For many Christians in Egypt, customary reconciliation sessions (CRS) represent one of the most visceral symbols of discrimination against their community. Existing outside the scope of formal law and justice, CRS offer a quick alternative to the lengthy judicial process as village elders and religious leaders decide matters of guilt, innocence, and punishment.
In some cases, however, punishment against Copts has been collective. In others, the only guilt is in breaking local custom, not law. At times, Muslims guilty of crimes have been ‘reconciled’. And often the CRS is conducted in the presence of police, lending the appearance of state legitimacy to proceedings.
But does this description characterize the CRS in its entirety?
In 2010 Arab West Report conducted a major study into the practice, entitled Social Reconciliation: Pre- and Post-Conflict in the Egyptian Setting. Using a case study from Izbat Bushra, it examined the factors behind and efficacy of this common practice.
In July 2015, AWR investigated a CRS with Georgetown University PhD candidate Matthew Anderson which drove a Christian family from their village in Kafr Darwish. Matthew’s report was published on January 14 and can be found here. In November, 2015 AWR translated a document supplied by a CRS practitioner, Sheikh Hamdi Abd al-Fattah of Maghagha, detailing the proscribed penalties for various offenses.
And on January 16, 2016, AWR returned to Maghagha to allow Sheikh Hamdi to field questions from a collection of interested Egyptians and foreign residents. The session was held in a church in the village of Qufada, where Fr. Yu’annis maintains a strong friendship and CRS cooperation with Sheikh Hamdi.
The following is a summary of the questions asked of the sheikh and the answers he provided.
CRS can be compared to the origins of English common law. Do you find it to be widely practiced in Egypt because of social and cultural acceptance?
Yes, this is correct. CRS is completely different from the judiciary system in terms of speed, but it is like it in terms of Muslims and Christians being equal before the law. But in Upper Egypt people respect our traditional customs more than the law, and fear the punishment of the CRS more than the judiciary. Our proceedings help contain problems before they spread, whether they are between Muslims, Christians, or one of each party.
What is your background as a CRS practitioner?
I have studied Shari’a, obtained a diploma in international arbitration from Cairo University, and am a consultant with the International Arbitration Association and a member in the Egyptian Committee for Customary Arbitration.
How did the rulings in the translated document come to be agreed upon?
Most were the judgments given in actual cases, but others were decided by local sheikhs in order to help prevent these cases from occurring in reality.
Why are all the penalties given in terms of specified fines?
The formal law system can prescribe either a fine or a jail sentence, but not the CRS. But in three cases the CRS is sometimes able to authorize a greater punishment and kick the offending party out of the village, with security implementing the terms. These involve murder, sectarian conflict, or sexual assault.
Do both parties have to agree in order to enter a CRS?
Yes, usually the victim comes to us first, and then we try to get the accused to come also. [At this Sheikh Hamdi showed an official CRS document with the signatures of both parties.]
If the accused does not present himself there are two methods to gain his assent for the CRS. First, we can threaten to involve the police. Or second, we bring the issue to the elders of the village, who are generally greatly respected. They then know how to get all parties to comply.
Are witnesses needed in the proceedings?
Yes. If there is conflicting testimony both sides present their witnesses and we decide between them. But if there are no witness both parties are put on oath by swearing on the Qur’an or the Bible, and then we evaluate the case by what they say. Sometimes police are present, but they do not interfere and lend only their legitimacy.
Some of the penalties demand a very high fine. What if they person cannot pay?
Customary law does not judge the person alone, but his family as well. If the person cannot pay on his own the family must assume the responsibility, or someone else on their behalf.
In the case of murder and if the accused admits to the crime, he will take a symbolic burial shroud to the victim’s family. This signifies him saying to them, ‘My life is yours, you can kill me or not as you choose.’ But always the custom is to forgive and accept the shroud in place of his life.
What about domestic disputes between husband and wife? Can they be part of CRS?
Marriage relations have their own set of regulations, as do other inter-family relationships.
How are the people educated in customary laws?
This is the responsibility of parents, who assume it naturally as part of society. But one important aspect of the CRS is that it is public. A lesson is always stronger if it is both seen and heard.
How can your example of cooperation with Fr. Yu’annis spread throughout Egypt?
We are not a backwards people; we have values and a heritage of civilization. The type of relationship I have with Fr. Yu’annis is not unique, it is found nationwide. Western media is not just, for it shows you only what will reinforce the image it wants to present, and misrepresents our reality of cooperation.
In Kafr Darwish, I blame our local media, for when the Christians were kicked out of their village, it failed to report that in another location a Muslim was kicked out of his village for similar circumstances.
A man was insulting women on social media in Ishneen al-Nasara, both Muslims and a few Christians. I presided over the session and banned him from the village for a period of five years. This penalty was proscribed regardless of his religion, and resembles the circumstances found in Kafr Darwish.
What I want now is for you to return to your countries and speak about us correctly. Will you do that?
Fr. Yu’annis sat in his small office waiting for a delegation to come, fearfully aware it might not. Having made all the arrangements, he was eager for a prominent Coptic businessman to visit the hundred year old church in his village, see the plot of land he had purchased, and envision together how a small hotel could lure religious pilgrims following the route of the Holy Family.
Being a practical priest, Yu’annis put aside the objection that his village of Qufada is not actually on the official route of the Holy Family. Several kilometers from the central city of Maghagha in the governorate of Minya, Qufada is a bit of a backwater. The nearby villages of Ishneen al-Nasara and Dayr al-Garnous are no closer, but they each boast a well from which the Holy Family is said to have sipped.
Unlike these, Qufada is not mentioned in the ancient manuscripts of the church. No matter, thought Yu’annis, given the geography it is certain they passed through. In any event neither Ishneen al-Nasara nor Dayr al-Garnous have a hotel either, so there is an opportunity to exploit. God knows his people need it.
After describing Qufada and Fr. Yu’annis’ local relations, here is a little more about his project and the man he hopes can implement it:
With this in mind, Yu’annis bought a plot of land next to the church in hope his hotel idea might result in tourist income and local employment. He secured Hamdi’s support and pays him a small sum of money each month to secure the premises. That this is necessary undermines somewhat an absolute understanding of Muslim-Christian harmony; Hamdi once remarked in frustration that though Christians are only 15 percent of the village, the one church is larger than all mosques put together. Correct or not in his estimation, it is personal relations and greased wheels which keep communal peace.
But the peace is present, so Yu’annis proceeds. And thus he sits in hope for the arrival of the delegation, which turns to frustration when it does not arrive.
The awaited businessman is Munir Ghabbour, owner of the luxury Sonesta hotel in Cairo and a number of enterprises beside. Now 70 years old, Ghabbour wants to use his wealth to leave behind a Coptic legacy, strengthening that of the Holy Family. Many churches along their route are operational but decaying. Poignantly similar are the Christians; poverty and emigration, not to mention pockets of religious extremism, eat away at what was once a flourishing Coptic presence.
I wrote about Ghabbour in reference to a new government initiative to promote Holy Family tourism here. The priest and businessman have a relationship stretching back many years, but the key to the project is support of the church:
But the lynchpin for the deal is a different person altogether. Bishop Aghathon heads the diocese of Maghagha for the Coptic Orthodox Church, responsible for all spiritual matters and many temporal ones beside. Yu’annis could not fail to inform his bishop of such a high profile visitor, who promptly requested to receive the businessman in the local cathedral.
Or rather, the old cathedral. Poorly built and suffering severe structural damage, Bishop Aghathon had long petitioned the government for a new building. For years he was frustrated, and thus he went political. Small demonstrations were held and the bishop complained in the press. His demeanor was much different than that of his predecessor Bishop Athanasius of Minya, who died in 2000 and had his diocese divided into several smaller dioceses. Bishop Aghathon was appointed to Maghagha, and proved less adept at fostering local relations.
This, at least, is the opinion of Yu’annis, who found his own success in securing building permits halted after the death of Athanasius and the ascension of Bishop Aghathon. Relations also faltered between the bishop and the priest, as the latter’s attention increasingly focused on his own village. Previously the twenty-four churches he facilitated were scattered throughout the area.
But Bishop Aghathon’s political approach finally proved successful after the revolution. In May 2011 the Maspero Youth Union formed during a massive Coptic sit-in near Tahrir Square, protesting the burning of a church in Cairo. Completely unrelated to events in Maghagha, during negotiations with the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Coptic youth activists included Bishop Aghathon’s cathedral permit within their list of demands. It was granted, and construction of the new cathedral is currently ongoing.
But in the old cathedral he received Ghabbour and his delegation and planned the events of the day. First would be a visit to Ishneen al-Nasara, then to Dair al-Garnous, and finally, if time permitted, Qufada. Back in his village Yu’annis waited, unable to have a say in the bishop’s ordering of affairs.
He continued to wait, as the bishop showed the businessman other project opportunities. I describe the diocese and local conditions, but then come back to the priest:
All the while, Yu’annis waited in Qufada, making occasional phone calls about the delegation’s whereabouts. Bishop Aghathon urged the businessman back to the cathedral, and said Qufada was an hour away by car, at least. In this he appeared to pad his calculation over estimates in the original schedule, and told Ghabbour he could visit Qufada next time. That village was not on the Holy Family route, he persuaded, and the church had recently been renovated anyway.
It took a comparable amount of time to return to the cathedral, where a multi-course meal awaited. Delicious, time could have been spent in Qufada instead, had the bishop honored the priest’s original intention. Yu’annis himself then traveled to Maghagha, exchanged pleasantries with the bishop, and greeted his friend. They parted ways fifteen minutes later as Ghabbour needed to return to Cairo for an appointment. Yu’annis was disappointed, but understood how the formalities of church hierarchy needed to be honored first.
But it is not simply a matter of formality. In the Coptic Orthodox Church the bishop is one step removed from the pope and near-autonomous within his diocese. No priest can act without his approval; no church project can progress without his oversight. Ghabbour cares little for local squabbles, he simply wants to leave a legacy and assist area development. Working with the bishop can unlock any door.
But for Bishop Aghathon, working with Ghabbour can fund any door. The businessman remains in control of his own money, and will only pay for projects that are viable and fit his vision. The bishop’s pitch appeared to convince him, along with the appearance of the churches. If anyone comes to visit and sees this, he said, we will lose face. But Ghabbour’s vision is larger than churches, and includes his priestly friend. All he needs is land and an idea. Yu’annis has the former, but may need to modify the latter.
All three individuals are looking to intervene in an area of decline, through a tradition that may also be fading. From the conclusion:
Does this mean the Holy Family tradition itself does not have many days left either? To be sure this is not a warning for ‘days’ but years or decades, but as the Christians of Iraq are demonstrating, the existence of community is precarious. Coptic Christianity is not similarly threatened, but if trends continue toward poverty and emigration, will enough remain to care for the churches still being built and renovated? Or will they be the permanent reminder of a bygone era, symbols of a history cherished by believers elsewhere?
Perhaps then the tourists will come, and the hotel will be necessary.
Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.
A man named ‘lantern’ finds a buried treasure, and with the money builds a church and extends a priesthood. If only all tales of Coptic Orthodox churches were so adventurous. (Some are.)
The village of Qufada, home of the Virgin Mary and St. Abaskhiroun Church, is about a 30-45 minute drive from Maghagha, 160 kilometers south of Cairo, in the governorate of Minya.
The church was built in 1910 by Fanus Abaskhiroun [‘Fanus’ means ‘lantern’ in Arabic]. He was a building contractor of average means, when one day he discovered buried gold on a plot of land he was developing.
Fr. Yu’annis, one of two priests currently serving in the Qufada church, related this fact and the story which follows. He says the tale of the gold is probably 90 percent true. Even today ordinary Egyptians illegally mine for Pharaohnic treasure on restricted archeological sites, so Fanus simply had a hundred year head start.
Throughout Upper Egypt, there are many villages with churches, and many villages without – despite a local Christian population. Fr. Yu’annis, who descends from a priestly heritage stretching thirty generations, described it this way:
… historically the issue of building churches rested with the good will of Christian landowners. Where they feared God and cared for the people, as in the example of Fanus and Qillini Pasha, churches were built. Yet there are several other villages in Maghagha today which do not have a church yet did have wealthy Christian residents.
Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report, including a description of the last four generations of lineage. Here is Fr. Yu’annis at work, with a few other additional pictures:
The sign reads: Oh Lord, remember your servant Fanus Abaskhiroun and his children and his grandchildren, who have concerned themselves with this holy place in the kingdom of heaven. Amen. 1910 AD.
Post-Morsi, some say, the Salafi Nour Party was pushed into a corner. Others say they played their cards perfectly. In any case they supported the 2014 constitution despite its removal of religious provisions they largely orchestrated only two years earlier. While the Muslim Brotherhood and most other non-Nour Salafis railed against what they called the ‘coup and its constitution’, the Nour Party nimbly tried to navigate the landscape.
So what did they do, and what was their rhetoric? In an interview with Arab West Report Sheikh Hamdi ‘Abd al-Fattah provided perspective from Maghagha, a city in the governorate of Minya.
The party held one large mass conference in Minya, in which Mohamed Ibrahim Mansour, Nour’s representative on the Committee of Fifty which wrote the constitution, joined Sheikh Sharif al-Hiwari from Alexandria, and the local deputy of the Endowments Ministry formed a panel. The party’s approach to the constitution was explained by Mansour and others; Mansour himself spoke for an hour and answered questions for an hour and a half more. Everything was done in full transparency, ‘Abd al-Fattah stated.
