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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Church Burning Reveals Ugly Contest over Truth and Victimhood

Copts Pray in Burned Church
Copts Pray in Burned Church

What mentality of man will burn a church? In Egypt, what should be known as a house of prayer is now the symbol of civil strife amid conflicting accusations of blame.

‘Attacks on churches are being done by the former regime and their thugs, not pro-Morsi demonstrators,’ said Ahmed Kamal, youth secretary for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Helwan, an industrial district to the south of Cairo.

But this is nonsense to Bishop Thomas, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Qussia, 340 kilometers south of Cairo. His church was attacked by pro-Morsi protestors, but neighborhood Muslims rallied to defend it.

‘We recognize their faces and know who they are,’ said Thomas. ‘The Brotherhood is using us as a scapegoat to blame us for their failures.’

Anti-Christian rhetoric has been prominent among Islamists. Since Pope Tawadros, along with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, appeared with General al-Sisi to announce the deposing of President Morsi, many Islamists believe Copts to be part of a grand conspiracy against not just their movement, but Islam itself.

‘We don’t oppose Christians,’ said Kamal, ‘but we are against the pope – as we are against the head of the Azhar – who interferes to direct people to a particular political direction.’

This second half of this message is reinforced by Kamal’s local party representation. The Helwan FJP’s Facebook page notes that ‘burning houses of worship is a crime’, but then all but justifies it in an attack on the church.

After listing a litany of the pope’s offenses, it declares, ‘After all this people ask why they burn the churches.

‘For the Church to declare war against Islam and Muslims is the worst offense. For every action there is a reaction.’

Kamal recognizes this message may have been too general. The Brotherhood sees Islam as both worship and ideology, only the latter of which has been rejected by the church and anti-Morsi protestors.

Incoherence

But for Arne Fjeldstad, CEO of The Media Project to promote religious literacy in journalism, this error reflects the reality on the ground for Islamists.

‘Whatever the Brotherhood says [about nonviolence] is not listened to or communicated on the street,’ he said. ‘So there is a large incoherence among them.’

More than 50 churches were destroyed since Wednesday last week, including two Bible Society bookshops – the first time in Egypt’s recent history.  Some news organizations reported churches being marked for attack before the Brotherhood sit-ins were forcibly broken up.

Fjeldstad believes the Brotherhood will have a difficult time making theological sense about why God ‘turned against them’. But in the meanwhile, the sit-ins were filled with chants about martyrdom.

‘They have prepared the ground for future generations of warriors for Islam,’ he said.

Sarah Carr is an independent journalist and founder of mbinenglish.com, a web page which exposes the Arabic-only messages the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the FJP Facebook page above.

But she understands the rage of Islamist protestors, for she was a witness to the military-sponsored dispersal of the sit-in which killed over 600 people, not including 40 police personnel.

‘It was completely disproportional violence,’ she said, describing army vehicles mounted with automatic weapons firing into the crowds. Carr did not see any armed protestors, though she does not deny their presence.

‘The army needs to justify their terrorist narrative and use it to crush the Muslim Brotherhood,’ she said.

But the Brotherhood did resist. Political analyst Abdullah Schleifer notes that the Western tradition of nonviolent protest involves non-resistance to state-sponsored oppression.

‘Non-violence does not mean building barricades to hold off the Egyptian riot police and breaking up pavement stones to throw at them.’

Ahmed Kamal
Ahmed Kamal

Kamal freely admits the difference.

‘Gandhi is not necessarily our role model,’ he said. ‘He was good and his people were brave, but we have our peaceful model as well as per our book and principles.

‘We are unarmed in front of their weapons, but we will resist them. To be peaceful is not just to stay silent and wait for bloodshed. We must defend our lives even by throwing stones.’

But Emad Gad, a leading politician with the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, says they went far beyond throwing stones. His party is collecting evidence of protestors’ violent intent.

‘The army did not attack the people,’ he said. ‘They used tear gas and bulldozers and were attacked by armed protestors, and then they responded.’

For political analyst Eric Trager, both narratives make sense. The Brotherhood cannot win a battle against the security forces, but that may not be the point.

‘The Brotherhood seems to believe that if it can draw the military into a fight directly, it can create fissures within the military,’ he told World Affairs Journal.

To protect itself, the military must now push the issue to conclusion.

