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In Memoriam: Dr. Ahmed al-Sayih, Azhar Scholar

Fully deserving of his many titles, the glorious scholar and professor, Dr. Ahmad Abd al-Rahim al-Sayih passed away on July 7, 2011, fully engaged in life at the age of 74. Dr. al-Sayih died while filming an interview for the revolutionary-born al-Tahrir Television channel, speaking about his lifelong efforts in international popular diplomacy, to display a peaceful image of Islam and Egypt wherever he went. The world will miss him, his sharp mind, and his openness to people of all faiths.

Dr. al-Sayih was born in 1937 in Ezbet al-Sayih, a community roughly thirty kilometers from Nag Hamadi in the governorate of Qena, in Upper Egypt. Late in his life Nag Hamadi witnessed the horrific killing of six Christians and a Muslim police guard on Coptic Christmas Eve in 2010, an infamous incident which raised questions about Muslim-Christian relations. Dr. al-Sayih’s interaction with Christians, however, was completely different. He was a member of the noble Qulaiyat branch of the Arab tribe, and grew up with warm, friendly relations with the five or six Christian families of Ezbet al-Sayih. As he matured in his studies these Christians proudly recognized him as ‘our’ sheikh. Following the murders he helped organize an interfaith delegation from the Moral Rearmament Association to visit the families of those killed, explore the cultural environment of the crime, and discuss ways to overcome the national tragedy.

The journey Dr. al-Sayih pursued, however, did not begin as it ended, with real exposure to and open embrace of the Copts of Egypt. Though never an extremist, he pursued his studies with Muslim particularity, coming to master Islamic doctrine and philosophy after leaving his village and enrolling in the Azhar University. After several years he engaged in a professor exchange program, teaching five years in the Faculty of Sharia Law at the University of Qatar. