Marinab, Maspero, and Faith on the Earth

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


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

The Setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Maspero: Moving Toward a Standoff?

Fr. Mattias Nasr, at the Maspero press conference

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.

Remains of disassembled tents and banners at Maspero

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.

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Attack on the Coptic Sit-In at Maspero: Eyewitness Testimony

Coptic protestors at Maspero suffered two separate attacks on May 14, attacks which included Salafi Muslims along with common ‘thugs’. This report updates a previous text written about the Maspero attack, which was crafted from interviews with leaders the day of May 14, supplemented with media reports the next morning and phone calls to Mina Magdy, the political affairs coordinator for the Maspero Youth Union (MYU). According to witnesses interviewed May 16, a number of the details related in the news have been incorrect, if not outright misleading. This report is unable to corroborate claims independently. Efforts to speak with local army and police personnel on the scene were politely declined, as would be expected, in deference to announcements made by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. To my knowledge, they have not commented directly on this event.

Security Measures

Testimony is taken primarily from Emad Farag. Farag is part of the committee for order, tasked with securing the northern entrance to the sit-in near the Foreign Ministry. In my earlier report I wondered why Coptic security measures were so tight, while a simple rope separated the sit-in area from the major thoroughfare running north-south along the Nile River. Farag explained the sit-in had previously cut off this road, but it was reopened through negotiations with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. In exchange for agreement to retry arrested members of MYU, who were apprehended during the first sit-in, General Coordinator Rami Kamel consented to pull back the protest area.

Emad Farag

Upon arriving at Maspero on the morning of the 16th, however, I was surprised to find no Coptic security measures at all. Automobile traffic had stopped as dozens of riot police, army personnel, and military vehicles lined the road. Yet pedestrians, including myself, simply walked right through their lines, checked neither for ID nor weapons. Farag explained the army had assumed responsibility for safety after the attacks, and instructed the Copts to desist.

Farag then proceeded to relate the story of the evening attack. Around midnight, while he was stationed at his post, a group of ‘thugs’ began to gather under the May 15th bridge, and began harassing and beating individual Coptic protestors either leaving or joining the sit-in. Shortly thereafter, another group came from over the bridge, and began firing upon the Copts, though from a very far distance of about 1000 meters. When meeting up together, they began to advance toward the sit-in, carrying knives, swords, clubs, and stones, in addition to guns.

Off-ramp from the May 15 bridge. Blackened areas are from where Molotov cocktails burned.

Their approach took the attention of the protestors, but Farag instructed his colleagues in the committee to lock arms in front of the already constructed barbed wire, so as to prevent Copts from running out to meet them. Farag then phoned the captain of the police, who told him his men were ill equipped to meet armed ‘thugs’. They were stationed a few hundred meters to the north of the sit-in, blocking off a side road to the area. Their presence, though, was minimal, and outfitted only with riot shields and batons. The captain told him, however, he would phone the army to bring its weapons truck.

Farag then went personally to speak to an army officer who was stationed with his men at the Radio and TV building at the site of the sit-in. The officer refused to get involved, stating this was the responsibility of the police.

By this time some of the Copts had broken through the human chain and jumped through the barbed wire barricade. They wished to hold the ‘thugs’ far away from the sit-in, since several women were also participating there. Farag called the police captain again, who now responded that they could not get involved because they could not know who was who in the skirmish. Frustrated, Farag returned to his post and told the other assembled Copts to join in the defense, which he himself did as well.

Distance from the bridge to the sit-in area. The round building to the left is the Radio and TV building, where Copts were demonstrating.

Running out to meet the ‘thugs’, Copts broke off tree branches and wooden planks from sidewalk benches. Media reports stated they also broke up the sidewalk so as to obtain concrete to hurl at their assailers. Farag did not think so, but a few meters from the barbed wire was an area, perhaps one meter in diameter, that was pulled up. Perhaps Copts did so, Farag contemplated, but on the whole he believed they simply threw back the projectiles tossed at them. In any case, this was the only evidence of sidewalk destruction, not fitting with the impression of chaos described in some reports.

Sidewalk torn out to secure rocks for the confrontation. See the bench behind no longer with its wooden planks.

