The Walk to Preschool

With blocks in the preschool

Our family lives in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, which is an upper to upper-middle-class neighborhood composed of many foreigners. Our particular house, however, is toward the border region consisting of more ordinary Egyptians, living at a lower-middle-class neighborhood. We featured this area in an earlier post following the sectarian attacks in Imbaba, Cairo, wondering if something similar could take place nearby.

We would like to present the following video walk through our neighborhood, following the path from our home to where our middle daughter goes to preschool. In a previous post we described the circumstances forcing us to move our children from the Coptic Orthodox Church preschool, when it closed down. We did a previous walking video tour to this preschool (from our old home), which you can watch here.

The new preschool was opened just recently by one of the teachers from the church preschool, and we are happy to keep our daughters in her care. She opened the preschool in the ground floor apartment owned by the family, where she lives above. This area, however, causes us to ‘cross the tracks’, so to speak. It is an area we are not fully familiar with, but in time, walking this route, we will become so. Hopefully people also become accustomed to us.

Video One (nine minutes) – Starting off until the dividing road

Video Two (four minutes) – An unexpected pause in videoing

Video Three (three minutes) – Inside the preschool

For an epilogue, first watch the videos, and then read on …

At the door of the preschool garden

Imbaba: Voices for Peace Present, but Overwhelmed

Onlookers view the burnt Virgin Mary Church in Imbaba

The sectarian attacks in Imbaba on May 7-8 have been widely written about and criticized. Indeed, it was a horrible blemish on Egypt that reeled the nation. Consensus seems to say that the action was planned and executed by Salafi Muslims at the behest of some interest outside of Imbaba. That is, the attack and burning of the church did not spring from neighborhood issues. How far outside of Imbaba is debated, but though the spark came from elsewhere, the fire burned internally. Amidst the condemnations, it is necessary to note it consumed also local Muslim efforts at peace.

These observations were taken from a thorough investigation conducted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. This organization has often written about sectarian tensions; in this case, their chief criticism falls on the security forces for failing to get involved to stop the fighting. Yet the testimony they assemble is enlightening. Their report (Arabic only) can be found here.

The basic story is that a group of Salafi Muslims assembled at the St. Mina Church in Imbaba, responding to a request from a spurned Muslim husband that his wife, a Coptic convert to Islam, was being held inside. They demanded to search the premises, Copts began assembling to defend the church, and eventually more and more Muslims filed in, causing multiple deaths and over two hundred injuries. The woman in question did indeed flee from her Muslim husband, was a convert to Islam, but was not present in the church. The episode was a lie propagated to launch an attack on the Christian landmarks of Imbaba.

That the episode was a lie was an early discovery, not of the church or the security forces, but of a Salafi Muslim imam of Imbaba. He heard the story from the belligerent Salafi crowd which originated from outside the area, but announced it to the ordinary people gathering as a falsehood. In what seems to be an unfortunate coincidence, as he was declaring his opinion gunshots were fired, perhaps from the Christian side, if only in the air to dismiss the crowds. Quickly things began to spiral out of control.

Yet not before several other attempts were made to quiet the situation. Local youths banded together and began chanting, ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!’ while a woman fully covered in niqab shouted, ‘What is happening to Egyptians? Weren’t we all united in Tahrir?’ Yet a group of Salafis broke into their ranks and scattered them, shouting, ‘There is no god but God, and the Christians are the enemies of God!’

Meanwhile, another bearded resident of Imbaba began shouting at them, quoting from the Qur’an, ‘Fitna (spreading religious strife) is worse than killing.’ He continued, ‘Whoever spreads fitna will go to Hell!’, and began to chant, ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!’

Yet the Salafi group urged the local population otherwise. ‘The Christians have gotten too big for their britches; how can you allow the minority to rule over the majority?’ ‘Muslims, why are you silent? Thirty or forty Muslims have died, and you are silent as the Christians beat us?’

Within the tumult these voices triumphed. By this time Christian families had taken to defend the church and their homes by climbing their roofs and throwing down objects on the attackers. It was probably easy for the ordinary Muslims of Imbaba to get swept up in the rapidly boiling sectarian conflict.

This is not an apology for them. They are guilty for allowing rumor and propaganda to tilt their hearts against their Christian neighbors. This post is only to highlight that there were brave Muslim voices who tried to speak up for the unity of their community. Had this been only a local altercation perhaps they would have succeeded. That it came from outside, from Salafis bent on igniting fitna, it quickly overran and silenced the local voice of reason and tolerance.

In this light, careful encouragement of restraint on the part of the Christians does not exactly hit the mark. If someone is insistent on causing trouble, perhaps there is little that can be done. Yet another aspect of the EIPR report shows how Christians did respond in ways to defend other areas of Imbaba.

Before too long news of the attacks were broadcast on the Christian satellite channel, al-Tariq (The Way). Christians were informed of the efforts to attack all the churches of Imbaba, and urged to assemble in them for their defense. Thousands did, some even coming from other areas. They witnessed small groups of Salafi Muslims driving around in Jeeps, yet when they saw the churches full of people, they passed by. At one location where Salafis still tried to enter and cause damage, they apprehended two and turned them over to the military police. Yet at another location, the Salafis found no Christian crowd, only two church workers behind locked doors. As described in an earlier report, after shooting off the lock, they killed one, another was saved through intervention of a local Muslim, and then they burned the church.

