Egypt suffered another terrorism setback this week, as a shootout with militants in the Western Desert resulted in the death of at least 16 policemen.
That is the official, government tally. International media reported much higher figures, though the government dismissed their numbers and an alleged recording describing the chaos in the field, saying they were unsourced and reflecting unprofessional conduct.
Much speculation focused on the groups behind the attack, whether ISIS from the Sinai, Muslim Brotherhood linked militants, or a rogue army officer perhaps affiliated with al-Qaeda.
The government has launched an investigation, but it is also conducting funerals. Less well reported is this human side of the tragedy, causing Egypt to cancel even a major tourist festival in solidarity with the slain, when the sun shines directly on the face of Ramses II in Abu Simbel.
Desperate to revive the tourism industry, Egypt is more keen to maintain security commitment and morale.
Part of the task is to honor all dead. And among them was Boutros Sulimian Masoud, a Coptic Christian conscript from Ezbat Yacoub Bibawi in Minya. Military figures and Azhar sheikhs were on hand, draping his casket with an Egyptian flag.
Also honored was an army officer named Muhammad Wahid Musalhi. Bishop Makarios of Minya represented the church in both occasions.
And both figures are called ‘martyrs’, as per Egyptian practice, by both church and state.
Consider what you will theologically, but Egypt has suffered a multiplication of martyrs in recent years.
On the one hand, where the term is more familiar, Christians have been targeted by terrorists, though Muslims have also died in the carnage.
On the other, the army and police have been targeted by terrorists, irrespective of religion. Egypt is understood to be 10 percent Christian, and they die beside their brothers in the service.
The Egyptian security services are integrated, drawing all in general conscription. Copts sometimes complain they are kept out of senior positions until promotion at retirement, and that conscript deaths sometimes are under-investigated. But they are grateful for their place in the national army.
It was only in the mid-19th century that the Muhammad Ali dynasty lifted the jizia tax and enrolled Copts. Classical Islamic jurisprudence says that jizia is meant in part to protect Christians living in a Muslim country, that they need not participate in foreign jihad or defense of the nation.
But one of the most powerful proofs of citizenship is mingled blood, fighting side by side against a common enemy.
The pictures here were distributed by the Coptic Media Center and represent Egypt as she idealizes herself. One nation, three religions, one people mourning all.
It does not cover up the flaws, but it is a reminder to Muslim and Christian alike of what Egypt is meant to be.
From Open Democracy, a translation of local sheikhs in Upper Egypt who led a campaign against the construction of a church in their village.
In late February 2017, a major international conference hosted by Al-Azhar concluded with the issuance of an important declaration affirming Muslim and Christian religious institutions’ commitment to the principle of equal citizenship.
Yet on the ground, in the village of Kom Al Lofi, in the Upper Egyptian governorate of El Minya, the practices of two Al-Azhar sheikhs – Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed, an employee of the local mosque, and Sheikh Abdel Gawad, the Imam – suggest a very different take on citizenship than that espoused by Al-Azhar.
In an interview with the official mouthpiece Al-Ahram newspaper, both sheikhs categorically opposed the right of 500 Christian inhabitants to have a church in their village, suggesting that the route to social harmony is for the Christians residents to forgo the idea altogether.
Sheikh Ahmed said that as Copts comprise 7.3% of the village, “their numbers do not allow for the construction of a church.” When the journalist asked if 500 people do not have a right to their own place of worship he responded: “We are a Muslim state (Dawla muslimah) and if there was a pre-existing church we would not object to prayers taking place, but why call for having a church now when we need to unite, not cause the occurrence of strife and this is strife caused by the media!”
He suggested that groups outside the village must be inciting this call for a church because the Christian residents are too poor to contemplate constructing one themselves.
When the journalist questioned how the Muslim majority would be harmed by a church being constructed in the village, given that there are ten mosques, Sheikh Ahmed said: “It is not right and it is not conceivable because our religion is against the construction [of the church]. This is a Muslim state and it has been unacceptable from a security point of view since a long time ago.”
Christians in Kom Al Lofi used to worship in a building that they used as a church but they were prohibited from doing so by the security forces several years ago in response to opposition from local residents and members of religious movements. Since then, families have travelled for miles to worship at churches in other villages.
In recent months, religious hardliners in these other villages have also objected to visitors worshipping in their local churches. In August 2016, security forces promised to reopen the building in Kom Al Lofi to allow Christians to worship there but they have sought the approval of the inhabitants and religious hardliners in the village – which has been repeatedly denied.
Copts have not been silent spectators to the escalating sectarian situation.