The two groups met about halfway between the sit-in area and the off-ramp of the May 15 bridge. There were immediate but brief clashes, after which Copts drove the ‘thugs’ back up the off-ramp where they took refuge on higher ground. From this point onward a buffer zone developed between the two sides, with rock throwing between them but also gunfire coming from the original attackers.

Farag confirmed media reports stating the Copts apprehended one of the ‘thugs’, and turned him over to the army. He was unable to confirm a report that stated the ‘thug’ possessed an ID card linking him to the NDP party of Mubarak. Yet Fadi Philip, foreign media spokesman for the MYU, stated he admitted to being paid 500 LE, the equivalent of slightly less than $100 US, by a sheikh in order to participate in the attacks.

Farag added incidentally that throughout the sit-in the committee for order turned over to the army a number of entrants upon whom were found weapons after being searched. He stated the army confiscated the weapons, but then sent the people on their way.

Given that he was a participant in the defense, Farag did not know exactly how much time had passed until the authorities arrived. He estimated that about an hour after the clash began, a police tear gas truck came from behind the Coptic position and launched its canisters which landed on the Coptic side of the standoff. The tear gas sent all parties scattering; Copts ran back to the sit-in area while the ‘thugs’ ran off into the distance. Farag states neither the police nor the army pursued the assailants. Media reports, however, claim that fifty ‘thugs’ were arrested for their role in attacking Copts during the sit-in. It is possible these were later apprehended.

Bullets and Tear Gas Canisters from the Attack

Farag then walked with me to the southern entrance of the sit-in area, to describe the attack which happened earlier. Though he was not present at the beginning, he ran to the scene to investigate when commotion occurred. Around 8pm a group of 100-200 ‘thugs’ descended the on-ramp of the October 6th bridge, and a similar story unfolded. Copts ran out to meet them, suffered injury from gunfire and other weapons, but drove them away after only ten minutes. In my earlier survey of the news, I was not aware of this attack. Farag stated that men in the appearance of Salafis were among the armed in this group as well. Salafi presence had been denied in earlier media reports.

On-Ramp for the October 6 Bridge

Media Manipulations

Along the way he refuted two matters that have been reported in the media. First, he directed attention to the Foreign Ministry and the Radio and TV building. It was claimed that Copts had attacked these building before the altercation, but neither showed signs of damage. It is possible minor damage may have been repaired, as a full day had passed between the altercation and my visit.

The second matter represented what Farag claimed was a propaganda falsehood. On the first floor balcony of the Radio and TV building was erected a video camera pointing to the main stage, but on a swivel pivot. Farag stated the camera was pointed toward empty ground to the side of the stage, and showed this footage on state TV, claiming the sit-in was over.

The Radio and TV Building, with Camera Mounted on the Balcony

Statements concerning the end of the sit-in may well have been believed coming on the heels of Pope Shenouda’s message on TV, apparently urging its abandonment. The pope declared the matter had moved beyond the level of expression, due to infiltration that was ruining the reputation of the protestors, as well as of Egypt. He feared for their safety after the attacks, and said they would be ‘the losers’ if they continued. Furthermore, he stated, the patience of the nation’s leaders was growing thin.

Fr. Mattias Nasr Manqarius, priest of the Virgin Mary Church in Ezbet al-Nakhl, Cairo, is the official spokesman for the MYU, and one of two priests committed to the sit-in. He stated the pope’s words were not meant as a directive for the protestors to leave; in fact, he stated he had visited the pope shortly before his announcement, and was given only encouragement for their ‘normal and righteous’ demands. The next day, however, Bishop Musa, bishop of youth, confirmed the validity of the pope’s encouragement to leave Maspero.

Media manipulations, however, are claimed by the MYU. Before the pope spoke on television, a report emerged from Bishop Musa urging the youth to give up the sit-in. Asked about their refusal to heed his words, Rami Kamel stated the bishop’s words were not conveyed correctly. He knew this from video messages afterwards from the bishop in which he denied asking them to leave. Instead, the bishop offered his blessing. Irresponsibility of the media, claims Philip, was one reason why the MYU chose to demonstrate at the Radio and TV building at Maspero in the first place.