What can one say in retrospect that could have staved off disaster? As EIPR highlighted, the failures of the security forces gave open hand to the assailants. Yet if Christians had not been so quick to fight back, might the Salafi imam’s pronouncement of a lie had been heard? Or would the damage suffered by their community been even greater?

Yet if it is true that outside forces are stimulating conflict in areas more likely to suffer outbreak, how can citizens, both Muslim and Christian, be better prepared should it happen again, elsewhere? Many Christians say privately that Islam in the heart of a Muslim will have him always side against the Christian when conflict arises. This was one of the calls of the Salafi assailants: ‘Muslims, defend your Islam!’ In a crisis situation with limited information, can the ordinary members of a neighborhood resist such a call? Many will rally in the open squares after a tragedy, condemning it and proclaiming, ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!’ Yet for those, as in Imbaba, who proclaim it into the face of a developing tragedy, can they prove it true and prevent the horrors?

I cannot speak well for what is necessary on the Muslim side. Should I have opportunity to speak with the Salafi sheikh in Imbaba who proclaimed the lie, I will ask him. Yet Christians must overcome their privately confessed fears, and begin public assertions of trust. They must get into their neighborhoods, make relationships, and win friends. All voices in Imbaba have stated that previously relations in Imbaba between Muslims and Christians were fine. I’m sure this is true, but they were not ‘fine’ enough.

Maybe Christians will say they have tried, and it doesn’t help. Perhaps. But it should be remembered, there are thousands of villages and neighborhoods in Egypt that have not ignited in sectarian strife. From fear of Imbaba, knowledgeable that outside forces are at work, ‘fine’ must become ‘strong’, and ‘mutually respectful’. It may not be enough, if some are bent on sowing seeds of fitna. But the effort at resistance cannot be any less than this.


Thoughts and Photos from Friday Protest: National Unity and Palestinian Solidarity

I was present at the Friday, May 13 million man demonstration in Tahrir Square. It has become commonplace for activists of all sorts to call for ‘million man’ demonstrations these days. While impressive in size, it was nowhere near the crowds assembled in Tahrir during the revolution. Rather, about one-third to one-quarter of the square was filled, which has been one of the largest gatherings since the revolutionary days.

Participation was fueled in two directions. In the works had been a solidarity demonstration in advance of May 15, the establishment of the state of Israel, which is called the nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, throughout the Arab world. Egypt has been excited with the newfound independence of its foreign policy, which is widely credited with urging the recent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.

The other direction came after the horrible attacks on churches in Imbaba. These have been condemned by all sectors of Egyptian society, and many activists and political groups called for Friday to be an assertion of ‘national unity’, the catch phrase that declares Muslims and Christians in Egypt to be one people. It is, depending on perspective, a lofty goal, an essential fact, or an empty expression.

It is laudable to demonstrate for national unity, and it is laudable to demonstrate for Palestinian rights. Bringing the two together, in this instance, left a very bad taste in my mouth.

The main stage activities began with a Christian ‘church’ service, followed by Muslim Friday prayers, and a number of statements by religious, political, and activist leaders. I put church in quotes, unpleasantly mindful of the sarcasm, but recognizing the difficulty of the speakers. Apparently representing evangelical traditions, though with one Orthodox priest speaking prominently, their time consisted of efforts to connect with the crowd through chants that mostly fell flat, praise hymns that no one recognized, and assertions of national unity and Palestinian solidarity against Israeli oppression.

Most Arab Christians recognize the Palestinian people as having legitimate rights, and the Israeli government of having oppressed the occupied territories. Yet to an overwhelmingly Muslim audience, significantly representing Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, it appeared their main objective was to present their credentials as Palestine supporters. Little was spoken that could be understood as Christian-particular, though one speaker did urge those present to remember the cause for justice must be joined by truth and love.

Contrast their effort with Islamic Friday prayers, which was a masterful performance by the speakers. Islamic to the core, they wowed the audience, weaving assertions of national unity and Palestinian solidarity with cries to continue the revolution and purge the remnants of the Mubarak regime from the nation. The official Friday prayer speaker called for a civil state, and brought many in the audience to tears as he implored God to protect the revolution, save it from religious division, and spread it to other Arab states.

The next speaker represented the Salafi perspective, which equally condemned the Imbaba attacks and promoted national unity. There was little that would represent any of the recent controversial Salafi statements, such as opposition to democracy or the eventual return of the caliphate. There was much anti-Israel rhetoric, however, calling for millions of Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, to pray in their holy sites in Palestine, proclaiming Jerusalem to be their capital alone.

Other speakers continued on the same lines as those above, and I have little argument with either cause, inasmuch as Egyptians have the right to express these perspectives. Two disconcerting trends emerged, however.

First, it seemed that national unity was being built upon the back of a common enemy. Yes, Muslims and Christians can come together to condemn Israel, but will this solve the real domestic, if sometimes exaggerated, issues that produce sectarian conflict? Furthermore, speakers adopted the ‘national unity as fact’ perspective, blaming all problems on ‘the remnants of the NDP and security forces’ for instigating chaos in counter-revolution. There may well be manipulating forces at play in Imbaba and elsewhere; the proclamation of the truth in this conspiracy only masks over real tension. Yet it was not just lingering Mubarak cronies who are to blame; these, it was said, were working, as before, at the behest of Israel and the United States.

Yes, it would seem Israel would benefit from a divided, weakened Egypt. Yes, Israel has manipulated sectarian tension previously, at least within its own borders.[1] Is there evidence of it here in Egypt? I have seen little, but this is the nature of conspiracy. It may well be true, but it is believed as mantra. In the end, it does no good, since it closes the mind and turns a blind eye to one’s own faults.