On 11 April 2017 – two days after suicide bombers attacked churches in Alexandria and Tanta – local authorities allowed Christians to worship in the building in Kom Al Lofi, but they were met by other residents who threw stones at them. Security forces intervened and arrested the perpetrators, but two days later, on 13 April 2017, the houses of three Christian residents were torched by people in the village in retaliation for their worship in the local building.
(The local sheikhs told the Al Ahram newspaper that the Copts had burnt the houses themselves to attract attention).
Copts in Kom Al Lofi have not been silent spectators to the escalating sectarian situation. Rather, last week they issued a widely-publicised declaration calling on the state to protect their constitutional right to worship and rejecting any informal mediation by so-called local leaders or any deal that would treat them like second-class citizens.
While they held puritanical Salafi hardliners and the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for fomenting anti-Christian sentiment, they also rejected on this occasion the authority of local sheikhs to determine what, when, where and how they should worship.
It is a tricky and persistent problem. Before condemning too quickly please recall the concerns of some in the United States when a mosque is purposed to be built in their community.
I would like to better understand the pro- and con- concerning church building in Islamic law. Certainly the top scholars in Egypt have given fatwas of permission.
It is very important to hear the opposition of voices like these, and learn. The rule of law is necessary, but so is the engagement of neighbor.
Terrorists ambushed a Coptic church bus trip on Friday near Minya in Upper Egypt, killing at least 26 and injuring 25, including many children.
Egypt’s interior ministry reported that three 4×4 vehicles of 8 to 10 gunmen dressed in military uniforms opened fire on the vehicle, which was on its way to St. Samuel the Confessor Monastery in Samalout, 140 miles south of Cairo.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the attack—which occurred on the eve of Ramadan—follows church bombings claimed by the Islamic State on Palm Sunday and in advance of Christmas.
Last week, Egyptian authorities arrested 48 individuals, securing confessions of belonging to a terrorist cell linked to the Islamic State.
“I am grieving. It is sad and shocking,” said Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Qusia, 75 miles from the monastery. “But at the same time, I know this is not new. I was expecting things like this to happen. And it will not be the last.”
Umm Peter stood with dignity in the corner of her simple, cinderblock home. With an appearance weathered over the years, in grandmotherly fashion she spoke of the men of the village and the difficulties of life.
Half, she estimated, work in the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh or Hurghada. There is little opportunity in her all-Christian village of 200 families, a three hour drive south of Cairo in the governorate of Minya.
Umm Peter was speaking to a group of six expats, visiting from Maadi Community Church (MCC). Gathered around were her ten-year-old son, Peter, and his only slightly looking older married sister. Peter is a sponsored child of Healing Grace, a ministry of Kasr el-Dobara, the largest Protestant church in the Middle East, situated at Tahrir Square.
MCC is a partner organization, supporting one of the villages within Healing Grace.
Umm Peter’s own husband is away only half the year, and currently. There is not enough work in the Red Sea either, and he is too old for the rigors of construction.
His age, she was asked. ‘Forty-eight,’ she replied, as if he was already elderly. In village years he might be.
But there is hope Peter might not age as quickly, supported widely through the generosity of donors and the community it helps create.
‘I want Westerners who come here, who live in an expat bubble, to see another side of Egypt and how people live,’ said Rev. Steve Flora, pastor of MCC. ‘Though they barely have electricity or water they are happy, and their lives are being changed for good by the Gospel.’
Flora, who has sponsored a child in the village for the past four years, appreciates Healing Grace for the opportunity to develop a relationship with him. The church arranges visits twice a year; on this occasion twenty expats split into three groups to visit only some of the 49 families who benefit from sponsorship.
Bassel, the sponsorship coordinator for Healing Grace, said the program focuses on three components: Jesus, education, and health.
Every sponsored child is visited weekly by village staff members, who disciples him or her in an age appropriate manner. Healing Grace works with local churches to host an AWANA Club, and sends each child to a weekend retreat once a year. Peter’s favorite Bible story is Joseph and his brothers.
The program pays all school fees, including uniform and supplies, and helps provide private tutoring if necessary. Peter’s ambition is to be a doctor.
Perhaps he has been inspired during his medical checkups, provided free of charge with all necessary medicines. Healing Grace also supplies a monthly package of basic foodstuffs and twice a year outfits Peter and his siblings with new clothes.
‘These kids are different now, the sponsorship gives them health, education, and Christian community,’ said Bassel. ‘Every child deserves a chance, and we want to help transform their lives.’
Since 2009, this has been a reality for 1,275 children in 21 villages. In some Healing Grace has also installed water filtration units in a local church, open to all.