Medical Clinic

Injured Copts from the two attacks were treated at a makeshift clinic. A total of twenty-four doctors, nurses, and pharmacists have set up shifts in order to provide medical care. All medicines have been donated, and George Sidky Eskander, who has taken a vacation from his pharmaceutical company in order to join the sit-in, states supplies and equipment have always arrived at just the right moment, as if from God.

Medicines Stored inside the Clinic

Three of the twenty-four medical team are Muslims, one of which even keeps to the Salafi trend, but rejects the behavior of those practicing violence. Another Muslim is Mustafa Ibrahim. Though possessing no medical education he has been trained in field-based first aid, and has volunteered previously in Tahrir Square and in Libya. He states he is willing to die here with his brothers the Copts. His assistant, the other Muslim Ahmed al-Masry, is a graphic design student at Ain Shams University, but learned medical care from his father, a surgeon. He is disturbed how religious groups are tearing the nation apart, after the experiences of Muslims and Christians together at Tahrir Square. As a revolutionary there, he was shot in the arm by police on January 25, the first day of protests.

Mustafa and George, in front of the Clinic
Ahmed, Showing Where he was Shot in the Arm

Eskander stated that many of the injured refused to be transported to hospitals, out of fear they would be arrested there. Instead, during the attacks of May 14 the clinic tent grew three times in size, treating open wounds and bruises as best they could. Many of the serious cases, such as one skull fracture, were rushed to local hospitals.

Legal Services

Karam Ghubriyal is a Coptic lawyer providing volunteer legal services and documentation for the MYU. He stated that fifty-six people were arrested from two hospitals, and only eight of these were Muslims. It is not known if this number corresponds to the totals announced of those involved in the attack, or has simply been unreported in the media. These arrested were taken from the Coptic Hospital on Ramsis Street and the Police Hospital in the Aguza neighborhood. They were charged with ‘thuggery’, and detained first in a military holding facility, before being transferred to a public jail.

Ghubriyal, working with a team of lawyers including several Muslims, was able to secure the release of thirty-two arrested Copts. Due to the late hour running into the designated curfew of 2am, Ghubriyal made sure those returning to Minya in Upper Egypt did not try to return home and perhaps be rearrested. Instead, the five went back to Maspero and spent the night at the sit-in. He is currently working with his team to secure the release of the remaining sixteen Copts in custody.

Area Management

As the day progressed Maspero appeared more and more chaotic, as pedestrians on foot traversed the area on their way north or south. The army permitted street vendors to enter the area as well, setting up booths for tea or snacks. More and more Copts also arrived simply to join in the demonstration. It was a working day, and thus numbers did not resemble the weekend totals of several thousands, but it was clear many Copts continued to support the effort, despite the message from Pope Shenouda.

Rolla Subhi is a twenty-two year old Coptic woman heading up the committee for order. She supervises the subcommittees for checkpoints, as mentioned earlier with Farag, the speaking state, food, drink, and cleanup, and a very important committee – given the increasing commotion – called ‘rangers’.

Ramon Nadir and Claire Makram are two of the approximately fifty rangers, ten of whom are women. Their responsibility is to roam the area and look for signs of trouble. They communicate with the Egyptian police and army, and were able later in the day to re-setup the separate Coptic checkpoints to ensure no weapons entered the area. They inquire about the hunger, thirst, or fatigue of key volunteers. Perhaps their most important responsibility is simply to check in on crowds. Whenever a group begins to assemble of more than three or four, and certainly if voices are raised, the nearest ranger investigates to see that everything is ok. Rangers make certain disputes are resolved quietly, before escalation. It is impossible to control every Copt who comes to protest, Subhi states; fears exist that less educated or more traditional Copts might respond to an insult given, becoming easily provoked. The ranger team, however, has kept problems to a minimum so far.

Ramon and Claire, to the Left


In his first live television appearance, General Tantawi of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces addressed the graduating class of the police academy. He stated the most urgent needs of Egypt rest in its economic and security stabilization. He promised he would not allow any forces to divide the national unity of Egyptians along religious lines, mentioning specifically that sit-ins harm the economy and provide opportunity for ‘thugs’ to wreak havoc toward their self-serving goals.