From the government to the district level, such as in Maghagha and Beni Mazar, the Nour Party organized marches and had small four-to-five delegations circulate in the streets. Both were meant to give opportunity for people to speak face-to-face with party leaders and have their concerns answered.
For more details, and to discover the reasoning behind their controversial support, please click here to read the full article.
My article about life in an Upper Egyptian village published today on EgyptSource. Click here for the full article; excerpts are in the boxes that follow, interspersed by other material needed to be cut for focus or word count.
During a visit to the city of Maghagha to learn more about surrounding village life, the local priest brought me along to a family’s baptism party in Qufada, celebrating the forty day mark of their new baby boy. Earlier at mass the child received his rites of entrance into the Coptic Orthodox Church; it is conventional thereafter to invite the priest to their home for a meal.
The Coptic home of the now deceased patriarch, Shafik Khilla, in Qufada conveys few signs of luxury but has a dignity fitting proper village family life. The ground floor houses common areas such as the reception, kitchen, and bathroom facilities, as well as a place to store the family animals during the night. The upper level contains a single room for each of the five nuclear families who maintained residence. But is ‘nuclear’ a proper word when all the husbands are away?
Today, Shafik’s sons Masry and Ruweiss are elderly, peasant farmers like their father. They spend all day in the fields watching the animals, for if they were to join in the life of the house thieves might steal them away. The men return to bed with the beasts, privileged above them by life on the upper floor. Neither attended the church service for the baptism of their grandson.
Also absent were the three husbands of the home. Masry had three sons, Samir, Medhat, and Milad. Samir and Medhat married their cousins, the two daughters of Ruweiss. Milad had to step outside the family to marry, yet by appearance all six of their children avoided the genetic defects of intermarriage. All are in school or preschool.
In the article I describe how they found work outside the village. Speaking of one husband, the priest made his wife blush:
Milad, meanwhile, found a job as a clerk in Cairo, for which he earns roughly the same salary and comes home just as infrequently. The priest playfully asked his wife why she had missed early morning mass the week before. She looked at him sheepishly and replied, ‘Oh, you know, Father, my husband was home.’
The two younger wives also received education up to the high school level, which inspired Samir’s wife to also improve her situation. She took literacy classes from the church and recited in our presence a poem she crafted about Jesus and his love. Mother to three daughters, the priest wished for her a son. She demurred, denying cultural expectations, and expressed thanks to God for what she had. Still, the priest held up both his own example and described mine as well, where three girls were finally followed by a boy. He said he would pray.
Here is the root of the problem:
‘There is no opportunity to work in Qufada,’ states Fr. Yu’annis. ‘People finish their education, but because they have no land, money, or chance to open a project, they must search elsewhere. The only other option is to work the land as a peasant farmer. ‘Work can be found in the nearby city of Maghagha, says Fr. Yu’annis, but it pays poorly and transportation costs eat a quarter of the earnings.
And from the conclusion:
Amid the cries that Islamist government may whittle away the Christians of Egypt, a far more subtle phenomenon is underway. Christians, and their Muslim neighbors, are depopulating the villages of their ancestors, simply to find a better life elsewhere. Will Samir, Medhat, or Milad ever return to live in Qufada? How long can their families live there without them?
Demographic changes as these are not unique to Egypt. As the nation undergoes vast political upheaval, no less significant are these social realities. In fact, the question is fair: For the great majority of Egyptians, which is more significant – a president, or a husband?
Please click here for the full article. I’m glad for the chance to place more slice-of-life material in the blog, but the official version is crisp and better analysis – thanks to the professional editing which suggested to cut the above material in the first place.
If not for the wisdom of two men, the world would be aware of the village of Sheikh Masoud in Upper Egypt for all the wrong reasons.
This hamlet deep in the rural backwater south of Cairo would have been added to the well-publicized list of Egyptian locations torn apart by sectarianism.
As it is, you do not know about it – unlike Dahshur, Giza, which was the most recent casualty of religious division, and the first village to suffer under the new Islamist regime of Mohamed Morsy.
Located 40 kilometers south of Cairo and home to the famous Red and Bent Pyramids, on 28 July Muslims and Christians in Dahshur confronted each other with shouts and exchanges of Molotov cocktails. It ended with a death and a devastated population.
The incident started when a local Christian laundryman burned the shirt of a Muslim client while ironing.
A stray Molotov cocktail accidently hit a Muslim passer-by. When he died from his burns a few days later, Muslims surrounded Coptic homes and businesses, setting fire to them. By 3 August, security forces had evacuated 120 Christian families from the village until calm could be restored.
The events in Dahshur however are part of a more complex pattern of sectarian relations that is often missed by the media. Sensationalist headlines and attention-grabbing pictures often start out as ordinary social problems that escalate, feeding on religious difference.
Far more common is local community wisdom snuffing out the tension, as happened in the village of Sheikh Masoud, 160 kilometers south of Cairo.
It could have gone either way in this sleepy countryside hamlet whose population recently surged to 25,000, 80 per cent of it Muslim.
The village also hosts an area church. Here it was that on 5 August a wedding ceremony took place for Christians of a neighboring village that had no church. All proceeded well and the wedding guests got into cars to drive back home. But trouble developed when the bridal party rearranged the seating in their vehicles to allow the bride and groom to drive to Cairo on their own to begin their honeymoon.
To do so they stopped in the middle of the main street in the village, halting traffic. Only half an hour shy of sunset when hungry Muslims could break their Ramadan fast, an argument ensued.
According to Fr Musa Ghobrial, priest of the St George Coptic Orthodox Church in Sheikh Masoud, the street in question lies thirty meters from the church and is a public gathering area for local Muslim youth.
Muslim drivers tossed insults at the bridal party, shouting especially at the sister of the bride getting out of the car, unaware that she was blind.
Flustered, her uncle, unable to shout back as he happened to be mute, spat upon one of the youths. Within moments the argument spilled over into the church compound, with more than a hundred Muslims gathered inside.
‘I was absent at the moment of the event,’ said Mohamed Ali, a 43-year old power station manager and father of the youth who was spat upon.
‘I heard that Christians were attacking us, and came after five or ten minutes with my relatives and neighbours to stop the insults,’ he told Lapido.
Fr Musa states there was no violence in the church, but that the atmosphere was charged.
‘Muslims in our area look for opportunities to stir up trouble, especially the younger generation. We keep good relations with them, but other Muslims consider this village to be weak because it has a church,’ he said.
It was these good relations which averted the crisis.
‘What happened was a reaction from the Muslims,’ Ali said. ‘I told them to go home because this is a place of worship and there should be no problems here.
‘Then I saw Fr Musa and the other priests leaving the church and told the crowd, “I know these priests. They will take care of this.”’
As the scene quieted and the church courtyard emptied, Fr Musa sped off after the bride and groom, persuading them to return. He spent the next day sitting with Christian villagers convincing them of their need to apologize over the spitting.
The third day Fr Musa gathered the Christians in Ali’s home, and all drank tea together.
‘Nothing happened,’ Ali told his guests, ‘We are all one.’
According to Fr Musa, neither side issued a public apology, but the gesture in Upper Egyptian culture signified both sides owned their wrong and extended forgiveness.
If Mohamed Ali had been an extremist, or if Fr Musa had angrily shouted at the Muslims in his church, the situation in Sheikh Masoud could have escalated like Dahshur.
Instead, the village remains as unknown as thousands of others throughout Egypt. In each, Muslims and Christians negotiate the status quo, despite the increasing trend of religious polarity nationally.
At times the mixture leads to combustion, but more often than not, contrary to assumptions carried in the press, wisdom prevails.
Fr Musa and Mohamed Ali are courageous – but mercifully not unique – peacemakers.
This article was first published at Lapido Media on August 29, 2012. Please click here to access it.
Sheikh Hamdi Abdel Fattah is a unique personality in Egypt. Little known outside of his home region of Maghagha in Upper Egypt, he is a candidate for parliament running under the banner of the Salafi Nour Party. In and of itself, there is nothing unusual here – the Nour Party has searched for and nominated local popular candidates throughout Egypt. What is unique is that Sheikh Hamdi has the endorsement of the local Coptic Orthodox priest of his village, Fr. Yu’annis.
This interview discusses why Sheikh Hamdi has received Coptic support, but also explores his understanding of the application of sharia law in the modern world. Sheikh Hamdi is eager to correct common misperceptions, but, perhaps unwittingly, confirms others. Topics include tourism, war booty, jiziah, dress, legislation, and the legality of democracy.
Sheikh Hamdi is an engaging and friendly person. He was sincere and believable, and I trust he will work on behalf of the Copts, as he promises. At the same time it was a challenging interview, as getting him to answer intended questions proved difficult. Whether this was due to language issues, culture and worldview differences, or political doublespeak is hard to say. Nonetheless, Sheikh Hamdi provides an insightful view into the mindset of a modern day Salafi, both confirming and undoing typical stereotypes.
As a final note, Sheikh Hamdi lost his electoral race. After stage one he finished in second place behind the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus qualified for the run-off. Though he lost the run-off, the judge ruled to nullify the result, given the level of fraud witnessed on behalf of his competition. Sheikh Hamdi stated there were 40,000 additional votes cast illegally for his opponent. Nevertheless, rather than a second run-off, the ruling was issued simply to accept the results of the first round voting. Sheikh Hamdi replied, ‘It is God’s will,’ and refused to be angry. Still, he holds out hope for a reversal.
JC: Please introduce yourself to us.
HAF: My name is Alaa’ al-Din Abdel Fattah Muhammad, but I am known by the name of Sheikh Hamdi Abdel Fattah. I have a general institute for the calling of people to religion. I worked thirteen years in Saudi Arabia as a mosque lecturer and teacher of the Qur’an. I am a member of the Maghagha Reconciliation Committee which works according to traditional regulations.
I joined the Salafi Nour Party immediately after it was established, and presented myself as a candidate to which they agreed. I did this after reading their platform which I determined to be moderate. It is comprehensive and without fanaticism toward anyone. Among its priorities is the call to implement sharia law, but it emphasizes to do this gradually.
Among the accusations against the Nour Party is that it will prevent tourism, but this is not logical. On the contrary, our program is very powerful. If you compare Egypt, with all its civilization and history, Jordan, Turkey, and Malaysia all have higher tourist incomes. This is because we rely on luxury tourism only. We can boost conference tourism, which not only can bring more money that luxury tourism, it also profits the nation scientifically as doctors and professors bring knowledge in addition to money spent on airfare, hotels, clubs, and general expenses.
There is also medical tourism. We should build world-class hospitals that will draw the majority of medical travelers from the Gulf and from Africa, rather than them going to America or France, where the costs are very high. Here, we have the medical proficiency and lower costs. This will again raise our scientific benefit as well as financial from airfare and hotels, as before.
Yes, we will also promote luxury tourism, but only that which is religiously legitimate. It is not necessary to mix the sexes on the beach. We have many unmarried young men. When they view these mixed settings the result can be one of sin. What is the problem with establishing some family-only or single-sex chalets, where you can enjoy yourself freely without temptation? Turkey has done this, for example. Should there not be freedom for this, is this not respect for freedom? You might say we should be open-minded, but I reply I don’t want anyone to see my wife. So as you call for freedom for the other, I also call for the freedom to keep my wife from being seen.
JC: Would you also allow for beaches where people wish to mix with the other sexes?
HAF: Exactly. But I know from tourists they wish to inquire about the customs of the country in which they are visiting. But are we forgetting about the tourists from the Gulf when we concentrate on Europe? Gulf countries have more tourists, and Egypt is the closest country to them. Right now, they are going to Turkey.
Then, another issue concerns the Copts. What is their status under sharia law?
JC: This is a very important topic and we will approach it soon, but let’s return to you as a person. You are from the village of Qufada, and friends with Fr. Yu’annis. You are also a sheikh, but was does this mean? How did you become a sheikh? Are you an Azhar graduate?
HAF: No, I have a diploma from the High Institute for Calling which is a private center attached to the Religious Legitimacy Association of Egypt.
JC: What do you do in Maghagha, what is your job?
HAF: I am a real estate agent, buying and selling buildings, apartments, shops, etc.
JC: Do you preach in the mosque?
HAF: Yes, but not in one in particular. I preach often both in Qufada and outside.
JC: Here in Qufada, you are good friends with Fr. Yu’annis.
HAF: Yes, Muslim-Christian relations here in the village are very strong. It is friendship, not just greeting each other in the streets. If there are problems, even between two Christians, we come to the church to help solve them.
JC: You are speaking of your work with the reconciliation committee. Tell me more about that.
HAF: In most instances the reconciliation committee is able to solve problems faster than the legal system. It takes only one session, and the decision is binding on both parties. We search for the truth, no matter who it is with.
Every day we sit to solve problems between Muslim. Often we sit to solve problems between Christians. But what happens is when there is a problem between a Muslim and a Christian the media twists the issue somewhat to become a religious matter. They take refuge in religious chauvinism and turn it from a personal struggle into a religious one. There are occasions where a Muslim boy and girl will make an improper relationship, and the same with Christians. But if it happens between religions, we must treat it with reason and wisdom in the same manner we would otherwise. We don’t accept any religious chauvinism in either direction.
JC: One of the benefits of the reconciliation is that it is fast.