Flora remarked that within Christian denominations Healing Grace is an example and catalyst for unity. In Umm Peter’s village the sponsored children are supported equally through the Orthodox, Evangelical, and Pentecostal churches.
‘We thank you for this ministry that provides spiritual and educational needs in this village,’ said Rev. Emil of the Evangelical church, built in 1917. ‘Christianity is not about preaching only, but also serving and helping others.’
Umm Peter served tea to her guests, extending hospitality to those far better off. After praying together the group bid farewell, ready to visit the next family just down the earthen path.
Sponsorship costs $30 a month, all of which goes to support the children. Healing Grace’s overhead costs are raised separately, supporting a staff of 60 with an additional 100 volunteers. For more information about children available for sponsorship, visit healinggraceministry.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘The ministry of Healing Grace is transformative for the villages, and for us who go and see,’ said Flora. ‘We hope the comparatively wealthy expats in our own church can experience even a portion of the life change that goes on in the village.’
This article was first published in Maadi Messenger.
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.
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.
This video – with transliterated subtitles – was produced by a church choir in Minya, Upper Egypt, a region which witnessed several severe church burnings. They stand within one church’s charred remains, and sing about love and forgiveness.
May they truly live these words.
Many Christians have spoken that if these heinous attacks are the price they must pay to secure a civil state of free and equal citizenship, they are willing. But are they willing also not just to forgive alleged Islamists who committed these crimes, but also reach out to them in love and understanding? Right now, their temptation is to celebrate the upswing of their fortunes and join in the condemnation, if not demonization, of all things Islamist.
For a view of some of these crimes, please see this video, recently released by the Bible Society showing the attack on its branches in Minya and Asyut.
Yes, if they wish, condemn all things Islamist, but not all people Islamist. This is the test of their song: All crimes notwithstanding, can they differentiate between actions, ideas, and the people themselves? The love of which they sing demands they stand against the tide and seek transparent justice for all currently accused.
And then, amidst it all, to forgive. This is far easier in song than in deed, but meditation in song can transform the heart. Can it transform the Copts? Can it transform the nation? The outlook is bleak, therefore, keep singing…
Muhammad Hijāzī, born in Port Said in 1982, converted to Christianity in 1998 at the age of 16. Now 31, he was arrested on December 4, 2013 in the governorate of Minya on charges of espionage, inciting sectarian tension through evangelism, and unlicensed photography and journalism.
In 2007 Hijāzī became the first Egyptian convert to Christianity to petition the state to change the religion field on his ID card, and has changed his name to Bishoy Armia Boulos. According to his former lawyer, Mamdūh Nakhlah, had anyone else but Hijāzī been working in Minya, no charges would have been filed.
Nakhlah agreed to represent Hijāzī in his 2007 lawsuit, but later withdrew due to pressure from the church. His information now comes from overall familiarity with the current case, as well as contact with those in the area where he was arrested. Nakhlah believes the main charge of espionage is fabricated, but that there are enough convenient details surrounding the case to give the prosecutor a pretext to arrest Hijāzī.
Please click here to read the full article, speaking of these pretexts – including a media relationship with one of the figures involved in the production of the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ film that sparked protests throughout the region. The article also goes through the history of his efforts to register his religious change, which are still pending on appeal.
From the Atlantic Council, following the Muslim Brotherhood’s English and Arabic discourse on Dalga, an Upper Egyptian village seized by Islamists and recently recovered by the security forces:
The Muslim Brotherhood has been quick to roll the Dalga raid into an on-going crackdown on the organization and its supporters, but has once again offered different reactions in English and in Arabic. Arabic Brotherhood media outlets make no mention of the sectarian violence that Christians in Dalga faced. In fact, they have gone so far as to accuse Copts in Dalga of lying to gain the sympathy of the world.
On the Freedom and Justice Party’s official website, they write: “A number of Christian families started to spread false news about being detained by locals of the village as hostages and claimed that some of the village residents burned their churches. The Coptic Diaspora exploited the news to prepare the international community, particularly, American politicians for a new massacre in Dalga.
The article shows a screenshot of the FJP website, and then continues:
In contrast in English, the Muslim Brotherhood’s London office sent a statement to journalists condemning the attacks on Dalga’s Copts, expressing “solidarity” with their “Christian brothers and sisters.”
The Brotherhood’s official website, Ikhwanweb, similarly condemned the attacks on Christians, expressing solidarity with Dalga’s Copts, and called on authorities to “protect all citizens and places of worship.”At the same time, however, the statement placed the blame of the sectarian attacks on the military and ‘thugs’. The official statement read:
“The Muslim Brotherhood strongly condemn attacks on places of worship, including attacks on Egyptian Copts and churches as well as indiscriminate attacks on the innocent civilians in Dalga by the military junta, which it claims to protect Christians from “Islamist Militants.” This is part of the military junta’s propaganda to push for sectarian strife and justify their atrocities against the innocent people of Dalga for their fierce opposition of the military coup.”