Many at Maspero believe the actions of the army and police, in this and other sectarian instances, to indicate they are against not only the Coptic sit-in, but biased against Copts in general. Coupled with an understanding that Pope Shenouda has declared them to be ‘the losers’ if they continue, the protestors believe more violence will be directed their way, and perhaps they will be evicted by the army. For now, their protest continues, but Fr. Mattias does not paint a pessimistic picture. ‘Yes’, he states, ‘some of our demands have been met. Sixteen closed churches have been promised to be reopened. We believe the authorities when they say they will open them. But we will stay here until it actually happens, so that lower level officials receive pressure from above to make it happen.’

It is difficult to say if the Copts, and several Muslims, at Maspero are correct in their actions. They press on contrary to the leanings, if not will, of both their civil and religious authorities. Yet they are people of conviction, courage, and organization, fighting for the rights of all Egyptians, not just Copts. Their appearance, either if manipulated through the media, or if truly in essence, is of a separatist action. Are they uniting Egyptians, or dividing them? If dividing, is it in positive effort to bring awareness to those in the dark?

Philip sees their struggle as akin to the civil rights movement in the United States. It is not only that laws are bad, but that good laws are not enforced. ‘It is not just for ourselves that we demonstrate,’ he says. ‘If Coptic rights are not respected, then perhaps next to fall will be the rights of Muslims of different persuasion.’

It is too difficult to judge, and furthermore it is not my place. Yet may prayer be asked for wisdom on their behalf, patience for those who grow weary of their voice, and forgiveness for those who violently attack them. May all find place to give blessing to the other, no matter how stridently they wrestle politically.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Attack on Coptic Protest at Maspero: Early Details and Context

Two people were killed and scores were injured following an overnight clash at the site of an ongoing Coptic protest outside the Egyptian Radio and Television building at Maspero, Cairo. According to Mina Magdy, head of the political committee for the Maspero Youth Union organizing the sit-in, hundreds of thugs arrived around 12:30am and began attacking the protestors. Magdy stated the police did not involve themselves immediately, but the attack continued until 1am when police fired live ammunition into the air, and fired tear gas to disperse the attackers. Magdy relates there were around one thousand demonstrators at the time of the attack, and though the numbers have now decreased, the sit-in is continuing.

Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram reports there were 250 attackers, fifty of whom have been arrested by police. Attackers lobbed rocks and Molotov cocktails from an overhead bridge nearby. Al-Masry al-Youm reports the attackers fired ammunition into the demonstrators. CNN reports that the Coptic demonstrators broke up the sidewalk so as to defend themselves by throwing chunks of concrete at their assailants. One, it is reported, was apprehended and beaten badly.

Al-Ahram reports the altercation originated following arguments with the protestors and drivers of vehicles on the major road in front of the protest area. It quotes a protest organizer who stated the driver of the vehicle tried to enter the demonstration area, but refused to be searched for weapons, and tried to instigate trouble. The paper states the attacks were in revenge of this altercation, but the driver is not identified.

None of the reports or Coptic sources at Maspero stated the assailants were Salafi Muslims in their appearance; rather, they were thugs. The identity and motivations, however, are unknown. Salafis stand accused of fermenting and perhaps perpetrating many of the recent attacks on Copts and others since the revolution, though it is also claimed remnants of the former regime and security system have been provoking sectarian conflict.

I was able to visit the Maspero protestors yesterday, before the attacks, and learned of their organization, witnessing the layout of the area.

The protest area at Maspero has three main entrances, each with both army personnel and Coptic guards to search all before they enter. The system is similar to that established at Tahrir Square during the revolution, to ensure all weapons were kept out of the protest area.

Yet despite the precautions taken at the walkway entrances, the protest area stretches parallel with the major north-south thoroughfare running along the Nile River. There was simply a string of rope separating the protest area from the street, and traffic passed smoothly. Several policeman were present, but there was no cordon to separate the protestors from the street. Sporadically protestors would cross over to the opposite sidewalk, and relax on the other side. I witnessed what appeared to be one or two minor altercations with vehicles as they passed by. Nothing transpired, but traffic slowed as protestors emptied into the street inquiring about the vehicle.