Second, flowing from this, there was a distinct lack of civility in discussing the issues. Perhaps it is the nature of politics, populist politics in particular. While the speakers generally did not use incendiary words, the chanters from the stage led reprehensible, inflammatory cadence. ‘We demand expulsion of the ambassador of pigs.’ ‘We are going to Tel Aviv as a million martyrs.’ Though not everywhere or fully representative of the crowd, Israeli flags were burned, and an effigy was hung.

There was also the presence of a green headband-wearing ‘Army of Muhammad’. These proclaimed the eventual formation of an Islamic army that would liberate Palestine. In conversation with one adherent, he made several nuances that delay quick rejection. First, the Arab Spring has taught us that we can have a peaceful army. We will march to Israel, though there will be bloodshed wrought against us. Second, Palestinians are strong enough to win liberation on their own. We must support them by becoming strong ourselves, so as to pressure Israel, not to attack it. Third, we are a distinctive Islamic army, remembering the great Islamic victory over the Jews in Medina. But we will march side-by-side with our Christian brothers in support of this cause.

In this youth there was civility, and it showed in his discussions with Christian protestors who engaged him about the issues of Egypt and national unity. Though both sides championed the same phrase, there was deep division in understanding the problems at hand. One wanted an Islamic state which would protect Christians, the other wanted a civil state which would protect Christians, and others. They could not come together on essentials, but they departed friendly, after giving ear to the explanations of the other.

Perhaps this encounter should give me pause in my uneasiness. The rhetoric of the day was both lofty and base. One worthy cause was emptied of depth; the other was adorned with contempt for an enemy. Yet the people involved – even from extreme interpretations – discussed. There was no violence, no aggression, only the inflammation of public words. This gave me much pause, and interestingly, the Christians were not very good at it (though the Orthodox priest was better). Yet in personal conduct, even with those of completely opposite persuasion, there was peaceful exchange.

If only such exchanges might be had more often – between Muslims and Christians, even with Zionists. Alas, people do not often talk about that which divides them. An event such as this, as uncomfortable as it was to my Western Christian sensibilities, at least gets people talking, and puts them in one arena so as to discuss together. May all have the bravery to stay there, and keep alive the dialogue.

translation: Muslim, Christian – one hand; the people, the army – one hand; Fath, Hamas – one hand
the Palestinian flag, carried through the crowd
an Orthodox priest addressing the crowd
sitting to listen to the Friday sermon in the heat of midday sun; my neighbor shared his newspaper with me, and several others
prostrating during Friday prayers; see some standing away from the crowd; among them, I was asked to politely sit
cheering for Palestine during the speech of a popular Salafi preacher
a side stage rally for Palestine, with a Christian to the left and an ‘Army of Muhammad’ Muslim to the right
an effigy of the State of Israel
burning and stomping on the Israeli flag
the ‘Army of Muhammad’ supporter described in the text…
… and 2nd and 3rd from the left are the two Christians who discussed national unity with him
(note: this last picture was taken from a visit to Maspiro, I hope to post a second text on the attacks tomorrow)

[1] See ‘The Body and the Blood’, Charles Sennot, formerly a journalist for the Boston Globe, for examples he has documented.


Thoughts on Belonging and the Salafi Label

translation: We reject violence…peaceful…peaceful (R); Don’t believe the lying media (L)

The past week has presented opportunity to reflect on interactions with Muslims here in Egypt. More precisely, the reflection has been on my demeanor within these interactions.

On the whole, we are very comfortable and happy to be living in Egypt. We enjoy good relations with friends and neighbors, Muslims and Christians. We do, through the church, have a disproportionate number of Christian friends, but having been several years now in the Arab world, we know the goodness of the Muslims we live among.

Why then has this sense of belonging felt compromised in the last week?

On the one hand the reasons are obvious. My work placed me at a pro-bin Laden demonstration one day, and in an area torn apart by religious strife on another. Following the death of bin Laden warnings were dire his supporters would retaliate, especially against Americans. Following attempts to investigate the religious strife in Imbaba, a CNN reporter told his story of having to run for his life from angry mobs. Tensions are high; there is no room for a cavalier spirit.

Yet is there room for belonging? If so, what would it look like? This is the central question for us, not whether a report can be written or a story conveyed. Can we do these jobs with concern for and commitment to those with whom we interact?

I felt the compromise most on Friday, when I visited both the bin Laden demonstration and the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. At the cathedral Copts were awaiting the coming of Salafi Muslim protestors; due to several factors, including the bin Laden rally, they never came.

Yet while the Copts demonstrated anyway, I moved among them freely. I asked questions, I took pictures, I shot video – I had nary a thought of concern. I was not demonstrating with them; in fact, I felt quite at odds with what they were doing. But I felt at home; I felt comfortable. I trusted them.

Contrast this to my feelings at the bin Laden protest. It started earlier when I visited the mosque from whence the protest began. I stood at a distance, I held aloof from security, I scoured the area for a place of protection – I had nary a thought of tranquility. I was not watching opposed to them; in fact, I felt sympathy with their effort to honor the dead in defiance of Western scorn. But I felt foreign; I felt alone. I feared their reaction to me as an American.