HAF: Yes, court cases can take years. This is one of the problems our party wishes to address.
JC: But what if the issue is criminal, especially if blood is shed?
HAF: In our religion we must confront strife before it grows, and shedding blood is among the worst things for us. Our prophet said, in his farewell address during the pilgrimage, your blood, your money, and your honor are sacred to you. Is this just for Muslims? No, it is for anyone of religion, whether Christian, or Jewish, or Buddhist. Blood may not be shed except by right, such as in punishing murder.
JC: But is there a verse in the Qur’an that permits the taking of female prisoners during war?
HAF: Yes, this is present in sharia law, and was part of Arab tradition before Islam. In war, it was permitted to take as booty money, horses, sheep, camels, men, and women. If a woman was taken she became a female slave. But does this exist today? No, it was a description of the culture that was present in its day. Today, there is no jihad.
JC: But if it returns?
HAF: When will jihad return? If a nation attacks America, will it not respond militarily? It is not permitted for Muslims to announce jihad unless their lands or honor are violated. If they are not attacked, they will not attack others.
JC: So this would apply in Palestine, where their lands have been taken?
HAF: Yes, it is permitted for Muslims to respond in the manner of which they have been violated. If he destroys my house, I will not stomach this, I will destroy his house. But I may not destroy two houses. If you attack me, I have the right of defense. This is even international law.
JC: So, in application of sharia as Muhammad permitted in his era, is it allowed for their women to be taken as the spoils of war?
HAF: Is Israel a democratic country? No, it is a Torah-governed country. Why then does the world protest if I say I want an Islamic state which implements sharia law? If jihad is made mandatory and our women are taken, it is permissible to take them in kind, but it is not necessary. In sharia we have what is called ‘exchange’. If there is a prisoner taken he can be swapped, and this is what happened in the period of ibn Taymiyya.
There were many battles in his day with Christians, and the Christian forces took both Muslim and Christian prisoners. Ibn Taymiyya went to the Christian king and asked for the prisoners to be returned, and the king told him to take the Muslims. Ibn Taymiyya refused, saying the Christians are under our protection. I will not take a Muslim and leave the Christians behind, but insist on taking the Christian prisoners first.
Or consider when Amr ibn al-‘As entered Egypt. Christians were under the most horrible situation during this time under the Romans, to the extent the patriarch went into hiding. Who protected him? Amr ibn al-‘As. He made a pact with him and guaranteed his safety.
JC: This reminds me of a question: Why did the Muslims stay in Egypt and not return to their lands after defending the Copts?
HAF: This is what the families of Egypt wanted. Why? The Copts at that time were under severe persecution. They requested the Muslims to stay, since this represented security for them from the Romans.
The proof? One day, when the son of Amr ibn al-‘As was horseracing with a Christian, the Christian spat on him. In response he hit the Christian and said, ‘Will you spit on the son of the most noble?’ The Christian then lodged a complaint with Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab in Medina, who summoned not just the son, but his father as well. The Caliph asked the Christian if this was the one who hit him, and he ordered the Christian to hit him in return, which he did. Then the Caliph said, ‘Now, hit the most noble one also,’ referring to Amr ibn al-‘As, who at that time was the ruler of Egypt. You see that Islam does not permit oppression for anyone, whether ruler or ruled.
The caliph then sent the Christian away and asked Amr, do you not take from him the jizia? Will you take it from him while he is strong and then leave him weak that he has to beg in the streets? Give him a salary from the public funds of the Muslims.
Today, many Copts feel that jizia is a form of contempt or shame. But does he not pay taxes? Fine, we will cancel the word jizia, and call it taxes. We’ll say, ‘Pay your taxes, and what will you get in return? No one will attack you in your worship, or your doctrine, or your homes, or your persons, or your money, or your honor. You will have complete security, and have your protection guaranteed. If you don’t want to enter the army, you won’t have to.’
JC: Will it be permitted for him to serve in the army?
JC: Will this be in replacement of jizia?
HAF: No, jizia will still be taken, but if you want to enter the army, go ahead, and even so I am committed to your protection.
JC: So if the Salafis gain control of government in Egypt, what will you do with jizia?
HAF: Let’s talk first about the perspective of Muslims toward Christians if the sharia is implemented. We will treat them with righteousness, respect, friendship, and justice. In terms of rights, everyone will be the same. There will be no difference between a Muslim and a Christian. In terms of their family affairs – marriage, divorce, inheritance – we will not apply sharia here but they can judge themselves.
JC: What rights will they have exactly?
HAF: They will have all rights. The prophet said, ‘What is for them is for us,’ which means, if I can take salary, or gain positions, or have houses, or …, in everything that has to do with putting together a government there is no difference between Muslim or Christian.
JC: Even the high positions in government?
HAF: Yes, and there will be equivalence in their salaries as well.
Is there a constitution today that guarantees the rights of minorities like the sharia law? No. They are ahl al-dhimma, under our protection. They have rights over us and we have responsibilities toward them. As long as they don’t kill me, or raise a weapon against me, or attack me, I am obliged to protect them and give security to them and their houses of worship as well.
JC: But does not this designation as ahl al-dhimma raise the status of the Muslim over that of the Christian?
HAF: No, but the opposite. They will be more comfortable than the Muslims.
JC: Yes, maybe he is comfortable, but is he equal?
HAF: Let’s look at a Muslim and a Christian student. If the Christian scores higher on his marks, is it right for me to appoint the Muslim to a position over him? No.
JC: Is there a verse that says, ‘Do not take them [Jews and Christians] as friends/guardians? (Qur’an 5:51)
HAF: This is not speaking about Christians, so to speak. Of Christians it says, ‘You will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers those who say, “We are Christians.”’ (Quran 5:82)
But the most difficult religion, which hates all of humanity, is that of the Jews. They hate Christianity also. In Palestine, do they make any difference between Muslim and Christian? No, they will kill them both.
So the Jewish religion has the most hate for humanity, but as for Christianity, there is friendship, ‘because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant’ (continuing verse above).
JC: To be sure I have not memorized the verse, but people tell me that the one I mentioned warns Muslims from allowing Christians to take positions above them.
HAF: This does not intend Christians in particular. But let me ask you a question: Did you know that in Britain there is a law preventing the prime minister from being other than a Protestant? Why? The majority is Protestant, so the prime minister must also be Protestant. So if we have a nation where the majority is Muslim, what should we expect the ruler to be?
JC: The issue of the ruler is one thing, but that of positions in society is another. What is intended by the word ‘guardians’ in that verse?
HAF: Guardianship is that of which you lean on for support, or to which you hand over your affairs. But it does not mean the one who is with you, it speaks of the foreigner.
There is domestic politics, and there is international politics. It is not possible that I give the guardianship to someone outside – a Jew, for example. Or let’s speak about American support. Will America give funds and let you spend them as you wish? Or will they demand conditions and severe restrictions?
JC: Sure, you should not accept the money in the first place.
HAF: Right, and in truth, we are not a poor country. There has been a study showing the sand of Sinai is among the best quality in the world for the production of glass? Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, when he visited Egypt said all he did was to close the faucets of corruption. In terms of Africa we are the number one producer of natural gas, and eighth in terms of the world.
JC: Very good, so you refuse the guardianship of foreign powers, but domestically – can a Copt head a ministry? Can he run a company? Can he be a school principal?
HAF: What is the problem with any of this? As long as he has the qualifications, why not?
Did you know that our educational policy in Egypt is a complete failure? That is why in our party we will work on developing education. Statistics show the most intelligent children in the world are Egyptian. But as soon as he enters school he becomes the stupidest student in the world.
JC: Allow me to move to a different subject. I live here and I know the genius of the Egyptian people (both laughing). Something that is not known, though, is your commitment to the values of democracy. Some of your sheikhs speak of it as something foreign, imported, and not Islamic.
HAF: What does the word ‘democracy’ mean? It is that a people are ruled by the people. But if there is a heavenly law…? Here’s a question: If you have an appliance, like a TV, will you turn to the agent or just some person when it needs fixing? The agent, of course, since he knows the appliance.
So if God created humanity, he knows what is good for it, and what will keep it from corruption. This is why he gave his law.
JC: In terms of faith, this is fine. But what in terms of democracy?
HAF: You will not find democracy or freedom greater than what is found in the sharia. We say you are free as long as you do no harm. There are three types of harm: to doctrine, to public property, and to private property. Does freedom give one the right to transgress on the will of others?
JC: What happens if the majority does not desire the rule of sharia?
HAF: Some people say the Salafis will cut of hands (of thieves). This is correct, but at the same time, it is wrong. If your hand is to be cut off, you must first be offered five things: work, a living wage, a home, a wife, and a means of transportation. If you have all five, and you still transgress against the property of others, what do you deserve?
JC: This is logical, but you are justifying why the sharia is good. If the people choose this punishment, fine. But I am asking, what if they change their mind? What if you fail in your policies? Can the people then choose against you?
HAF: Of course, we accept this. If we feel we are not able to perform our duty for the people, we will resign. We are not seeking parliament seats for pride. These are seats of service.
Some in the former ruling party used their seats to grant favors and enjoy immunity. We want to take away this immunity from members of parliament, as pertains to affairs outside parliament. We will work as any other citizen.
JC: Has not one of the Salafi sheikhs declared democracy to be unbelief?
HAF: This is Eng. Abdel Munim al-Shahat. What does he mean by unbelief? It is what we have been talking about. But the media exaggerates this issue, calling him the official spokesman of the party. He is not; there are two: Dr. Nader Bakar and Dr. Yusri Hammad. He is simply a candidate.
But what did he mean by democracy and unbelief? Is democracy the rule of the people by the people? No, for us ruling is only for God.
JC: Let us suppose you and the Muslim Brotherhood make an alliance in parliament. You will be able to create the laws you wish. After the term is over, following six years, you will allow for the people to choose once again, even for other parties?
HAF: Yes. Let us speak of the president. We want to put conditions on the position so we don’t have a return of dictatorship. We must make sure the parliament does not become subservient to the president. The parliament must hold the president accountable, not the other way around.
JC: So in parliament, who decides if a law is consistent with or contrary to the sharia?
HAF: The sharia functions as does the constitution. So any law must move in accordance with the constitution, just as it must with sharia.
JC: So taking an example: Must a woman cover with the hijab, the niqab, or is she free to wear what she wants?
HAF: Nothing religious will be imposed on anyone. We will advise only, and the one who refuses is free.
JC: Are there differences among Muslims as to what sharia is exactly?
HAF: No, not as concerns the roots of sharia, all are in agreement.
JC: What about new interpretations, consistent with the modern era?
HAF: This has to do with the details, not with the roots.
JC: Or, what if a Muslim interprets concerning bank interest. Might one say that the regulations of sharia were good for their era, but argue that today such policy is allowed?
HAF: We will work with the banks gradually. Most banks in Egypt work with interest. We will let them be, but we will also create sharia-compliant banks.
JC: Fine, but this is not my question exactly. Let the people choose their policy. But what if a Muslim wants to argue in terms of sharia that interest is allowable? Sheikh al-Azhar did this in terms of Mubarak’s policies. Maybe he was wrong, but can he not argue this way and differ in terms of sharia? And if so, who rules?
HAF: In terms of Sheikh al-Azhar, we must return to a situation where he is chosen by his peers and not appointed by the president, so that he does not become subservient to politics.
JC: You are justifying your position here, but you are just a person.
HAF: No, this is the position of everyone. It is textual in sharia, interest may not be taken from a loan. Many speak about interest being too high, and how we must lower it. But why should you lower it when it shouldn’t be there originally? Isn’t God the one who knows what is best for humanity?
We reject a religious state. Why? A religious state is one where the ruler states that what he decides is from God. No. We want a civil state which is ruled by sharia. If the ruler makes an error we declare his error, and if he is correct, we say thank you and accept it.
The religious state, as the media makes out that we believe in, is the equivalent of Europe in the Middle Ages where the church ruled by God’s law and there was no room for discussion. The church ruled as if it was in the place of God.
We say we are not in the place of God on earth. No, we present the law of God, and we implement the law of God, but not with haughtiness or pride.
JC: So if the parliament passes a law that violates sharia…
HAF: We will say no.
JC: But who’s word prevails? Who decides?
HAF: If the majority is now Islamic, should not the will of the majority prevail?
You are a Christian, and you will raise your children to be Christian. I, likewise, am a Muslim and do the same. But if we take someone like the liberal Amr Hamzawi, who says I will let my children choose their faith… Do the traditions of Egypt allow someone to do this?
There must be preservation of the identity of Egypt. You are an American and you have your customs, but is it acceptable to implement your customs on the people of Egypt?
If we look at the spread of AIDS in the world, is it greater among liberal countries, or among those who preserve their cultural heritage and respect religion?
JC: Laws can protect religion, but at the same time, cultures and peoples change. Perhaps you will make a constitution that establishes a civil state ruled by sharia. It is the role of the courts to judge laws according to the constitution. If the parliament makes a law that some believe violate the sharia, will the judge rule against it?
HAF: If any project in Egypt violates the sharia, I will oppose it, and I expect the whole party will as well.
JC: But if your legislative power isn’t enough to oppose?
HAF: We will do our best. But if a matter transgresses the will of the majority, we not accept it. But we respect freedom in everything except that which is against the established principles of religion. And we respect all minorities.