Of course, it is possible the Brotherhood’s opponents are also using doublespeak. On the one hand they are terrorists; on the other, they are invited to be part of the nation’s democratic transition.
But in claiming a religious higher ground, the Muslim Brotherhood only reveals a deeper hypocrisy. In a war of propaganda it is good to be reminded regularly of such discrepancies. Here, a pundit offers her advice to all.
“We learned that extremists were going to attack us with machine guns, but we did not prepare ourselves for the attack with weapons. We did something simple,” says Bishop Thomas, about that day he received a message that armed hardliners were on their way to his episcopal residence in the Al Quosia-region of Lower Egypt.
Determined to defend themselves without violent means, the church fathers applied soap and water on the rocky path leading to Bishop Thomas’ residence.
“I saw them coming with their machine guns far down the road. They tried to get to the house, but they slipped and fell. They tried over and over again, without succeeding,” says the Bishop, smiling with grief as he talks about the episode.
The grief is over the many homes in his diocese which were attacked. But he is resisting the urge to demonize:
“Fear and anger does not come in my heart. Fear is the biggest enemy – this makes you lose wisdom and power,” said the Bishop gently when asked about the impact of the violence on life as a Copt. “Hatred is the biggest disease – full of revenge and the source of all evil.”
Doing so enables him to take a path different from many Copts, who have embraced the current crackdown on Islamists:
“I need to embrace the victims with love and communicate forgiveness. When the worst assaults are over, my task is to promote and facilitate reconciliation,” said the Bishop calmly while smiling. “The Coptic church is training people to see the situation from different perspectives, we teach them the difference between autocracy and democracy, and the meaning of a civil state. We are working against both a religious – and a marshal state.”
The attacks, some might say paradoxically, have brought the Muslims and Christians of his area closer together:
“Poor Muslim families brought blankets to the Christians who lost their homes, and together we formed a civil front– not Christians against Muslims– but civil society against extremism,” explained the Bishop.
Among the issues discussed jointly were defense-tactics and how to prevent any new attacks.
Images and video-clips from Muslims and Christians, who hand in hand formed a protective ring circle around churches, were shared on social media across the globe.
“No one who has not experienced sectarian violence close up will be able to imagine what this solidarity means to us, as a society,” said Bishop Thomas gratefully. “We did actually lose hope under Morsi. Now we are hoping and praying that the price Copts are paying now will benefit generations of Egyptians in the future.”
Here in Maadi, Cairo, life goes on as normal amid the political instability. This town in Minya is not so fortunate. From the AP:
A town of some 120,000 — including 20,000 Christians — Dalga has been outside government control since hard-line supporters of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi drove out police and occupied their station on July 3, the day Egypt’s military chief removed the president in a popularly supported coup. It was part of a wave of attacks in the southern Minya province that targeted Christians, their homes and businesses.
Since then, the radicals have imposed their grip on Dalga, twice driving off attempts by the army to send in armored personnel carriers by showering them with gunfire.
Local Christians are particularly suffering, at least those who have not fled:
Among the homes torched was that of Father Angelos, an 80-year-old Orthodox priest who lives close to the monastery. Yoannis’ home was spared a similar fate by his Muslim neighbors. A 60-year-old Christian who fired from his roof to ward off a mob was dragged down and killed, the activists said.
“Even if we had firearms, we would be reluctant to use them,” said Yoannis. “We cannot take a life. Firing in the air may be our limit.”
Those who remain pay armed Muslim neighbors to protect them. Yoannis said his brother paid with a cow and a water buffalo. Most Christian businesses have been closed for weeks.
Armed men can be seen in the streets, and nearly every day Islamists hold rallies at a stage outside the police station, demanding Morsi’s reinstatement.
Most Christians remain indoors as much as possible, particularly during the rallies. They say they are routinely insulted on the streets by Muslims, including children. Christian women stay home at all times, fearing harassment by the Islamists, according to multiple Christians who spoke to the AP. Most requested that their names not be published for fear of reprisals.
“The Copts in Dalga live in utter humiliation,” said local rights activist Ezzat Ibrahim. “They live in horror and cannot lead normal lives.”
The Islamic concept of jizia requires non-Muslims to pay a tax in exchange for their protection. Many Muslims argue today this principle is no longer applicable, as Christians join in the army and jointly defend their nation.