Fear is not the right word, not if interpreted in terms of safety. But this feeling was amplified later that day when I arrived at their protest in front of the American Embassy. With the Copts, with Christians, I had no thought other than to jump right in. Here, with Salafi Muslims, I kept my distance, watching from the other side of the street. Again, there was no fear – the demonstration was peaceful, and soldiers kept watch of the proceedings – but there was also no belonging.

Perhaps the distinction of religion makes the difference. We aim for a sense of belonging to Egypt; we have a double sense with the Christians here. That second level of belonging is missing with Muslims, particularly with Muslims who practice in confidence. There is no opposition; on the contrary, there is great admiration. We wish to befriend these, learn from them, and should any opposition be found on their account, we wish to overcome it.

This was my attitude visiting Imbaba, but there were Christian sources to pursue first. Our interview was with the priest of the church, and we spent our time within its burned out walls. When certain youthful Copts had a run-in with the army outside, and then their fury was unleashed back inside within ecclesiastic safety, I was overcome with the weight of the situation. The day before, twelve people were killed as churches were attacked. Many feel the army did little to protect them. Witnessing their rage, I was initially paralyzed, but knew there was a place for me to have a role. It is my church also. It is not my struggle, but these are brothers in faith. Eventually, I did my best to offer words of calm and comfort. Again, I felt at home.

After we conducted our interview, I suggested to my Egyptian colleagues that we seek the army’s help in arranging a meeting with a Muslim sheikh. The area was still tense, and it would likely not be right to simply wander around, especially with me as a foreigner. They hesitated; there were time factors involved to be sure. But they too were nervous about the tension in the area, unsure of how they, as Copts, would be received. In the end we returned home.

Our report would have been better if we had Muslim sources to match, but that was not my chief concern, and may have marked a difference of emphasis between me and my colleagues. If I struggle with my lack of second-level belonging to Egyptian Muslims, many Copts, who should bear first-level belonging as Egyptian citizens, lack it altogether. Fine. Many on both sides are polarized, and in this text I am not reflecting upon them.

In this instance I sensed the divisions in the neighborhood, perhaps extending to the world, and wished to overcome it. In the middle of strife, I wished an uninvited American could sit down with, seek the opinion of, and honor the Salafi sheikh in front of him. Who will ever read what I write? Yet there was a chance to build relationships of peace with one in an area currently in need, with one in whom no natural bond existed.

This is the valor I can sometimes summon, but part of my language above gives me away. I stated: It would likely not be right to simply wander around, especially with me as a foreigner.

Why should I have not walked right into the middle of the pro-bin Laden demonstration? Why do I assume I would have little welcome in Imbaba? The external reasons are obvious, and should not be treated lightly. Yet it is the internal reasons which concern me. Where is my sense of belonging?

It is natural to be comfortable with those of like nature. With Egyptian Christians there is a like nature of faith, and with Egyptians in general we have discovered a like nature of humanity.

With both of these groups, however, and especially from my essential nature as an American, there is an assumed and created nature of enmity. Yes, every group defines itself at least partially in opposition to the other, and there is little harm here. Yet my group has demonized bin Laden and his supporters. My group – both American and Egyptian – sit either fearful or suspicious of Salafi Muslims. This, through belonging, is nurtured in my heart also.

Therefore, it is only through belonging that it can be nurtured out. Yes, those groups are demonized because they demonize us; yet which is first, the chicken or the egg? In the end, both become food: Do you prefer to be rotisserie or scrambled?

I have a fear that the label ‘Salafi’ is being appropriated in popular usage to generalize a community and minimize their humanity. Not all Salafis are violent, perhaps most are not. This is an item I must discover through research and relationships. They may bear an ideology many would be right to oppose; they themselves must be treated with dignity and the diversity present in their thought. ‘Salafi’ risks becoming like ‘terrorist’ or ‘Muslim extremist’ – catchphrases utilized to instill fear and rejection, while the content of the label remains nebulous and ill-defined.

We must resist all labels, even as we acknowledge their reality. If we can find in our hearts the desire to belong to those with whom we naturally do not, maybe one day we will. This, perhaps, is the path of peace.


From the Burned Church in Imbaba: Fr. Mityas on the Event, Explanation, and Spiritual Response

The Church of the Virgin Mary in Imbaba was burned deliberately by Salafi Muslims, in an effort to spread division in society and culminate ultimately in an Islamic state. This is the testimony of Fr. Mityas Eliyas, priest of the church, in an interview with Arab West Report.

The Event

The attack began at St. Mina Church, two kilometers away from the Church of the Virgin Mary. An originally small group of approximately thirty Salafi Muslims and their sheikhsarrived and demanded to search the church, looking for Abeer, a supposed Coptic convert to Islam held against her will. Church guards consulted by phone with the priests of St. Mina, who authorized the sheikhs to search the church. When they found nothing, they exited but protested further, asserting the church had secret rooms in which she was kept. From here, the basic narrative is known. Scuffles broke out between the armed group and eventually hundreds of local Copts, who had come to its defense making a human chain. The number of assailants multiplied rapidly, and the conflict resulted in twelve deaths and over 200 injuries.

Fr. Mityas then relates the particular story at the Church of the Virgin Mary, which was constructed in 1969, and where he has served since 1981. Approximately 50% of the population around the church is Christian, in his estimation. His testimony comes from eyewitnesses in the church, though he himself was not present until after the fire was ablaze.