JC: This issue leads to the last, and most important, question: Why should a Copt vote for the Nour Party?
HAF: Today in a conference someone asked me if we would be like previous parliament members, or if we would work for the interest of Muslims.
I told him I consider myself a candidate for Christians, before I represent Muslims, even if they don’t give me their vote. If I am selected for a seat, I represent the district, not just those who vote for me. This is democracy, and it is also sharia. I will treat the Christian like the Muslim, and in fact be sure to be responsible for them.
While campaigning someone approached me and said, ‘I am a Christian, but by God I will vote for you. You are a respectable and just man.’ I didn’t know who he was, but he had been involved in a reconciliation meeting in which I honored his rights.
I have spoken with Copts in all sincerity. I can be found in the mosque, but I can also be found in the church. I am confident I will capture their votes greater than any other candidate, even if he is a Christian.
Why? I am not interacting with them as if I seek their votes. Actually, elections are a very recent thing. I have behaved this way with Copts for a long time now. I do not speak of ‘national unity’, I speak about the ‘national fabric’. National unity implies there is a difference between us but we come together to solve it and reconcile. No, I say that Egyptian society – Muslim and Christian – is one fabric. The blood of one is the blood that drips from the other.
Ever since the revolution Egypt has suffered / benefited from waves of popular protest. The expressions in Tahrir Square were largely political, yet included a significant expression of social and economic discontent. The original chant which rang through the streets demanded, ‘Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice.’
Most focus since the revolution has been on political matters, and these have yet only partially been achieved. The achievement is significant, as Egypt now has a parliament freely elected by its people. Yet the primary lesson learned by the population is that if you have a grievance, fill the streets.
‘One Hand’ on the Railroad
A few weeks ago I was assisting American documentary filmmakers obtain an interview with a Coptic priest and a Salafi sheikh, the latter of which was running for parliament with the former’s support. The couple is producing a film entitled ‘One Hand’, which focuses on youthful and unique expressions of national unity. They had other business in Asyut, and I was to meet them with the priest in Maghagha.
My train arrived as usual from Cairo, but coming from Asyut was another story. With the priest I waited at the station, and waited, and waited. Finally we learned that nearby villagers decided to escalate their protest against the local government for failing to deliver the normal supply of gas bottles needed for cooking. The shortage prompted a huge increase in price on the black market, so they decided to block the railroad tracks.
At this news we knew it could be hours, though probably not days, until the track was opened again. The priest and I drove an hour south to collect them on the side of the tracks. For whatever reason, the task was complicated by the fact there was very poor cell phone coverage, but we managed to speak with their neighbor who assisted them in their disembarkation. The filmmakers spoke very little Arabic.
Eventually they made it over to us, surrounded by a group of young men who were offering to ‘help’. They may or may not have been, but once we got them in the car one of them asked where we were from. Oddly, I felt a bit unnerved out of concern for the (young) couple, answered ‘America’ with a smile, and received a reply suggesting his ‘help’ may have been variable. ‘F*** America,’ he said, ‘We hate America.’
‘I know,’ I replied smiling still. We got in the car quickly and drove away, with both exhaustion and a sigh of relief. The long delay made little impact on their work, as the sheikh was not free until near midnight to begin a very friendly and welcoming interview.
Lock the Lock
The next two examples come from a Nile cruise on the occasion of Julie’s parents visit to Egypt. We boarded the sleeper car from Cairo and unloaded in Luxor, very pleased there was no railway protest to extend the journey.
Yet after the first few local sightseeing locations we noticed something strange. We got on a bus and drove over an hour away to board our cruise and spend the night. The next day we repeated the same ritual, only delayed an additional two hours. There are many ancient Pharaonic sites to see in Luxor, and both the delay and the absurd driving distance played havoc with our scheduled itinerary.
The normal agenda is to get off the train, see the sites, and then board the boat right there in Luxor, stopping at all the tombs and temples along the way.
Unfortunately, we learned the workers at the canal lock in Isna were on protest, refusing to let any boats past. They began their sit-in on the 25th of January, to commemorate the revolution.
This left the boats in Luxor stranded, but fortunately our boat was trapped on the other side. This explains the hour plus bus ride after we finished sightseeing. We had to drive south to Isna in order to spend the night in our cabin, and then return the next day for Luxor sites, day two.
Only the next morning we encountered another post-revolutionary difficulty. The nation as a whole, but Upper Egypt especially, has suffered periodic gasoline shortages. The bus, we learned, was desperately searching for an open tap.
After several hours delay, a different bus met us at the dock and filled up from the boat’s supply of gasoline. I’m not sure there weren’t other shenanigans we weren’t being told, but we did see long lines of vehicles at the gas stations we passed on our way back to Luxor. I’m also not sure who’s bottom line must accommodate the extra costs of bus and gasoline – travel agent, cruise, tour guide – but the blow to tourism is substantial.
Other tours which knew of the lock strike at Isna cancelled their trips altogether.
A Free Pass at Edfu
Later on in our tour we had a pleasant outcome from local instability. Our boat docked in Edfu, but the captain told everyone the tourism workers at the temple were all on strike. The rumor circulated but before it had time to settle in the guide rounded everyone up and we went ashore. From there, we rode horse drawn carriages to the site of the temple.
What we didn’t realize until later is that our carriages stopped at the back side of the temple. We passed along an open area along the wall of the massive complex, circled to the temple gate, and moved through en masse.
At the entrance of nearly every tourist location there is a small area to mill about where the grandeur is open to all onlookers. Then there is a welcome center where a ticket is purchased and then a souvenir section where tourists – foreigners especially – are all but assaulted by desperate sellers.
We skipped all this. By coming in the back we avoided whatever protest prevented entry from the front. At the temple gate some semblance of guard took money from every tour guide, but then allowed the group in without tickets, no questions asked. Ticket prices for Egyptians range from 1-5 LE ($0.18-0.80 US), but foreigners must fork over between 35-80 LE ($6-13 US) depending on location. It is still minimal, but it was a nice surprise – pleasant also, as we avoided the souvenir gauntlet.
The Big Picture
It is difficult to know what to make of these protests. On the one hand, they are at the least annoying and disruptive, and perhaps even damaging to the local economy. Several people, especially in Cairo, criticize such strikes. They say people should be patient: ‘We waited thirty years to get rid of Mubarak, we should not expect things to get better immediately. In fact, such continuing ‘special interest’ protests are only making things worse.’
Fair enough, but how can this point be enforced when there is a window of opportunity now? Forty percent of Egyptians live on under two dollars a day, wages are low even in the middle class, and few people have benefits of any kind. The revolution has changed political leadership, but not so much at the regional level. Protests have proved effective for many in getting what they want – which could be as basic as a living wage. Who knows but if they wait longer the system will reset itself and local leaders will pay as little concern to their needs as before?
In many ways, the problem is one of trust. President Mubarak allowed the failure of the social contract which ensures domestic stability. Open political participation was minimal, but so was food on the table. As Egyptian institutions eroded from the inside, it will take a long time to rebuild following the revolutionary collapse. Unless such a contract is widely renegotiated, small and localized strikes will – and perhaps reasonably – continue.
Who pays the bill? Is it reasonable for the average working Egyptian to wait until the Muslim Brotherhood, elite liberals, and the armed forces get around to a new economic policy? If so few cared for their needs then, should they trust anyone will care now?
Perhaps they will. The only one of the three to demonstrate practical concern for the poor were the Islamists, who have now been widely elected to parliament. It is fair to ask if Islamist concern is opportunistic or transformative, but many have worked sincerely. Will they follow through? Will they be allowed to? Will the people wait? If so, for how long?
Revolutions are not easy, and the pain can linger even after resolution. Egyptians are among the most patient people on earth; they are now being put further to the test.
On the sleeper train ride home I woke at about 2am from a lack of movement. It is difficult to catch shut-eye while the car lurches back and forth, but I was able. After about 45 minutes of standstill, however, I inquired. A baggage handler told me there was a train driver strike over assignments on the newer cars, which also came with a higher compensation.
Our car was newer, and despite my complaints above was much smoother than the older model we semi-suffered on the way south.
The handler assured me things would be settled soon, so I used the calm to get back to sleep. It worked, as I was unaware of another long delay that woke my wife around 4am.
In the morning I asked the porter about the delays. He replied there was just a normal backup of several trains at a particular station. Asking more specifically about a strike, he denied anything of the sort. I think I ran directly into the noble Egyptian quality of saving face.
In the end our scheduled twelve hour trip took sixteen. I don’t know if the drivers got what they wanted, or how it came about we did not spend an additional evening or two in the sleeper car. I just hope Egyptians remain patient as their lives accommodate such disturbances at an increasing frequency.
I suppose if everyone is doing it, it is easier to forgive.
Today the media carried the news that a Luxor-Cairo train the day after our travels was attacked by thugs who tried to steal luggage from car number five. The passengers successfully beat them off.
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.
note: About a week before the revolution, our family took a trip to Maghagha in Upper Egypt. Whereas normally we would have liked to post about our experiences shortly after returning, events took a turn that did not allow much time for reflection. Two months later, Julie is finally able to share our experiences, with quite a few pictures as well.
I am learning more and more that I am not a very flexible person. I like my schedule, knowing where I will be and what I will be doing, keeping my kids on a normal sleep schedule and having an idea of what is around the next bend. Sometimes, though, we all know that life isn’t dependable. This may be compounded by living in another culture, and is especially the case when we take trips out of Cairo.
A year ago, during Coptic Christmas, we traveled for the first time to Upper Egypt, to the town of Maghagha, to stay with a priest’s family for four days. This priest is a friend of Jayson’s work, and he graciously offered to host us for an “out-of-Cairo” experience. We learned a lot while there and really enjoyed getting to know his family, and as is always the case with such hospitable Egyptians, the invitation to return was put forth multiple times.
We finally had the chance to return last week for the Orthodox celebration of Jesus’ baptism, or eid il-ghataas. Since we visited many of the Holy Family sites last year (parts one, two, and three), I imagined that this visit would be more casual and relaxed. I thought that while Jayson might go out and about with the priest, the girls and I would hang out at the house, talking with the women and learning more about their lives in this Upper Egyptian city. However, I was in for three surprises.
The first one came as soon as we arrived. The train ride was fairly uneventful, but our seven-month old Layla, was definitely ready for a nap by the time we pulled into the station. I was keeping her awake imagining we would be at their home soon so I could set up her crib, and she could get a normal nap while we got reacquainted with the family. Instead, as we were loading the car, Jayson informed me we would be going directly to the village, about 20 minutes away, where the priest’s church is. I deduced this meant we would spend the whole day there, including the four-hour service at night which ends at midnight. I was not a happy camper on the ride to the village!
I was right about spending the entire day and half the night at the church, and there were some periods of stress while there, but all in all, it was not so bad. Layla napped in the car and later on the floor of a reception room we had to ourselves for the day. We tried to get Emma and Hannah to nap while watching a movie, but the electricity went off and the movie stopped working. However, they were fairly content to wander around the church grounds, mingling some with the people there, coloring, exploring the church and checking in on Daddy as he talked to various people.
We had an opportunity to visit the mayor of the village’s sister’s house which was a very interesting building to see, and even observed something new at the mass that evening. There was an added element of water to commemorate Jesus’ baptism. The priest went around with a towel soaked in the water and touched each congregant’s head with it. The bottles were taken home by people to use and mix in their normal consumption.
Layla slept almost the whole service, and Hannah slept about half the time. Despite being about the opposite of what I had expected that day, it didn’t turn out so bad.
The night was a little challenging as we returned to the priest’s house around 11:00pm and after greeting the family members, I got the room and crib ready for sleeping as quickly as I could. Layla transferred to her crib well, but really struggled with sleep for several hours, and ended up sleeping in our bed to give me some shut-eye, and not wake up the rest of the house. Emma and Hannah joined us for the midnight meal before they went to bed and actually slept well.
It was great seeing this family again, and meeting the newest member, one-month old grandson, Jason. The mom informed us they named the boy after my husband.
After a leisurely morning, we drove to another priest’s house to spend some time with his family of four. We had a meal with them during our visit last year, and planned to do the same this time. Just before our host priest dropped us off, however, he mentioned he would be going to the local hospital for some tests on his heart. He then planned to pick us up and take the girls and I back to hang out at his home while he and Jayson saw some more sites. I was very happy with this arrangement as I was hoping to give Layla a normal day so that we could all have a normal night. I figured we would be at visiting the second priest’s family for about 4 hours, leaving us plenty of time to get all three girls in bed much closer to their 7pm bedtime.
However, such perfectly laid plans were not to be. We had a good time with the family as we visited with his wife, two children, and some extended relatives. They were typically hospitable serving us tea upon our arrival and again about an hour later, followed by a delicious meal that was more than we could eat, after which we had bananas, oranges and more tea. Meanwhile, the kids were having a great time together once our girls warmed up.
It was fun watching Emma speak with the kids in Arabic and really be able to communicate together with them. I was glad they were enjoying themselves, and it freed me to be with Layla and also visit with the family members.