The Maspero Youth Union is coordinated by Rami Kamel, a 24 year old law student at Cairo University. It represents a merger of several Coptic organizations which organized following the attacks on a church in Atfih, to the south of Cairo. The conducted a sit-in protest over several days, vacating the premises upon promise of the ruling military council to investigate and rebuild the church. Yet Fadi Philip, foreign media spokesman for the media committee, states their departure was not entirely voluntary, as they were attacked by the army as they were leaving. Nineteen protestors, including three Muslims, were arrested on charges of weapons possession and thuggery. Philip stated these charges were baseless.

The location of Maspero was chosen for three reasons. First, they believed holding their sit-in at Tahrir would be too provocative. Second, the site of the Radio and Television headquarters represented their belief concerning media bias against Coptic affairs, especially in the reporting about the Atfih church. Third, they had established Maspero as a place of protest earlier, following the attacks on Nag Hamadi, in January 2010, and Alexandria, on New Year’s Eve 2010. Before their initiative, Coptic protests had almost universally been within church grounds.

Following the attacks on churches in Imbaba, Copts returned to protest at Maspero, where the sit-in has now continued for over a week. On Friday, the day of protest at Tahrir Square for national unity and Palestinian solidarity, thousands of Copts joined the sit-in protest instead at Maspero, about a ten minute walk to the north of Tahrir Square.

The protest area at Maspero hosts a stage from which speeches are delivered and chants issued. Rami Kamel states the stage is open to anyone; Michael Munir, a youthful activist stated I could speak if I so desired, and introduced me to the committee member who could arrange this. Kamel states even Salafi Muslims are welcome to speak, though none have as of yet. Several Muslims, however, have joined their protests in expression of solidarity.

The Maspero area also houses several tents. One is for medical supplies, another for food, and two for providing space for interviews and committee discussions. Banners proclaiming Coptic slogans are everywhere, also lining the street in front of the area. Among these was a large sign showing sixteen pictures of recent incidents suffered by the Coptic community. Most banners were not provocative, but did emphasize a particular Coptic frame of reference.

Rami Kamel, however, states the efforts of the Maspero Youth Union are to emphasize Coptic rights within a framework of citizenship, far from sectarianism. He desires the sit-in to be seen as political action, not as religious or church based.

Two Coptic Orthodox priests have joined the sit-in, Fr. Philopater Jamil, from Giza, Cairo, and Fr. Mattias Nasr Manqarious, from Ezbet al-Nakhl, Cairo. Kamel states the presence of two priests helps lend legitimacy to the protest in the eyes of the Coptic faithful, but that it is good to have only two priests, and not more, or else the Maspero effort might appear to be more religious than is intended.

Fr. Philopater and Fr. Mattias were among the original Coptic demonstrators which merged into Maspero Youth Union, and Fr. Mattias is the official spokesperson for the group. They are also the editors of al-Katiba al-Tibiya,[1] a Coptic newspaper focused on reporting about grievances suffered by the Coptic community. The newspaper is widely distributed in Coptic Orthodox Churches, and has been understood as enflaming the widespread Coptic perception of persecution. They are linked also to Copts in the United States, which often call for the intervention of the US government or the international community in defense of Egyptian Copts. For their activities they have come under approbation from church hierarchy.

The CNN article quoted Rafiq Hanna, a protestor, as calling for international protection, stating the Copts are threatened all over Egypt. As I visited Maspero, identifying myself as an American, I was often asked why the United States did not intervene, putting pressure on the Egyptian government to secure their human rights. Yet during the national unity and Palestinian solidarity protests in Tahrir Square, Fr. Philopater, officially representing the Maspero Youth Union, addressed the crowd in the strongest language possible: We reject all international interference in Egyptian affairs. The concerns of the Copts are Egyptian concerns only.

Mina Magdy explained this was part and parcel of their Egyptian identity; the continuity of Christianity in Egypt is in their hands alone. If support was sought from a foreign power, this power would only support as long as it was in their interest to do so. Meanwhile, the effort to appeal internationally would be seen as traitorous. One only would have to look to Iraq, he stated, to see how poorly the United States has protected the Christian community there.