While the altercations were concentrated originally at St. Mina Church, three Salafi Muslims came to the Church of the Virgin Mary and began pounding on the doors. Getting no response from the guards inside, they shot at the locks, and eventually used an iron bar to pry open the gate. One guard, Salah, had his throat cut. From the other, Malak, they demanded he turn over the weapons cache of the church. In addition to rumors about captive Coptic women converts to Islam being held in churches and monasteries, rumors exist that Copts keep weapons in their houses of worship.  In the 1970s and periodically since then there has been a pernicious rumor that the churches of Upper Egypt, in Asyut in particular, were storing weapons in preparation for violent efforts to overthrow local government and declare a Coptic state in the region.

Malak insisted there were no weapons, so they accosted him and seized his papers and cash (the equivalent of approximately $300 US). By this time, however, neighbors became aware of the altercation, and local Muslims rescued Malak from harm.

Eyewitnesses report that Salafi Muslims had cartons of flammable material with them, though whether this was gasoline or Molotov cocktails was not known to Fr. Mityas. What is clear is the damage done. The Church of the Virgin Mary occupies a relatively small amount of surface area, but ascends six stories tall. The ground floor houses a simple chapel, with the main sanctuary above it. This sanctuary has two levels of balcony seating, creating a stadium effect in which worshippers are able to look down on proceedings. Above these are two stories of general office space.

The bottom chapel, including the altar and iconostasis, was incredibly charred. The main sanctuary had extensive damage, reaching up to each balcony. Heavy soot plastered the walls. All electrical and mechanical equipment was destroyed; all books and papers were burned. Salah, the church guard, was found ‘as charcoal’, as Fr. Mityas insisted his description be rendered. Remarkably, despite the damage, Sunday, the day after the attack, the church still conducted Holy Communion.

The following are pictures of the fire damage:

The Political Response

Since the attacks, Egypt has rallied to condemn the sectarian outbreak in Imbaba. Mohamed el-Baradei, a presidential candidate, and other civil leaders participated in a 2000 person march through Imbaba to demonstrate solidarity with victims. They asserted the now common chant, ‘Muslim, Christians, one hand!’

Meanwhile, Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, imam of the Omar Makram Mosque near Tahrir Square, visited Maspero and joined the Coptic demonstration there. He stated that Egypt must resurrect the popular committees which protected mosques and churches during the revolution. Safwat Higazi, a Salafi leader, stated the attackers were ‘thugs, not Muslims’. The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, condemned intolerance and secret hands trying to spread chaos in society. The liberal Wafd Party echoes this claim.

Within Imbaba, Sheikh Muhammad Ali of the Toba Mosque relates his version of the story. He was approached by the husband of Abeer, but did not believe his story. He told Muslims around him the man was a liar, and this group left, chanting Muslims and Christians are one hand. When he went with an official to the church to inform them the issue was concluded, local Christians assumed they were trying to enter the church, and began pelting them with bottles from the balconies. Soon thereafter, gunfire erupted, and the situation spiraled out of control.

The ‘secret hands’ mentioned by the Muslim Brotherhood have been identified by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. A military source has revealed the discovery of a plot by remnants of the former regime to plunge the country into civil war through inciting sectarian tensions. 190 people have been arrested, and the death penalty has been threatened. Among the arrested are Abeer’s husband, and a local Christian café owner. The Copt is accused of firing his gun into the air to disperse gathered Muslims, which set off the protests.

The local governorate has pledged that it will rebuild the church, starting within ten days, in an operation that will take three months and over one million US dollars. Victims will be compensated: approximately $1000 US for those killed and $400 US for the injured. Security is being increased at all churches in the governorate.

Claims exist that the Salafi movement in Egypt is funded by Wahhabi Muslim states from the Gulf. The attacks, however, have been condemned by both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Explanation

Fr. Mityas has another explanation. He states Abeer, seven months ago, converted to Islam as she married a Muslim, but then ran away from him and returned to Christianity. The whole Imbaba episode, then, developed from the following lie: A call went to Abeer’s husband by someone from the area, stating Abeer claimed she was being held in the church against her will, asking for help to escape. The attack was planned, Fr. Mityas believed, and had no relation to the Camilia Shehata interview a few hours earlier, in which she, though believed by Salafis to be captive in a monastery, declared publically her Christianity. Some have argued the Imbaba troubles gained steam in spontaneous reaction to her appearance on television. Sheikh Muhammad Zughbi, however, seized on the story of Abeer, went on television, and swore three times to God: I will take the people and we will storm the churches and monasteries.

Fr. Mityas posited the slaughter of Salah and the theft of money from Malak was to make the attack appear perpetrated by thugs, rather than Salafis, who are understood to be pious, however strict. Salafis, he said, have a strategy of playacting. While one will light a fire, another will come behind him and help put it out.

Their strategy, Fr. Mityas stated, was to spread sectarian conflict, but then work after the fact to repair relations. This was seen in the instances of previous conflict blamed on Salafis, such as in Qena, where an appointed Christian governor was refused, and in Atfih, where another church had been burned. In each instance Salafi leaders were sent by authorities to settle the situation and preach tolerance. Their message of tolerance, however, is one of protection: Islam guarantees the sanctity of Christians. The implied message, states Fr. Mityas, is that in a democratic civil state there is chaos.