But here the Copts have no share nor desire to defend their village with these Islamists against the army. Therefore, it appears, the concept of jizia is demanded from them.
Here is an example of their protector, the man guarding the monastery-church:
At intervals, the 33-year-old father of three would stop talking, move carefully to the edge of a wall and stick his head out to check if someone was coming.
His big worry was the bearded Muslim at the gate, Saber Sarhan Askar.
Skinny with hawk-like hazelnut eyes, Askar is said by Dalga’s Christians to have taken part in the torching and looting of the monastery. Outside the monastery that day, Askar was telling priests he was there to protect it. But the orders he yelled to other priests left no doubt who was in charge.
“Bring us tea!” he barked at one priest. “I need something cold to drink!” he screamed at another soon after.
To my knowledge, this is the only incident of pro-Morsi supporters gaining a foothold in a local area. Elsewhere, they are on the run. Still, the security apparatus has tasked itself with a heavy burden.
How much blood will be shed recovering this village? If the state of the nation and economy does not improve over the next several months, might their be similar mutinies elsewhere? The state, in general, was weak before the revolution, and is weaker now.
Dalga is the only current example, and is likely to remain so. But the question is open. What will the future hold?
From the AP, providing an excellent and balanced account of reported Christian kidnappings in Upper Egypt. Following the Fox News story I highlighted two days ago, this is the type of investigation the issue deserves. I’m both jealous and proud, and quite concerned over the content:
Crime has risen in general across Egypt, hitting Muslims as well. But the wave of kidnappings in Minya has specifically targeted Christians, and victims, church leaders and rights activists ultimately blame the atmosphere created by the rising power of hard-line Islamists.
They contend criminals are influenced by the rhetoric of radical clerics depicting Egypt’s Christian minority as second-class citizens and see Christians as fair game, with authorities less likely to investigate crimes against the community.
Over the past two years, there have been more than 150 reported kidnappings in the province — all of them targeting Christians, according to a top official at the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police.
Of course, I wish this official’s name was provided. Egypt is a nation of rumors, and much reporting is based on ‘sources’ obtained from the military, police, judiciary, Muslim Brotherhood, whoever – and it often seems the purpose is to steer the media discourse without owning responsibility for the accusation. But here is an official who provides his name:
Responding to the allegations that authorities do not aggressively investigate crimes against Christians, Minya’s security chief Ahmed Suleiman said it is because victims’ families negotiate with kidnappers rather than report the abductions.
“We cannot be held responsible for kidnappings that are not reported to us,” he said, blaming hardened criminals for the kidnappings.
Christians say they don’t bother to report because they have no confidence in the police.
And here is the Islamist denial of responsibility along with a highly controversial and politically expedient remedy:
Essam Khairy, a spokesman for the hard-line Islamist group Gamaa Islamiya in Minya, said “there is not a single case of Christian kidnapping that has a sectarian motive or linked to the Islamist groups.”
He blamed the “security chaos” in Egypt and said the way to stop kidnappings is to create popular committees — vigilante groups that the Gamaa Islamiya has been promoting since a spate of strikes in the police last month.
The governor the region is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the article highlights holds continual meetings with local Christian leaders. But members of the party do not necessary believe in equality:
The Brotherhood and its political party frequently underline their respect for Christian rights. But at times members reveal an attitude suggesting a second-class status for the community.
On Wednesday, Yasser Hamza, an official in the Brotherhood’s party, argued in a TV interview that while the campaign slogan “Islam is the solution” is permissible, the slogan “Christianity is the solution” would not be. He was addressing specific election rules, but then broadly declared, “This is an Islamic nation with an overwhelming Muslim majority … The minority doesn’t have absolute rights, it has relative rights.”
But perhaps the reason behind these attacks is as old as it is simple:
The Interior Ministry official acknowledged that Christians are seen as less defended.
“Kidnapping Christians is an easy way to make money,” he said. They “don’t have the tribal or clan backup that will deter kidnappers and they are happy to pay the ransom to gain the freedom of their loved ones.”
Wouldn’t you? Goodness, such a horrible situation. Solving it only makes it worse. Please click here to read the rest of the article at AP.
Update on the Fox News post: My wife suggested the presenter in the video may have been referring to ‘Garbage City’ as the Christian quarter and slum. If so, he is right, it is a slum, where a nearly 100% Christian population sorts and recycles the nation’s trash, living in the middle of it.
This area is very close to suburban Muqattam where the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters is. But the suburban development came long after Christian migrants from Upper Egypt settled off in their isolated mountain community. The reason has nothing to do with discrimination or lack of political rights: Garbage collection involved raising pigs, and pigs were the province of Christians alone.