After about five hours, I started getting a little uptight. I wondered what happened to the priest and why he wasn’t calling to come pick us up. I’m sad to say that he wasn’t my main concern, but the clock was ticking and I really wanted to get Layla in her bed early. Around 6:30 or so, he called and informed us that he would travel to Cairo the next day for a heart procedure so we should stay with the other priest for the night. Once again, my main concern was for my own little family as I realized that this restless baby would not be in her bed anytime soon! I thought also of the priest, and was concerned for his health, but my face gave away my frustration at this surprise number two. By the time we would get our things from the other house and move them here, it would be well past the normal bedtime. Unfortunately, our new hosts read my face and asked if I was unhappy to stay with them. I tried to explain that I was very happy to stay with them, but I just needed to get my kids in bed. It sounded hollow, and I felt bad to have offended them. For one, most Egyptians think our child-rearing methods are very strange, particularly in the way we feed the kids, and the way they sleep so early. So they couldn’t understand my concern about the hour, after all, it was only 7pm – not late at all! Secondly, earlier they had mentioned how they wanted us to stay with them on our next visit, and so they were very excited about hosting us, even though it was a surprise to them too. To see my visible disappointment was probably quite hurtful.
And once again, this surprise turned out to be better than expected. Layla did not get into her own bed by 7pm, but at this apartment, the bedrooms were set in the back of the house, away from the living room. The other apartment was difficult for sleeping because the living room, with all of its noise and light, was just a doorway away from my children who were supposed to be sleeping. Also, while we really enjoyed our original host’s family, he didn’t have any young kids. This house came complete with a nine-year old girl and five-year-old boy, and my two girls played happily with them for the next 24 hours. We all slept better that night, and got some decent rest for the third surprise the next day.
The plan the next day was to visit the younger priest’s father in a nearby village. This sounded like a nice idea, and through conversation I discovered that even though he is in his 80s, he still farms his fields every day. Jayson told me we would visit him on the farm, and for some reason, I pictured a nice farmhouse to sit in while the girls ran through the fields. What a nice treat after living in the city.
When we arrived at the priest’s father’s plot of land, I realized I was right in half of my thinking. We were surrounded by green fields in every direction—a site for sore eyes coming from the smog of Cairo.
But the surprise was that there was no farmhouse to speak of. Instead there was a small stone structure built on his land, but the house where he slept at night was a distance away. So, we had a very casual visit, sitting on bamboo sticks, a log, a white folding chair and a large cloth bag.
Fortunately I had brought Layla’s car seat so she could be contained in a clean place. But feeding her and trying to encourage the girls not to step in any animal droppings, and then wondering just how long we would be visiting here as Layla’s naptime came and she started to cry heightened my frustrations.
And yet once again, there is a bright side to all of this. Our girls did enjoy walking through the fields with their friends. Emma saw a water wheel that irrigates the land.
All four kids rode on a donkey.
Jayson got to learn more about a village farmer’s life from the 80 year old man. And for some reason, Layla fell asleep on my shoulder—something that rarely ever happens. We got to breathe some fresh air and bask in the green of the land. And in typical Egyptian fashion, we were even served tea, cooked over a fire, as well as bread with cheese.
You just can’t beat Egyptian hospitality.
In some ways, it was a trying and tiring trip, mainly as I was concerned with the behavior and schedules of our three little ones. But overall, the girls did well being flexible with eating and sleeping, and got to have some new experiences. As for me, looking back has helped me see the good things that come with surprises, and will help me remember in the future to be a little more flexible, and expect great things.
Easter in Egypt is a negotiated reality; this is true for both the nation’s Christians and myself.
All last week at work I wondered about the holiday schedule. Ours is a multi-religious and liberal office; if someone wishes a religious holiday, they can pretty much have it. The Copts who work with us would take the day off and go to be with family, some traveling six hours away by train to Upper Egypt. What about the foreigners, though? Or the Muslims, would they be expected to work? Unlike Christmas, Easter is not a national holiday in Egypt. Islam celebrates the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary, but denies the resurrection indirectly, for it denies first the crucifixion, believing Jesus ascended into heaven before his arrest. Though the government is not Islamic, in this matter it toes the line with the Muslim majority by not confessing the holiday.
Toeing the line is partial, however, as I discovered at work. National law allows Christians to take the day off from work en masse, but reckons it as a claimed vacation day. Given the reality of a national holiday the day after Easter – Shem al-Naseem, or literally, ‘Smelling the Breeze’ – this policy allows Christians to celebrate their holiday, but allows all citizens to create for themselves a four day weekend. Shem al-Naseem is a cultural vernal festival dating back to Pharaonic times; Muslims and Christians celebrate it equally, though I have not yet researched why it is tied to the Easter holiday. Some Copts see this as an implicit national recognition of Easter, though it is missing from the official calendar.
An event at our office disclosed to me another shade of Easter in Egypt. We have been trying to arrange an interview with a prominent Muslim scholar from al-Azhar University, and my supervisor told me we would meet Tuesday after Easter. I was quite happy with the news, but she continued adding that he originally asked for Saturday evening, but we proposed Tuesday instead. This news meant little to me, though I was somewhat glad not to have a work appointment on the weekend. I shrugged my shoulders however, saying, “OK, whatever the sheikh wants would have been fine.” I figured we should bow to his schedule, but at this my supervisor, a Coptic Christian, was aghast. “What,” she exclaimed, “don’t you celebrate Easter?” It took me a few seconds of puzzlement, but then I remembered that church celebrations always occur on the eve of a holiday, not the day of. The day of is a feast; a day to indulge after weeks of fasting. Children gather at the church to play and the priests open their offices to receive the well wishes of visitors, but there is no mass.
In the West we celebrate Christmas Eve, but there is no such thing as Easter Eve. Yet if you remember the events of Nag Hamadi, the murderer targeted the church around midnight the day before Christmas. As there is no correlation between Coptic Christmas and the Western calendar of December 25, this fact can easily be lost on the non-Orthodox reader. This year it so happens that Coptic and Western Easter fall on the same date. Yet even I, living here now for eight months and more tuned in than most foreigners to Orthodox affairs, was caught off guard by an Easter Eve service.
Unfortunately, once I had learned of it I was not that excited. We experienced the Christmas Eve service in Maghagha, which was wonderful as we enjoyed it with the family of a local priest in his small village. Yet we arrived by train halfway through the service, so we did not have to endure a four hour mass ending at midnight with two squirming, sleep deprived children. Managing them for an hour and a half was enough, but once it was over we went to the priest’s home and enjoyed a sumptuous feast of meat, meat, and more meat. You can read about this experience here.
Easter Eve in Maadi had none of these advantages. Though we have been attending the local Orthodox Church since shortly after arrival, we have yet to make good friends there. In saying this I do not blame them; there are many legitimate reasons for this, which I describe here. Yet even so, the celebration for us would be the four hour mass, with two children, and no meat. We decided to pass.
I continued to waver. I was fully agreed that our girls should sleep and Julie would be home with them, but what about myself? I could go alone. In the days leading up to it I went back and forth on this decision several times. As a family we went to the international church Good Friday service, and we were content to let that be our Easter church attendance. We figured we would join the children’s escapades on Easter morning at the Orthodox Church, and in the afternoon a Coptic friend from the Bible Institute had invited us to join them for lunch Easter afternoon. So all in all we set aside time for the holiday, both by ourselves, with foreigners, and with Egyptians. I could appreciate a quiet evening home on Saturday, so why bother with another mass?
On the other hand I kept being jabbed by a conscious that reminds me we are trying to belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Who could confess this desire and yet ignore Easter, the holiest of holidays? There is a virtue in discipline, but I will not claim it here, for my assessment of personal motivation is far too cloudy, with a likelihood of showers. Is worshipping God and being thankful for the Resurrection anywhere near my decision making process? Hardly. Part of the reluctance of going alone is that there will be no ‘credit’. Usually, my daughter Hannah sits on my lap during the service, so I get ‘credit’ for being a good and spiritual father. Furthermore, the service will be packed and any individual will be lost among the crowd. Somewhere in my mind is the idea that if I am faithful in attendance over time I will be noticed and get ‘credit’ in this quest for acceptance and belonging. There would be none of that on Saturday. Worse, I was fully conscious that I could get at least get ‘credit’ in this blog, which would be impossible if I didn’t go. I will not bother to untangle these threads of condemnation, but in the end, go I did.
As I approached the church I was glad I did. I arrived at 8:45, less than an hour after it had begun. On most occasions the church would be about quarter full at this juncture in the mass, but tonight I noticed they had set up two outside areas with live feeds supplying the action on big screen TVs. These already had numerous people sitting comfortably in the cool evening breeze, but I pressed inside anyway and found a seat on the stairs leading upwards in the balcony. If nothing else, this was to be an experience.
As I took my place I noticed my supervisor with a friend of hers in the opposite corner. Ah, credit! The evening was starting out great. About half an hour later it got even better. During this time most of the mass, unfortunately for me, was held in Coptic. Coptic is a dead language except in liturgy, but it has been aggressively promoted in recent decades by church leadership seeking to strengthen Christian identity by, among many other methods, resurrection of the ancient Egyptian vernacular tongue. Many in the audience were chanting along, having memorized the hymns, reciting along with words they would otherwise have no idea of the meaning.
Suddenly, they switched into Arabic, chanting, as slowly as possible as the lights dimmed and the curtain was drawn across the opening in the iconostasis, “al-Masih qaam, bil-haqiqati qaam,” translating the phrase any Easter-going Christian would recognize, “Christ is risen; he is risen indeed.” Except that in accounting for the solemn, deliberate rendering it would more be like this: Chri-i-i-i-i-i-ist is rise-e-e-en; he-e-e-e-e-e-e is ri-i-i-i-s-e-e-e-e-en i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-inde-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e, e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ed. It was eerie, but effective.
Meanwhile, in the Orthodox Church the iconostasis serves to separate the altar from the congregation, holding icons of Jesus, Mary, and the twelve disciples on a lattice which allows preparation of the Eucharistic host to be viewed by all. The main view, however, is through a wide opening in the center, which as mentioned was closed by a curtain as the lights dimmed. Symbolizing the curtain in the ancient Jewish temple which divided the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest could enter once a year, the mass continued for several minutes in near darkness. Then, with the loud clash of cymbals the lights flashed on and the priest reopened the curtain, setting off a spell of ululation from the women congregants. The curtain was torn in two; Christ had risen from the grave. The mass continued, appropriately, with the reading of the Gospel account of the empty tomb.
I wish I could say the euphoria continued, at least in me. Sadly, though ultimate responsibility rests only in my own human heart, I can find blame in all others around. Allow me to explain.
As I described, I was getting caught up in the presentation. Before the darkness the Bible readings were of such inspiring passages as the resurrection body of I Corinthians, the first Pentecost sermon in Acts, and the Petrine celebration of Christ’s once-for-all death and descent into Hell to preach there the Gospel. When the lights dimmed I was caught completely by surprise, but found myself one with the worshippers even shedding a tear in the darkness. Why, then, did I find the flood of light just a little bit cheesy? Why did the ululation ring hollow, and end sooner than it seemingly should have? For me this was a first time experience, but for everyone else it was observed for however many years that person had been alive. In the darkness, there is no choice but to be silent; with the light comes rejoicing, but who can fake an excitement when it is completely expected? Worse, once the lights came back on several in the congregation began to exit.
I could only guess that most of these were women who needed to get back home to prepare the after mass feast. Surely they were to be excused, but their number increased as the mass continued on. Another large contingent left after the sermon, and the congregation dwindled to about the size of a normal, non-holiday mass. I looked at the time and noticed there was still another two hours to go, and the original ideas of wishing a quiet evening at home as opposed to yet-another-mass returned. If everyone else was leaving, why shouldn’t I? If only from stubbornness to see it through to the end, I stayed.
As I anticipated, it became just an ordinary mass, only on speed, which made things worse. Because of the additional events of the holiday the rest of the liturgy was accelerated to make sure everything ended by midnight. This included my favorite sing-along hymns, which stood in stark contrast to the earlier ‘He is risen’ solemnities. Not only was I conscious of everyone leaving, wondering why I was there, I was also growing tired and sleepy. Still I soldiered on – not the best attitude for worship, but still.
At the end communion was distributed, which surprised me, since there was no communion at the Christmas Eve service. For Lent the Orthodox will fast all day Friday, and then again for eight hours on Easter Eve leading up to the midnight Eucharist. After all had partaken the priest turned to address the congregation, rebuking them for failing to maintain an attitude of reverence in the church, beginning early their Easter revelry. With this, announcements were given, holy water was sprinkled on all, the Lord’s Prayer recited, and everyone exited.
I had told Julie that if offered I would accept an invitation to join someone for the Easter midnight feast. I did not really expect one to be given, but neither did I go out of my way to be friendly. Perhaps this is either a virtue or vice – I was not engaging but at least I held back from worming my way into someone’s hospitality. Instead I went forward to greet the priests, again straddling the line between sincerity and duplicity. On Easter one is to call all friends and wish them a happy holiday, and doing so in person now with the priests I whom I know additionally from the Bible Institute is an even better gesture. Of course, it also grants me the ‘credit’ I earlier was not expecting, grand manipulator that I am. Pausing to see if the third priest I know was also available (he was not), I made way to leave.
Exiting the church I maneuvered between a wonderful scene of Copts dressed to the nines, mingling with friends and exchanging Easter greetings in the cool air of 12:15am. I also exited to witness two other scenes which return to the theme of Easter negotiation in Egypt. Stretched grandly across the street between the trees of the traffic circle was hung a cloth banner impossible to ignore. In bold lettering it wished the brother Christian Copts of Egypt a ‘Glorious Resurrection Holiday’, to translate literally, presented by Muhammad Murshidi and Hussain Magawir, members of the national parliament. Remembering the earlier statement of Islam about Easter, these two Muslim names can either be praised for their commitment to tolerance and national unity or else admonished for shameless pandering for votes. In my opinion, I think the first is more likely, and this was my initial reaction, nearly causing another tear to trickle.