While not blaming the ruling military council directly, Fr. Mityas states that Salafis have been given room to operate. Criticism is leveled, however, for continuing the policy of balance and ‘reconciliation’ conducted by Sadat and Mubarak. If a Muslim is arrested, a corresponding Christian must be arrested. Ultimately, justice is given to none when religious leaders are assembled to pronounce reconciliation, and culprits are released. Indeed, states Fr. Mityas, of the 190 individuals arrested in Imbaba, several were Christians who were taken out of their homes, having never been anywhere near the church. He was, however, was unaware of the total number of Christians taken into custody. Yet he asks, ‘Where is the spirit of 25 January? Where is the rule of law?’

Unfortunately, Arab West Report was unable to visit any Muslim sources during the visit to Imbaba.

The Religious Response

Fr. Mityas insisted that as Christians, Copts should never carry weapons except in the army when called upon to defend their country. ‘We never encourage anyone to violence; we have a religion of love.’

Yet Fr. Mityas also spoke that many people will spiritualize the message of Jesus to his disciples, in which he exhorted them to sell their cloak and buy a sword in Luke 22. Though he later commanded the sword to be left in its place, the principle put forward is that Christians should not allow themselves to be seen as weak. Instead, their enemies must view them as strong. ‘He must know you have a sword, while he also knows you will not use it against him.’

In the context of rumors about Christians possessing weapons, Fr. Mityas made absolutely clear he was not encouraging Copts to arm themselves. Rather, he stated that Copts must be strong in society, not weak, and from this strength their love and virtues would be better respected.

For example, one can only love the enemy from a position of strength. Fr. Mityas stated there were three commands given for how to perform this love, according to Luke 6. First, do good to those who hate you. Second, bless those who curse you. Third, pray for those who mistreat you. This can only be attempted by one who is strong, even if his enemy attacks him.

Fr. Mityas declared that over time, if you offer love, the enemy will feel it and be affected. If blessing and prayer are done in the individual heart, however, only doing good can extend this love so as to be felt. This is done in three ways: by offering food to him if hungry, service if in need, and words of kindness in every instance. This does not result in becoming friends, he clarified. ‘Can I be friends with Muhammad Zughbi? But I can love him and pray for him.’

Yet Fr. Mityas stated it is not true that the only means of positively affecting the enemy are through doing good. Prayer on his behalf can lead him to change his religion, his morals, or his nature. This is God’s work, but the strong Christian can ask God for it to be done.

Are there strong Christians in Imbaba for this to happen? Fr. Mityas stated that he, first and foremost, needed to repent. The church, however, has a weak faith, it has unrepentant sin, and has love which has failed to be expressed. ‘We can blame no one else,’ he said, ‘we are at fault with ourselves.’

As a prime example he listed the Christian man who engaged in a relationship with a Muslim woman in Atfih. This small personal sin later exploded, resulting in the local church being burned. ‘If we all lived as we were supposed to, then lions would be transformed into lambs.’


Upon our arrival in Imbaba we were escorted though the military cordon which cut off traffic from the main road and surrounded the church on the corner of the street. Only a few short moments after sitting down to interview the priest, a flare up began outside. A Coptic passerby raised his mobile phone and took a picture of the church with the soldiers surrounding it. Immediately the soldiers accosted him, a few other Copts became involved, and the priest exited to try and calm the situation and usher everyone inside. The altercation lasted about five minutes, with shouts, commotion, and accusations of abusive treatment. (From my limited vantage point, there was none, though individuals were forcibly detained while resisting.)

When the situation settled outside, it exploded inside. Two Copts raged incessantly against the army, proclaiming they did nothing wrong. Their friends held them back, shouting back at them to calm down, but the pent up rage present in the community had everyone on edge. It was a good fifteen or twenty minutes until peace presided.

The Coptic photographer was released shortly thereafter, and two senior army officials entered the church and apologized to Fr. Mityas for what took place.

There are lions about everywhere, yet there are many lambs among them. May love and right-doing be the purpose of all, that at the very least, the two may lie together.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Attack on St. Mina Church in Imbaba, Cairo

Over 10 people were killed and more than 200 injured in an attack on the St. Mina Church in Imbaba, Cairo, which took place overnight on May 7, 2011. The following information is taken directly from the testimony of two Christians of the church, one named Rimon, the other wishing to remain anonymous.

Approximately 4pm following afternoon prayers, Imam Muhammad Zughbi led between 150-200 armed Muslims a distance of one kilometer to the St. Mina Church. There he inquired about a Coptic woman who, he believed, had converted to Islam who, he believed, was being held in the church. Both sources believe this rumor was completely unfounded, and this was only a ruse by these Muslims to instigate conflict.

Shortly after their arrival church officials called the police. The police were invited to enter and search the premises, but found nothing. They carried this report back to the crowd, and then withdrew.

Having originally arrived with weapons of all varieties – clubs, swords, and automatic guns – the Muslim group began to use them. Christians rallied to defend the church, largely weaponless, but with a few simple pistols. One source said local Muslims participated in the defense of the church; the other denied this, saying they joined in the attack. It is possible both reports are true. Sources say that community relations between Muslims and Christians had been good.

Around 5:30pm Muslims from other nearby areas – Warraq, Haram, Faysal, Umraniyya – heard the news and joined the attack, increasing the number to over 400. Eventually their total was estimated at 3,000. The dead and injured were carried into the church, and fighting continued at the local homes as Christian residents hurled stones from their balconies. In all, three homes near the church were burned, and over 50 shops were vandalized in the area.

The army did not arrive until 10pm, at which point it launched tear gas at the church. Sources stated this was aimed at them, even landing inside the walls, rather than at the Muslim attackers. The Muslims also began attacking the army, launching Molotov cocktails. The army responded by firing into the air, and sources stated they did not actively intervene to end the rampage. Instead, they arrested those in the immediate vicinity as they were able, including many Christians.