I asked Madgy if his position had changed after the attacks on Maspero. It did not, he said. We reject foreign interference in Egyptian affairs.

The goals of the Maspero Youth Union are to work for a civil state, the concept of citizenship, and equal rights and equality for all. Their particular rights, demanded in this sit-in, are for a unified law for building houses of worship, a law against discrimination in any form, the right to be ruled by Christian law in personal affairs (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.), opening of churches which had been closed by security prior to the revolution, the release of their imprisoned colleagues, and the release of a nun, Maryam Raghib, who was arrested for adopting children, as adoption is forbidden under the Islamic sharia.

Additionally, the union supports calls, made also by others, for a joint military-civilian council to guide Egypt through its transitional period of government. It seeks the trial of all criminals involved in recent sectarian attacks. It wishes the cancellation of all traditional use of ‘reconciliation committees’ to smooth over sectarian conflicts and release perpetrators. It does not call for removal of Article 2 of the Constitution, which declares Islam to be the official religion of the state, with the principles of Islamic sharia as the source of legislation. Though it finds this article to be contrary to principles of civil government, it believes the removal thereof to be impossible, and is thus not on the agenda of activity.

Kamel stated negotiations with the ruling military council were resulting in progress in crafting an anti-discrimination law, and also in securing the opening of several churches.

The Maspero Youth Union does not advocate any particular political position or party, but rejects official dialogue and cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups. This is on the grounds that, whatever individual members of these groups might profess, sincerely or otherwise, as ideologies their written words speak against the concept of citizenship. Therefore, until this changes, the union will not allow itself to be co-opted into the betterment of the Islamist image.

Rami Kamel states that the political and non-religious stance of the Maspero Youth Union is informed by his personal philosophy of liberation theology, in an Orthodox Christian perspective. He emphasized this was not of the Latin American variety which promoted violence; rather, non-violence was the rule though self-defense is permitted. He believes the Christian faith should drive one to strive for social justice, though through means limited by Christian ethics. Specifically, one should submit to violence and not strike back, not cowering from the attack but insisting on one’s rights all the while. Paul the Apostle, in Acts 22, is taken as a model.

Yet it seemed that despite the sincerity of this philosophy among Maspero leadership, it did not necessarily reach the hundreds of ordinary Coptic Egyptians who populated the protest. Kamel stated they do their best to instill this value and reign in the excitement of the protestors. There were not, however, religious activities such as prayer groups or Bible studies, through which commitment and discipline might be achieved. These activities, Kamel stated, would transform the demonstration into a religious activity. He purposed their efforts be seen only as political action, in defense of Coptic rights, but from a position of citizenship, not religion.

The facts of the overnight attack on the Coptic demonstration are still yet to be determined. The day before, Mina, an ordinary protestor, stated that Maspero was suffering from attempts to instigate conflict. He was afraid that if fighting broke out, the army would use this as pretext to evict them from their place. In terms of instigation, this fear now appears justified, but so far, the army has allowed the sit-in to continue.

There is much distrust currently among Copts concerning the direction of the revolution, the space Salafi Muslims have to operate, and the suspected secret intentions of the ruling military council. Many Egyptians of all persuasions have equal concern and confusion, even if their questions are directed differently. May patience and wisdom be sought by all, as they continue to cling to calls for justice. May civility reign as this process, however messily, is determined.

[1] In Coptic history, al-Katiba al-Tibiya was an Egyptian legion from Thebes, fighting for the Roman army in Europe. When demanded to renounce their faith and worship the emperor, the entire legion refused, submitting instead to martyrdom.

The concept of martyrdom is key for the Coptic Orthodox Church; indeed, their church calendar begins from the era of Diocletian, a Roman emperor responsible for the deaths of thousands of Christians. A popular chant of Copts states, ‘with our souls and our blood we will redeem you, oh cross!’ As Kamel explained, this was not an aggressive slogan. Rather, as Jesus redeemed humanity through death, so also are Copts willing to suffer martyrdom for the sake of the cross.