamist forces over secular ones, and certainly Christian ones. Right or wrong, they want validation. They feel like they have won in Maspero; if the government does not open the Ain Shams church, they will feel betrayed, and mount even more evidence the government is against them.
It would seem there should be a more Christian way. It is wrong that matters have come to a head; it is wrong that the government is forced to adjudicate in the manner. Again, it is right for Coptic citizens to demand; but is it best for Christian believers to do so?
In their defense, the MYU has consistently stated this is a political action on behalf of citizenship, not a sectarian push for particular rights. Yet now that the heart of the issue is the opening of one church, how political does it remain?
If only Christians might go to the various Salafi sheikhs, make relationships, and seek their intervention. Perhaps Copts will say they have tried; indeed, these churches have been closed a long time and Muslim voices are not loud in clamoring for them to open. Yet the manner of argument has often been confrontational. Many Muslims have joined the Maspero protests, yet for the ordinary ones, opening the church now might seem like giving in to demands, not establishing civil rights. That is not the way the MYU wants the issue to be viewed. Sadly, I think it is viewed this way.
Egypt is at odds with itself, and not just on religious issues. Labor groups, even doctors, are making demands, demands that are probably just. How can these work together to satisfy all?
I am afraid the only answer is trust, and that seems to be in short supply. No, no one should be trusted on face value, but as relationships are built, trust can be gained. Perhaps a small party from the MYU can visit the nearest Salafi mosque, and just listen, asking nothing. All the while, let their political action continue.
Politics, though, makes for compromise and betrayal. Relationships make for trust and consensus. It is hard, currently, for Copts to offer this; they feel they have been let down so many times. Faith, however, demands they continue. If they are able, if they can overcome themselves, perhaps they can lead all Egypt forward. May it so be.
Update: Jielis van Baalen, a Dutch journalist friend, visited the area of the Ain Shams church after I left. He did not reach it due to the large crowds, and stated a local café owner pulled him in to the shop concerned for his safety. Jielis reported seeing few police, no army, but many traditional Salafi outfits. Some of those who moved about were armed. Inside the café was a mixed group of Muslims and Christians. They stated their great annoyance at developments, as many of those wandering around were not from the area. Muslims and Christians get along well, they stated. No one had any issue with the church being opened. After a short while, he also decided to leave.
If Jielis is correct, then it would appear the government would have an obligation to defeat armed gangs imposing their will. This is different than local opposition to a church. The government has stated it will not allow anyone to sow sectarian discord, and has labeled the source of such discord to be counterrevolutionary forces, tied to the former regime. If Ain Shams is an example of this, then the words of the government will be put to the test, in this case in honor of their agreement with the MYU.