The pigs have since been killed, in what appeared to be a very discriminatory act ostensibly taken several years ago now to prevent the spread of swine flu. But the Christians of Garbage City labor on, though some of their livelihood has been further removed as trash collection is outsourced to foreign based companies – who do not recycle nearly as well.
For anyone who would like more information about this community, check out the documentary ‘Garbage Dreams’. It’s quite good.
I am currently working on an article summing up the Coptic reaction to President Morsy’s first days in office. Unfortunately, the publisher’s word count means squeezing out a few otherwise indicative quotes.
One interesting quote that didn’t make the cut is from Rev. Mina el-Badry, a Protestant pastor from Minya in Upper Egypt. Responding to my inquiry, he said:
‘Morsy is our president; we are all with him and all behind him, as we want the nation to stabilize. It is not up to Copts to oppose the president – these are political issues. Some will oppose him and some will support him, but as Egyptians.
‘I believe all power and all sovereignty is for God, and he knows best how to protect us – whether the president is Morsy or anyone else.’
The conventional wisdom in Egypt is that Copts are very concerned about Morsy’s presidency, despite encouraging rhetoric I will highlight soon. Yet also important to note are spiritually oriented thoughts such as these. It will be interesting to follow the evolution of Egyptian Christian thinking toward Islamist rule as the years go by … if indeed they have that long.
Note: Ha. I meant by that last statement if Islamists will rule that long. A second glance revealed it could be read if Egyptian Christians survive that long. Which way did you read it, and what might that reading communicate? Gulp. Of me I wonder if it reveals a subliminal schizophrenia.
Issues of sectarian tension in Upper Egypt create a double problem in establishing fact. First, many news agencies do not commit resources to the area, so journalism often relies on hearsay rather than first-hand reporting. Second, religious biases often serve to either cover over or amplify aspects of the story that play into an established narrative. This is true both among those involved and in the reporters themselves, as rumors are easily conflated into facts.
In the last week the governorate of Minya in Upper Egypt witnessed two examples of Muslim-Christian tension. Unfortunately, these incidents often go unreported in major media outlets, and within Egypt often receive scant coverage as well. This is seen in the brevity of tworeports in al-Masry al Youm, English edition, which also serve to establish the basic facts.
In the first report, clashes are reported between Copts and the police, when the former attempted to block a road in protest of two local girls who were rumored to have been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.
In the second report, the police this time disperse hundreds of Muslims surrounding a church in Beni Ahmad village in the governorate of Minya. They were protesting the reinstatement of a priest who had been previously removed by agreement of the church and authorities, allegedly for inciting sectarian tension.
With the dearth of first-hand, in-depth reporting, however, comes coverage that often relies on one-sided sources, promoting a cause with lack of objectivity. Whereas the lack of coverage can be interpreted as complicit silence against Coptic grievances, this latter reporting is wholesale adoption of their perspective. Indicative are these twoarticles from the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), which tells these stories, and others as well.
These articles rely on statements taken from the area, and do a good job of increasing the level of detail.
In the first report, the two Coptic girls are identified as Christine Azat (age 16) and Nancy Magdi (age 14). These were reportedly abducted on June 12 while on their way to church. The article quotes Christine’s father, and describes how the Christians of the area have scrambled to assemble the 200,000 LE ($33,333 US) ransom demanded for their release. Once done, however, they were rebuffed saying the girls were already sold to another group, which was now demanding twelve million LE (two million USD) to hand them over. The article mentions the rumor that they ran away and willingly embraced Islam, but dismisses this as the Azhar rejects underage conversions.
In the second report, the village of Beni Ahmad West is located seven kilometers south of Minya. The conflict relates to an incident from March 23rd, 2011, in which Muslims surrounded St. George Church and threatened to destroy it when licensed renovation appeared to be expanding the building. Eyewitnesses are quoted saying the Muslims chanted they would kill the priest, Fr. George Thabit, for his role in events if he and his family did not leave the village. In a previous article AINA states there are 23,000 Muslims and 8,000 Christians resident in the village.
The report states that Fr. George did leave the village. Muslims, however, heard rumors he would be returning, and began to camp out at the church in small numbers. When he did come back, on June 24 there was another major demonstration against him. Five hours later he was escorted away in a police vehicle. The Muslims remained until security later dispersed them. The archbishopric is quoted as condemning this interference in ecclesiastic affairs, asking for the rule of law and maintenance of security.
The information above is fair enough, but it is couched in language that betrays bias. For example, the report about the two girls ends with the speculation that, “as females, their lot is to be raped, enslaved, and sold off to some rich, sexually-depraved man who believes it his divine right to own infidel sex-slaves.” The second report does not have such blatant speculation, but ends with communication of a non-identified threat from the Muslim ‘mob’, that unless they hear that, “the priest is banned from returning to the village, they will hold their Friday prayers tomorrow, June 24, inside St. George’s church.”
If indeed this is the story, it is important to relate it as such. Given the sensitive reality of sectarian tension, however, it is vital to either consult contrary sources or else convey the story with appropriate doubt. The English language Ahram Online web newspaper provides alternate coverage of the kidnapped girls.
This article places both girls’ ages at 14, and states they ran away from home months ago, with their families searching for them frantically. A policeman discovered them walking on the streets, conspicuous with their face veil but with the tattoo of a cross on their wrists. The article states the girls have produced a YouTube video stating their voluntary conversion to Islam, and that they were not kidnapped. It states they are being held in a safe house until an Azhar scholar can determine if the story of their conversion is true. Meanwhile, the families of the girls have asked that they be returned home.
It should be noted that Ahram Online is a government owned newspaper. Though it has appeared to have more freedom to criticize the government than its printed counterpart, al-Ahram, the story must still be understood in light of its ownership reality.
Arab West Report was able to contact Nermine Rida, a Coptic Orthodox journalist for Akhbar al-Minya. She stated the girls were involved in a teenage crush with two Muslims, Ali Gomaa Rashid and his relative Ezzat Gomaa Rashid. These along with another relative, Saudi Gomaa Rashid, were currently being held in custody, along with five Copts still detained for their role in the demonstrations. Rida stated that Copts transgressed the acceptable levels of peaceful demonstration by blocking the road, and that the police were justified in breaking up their protest.
Rida also stated that the Azhar rejected the girls’ conversion to Islam since the law does not allow for the conversion of anyone under eighteen years of age. She did watch the YouTube video, however, and was convinced the girls were not kidnapped and made the video without compulsion. She understood that they were being held currently by authorities, but were soon due to return to their homes.
Rida was unable to confirm the ransom demand, except to say a call to raise 200,000 LE was issued by a Christian satellite channel, al-Tariq.
Concerning the incident in Beni Ahmad village, Rida confirmed the outlines of the story centering around Muslim demonstrations and Fr. George Thabit. There was a disagreement about the dimensions of the church and the role played by Fr. George, resulting in an agreement with Bishop Arsanius of Minya to send him away. During his absence from the village the church was repaired satisfactorily along the lines agreed upon by all village members.
After completion, the bishop returned Fr. George to the village, and Muslims were angered and resumed their demonstration. Yet Rida makes clear Muslims were not the only party in disagreement with his decision. Around thirty Copts joined the Muslims in demonstrating against the return of Fr. George, headed by one named Rifaat al-Qummus.
Arab West Report is unable to independently verify the account of Nermine Rida.
What should be made of these situations, then? Without traveling to the area and investigating directly, one should be cautious about claiming certainty about events. Even then, one would be likely to discover contradictory testimony.
Kidnappings regardless of religion have taken place in Egypt within the security vacuum since the revolution. Many Copts, however, believe their community is especially targeted by extremist Muslims. Yet it is also clear that at times Copts respond with accusations of kidnapping when facing the shame of a female relative running away from home, either due to a bad family situation or in a love affair with a Muslim.
One of the issues lies in the definition of kidnapping. Generally understood, kidnapping involves the use of physical force in an abduction. Some Copts, however, expand the meaning to include the luring away of adolescent women from their family, helping (or deceiving) her to escape from difficult domestic situations. Cornelis Hulsman of Arab West Report has written extensively on this issue.
Camilia Shehata represents the most recent example of an imagined kidnapping, which captured the attention of the nation. Frustrated by her marital situation, she ran away and disappeared for four days. Local Copts immediately began demonstrating demanding her return from her assumed Muslim captors.
Muslims, meanwhile, circulated pictures in which she was wearing a hijab, and claimed Copts had kidnapped her – a willing convert to Islam – holding her in a church or monastery. Salafi Muslims held rallies in her defense, and some threatened to storm the monasteries in search of their ‘sister’. Immediately on the heels of this story followed the case of Abeer Talaat, which culminated in the horrors of Imbaba when Muslims tried to enter the church upon a rumor she was captive there, held apart from her Muslim husband. The ensuing clash resulted in multiple deaths and the burning of a nearby church with no connection to the rumor.
One day before the Imbaba incident, Camilia Shehata appeared on al-Hayat Christian satellite channel and told the truth of her story. She sat with her husband and child, and confessed to running away from home, due to marital issues. She never converted to Islam, however, and she was sorry for the trouble caused.