The presence of the army did disperse the assailants, who then scattered and attacked other area churches. The nearby Church of the Holy Virgin was set ablaze and completely destroyed around 2am. Three other local churches also suffered damage.

Gunshots continued throughout the night. The next day the army placed the area in complete lockdown mode, arresting anyone coming out of their home. Sources say the area around the church also had water and electricity cut. The minister of the interior and governor were set to visit the area, which was under a 24 hour curfew.

Both sources identified the attackers as Salafi Muslims, due to their appearance with beards and white robes, typical of their traditional dress. They cried ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the attacks. Salafi Muslims are adherents of a conservative interpretation of Islam that desires strict application of the sharia in imitation of the era of Muhammad and his companions. Following the revolution they have been vocal in calling for an Islamic state and have been accused of multiple sectarian attacks on both Christians and other Muslims. Though admitting to their particular religious interpretation, Salafi leaders have either denied their involvement or condemned such violent incidents.

Regardless of the original intention of the attack organizers, accusations of the illegal imprisonment of Coptic converts to Islam in churches or monasteries have been rampant both pre- and post-revolution. A woman named Camilia Shehata, to be mentioned below, is the cause célèbre in this effort. Following the attack on a church in Baghdad in October of 2010, al-Qaeda declared Coptic Christians to be fair game for attack for this alleged crime. Yet rumors are also rampant that sectarian conflict in Egypt was stoked by the former security forces under the Mubarak regime, which have allegedly continued this policy since his resignation.

The above testimony was provided by two sources directly involved in the evening’s altercation. Independent verification of their testimony is not possible at this time.

Since the attacks public response has been both swift and polarized. Prime Minister Sharaf cancelled a scheduled visit to the Gulf region and called an emergency cabinet meeting. The army has arrested 190 individuals and will try them in military courts. Furthermore, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, currently governing the nation, has threatened the death penalty for anyone found inciting sectarian strife. Salafi leaders and popular preachers, for their part, labeled attackers ‘thugs, not Muslims’, and fully condemned the action. Similarly, many Imbaba Muslims harshly condemned the action as un-Islamic, and said the thugs were tied to the old regime.

Meanwhile, Copts took to the street to protest. A small group went to the US Embassy to demand a meeting with the US ambassador and ask international protection. A much larger and more representative group began assembling at Maspero, site of the Egyptian Radio and Television headquarters. Here, only a few weeks earlier, thousands of Copts protested over several days to demand official inquiry into an attack on a church in Atfih, an area to the south of Cairo. Instinctively, following this conflict, they return again.

Along the way they were met with derision and minor attacks from Muslim youths and other ‘thugs’. Once there, a few suffered injuries as stones were thrown upon them from the balconies above. Yet they were joined by significant numbers of Muslims, including fully covered women, declaring that Muslims and Christians in Egypt were ‘one hand’. Eventually, the opposition settled down and the protest is ongoing.

The rumor about the convert to Islam being protected has received more investigation since the initial altercation. Apparently, a woman named Abeer from Upper Egypt married a Muslim and adopted his faith. Though not required by Islam it is the near cultural necessity, especially in traditional areas, as both religious groups ostracize members who either convert to another faith or marry outside their faith community. Apparently, Abeer later on ran away from her husband, who later received a phone call that she was in hiding near the St. Mina Church in Imbaba. The official version related by the government is that her husband contacted Salafi groups in the area, and asked for their intervention.

Other sources relate that the incident/rumor circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter, identifying the location of the woman by the very street name of the church. The campaign picked up speed, and resulted in large numbers of protestors demanding Abeer’s release. Yet to date, no woman fitting this story has been identified at all.

Of consequence is that the social media campaign began a mere hours after Camilia Shehata appeared on a foreign Christian satellite program, denying she had ever converted to Islam. Previously, Salafi groups had organized seventeen separate demonstrations to demand her release from the monastery where she was allegedly being held. Pictures appeared of her wearing a hijab, but may have been easily Photoshopped. Meanwhile the church released a video of her Christian confession, but this was either ignored or dismissed by Salafis. Poignantly, she never appeared in a live setting to settle the matter once and for all. That is, until this satellite program, which was announced a day before.

Does this suggest the assault on the church was planned in advance, and that the rumor, however true the story of Abeer may be, was constructed to play on the emotions of disturbed Salafis reacting to their mistaken fury over Camilia Shehata?

This is impossible to ascertain at this point, but the location of Imbaba would have been well chosen as a Cairo neighborhood easily ignited by such a spark. Imbaba is one of the poorer districts of Cairo, hastily and haphazardly constructed in the 1970s following large scale population transfers from Upper Egypt to the city. Basic services such as water, sewage, and paved roads were absent, and the poverty combined with the resurgence of strident religious identity drove many toward extremist Islam. The conditions led local Muslim leaders to declare themselves ‘the Emirate of Imbaba’, which successfully secured practical independence from the state, keeping out all unwanted visitors, including police, for a period of weeks. During this time, there were few Christians in the area at all.

After the police broke the siege and reestablished government control, in the 1980s Egypt cooperated with USAID, an American aid agency, to bolster living conditions. The program was largely successful, improving infrastructure and microenterprise, but was also subject to local criticisms. Over time, Upper Egyptian Christians also relocated to Imbaba, and though there were occasional sectarian tensions between them and Muslims, nothing to the extent of this attack had ever been witnessed before. Yet given that community growth was random in constitution, the centuries-long historical bond between Muslims and Christians in traditional village settings, however tested on occasion, was absent from Imbaba.