The second scene dried it up, though further reflection might stimulate the tear duct further. As I was walking away back home I saw on the other side of the banner six policemen keeping watch in the center of the traffic circle. I stopped to count; altogether around the church I found sixteen policemen on patrol. For context, churches in Egypt are always under guard, but only two or three are usually to be found, at least in Maadi. It was a clear and immediate reminder of Nag Hamadi, and the efforts of the government to prevent any similar tragedy from marring a second Christian holiday. Praise God, all was fine, as things are 99% of the time in Egypt. It is the 1%, however, which reminds the Egyptian Christian, and this foreign observer, that Easter is a holiday necessary to negotiate with a Muslim majority nation.
Another report I had earlier prepared, published in www.arabwestreport.info and on our peacemaking project webpage at www.enawu.com, is now posted here. This is a fascinating tale about how Christians can build churches in Egypt. This is a controversial subject, and human rights lawyers from both Islam and Christianity highlight the lack of one law to guide both mosque and church construction. Even so, the story told here of Fr. Yu’annis, who earlier was featured for his comments on Nag Hamadi, shows the power of personal relationships in getting a job done in Egypt. For those of you who have heard that in Egypt a presidential decree is necessary even to change a light bulb in a church, you are encouraged to read on…
On January 6 six Coptic Christians were murdered as they exited Christmas Eve mass in the town of Nag Hamadi, Qena. This event followed recent attacks on Christians in the towns of Farshut, Dayrut, Izbet Bushra, and elsewhere. While events like these are usually tied to other issues in the communities in which they occur, and not simply devices of persecution aimed at the Christian population, many Copts have interpreted these events as evidence of the weakness of the government in providing protection, if not willful negligence of their rights. They then succumb to the idea that the nation is Islamic and against them, and this attitude colors their every perception, including the advantages which Copts enjoy today.
Another area which mobilizes Coptic frustration against the state is in its policy of church building. Since early Islamic times the so-called Pact of Omar, the third caliph of the Islamic state, allowed Christians many freedoms of worship in their own community, but forbade the construction of new churches or the renovation of old ones, without the specific authorization of the head of state. While this policy has been unevenly applied throughout history, it is true that Christians have suffered because of it. Often cited in more recent history is the Hamayonic Script, which was employed in the Ottoman Empire to regulate ecclesiastic matters. Although popular consciousness, both Muslim and Christian, still operate under the assumption of this ruling, according to Dr. Nabil Luka Bebawy, a Coptic member of the Shura Council, it has no standing whatsoever in Egyptian law.
Nevertheless, it is apparent that the difficulty experienced in building churches differs from the relative ease in which mosques are constructed. Christians complain that even when permission to build a church is granted, the local security authorities will often prevent them. While this can be in fear of offending local Muslim sentiments and bringing on sectarian strife, Christians sometimes accuse security itself of Islamic bias in preventing construction. Human rights advocates, both Muslim and Christian, have called on the government to pass the Unified Law for Building Houses of Worship, which would streamline the process and place each community on equal footing. Though this issue has stalled in Parliament, the approval for building churches was shifted from the national authority to the regional, and each governor is now responsible for issuing or denying the request to build.
The following story is about Fr. Yu’annis of Qufada, a village in the bishopric of Maghagha and the governorate of Assiut. It will illustrate the frustrations of the Christian community, but also provide an example of how they can be transcended. While the difficulties faced in building churches are true and real in many parts of the country, the conduct of Christians can make a difference in alleviating them. At the very least, it will demonstrate that discrimination against Christians is not systematic, and that building churches to meet community needs is possible.
In 1996, Fr. Yu’annis was a forty year old priest. Though he was still relatively young he had already acquired seventeen years of experience, serving in the historic Holy Family site and village of Shanin al-Nasara. This village was then in the bishopric of Beni Suef, under the authority of Bishop Athanasius. After the death of the bishop in 2001 the bishopric was divided into five smaller districts, and Fr. Yu’annis found himself situated in the newly created bishopric of Maghagha. The successes of Fr. Yu’annis, however, all date previous to the bishop’s death, which was to be an ominous date for another reason in the story to be told.
Bishop Athanasius was acclaimed as a wise and generous leader, looking beyond the interests of the Christian community. He was aware not only that Muslims suffered the same difficulties as Christians—unemployment, underdevelopment, unsanitary conditions—but also that the best way to ensure Christian success in the area was to knit the two religious communities together. In the neighboring governorate of Assiut there had been a rise in Islamic militancy, and had produced a counter-reaction of Christian withdrawal from society. In hopes of alleviating this social trend, Bishop Athanasius created a charitable non-governmental organization, Better Life, which though administrated by Christians actively and intentionally served both communities. As a result, Bishop Athanasius enjoyed great popularity and influence in the region.
During his tenure Bishop Athanasius consecrated many priests, many of which followed his example. Fr. Yu’annis was one of them, and spoke very highly of his bishop, whose lead he tried to follow. The recognition of the importance of good relations with the authorities, however, did not come right away, though ignorance or naiveté may have been a cause.
As mentioned earlier, Shanin al-Nasara is a Holy Family site, reputed to be the first landing place of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Upper Egypt after they departed from Maadi, Cairo. Here they rested seven days, and drank from a well whose location is still preserved today. Due to this fact the town receives thousands of pilgrims every year, and local leadership under the initiative of Fr. Yu’annis decided it would be fruitful to build a conference center adjacent to the ancient church. As construction began, however, security immediately arrived and stopped the building. Fr. Yu’annis was taken to the police station for questioning. He would later testify that he did not think he was doing anything wrong, as he was not building a church, but a center for services.
The police did not see it that way. According to Fr. Yu’annis he spent the night in the station, not behind bars but yet under guard. The next day the policeman interrogated him very harshly, insulting both him and his mother. Upon insisting he was not building a church the officer mocked him, “President Clinton insisted he did nothing with Monica, and we should believe that you are telling the truth?” Nevertheless, after several hours Fr. Yu’annis affixed his name to a document stating his intentions for the building, and was released.
Fr. Yu’annis left the station and traveled immediately to Cairo. In typical modern day Coptic fashion he was thinking, in all probability correctly, of demanding his rights. Knowing a Christian there who had a relationship with the Ministry of the Interior, Gen. Habib Adli, he asked for an audience. Though the minister was unavailable he did succeed in meeting his deputy, Gen. Rida al-Habbal, and told him what had happened. The general responded sympathetically to his story, and sent him back to Minia to meet Gen. Muhammad Sadek, an inspector for State Security. Incidentally, the two men’s wives were sisters to each other.
Gen. Sadek received Fr. Yu’annis warmly and asked him what was wrong. Upon recounting the incidents he began to cry, and the general placed his hand on the priest’s shoulder, telling him he would take care of everything. Security clearance to build the service center was granted, and the officer who maltreated him was docked pay, reassigned elsewhere, and reduced in rank. The greatest offer, however, came next.
Gen. Sadek asked Fr. Yu’annis if the church was experiencing any other difficulties with its houses of worship. “Most certainly,” he replied, and he began telling the officer about each one. Upon completion he was asked if he wished to be the official church representative before the security agency, so that there would be good contact between them and the church. Fr. Yu’annis smiled broadly, and took his leave to present this idea to Bishop Athanasius.
The bishop was of course pleased by this arrangement, and sent Fr. Yu’annis back to meet Gen. Sadek, presenting him with an ornate Qur’an, complete with gold tinged pages and raised lettering, as an expression of thanks. The general accepted this gift, and their relationship began. Bishop Athanasius had earlier explained to Fr. Yu’annis that there is an important distinction between a blessing and a bribe. A bribe is given when one asks for that which is outside his right; a blessing is given as encouragement and thanks for one who will help obtain that right. A Christian should have no part in the former, but the latter is quite normal and necessary in Egypt. As the years went by Fr. Yu’annis and Gen. Sadek would mutually exchange several gifts, including sheep and chocolate on the occasions of holiday. They maintain their friendship to this day.
Each time Fr. Yu’annis would approach Gen. Sadek with a church building issue he would present the facts, making certain to be accurate, never exceeding that which was necessary for Christian worship in a particular community. With this report the security would investigate the area in question, agree on the assessment of the church, and grant authority to build, renovate, or expand under certain conditions. As all—bishop, priest, and security—were conscious of the sensibilities of local Muslims and their possible disturbance by the building of a church, everything was done through consensus and avoidance of ostentation. The church tower, for example, was kept below the height of the village mosque minaret. Aware that the church was a tool for worship, not for projection of identity, neither the bishop nor the priest had any objections, which kept also the objections of local Muslims at bay. In the positive atmosphere previously created by the social development activities of Bishop Athanasius, Fr. Yu’annis helped facilitate the approval of building, renovating, or expanding twenty-four churches, which will be listed below.
These churches were built over a period of five years which ended in 2001. This year marked two unfortunate occurrences for the area. First, Bishop Athanasius died, and his bishopric was divided into smaller districts. The bishops newly consecrated for these areas by definition lack the experience and insight of their predecessor, and have not yet been able to earn the same level of respect. Second, Gen. Sadek was promoted outside of the area to a position in Cairo, and Fr. Yu’annis has not succeeded in cultivating as close a relationship with his successor. Perhaps personal mistakes have been made; perhaps the sectarian climate affects both Muslims and Christians. The result, however, is that since 2001 there have been only two authorizations granted for building activity in the area.
This story lends credence to both sides of the Coptic debate about the society they live in. On the one hand, it both begins and ends with the fact of difficulty in obtaining authorization. There is no Unified Law for Building Houses of Worship, and everything seems to depend on the whims of personal relationship. Yet on the other hand the reality of personal relationship suggests that Christians can find wide freedom to erect structures as necessary, provided they consider the contexts in which they live. Though this does not provide the clear cut rule of law which so many desire, it is fitting with Egyptian society at all levels; Egypt is not a country of rules but of relationships. Within these relationships Christians, like all Egyptians, can live and worship freely. Without them Christians, like all Egyptians, can be lost.
Churches in Maghagha
1) The Church of the Archangel
2) The Church of St. Dimyana
3) Lighthouse Church of the Holy Virgin
4) The Church of St. Mark – Seat of the Bishopric
Village Churches around Maghagha
5) The Church of St. Mark, Abbad Sharuna
6) The Church of the Archangel, Sharuna
7) The Church of St. George, Gazirat Sharuna
8) The Church of St. George, Belhasa
9) The Church of St. George, Sheikh Masud
10) The Church of St. George, Barmasha
11) The Church of the Holy Virgin, Beni Walims
12) The Church of St. Mark, Nazlet Asr
13) The Church of St. George, Sheikh Ziyad
14) The Church of the Archangel, Dahrut
15) Social Service Building, Shanin al-Nasara
16) The Church of the Holy Virgin and Bishop Samuel, Izbet Rizq
During our stay in Maghagha for Coptic Christmas, we got to see Christian reactions first hand as the news about the killings in Nag Hamadi began to spread. We discussed this somewhat in our reflections on Day One and Day Two of our Christmas celebration. There was shock, discouragement, and resignation. Sadly, many Copts believe that they lack the necessary concern of the authorities to prevent such atrocities, and even to respond by arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators.
I do not wish to comment about the validity of these perceptions, but they are widely held. One of the results is that many Copts suffer from a disengagement with society; having been let down so many times they are reluctant to participate anew, and put no trust in government to intervene positively. Though these reactions can be seen as natural and potentially legitimate, it can also be said that this will lead to only further rupture between Muslims and Christians, and between Christians and the state. Many Copts recognize this, and are fervently urging their fellow believers to re-engage.
In the wake of such despair it is difficult for many Copts to find a positive vision. We were fortunate, however, to be staying in the home of one such priest. I asked Fr. Yu’annis (John in the Coptic language) what he would do if he were a priest in Nag Hamadi. He answered in three parts, addressing the government, Muslim leaders, and the Christian community. A summary of the conversation which followed has resulted in a report, and is now presented here…
During the Coptic Christmas celebrations I had the opportunity to stay with my family in the home of Fr. Yu’annis in Maghagha. Fr. Yu’annis is a priest for the Coptic Orthodox Christian community in Qufada, but maintains his residence in Maghagha, the seat of the bishopric, about fifteen minutes away by car. We were able to witness with him the events of January 6, in which gunmen waited in ambush outside a church in Nag Hamadi, Qena, and shot dead six Christians as they exited Christmas mass. One Muslim police officer was also killed in the attack.
Fr. Yu’annis has been a longstanding friend of Arab West Report, which has noticed his exceptional manner in relating to government officials and Muslim neighbors. He has been instrumental in securing permission to build or expand over twenty churches in the bishoprics of Maghagha, Beni Mazar, and Mattai, during a time in which many Egyptian Christians complain of difficulties in this regard. Based on this background, I asked Fr. Yu’annis what he would do if he were a priest in Nag Hamadi. How should a Christian leader respond to such a violent act against the community?
Fr. Yu’annis answered in three parts. The first and immediate action would be to go to government officials, ask questions, and listen. These would include the governor, mayor, and leaders of the police force. He would ask them, simply, what they plan to do about this. He would not interfere, but he would continue to inquire. It would be hoped that through these interactions he might craft good relationships with these officials, but also signal to them that he is following the events and will not let the matter drop. Ultimately, authority and responsibility lie in the hands of the government, and it is best to remain in good communication with all its representatives.
The second action should be directed toward Muslim community leaders, including the mosque preachers but not limited to them. The point here is not to level accusations but to strengthen relationships. Even so, a rebuke could be in order, though it must be properly delivered.
Fr. Yu’annis remembered the Biblical story of David, after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed by sending him to the front lines of battle. God sent to him the prophet Nathan, who told him of a poor villager whose one sheep was taken from him to be slaughtered for the guest of his rich neighbor, even though this man had many sheep of his own. David was outraged and ordered that this man be taken and put to death. Nathan replied promptly, “You are the man!” David was caught in condemnation through his own words and made conscious of his sin, for which he then repented.
Though the parallel is not complete, this is the manner with which Fr. Yu’annis would approach Muslim leaders. Nathan came to David as a friend; so would Fr. Yu’annis approach the Muslims. Nathan refrained from displays of anger and outright accusation; Fr. Yu’annis would similarly recognize the futility of such an effort. Instead, like Nathan he would ask a question: If we had done this to you, killed your worshippers exiting a mosque, what would be your response toward us? In seeking to help these leaders understand the event from the perspective of the other, he would also seek to establish their own claim of responsibility for the climate in which this atrocity was committed. Accepting this responsibility, he hoped, might lead not only toward initiatives of rapprochement, but also toward personal and community repentance.
Finally, Fr. Yu’annis would direct his third action toward the Christian community. He would urge the people toward patience and forgiveness, but would also give a harder command. Though it would be easy to retreat in frustration at the tensions present between the two communities, the Christians of Nag Hamadi must resist this temptation. Instead, they must make certain to preserve the normal and natural relationships they have with individual Muslims of their community. Where these do not exist Christians should be active to craft them. The atrocity was committed by one to three individuals, who may or may not have been connected to other elements in the area. Regardless of a possible wider scope, they do not represent the majority Muslim sentiment, which would condemn this crime. If Christians retreat, however, they would give Muslims cause to doubt them, and where there is little relationship, there is little concern. Instead, by preserving and strengthening the relationships that do exist they send a powerful statement of community unity in the face of difficulty and potential sectarian strife.
Fr. Yu’annis was powerfully affected by the events at Nag Hamadi, and as we discussed them and listened to the incessant media reporting from which it was impossible to turn away, his eyes welled up with tears. Not only were these for families torn asunder, but also for a community which appears about to suffer the same fate. In such cases, it is far better for policy to be determined by sadness than by anger; may his thoughts also be conjured by the priests of Nag Hamadi.
Today we visited two “Holy Family Sites” near Maghagha. For those who know the Bible story, you may remember that due to the threat of Herod’s soldiers coming to kill the babies under age 2 in Bethlehem, Joseph took his small family down to Egypt before returning to Nazareth. From what I know and remember, the Bible doesn’t say much more than, “They went down to Egypt,” but here in Egypt, there is a whole route mapped out where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, i.e. The Holy Family, went. I am not sure where all the information comes from, but just about a month ago, I learned that Maadi, the town where we live in Egypt, was one of the Holy Family stops. There is now a church built on the spot, right along the banks of the Nile. In some ways, this reminds me of our visit to Jerusalem a few years ago where we walked along the Via Delarosa … the path Jesus took to the cross. There is a lot of history and archeology that could map a basic route he walked, but there are also places along the way that seem impossible to believe, like the place where Jesus stumbled and fell and his hand print is embedded in the wall. But, the Holy Family tour is one of the important Coptic things in Egypt, and since Maghagha is near two of these sites, we took the opportunity to visit.
Our gracious host, a priest in a village near Maghagha, was unable to go with us this morning, but he did provide a driver, and another priest, to accompany us. Not only that, but we rode in the Bishop’s private van … complete with air conditioning and curtains on the windows. We felt a little like secret service or something since no one could see in. It was very clean and comfortable … at least before we started the trip.
Traveling to the first site, Dair al-Garnous, took about 40 minutes. I had been prepared for Emma to get car sick because she sometimes does, and I warned her that if she started to feel sick, she should close her eyes and lay her head back. After about 30 minutes, she said she wasn’t feeling good, so she actually laid down in the empty back seat. Hannah laid on my lap most of the time, not sleeping exactly, but resting. I should have taken that as a clue that she wasn’t feeling well, but I didn’t think of it. With about ten minutes left in the trip, although we didn’t really know how much longer it would be, Hannah wanted to join Emma in the back. I didn’t mention yet that the road we traveled on was sometimes just dirt, very bumpy, and required lots of stopping to let the donkey carts, people, or other animals pass by, so it wasn’t a very smooth ride. I took Hannah back myself because I didn’t want her to fall over. A couple minutes after getting to the back, Hannah lost her breakfast all over herself and me. I quickly called for Jayson’s assistance and he got me the bag I had prepared for Emma. It didn’t do too much good since Hannah didn’t give us the warning that Emma usually does, and my clothes and hers were pretty much a mess. I sent Emma toward the front because I didn’t want her to get sick from the smell, and I would have liked to get out of there at that point too since my stomach wasn’t doing too well either from all the bumping around. Jayson offered me his undershirt to wear under my sweater; fortunately I had taken off my sweater since it was warm in the van, so I could wear his undershirt under my still-clean sweater. I had a change of clothes for Hannah since she is still being potty trained, so I took off her dirty clothes and let Jayson hold her in her dressed-down state while I changed and cleaned up. All in all, we didn’t get too much in the van itself.
When we were about one minute away, Hannah and I were changed and Jayson was holding Emma when she said “bag.” We quickly grabbed the bag Hannah had used and caught Emma’s breakfast. Poor kids! She managed to stay quite clean thanks to her forewarning, and Jayson did too. Good thing as we didn’t have any more clothes to spare! And with that, we arrived at the site, all four of us feeling a bit queasy, and glad to get out, walk around a bit in the fresh air.
This first site was actually the second of the two in order of Jesus’ visits. Since it was Friday morning, the day of worship for most Egyptians, the church at the site was filled with children having Sunday school.
This place was interesting because it was in an entirely Christian village of about 12,000 people. No Muslims live in this town. The well where Jesus’ family drank from was locked up, but we saw it, and by the end of our time there, they found a key so Jayson could drink from it.
We all drank some Sprite to settle our stomachs, and I visited the bathroom while Jayson and Emma climbed the steps to the top of the under-construction new church
so they could see the whole village. Since this post has been graphic enough, I won’t share too many details of the bathroom. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, and they didn’t have anything but a hole in the ground, and I did think to myself while I was in there, “Oh boy, what a trip this has been,” but we made the best of it, and Hannah and I soon joined the other two at the top of the building. I remember being glad that both girls lost their breakfast in the van, as I thought they might have trouble using the facilities if they needed them.
The view was very interesting with lots of unique things on people’s roofs like pigeons, chickens and ducks, which people raise to sell. The roofs here are flat so that allows for people to store things, or raise things on them until they may decide to add another floor to their existing building.
The steeple of the evangelical church in town was not too far from this site.
The one unique thing about what we saw from our view was that there were no mosques … a rare thing in Egypt.
But, as I said, this was an entirely Christian village, and we later found out that when a Muslim family wanted to move in, they were refused.
After looking around for a bit and taking some pictures, we climbed back into the van … somewhat hesitantly. We knew the ride to the next place would also be bumpy, but we hoped for the best. We all sat as close to the front as we could, and each held a daughter on our lap. The girls took a short nap and Jayson and I kept our eyes closed as we rode to the next place. Fortunately it didn’t take too long to get to Shineen al-Nasara, which means ‘garden of the Christians’ in the Coptic language, where the Holy Family had come directly from Maadi (our current town) and spent seven days before traveling on. This was an interesting place for us to visit because this is where our host had been priest for about 20 years. They had a life-size manger scene set up and the girls enjoyed getting close to baby Jesus and the animals, cardboard, though they were.
Then we entered the church where Jayson took pictures and the girls played “church,” and I just sat and rested. The church was decorated with streamers and balloons for the holiday celebrations of New Years and Christmas.
It was an interesting look considering Coptic churches are filled with icons of Jesus, Mary, the apostles and other saints; the streamers and balloons didn’t quite fit in. The church also houses a 500-year old baptismal, a small one, since it is for infants.
We couldn’t stay in the church too long since a funeral was about to take place. Just 30 seconds after we exited, the wailing women came into the church followed by a group of men carrying a coffin high above their heads. We went to a different building in the complex where they had two smaller churches, a guesthouse and a large reception room.
We climbed to the roof to get a better view of the surrounding area and we could see the thirteen domes on top of the church—representing the twelve apostles, with a larger one representing Jesus.
We climbed back down the steps and saw another well which the Holy Family drank from, and also the plaque on the wall with the names of the people who helped to build the building, our priest being one of them.
Then it was time to climb back in the van for our return trip to the priest’s house for lunch. We had planned to visit a third site after lunch, but seeing what the long car rides did to the girls, and knowing they really needed afternoon naps, especially as we planned to go to someone else’s house for a 9:30pm dinner, we decided to split responsibilities and let Jayson visit the site while I stayed home and napped with the girls. So Jayson may write about his visit in a later post.
The rest of the day was somewhat restful—after too big of a lunch, the girls and I, along with the priest’s wife, all took naps, while Jayson and the priest went to visit the site of a modern day saint, whose lowly dwelling place has now been transformed into a massive church as a place for local pilgrimage. It was a late nap for Emma and Hannah, but we figured a late night was coming up, and we were right.
Around 8:15pm, the priest and Jayson finally returned home to pick us up to take us a few blocks to one of his daughter’s houses. She had visited us the night before and really wanted to meet the girls, but they were already in bed. It worked out for our schedules to visit and have dinner with her and her husband on this night so we climbed 8 floors to their new apartment as they are still waiting for their elevator to be installed. Everyone was quite concerned for me, being pregnant, but the steps didn’t bother me at all. Even Emma and Hannah walked the whole way up. The apartment was very nice, and we enjoyed some nice conversation as Emma proceeded into a separate living room where she eventually put all of the pillows from the couches, maybe 6 or 7 large pillows and 3 or 4 smaller ones in all, on the floor and created a pillow train to jump on.
She was having a blast, and Hannah joined her.
Even though I am sure the furniture was brand new, our hosts didn’t mind and in fact, enjoyed the entertainment the girls provided. At around 9:15, they asked if we wanted to eat dinner yet, or just feed the girls, and I said that we were ready to eat dinner, but I guess it was still early for them. They kind of agreed as 10pm is more normal for them, so we compromised and said between 9:30-9:45 we could aim to eat. Good thing the girls got late naps!
Dinner was delicious, but once again, way too big! We had a plate full of rice, large pieces of chicken, kefta, another meat dish, cut up raw vegetables and okra. At just about every meal, we had to eat some of everything, and I felt like I ate quite a bit, yet at each meal they asked me, “Why haven’t you eaten anything yet? Why does your plate look the same as when you started?” We really had to insist that we had enough, everything was delicious, and thank you, thank you, thank you! We sat and talked and drank Pepsi and ate fruit for another hour or so after dinner was over, as the priest fell asleep on the couch after his very busy few days.
Finally, after 11pm, we were able to take a group picture
and then leave their house, descending the 8 flights of stairs and returning to our hosts’ house. Fortunately, our next day wasn’t starting too early, and we could sleep in. But for now, the Christmas celebrations were over and therefore Day 3 ends this series of posts!
The lack of sleep did cost us the next morning, though, as we were due to pay a visit to the area bishop for breakfast at 8:00am sharp. In the Coptic Orthodox Church the bishop is only one level below the pope, and carries great authority and responsibility. Christmas duties pressed on everyone, but he allowed us about an hour of his time, and the exchange of greetings was necessary on both sides. For us and the priest, it would have been an offence if we did not honor him with a visit, however short. The same would have applied if he failed to receive the foreign visitors in his area. Needing to receive the governor in only an hour, however, he allowed us a few questions, gave us Christmas gifts of wooden and cloth crosses in addition to an icon of the Virgin Mary, and allowed us our leave. The priest himself was due at his church in the village, so we left promptly.
The responsibilities, however, were simple. All he had to do was sit in his office and receive Christmas greetings. It made for little conversation as every two minutes in the morning another child would enter, kiss his hand, and then leave. This continued for about two hours, interspersed with a phone call of Christmas greetings every minute in between. It was somewhat boring, to tell the truth, but it was a complete cultural experience.
All during this time the church grounds were an open playground. As parents enjoyed a morning of rest their kids gathered and exploded miniature firecrackers one after the other. They were clearly enjoying themselves, but as I sat in the office I could only imagine the chaos outside, except for when the kids threw their fireworks inside. Surrounded by walls, the noise was deafening, but the priest did not seem to mind at all. I got increasingly perturbed, but what can you do when this is normal and accepted behavior? I have noticed that priest may have a slight hearing problem; after twenty-plus years of service, these bi-yearly celebrations can perhaps take their toll. My imagination of the chaos, however, can be presented as reality by Julie, who was outside with the girls, and will take over the authorship of this next session.