‘It [the army] entered into a direct conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even an existential one,’ Trager continued.

‘The military believes it not only has to remove Morsi, it has to decapitate the entire organization. Otherwise, the Brotherhood will re-emerge and perhaps kill the generals who removed it from power.’

Incitement

Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church in Cairo disagrees.

‘We witnessed bloodshed on our streets, vandalism and the deliberate destruction of churches and government buildings in lawless acts of revenge by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters,’ he said.

‘I appeal to everyone to avoid rushing to judge the authorities in Egypt.’

In attacking churches, though, Carr finds the Brotherhood playing into the hands of authorities – though society provides fertile ground.

‘We’ve seen for decades how you have one person with an agenda [to spark sectarian attacks] and then others are very happy to jump in,’ she said.

‘It doesn’t take much incitement from the Brotherhood or anyone else.’

Yet the authorities, she finds, are not innocent.

‘It is no good to go to conspiracy theories, but why did you break up the sit-in and not protect churches?’ she asks. ‘What should we conclude?’

The conclusion is a morass of relativity, reflective of a polarized society overlooking travesties on all sides.

‘The number of police killed is almost insignificant,’ said Kamal, ‘compared to the two thousand killed and ten thousand injured on our side.

‘This confirms our peacefulness.’

 

This article was originally published on Lapido Media.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Many Copts Anxious as Islamists Win Majority in Parliament

Egypt’s parliamentary elections are over.

While noting irregularities, former US president Jimmy Carter, through his Carter Center for promoting democracy, has judged the elections to be “acceptable.” When the first post-Mubarak parliament opens session today (January 23) its composition will be 72 percent Islamist.

The celebrated chant of Tahrir Square – “Muslims and Christians are one hand” – has given way to sectarian politics in which liberal parties, favored by the great majority of Copts, received a crushing defeat.

The Democratic Alliance, dominated by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood, has won 46 percent of the seats. The more conservative Salafi Nour Party has captured 24 percent. A handful of smaller Islamist parties add another 2 percent. Liberal politicians, who were once hopeful, are reeling from their losses. Coptic Christians are left pondering their murky future.

Today, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed article about risks to freedom that observed, “Especially critical is protection for Copts, the canaries in Egypt’s coal mine. The fate of Egypt’s democracy—and the chances for the emergence of non-Islamist options—will rest on whether this millennia-old community, as well as an array of other groups, feels comfortable in the new Egypt.”

Amin Makram Ebeid, a Coptic intellectual and author, summarizes four primary Coptic responses:

  • A minority, though sizeable, is planning to emigrate.
  • The largest group is looking for spiritual, perhaps even mystical solutions.
  • A smaller party is dedicated to stay and fight for their rights, especially in securing a non-Islamist constitution, which according to the national referendum in March is the provenance of parliament.
  • Finally, there is a group that is looking to cooperate with Islamists, provided Copts do not lose their identity in the process.

Paula Magdy, a 24-year-old volunteer librarian in a Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, illustrates the group seeking spiritual solutions. “We pray to God to save us, but I am not afraid. Up until now we have not been sure about anything. Maybe they have won elections, but we will win the war?”

Fawzi Khalil, a pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Church also estimates most Christians fall into the spiritual solution category, with only about 10 percent actively participating in shaping the political outcome for Copts.

Standing their Ground

Emad Gad is one of the 10 percent, representing the group wishing to stay and fight. He is a Coptic leader in the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, winning a parliament seat in the north Cairo district. Naturally, he offers political perspective.

“We don’t fear the result of elections because there were many violations that skewed results. In any case, parliament will not form the government, the president will, and the military council also maintains its influence.”

For him, the constitution is the largest battleground, but liberals are working on an agreement with Islamists for each party to nominate a limited number of members to the committee which will draft it.

Nevertheless, “If Islamists reach toward a Saudi-style government we have many means to resist. Certainly the new generation is able to go once again to the streets. I expect Egypt will remain a civil state.”

Fr. Philopater

Father Philopater will also stay and fight, but his is a religious perspective. A controversial priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church who has repeatedly clashed with the hierarchy, Philopater expects a continuation of the suffering of Copts.

“The one benefit is that persecution will now be obvious, as under Mubarak it was always assigned to hidden hands or deviant people.”

Furthermore, Copts should not cooperate with Islamists. ‘It is true some speak of protecting Copts, but others speak about jizia, call us infidels, or instruct Muslims not to greet us in the street.’

Ebeid agrees with non-cooperation. “Christians should not support them in their quest for power. If we sell ourselves, why should liberal Muslims continue to fight?”

Cooperating with Islamists

Then there is the group which promotes cooperation. Rafik Habib, son of a now-deceased prominent Protestant pastor, represents a tiny Coptic constituency that actually favors Islamist rule. He is among roughly one hundred Copts who are founding members of the Brotherhood’s FJP, and serves as one of its vice-presidents.

He believes Egypt must accept the essential religious basis of society, not deny it.

“Secularism surrounds Christianity and the church and weakens its role in society. Under an Islamic state it can be completely different because the main function of the Islamic state is to protect religion, not to restrict it.”

Youssef Sidhom

More typical are Copts who wish to cooperate with Islamists but due to necessity. Among these is Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani.

“In order to keep any vicious Islamist appetite at bay we must stay at the table with them and remind them they promised not to hijack Egypt.”

Unlike Philopater, Sidhom has a degree of trust in the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who through his interactions with them finds them to be decent people.

“I believe the Brotherhood wants to prove they can create a form of democracy that respects the rights of all Egyptians.”

Similar to Social Democrat Gad, however, Sidhom is prepared.

“Our Plan B if Islamist groups seek an Islamic state is to oppose their constitution in a referendum, but if it is accepted, Copts and liberal Muslims – 40 percent of the population – will take again to the streets.”

All Politics is Local

While these responses are varied, it is “the street” that decides. This is not the street of Tahrir Square, but the poor, crowded neighborhoods in every city of Egypt.

In Warrak, a suburb of Cairo, Shadia Bushra, a 45 year old Coptic widow, cast her vote for the Freedom and Justice Party.

“I don’t know much about politics, but I followed the general view of the neighborhood.”

Essam Sharif

It did not hurt that when her local church failed to intervene to defend her rights in a property dispute, Essam Sharif, her Salafi neighbor and a leader in the Nour Party stood by her side, retained a lawyer, and helped win the judgment against wealthier Christian neighbors.

“I told her I would have done the same if she was opposed by Muslims,” stated Sharif.

Stated Islamist commitment to the rights of all has also won support from Copts in Maghagha, a small city in Upper Egypt. Sheikh Hamdi Abdel Fattah is a candidate for the Nour Party.

“I will consider myself the candidate of Christians ahead of Muslims, even if they do not vote for me. As such, I have to demand their rights. This is both democracy and Shari’ah law.”

Sheikh Hamdi and Fr. Yu’annis

Father Yu’annis is a Coptic Orthodox priest in Maghagha and has campaigned openly for Abdel Fattah.

“I don’t support him as a Salafi or as a Muslim, but as a person. He is from our village and I hope all Salafis will be like him.”

Yet he is pragmatic as well. “If we see more than two-thirds of the people are for an Islamic state we cannot stop them from having it, so as the Egyptian proverb says, ’With him who wins, play with him’. I must do my village duty to stand by him, so he won’t say I caused him to lose, and if he wins, he will be thankful.”

Perplexing Questions

The seismic politic changes in Egypt during the past 12 months are still underway. Copts and others fill this resulting uncertainty with fears and expectations in wildly different directions.

Essam Thabit, a Coptic school teacher in Maghagha, believes all will be well. “Whoever comes to power will make sure they treat Christians better than the old regime, even though they know Christians won’t vote for them. I expect many churches to be built.”

His Coptic colleague Yasser Tekla from the neighboring city of Beni Mazar expects, and oddly welcomes, the worst. “I will vote for the Salafis now so they will come to power and people will see them truly, and then reject them afterwards.”

Many Copts hesitated during the revolution, while others joined wholeheartedly. The initial celebrations of Tahrir – where Muslims and Christians alternated protecting each other at prayer – have been followed by multiple instances of bloody sectarian conflict.

This has prompted Copts to ask themselves hard questions: Should Copts take refuge in the military council against Islamists, or with Islamists against the military-as-old-regime? Should they enter the political arena and trust its processes, or enter their churches and trust in God?

So far, clear answers to these questions seem beyond the reach of Egypt’s Christian minority.

This article was published originally at Christianity Today. Please click here to view it at that site.