What is next? It is too difficult to judge all the different conclusions being paraded. Christians are furious at the police and armed forces for taking so long to contain the violence. Accusations are that they deliberately stood aside, yet it may well be they were simply ill equipped to confront such a large, apparently organized attack in an urban setting. Some in Maspero were heard chanting, similar to the revolutionary cry, ‘the people want the downfall of the general’.

Others say this and other sectarian conflicts have been engineered by forces of counterrevolution. Most major former regime members are in prison, and Mubarak himself was recently cleared by doctors to be interred with them as well. Salafis traditionally and in their theology had always sided with the Mubarak government as being established by God. Assumptions abound that they are heavily financed by Saudi Arabia, which was loath to see an autocratic ally ousted from power, and now under judicial trial. With these allegations, the army could either still be implicitly aligned with the old order even as they ‘protect’ the revolution, or, such incidents are meant as a wedge to drive people against the army, invalidating their popular stand with the revolutionaries. Or, it could simply be the interweaving independent errors of misguided action coalescing into deep conspiracy.

Yet on the side of the Christians there is conspiracy-worthy evidence as well. Why was Camilia Shehata silent for so long, only to appear on a foreign, not Egyptian, program? Her lawyer chastised her publically for going against his advice to speak on Egyptian television, and legally with the public prosecutor. This was only days after he procured a photo with her reconciled with her husband, with public documentation he was entitled to speak on her behalf that she was a Christian, never having converted to Islam. Interestingly, even if irrelevantly, the satellite program she appeared on is produced in the United States, and carries frequent testimonies of Muslim converts to Christianity. Provocation could have been anticipated.

Arab West Report has been able to secure an interview with Camilia and her husband. She admitted to marital problems which caused her to run away. Likely ashamed, as often occurs in such situations in Upper Egypt, local Christians and perhaps her family instigated protests claiming she was kidnapped by Muslims. This played into a known narrative which Muslims picked up on, then assuming the reality that she did in fact convert to Islam.

As protests about her increased, Camilia testified she was a Christian online, but this failed to convince the hardened Salafi audience, believing the YouTube video was a fake. She grew and is increasingly terrified for potential violence against her, understandable given the events in Imbaba. All the same, her testimony in this case puts aside the many conspiracy theories surrounding her. She is simple a woman who made a mistake, which amplified exponentially and engulfed a nation.

Yet to return to conspiracy along the same lines, the subsequent Coptic protest at Maspero was their natural destination point. Why then did a few hundred gather at the US Embassy, demanding international protection? This call is consistently rejected by local Christians as being traitorously fatal to their interests as citizens of Egypt. It is heard from Copts abroad, but almost never internally. Simultaneous to their denouncing of the Imbaba attacks, Salafi leaders criticized Copts for appealing to America. Are elements of the Coptic Church or community, perhaps even the United States, also aligned with counterrevolutionary forces?

Or, does all this simply represent the coalescence of error in the midst of confusion? In all likelihood, yes. Deep conspiracy helps to make sense of facts difficult to connect together. Egypt is undergoing significant changes, and these are uncomfortable for all. Conspiracies such as these are on the lips of many, which do not help the effort to foster national unity and democratic development.

Yet it could also be said that once again this tragedy has engendered demonstrations of Muslim support for their Christian kinsmen. The revolution unleashed clear evidence of Muslim-Christian unity from Tahrir Square, confirming the solidarity witnessed after the church bombing in Alexandria. Then, Muslims around the country surrounded churches and joined Copts inside, willing to die with them should the act be repeated.

Now, Christians are worried that Islam in the hearts of Muslims will ultimately make them side against Christians in times of strife. Unfortunately, Imbaba offers evidence of this. Yet even during the hours of attack in Imbaba, groups of Muslims came together in demonstration, proclaiming Muslims and Christians to be ‘one hand’. Post-revolutionary freedom has also unleashed Salafi activity and fervor, threatening the revolution in the eyes of many. Or, could Salafi drum-beating cloud over the essential unity which normal Muslims assert has always been characteristic of Egypt?

Many Egyptians are tired. They have crafted a great revolution but are now running into the realities of their success. Interruption of the national economy has exasperated an already poor multitude. Freedom of expression has brought unwelcome views to the forefront, regardless of perspective. Governance is entrusted to military forces simultaneously valuing stability and seeking to carry out revolutionary demands, all the while having little experience in day to day management and public relations. Political factions argue over issues both major and minor, with consensus rarely apparent.

It is understandable to be tired; yet now more than ever commitment and resolve are necessary. Christians must cling to faith, both in God and their fellow citizens. Democrats must navigate political streams yet maintain unity in the reconstruction of government. Islamists must curb their quest for influence developed over long years of oppression, while continuing sensibly to shape society as they believe God intends. Salafis … I don’t know what is needed here; may God guide them as he guides all the above. May each commit to the other as an Egyptian, and refuse to allow legitimate differences to divide them in essentials. Egyptians have always been one people; perhaps there are forces, both internal and external, which seek their unfastening. Yet these are days of opportunity; a great future is before them. May the issues of Imbaba be brought justice in all its forms; may these be the labor pains following a great revolutionary conception. May belief be held that a baby is soon to be celebrated.