I don’t think Emma enjoyed herself too much. I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant that we would go sit at the church and “play” all day. I knew Emma liked to play with kids, but the sheer number of the kids would probably overwhelm her. What I imagined came true. We arrived to a crowd of children, dressed in their new Christmas clothes. They surrounded our car, knocking on the windows and holding out bags of chips to our children who were behind the closed windows. It really felt like a Hollywood star experience, and we were the celebrities. As we entered the courtyard through the church gates, the kids followed the car. We parked and got out and they just kind of stared and smiled at us as we exited the car. I offered typical Christmas greetings, “May you be well all year,” as I carried Hannah and Jayson carried Emma. Wherever we walked with them, the kids followed, not saying much, but not leaving us alone either. Emma was overwhelmed, but handling it okay. Jayson and the priest went into the office, and told us we could play out in the courtyard. So, holding Emma’s hand, and Hannah in the other arm, we walked around, surrounded by kids. We eventually went to a ledge that was in the sun and sat down in the warmth. The kids surrounded us, some of them saying in English, “What’s your name?” or, “How are you?” to the girls, and not getting much of a response. The firecrackers either started then or else that was when we noticed them, and from that moment on, Emma’s hands were up on her ears every time she was outside the office. It probably looked kind of funny to the kids, but I felt bad for her. They offered her the firecrackers; I’m not sure what their thought was: Does she hold it as its lit and then throw it, or is it just something for her to hold in her hand? I kept refusing and told the kids that she doesn’t like noise; it scares her and hurts her ears. This seemed a foreign concept to them. They offered chips or cookies, which was about the only thing the girls responded to positively. They asked me their names and I told them. An older girl asked if I knew a certain game, and I didn’t understand her. She said they wanted the girls to play with them. I said, “Okay, we can try. If you all start playing, the older one may join you.” But everyone just stood there. I wasn’t sure what they wanted us to do. How do fifty children play exactly? I didn’t see a ball and it didn’t seem they were going to organize a big game, yet, we had the directive to “play.” One of the older boys started trying to disperse the crowd to go play so maybe we could move around or get up, so I took both girls by the hands, well, Emma by the elbow because her hand was covering her ears, and we walked around the courtyard, looking for people playing, yet still being followed by a crowd of children who were NOT playing. The noise of the firecrackers was really getting to Emma, and at some points, the kids would throw the lit noisemaker near us. I don’t really think it was malicious, but it did seem intentional. I think it just enthralled them to see someone so affected by the noise, as they obviously weren’t. Emma said she wanted to go to daddy, so we all went into the office, where we finally could sit in peace for a bit. For the next few hours, we either sat in the office, where we usually had some sort of snack from someone, or we walked around the courtyard, Hannah’s hand and Emma’s elbow in my hands, walking around, followed by children and the sound of firecrackers. When it got too much, we would reenter the office and sit for awhile again. After awhile, the thought of “playing” all day at the church, didn’t sound too fun!
Ok, Jayson is back. Around noon the priest’s brother came into the office and offered to take us to his house in the village where we were to have lunch around 3:00pm. That seemed a very good idea for the girls, but I thought it best that I stay there in the office. I walked with them to his home, about five minutes away, to keep all propriety, promising the priest I would be back shortly. All seemed fine with the brother’s family, and by the time I came back the ATM had opened. The priest had stacks of bills which he was distributing one by one as each child entered, kissed his hand, and received his $0.045 cents. This apparently was a custom for the holidays.
When this ended the sitting became much more enjoyable. The men of the village now came to pay their Christmas greetings, and several of them would sit and talk for a while, especially the ones who were working abroad or in Cairo and came home for the occasion. I even met someone who was working in Jordan, as a gardener in the church we worshiped in way back when. Many of these people only return home once a year, but some can come more frequently. It is especially hard because most have left their families in the home village.
Julie and the girls were able to take a nap before lunch, and I took mine afterwards. By this time, though, the news was filling the village. Six Christians were gunned down as they existed Christmas mass. Not everyone really knew what was going on, but all expressed concern, though not surprise. Many Christians have surrendered themselves to the idea that the country is against them, and this was just the latest confirmation. Even at that early point, however, there were complicating features, or at least rumors. This event was said to be connected to an ongoing controversy related to a nearby village, in which a Christian was said to have raped a Muslim girl, and the Muslims then responded against the Christians at large as the perpetrator of the crime escaped. In Upper Egypt the practice of revenge killings is not uncommon, and this may have been a continuation. Or, it may have been terrorism clear and simple. ‘Terrorists’ was the word on most of the Christians’ lips.
After lunch ended we left the village, returning to Maghagha, and things were quiet as the priest had to leave for family responsibilities, allowing me to write much of this summary. We had dinner earlier that night, at around 11:00pm, but we had put the girls to bed around 9:00pm. With a full stomach once again we weren’t much in the mood for sleep, and enjoyed good theological conversation until 2:00am, taking full advantage of our time together. It was another long but good day, but with a pall over the events of the day.
The events also could threaten us, as surely the security would be increased throughout the country. Would we be able to continue our program? The next day we were to visit two places reputed to be visited by the Holy Family during their escape to Egypt, and another place which was a pilgrimage site for a modern day saint. Would we be sent home immediately? Would we be confined to the priest’s home? There was no worry about safety whatsoever, but as we finally did collapse into sleep, there were concerns aplenty. The ones highlighted here in this last paragraph pertain to us, but may our prayers highlight those concerns of the country, pertaining to all.
There is complicating news today. It is significant enough that you may already know about it. Six Christians and a policeman were killed today in an ambush as they were exiting midnight mass in an Upper Egyptian town to the north of Luxor. I wish to be careful in conveying information because I have been far from the news in our relative isolation in Maghagha, over ten hours away from the attack, but it has been the talk of the community since we awoke this morning.
Our day began in Maadi, as we fought through Cairo traffic to get to the train station in Giza. We left a full hour to arrive, thinking this would be plenty as the station is just on the other side of the Nile River. We should have known better. We left on the 6th of January, a Wednesday, but in addition to all the Christians who would be in transit to get to their homes and churches, there was weekend traffic with which to contend. Coptic Christmas, the 7th of January, is a national holiday, so whereas Thursday night is often prime traffic with the Friday-Saturday weekend, Christmas led to a three day weekend for the entire country, and it seemed like the nation had emptied onto the streets.
We did arrive on time, but with only about fifteen minutes to spare. We appeared to be the only foreigners at the location, asked about how and where to board the train, had a policeman direct us informing him we were traveling to Maghagha, and settled into our seats, which were reserved by number. The train was very comfortable and we by coincidence sat next to another couple also traveling to Maghagha, and enjoyed pleasant conversation with them the entire two and a half hour journey.
Upon our arrival I am afraid we may have offended some. It was fairly comical, at least from our perspective. It is a bit complicated to descend from a train with two small children, a pack-and-play, suitcase, and backpack, but we managed, and it was no surprise to find a willing porter ready to help us with our bags. If any of you would wish to visit us, please be prepared for this at the airport. They can be friendly, helpful, and by comparison inexpensive, but they can also be insistent.
The first thing we should have noticed is that this porter was not very insistent. He offered to help me with the suitcase, and per custom I refused, with a quick ‘no thank you’, barely an exchange of glances, and began advancing. It may not be the most polite manner, but you get used to the necessity of not getting drawn into conversation, lest you be forever unable to escape.
My advancement, however, was quickly halted as I found the gentleman who was to receive us. Our stay was arranged with the priest of a village not far from Maghagha, but due to our late arrival (now about 9:30pm) he was already involved in leading mass. In his place he sent his brother, who now began helping us with our bags, but only for a moment.
Within two minutes he was surrounded by the police, among them the ‘porter’ who earlier tried to help us as we got off the train. It was all very friendly, and no one was unnerved, but Julie counted seven people who were involved in our arrival. Who are you? Who are they? Why are they coming? Where are they going? Each question had a very simple answer, and the appropriate people recorded the information, finally taking a look at our passports and recording our names. They continued to escort us to the priest’s brother’s car, with a small diversion as I remembered it would be better to purchase tickets for our return trip before we departed the station. It turned out this was rather unfruitful, for the trains were sold out on the day we had purposed to leave as well as the next day, except for either the 5:00am train or the one leaving at midnight. At this point we have no return ticket, but the police assured everything would be taken care of. As great as their attention had been to this point, it seemed the best thing to trust their word. They indicated, if I understood correctly, that we should just show up at the normal time of departure at 10:30am or 1:00pm, and we would (likely) find a place. In any case, the priest would take care of everything.
Here is the background, some of which is known, some of which is conjecture, all of which is the normal and expected procedure. My boss has been friends with this priest for many years, and he selected him for our visit to Upper Egypt in part because he has a very good manner with his Muslim neighbors and the regional authorities. In securing the priest’s agreement for us to visit, he then informed the police in our area, who also gave their approval. This is the known. The conjecture is that the policeman I inquired with concerning how to board the train likely conveyed his knowledge to the station in Maghagha. Therefore it should have been no surprise to find the concerned authorities as part of our official welcome.
The normal and expected procedure has been in place for many years. Egypt has had sporadic violence against foreign tourists who visit the Pharonic heritage sites in Upper Egypt, and consistently sends all tourists with a police escort. Foreigners who go to places like Maghagha, however, are much less frequent, and generally have very limited reasons to be there. Their presence attracts attention, and Egypt is concerned about their security. In a country which depends to a great extent on tourism and outside investment, the death of a foreigner could have wide ramifications. Upper Egypt has a reputation as being a haven of Islamist activity, and while the vast majority of people are against violence of any kind, including the vast majority of Islamists, there are pockets of extremist sentiment. Though the government has made great strides in combating these elements, they do still exist, as was seen today.
The police presence takes some getting used to, but it is very friendly. At the station the officer who recorded my passport information apologized several times. One of their number joined us in the car and accompanied us to the church in the village fifteen minutes from Maghagha, where the mass was in progress, and then joined with his colleagues who make up the normal guard outside the church during every mass, but especially during holidays. He came in a few times to check in on us, and when everything ended two officers joined us on the trip back to Maghaga. One sat on the lap of the other in the passenger seat, and they joked with the priest almost the entire trip home. The next day we returned to the village to join in Christmas day celebrations, and though they checked regularly with the priest about our program, they generally left us to ourselves, as best we knew. Even so, it is now 10:00pm, and an office just knocked on the door of the priest’s home to inquire if we are going out again tonight. After assuring him we were done for the day, we may have allowed him an early evening home.
In terms of the chronology of the day, however, we return to the Christmas Eve mass. We arrived about 10:30pm with an hour and a half of a four hour service remaining. Our girls were doing remarkably well given the hour, and though Hannah largely stayed quiet (but not sleeping) on Julie’s lap, Emma was having a great time. Automatically becoming the guests of honor we were ‘seated’ in the first row of the church, directly in front of the altar boys. Seated is a misnomer as most of the mass requires standing, and as I held Emma she preferred standing on the dividing wall between the congregants and the altar boys, and quite attracted their attention. Three of them in particular paid no further care to the mass and played with her the whole time. Emma was alternatingly shy and engaging, but was causing no stir. There were several children milling about in the pews, and the worshipper standing next to us was goading her the whole time, and was even father of one of the three altar boys. It was fun to join in the chants while at the same time catching Emma as she turned from the attention, slipped off the wall, and fell into my arms. It may not be acceptable behavior for most masses, but on this occasion we fit right in.
As the mass ended the priest left rather quickly and we returned to his home with the aforementioned escort. In the car our girls finally fell asleep, but of course woke upon arrival, which may have been good since food was waiting for all. Though actual practice varies, Orthodox Egyptians fast for fifty-five days before Christmas. The fast is of a vegetarian variety, as all meat beside fish is prohibited. Christmas then becomes the worthy celebration, and the meat flows freely. In addition to a plate of rice and a bowl of salad, there was chicken and the most delicious beef I have ever eaten. It did make me wonder, however, how many ‘foolish’ things we do in our celebrations of which we are unaware. After fifty-five meatless days, it seems strange to gorge on such a feast, especially at 1:00am. We did not have the most pleasant sleep that evening (morning?), but there were no regrets concerning the consumption.
You may remember Jayson’s post from Dec. 25 entitled “Today is Not Christmas”. Well, we have been able to extend our celebration of Christmas being here in Egypt, and finally, tomorrow, January 6, we will celebrate Coptic Christmas Eve. We are still establishing our traditions, as he mentioned, but for this first Christmas in Egypt, we decided to travel to a town about 3 hours south of Cairo, called Maghagha. We will travel by train tomorrow evening, arriving around 10pm as the Coptic Church is in full swing for their very special Christmas Eve service. All over Egypt, Christians will be worshipping God in their churches until midnight, at which time they will return to their homes for the big Christmas meal. One of the reasons the meal occurs directly after the midnight mass is that traditionally, Copts fast for 40+ days prior to Christmas. This fast includes abstaining from all animal products, and thus, once midnight of Christmas Eve hits, the fast is broken, and the Christians can celebrate the birth of their Savior with food and fellowship.
I am sure we will have more to say about this when we return from our trip on Saturday, but for now, just know that we will participate as best we can in this midnight mass, with our two little ones in tow, and then in the Christmas feast at someone’s house, again, with our two little ones preferably sleeping in tow. I am sure we will have many stories and adventures to share following four days of celebration outside of Cairo. Stay tuned.