In terms of church building issues, it is well known that Christians have had difficulty securing permits. During the Mubarak era, decision-making power was held by the security apparatus, which often decided upon granting or withholding permits due to the perceived reception of Muslims in the area. There is currently a new, draft, unified law for building houses of worship, to govern both churches and mosques on an administrative basis. The first draft has been rejected by the churches of Egypt, in part due to the perception the locus of decision will not move from security.
This issue is similar to a church building conflict in Ezbet Bushra from June 2009, in the governorate of Beni Suef. In this location Fr. Ishaq Kastour was involved in a controversy in which Copts built a factory which was actually purposed to become a church, which included a place for his personal residence. The process was done without approval, and Muslims vandalized the building at various stages. Fr. Ishaq was also removed from the village by the bishop (presumably at the urging of the security apparatus), returned, but was eventually permanently assigned elsewhere. A government sponsored Muslim-Christian reconciliation meeting led to the decision to grant Copts a church building, but on the outskirts of the village, as a hastily constructed mosque was given preference at the original location. As of the completion of an AWR report on the subject, authorization of the church had not yet been granted.
It also is not uncommon for parishioners to disagree about their church leadership. The Coptic Orthodox Church is a hierarchical organization which appoints priests to their diocese. While local sentiment can be and often is taken into consideration, it is not unheard of for a small but active contingent of a congregation to reject their given priest. According to Rida’s report, only thirty Copts participated in the protest against Fr. George. Was this a contingent of malcontents, or indicative of widespread frustration with his leadership? In any event, it would be improper to label the demonstration strictly as Muslim transgression in church affairs.
None of this explanation should be used to justify the parameters of the two stories, but will hopefully make actions more understandable. The girls may have been kidnapped or not, but if not, surely most demonstrators did not know the truth of the situation. It is the case in Egypt, and certainly since the revolution, that the best way to achieve results is to gather masses of people and pressure authorities to grant your demands. In the face of perceived official neglect of Coptic issues, including other cases of alleged kidnapped girls, the demonstration on the part of most was in imitation of other groups’ success.
Should this be necessary? No. Should underage girls have been immediately returned to their family? Yes. Should Copts have blocked roads and resisted dismissal? No. Have there been real cases of kidnapping Coptic adolescents? Perhaps. Is there blame, when in occurrence, on those who quickly circulate false or unsubstantiated claims of kidnapping? Absolutely.
What is the reality of this case? It is not altogether clear.
Similarly, Muslims have used the power of demonstration to great success in pressuring government to yield to their will. This was seen most recently in the case of the appointed Coptic governor of Qena. Initial demonstrations against him were joined by Copts, in protest of the previous Coptic governor’s poor record and the newly appointed governor’s alleged role in killing protestors during the revolution. Yet the demonstrations against him quickly took on a religious dimension, as area Salafis, and some Muslim Brothers, rejected the idea of having a non-Muslim governor altogether. They blocked roads and threatened to cut off supply lines to popular tourist areas to the east on the Red Sea coast. The government was unable to dislodge them, and a solution was crafted in which the governor was ‘suspended’ for three months. When he left the area, the demonstrations subsided.
Were the Muslims of Beni Ahmad looking to similarly assert their will against a rejected priest? Perhaps. Was the conduct of this priest deserving of their rejection? It is not known. Is it the reality of Upper Egypt that decisions are taken communally rather than through the rule of law? Yes. Is this an acceptable way to govern a nation? No. Is it right for the priest to be removed in this way? No.
What is the reality of this case? It is not altogether clear.
What is clear is the poor, partisan, and inflammatory reporting of these incidents by the Assyrian International News Agency. Whereas AINA did an admirable job of presenting a perspective of these events, when much mainstream reporting is either in ignorance or dismissive of its importance, they failed to present other sides of the issue. Furthermore, amidst this negligence, they assumed the total credibility of the reported Coptic position, in doing so warping the perspective of their readership.
Sectarian issues do not plague Egypt, but they are a significant social problem. Underlying them is an unspoken frustration with the ‘other’, as competing storylines place explanation of these incidents into a greater narrative. Depending on perspective, they are either aberrations in a centuries-long culture of tolerance, or else a disturbing confirmation of pervasive discrimination.
Greater narratives, however, smooth over details. Each individual sectarian incident has its own details, many of which are disputed or unknown. Reporting of these events must take utmost care to prevent their automatic assumption into a narrative. At the same time, reporting must call a spade a spade, when this is clear.
Such clarity is difficult to achieve. With sectarian conflict, both metaphorically and literally, the devil is in the details.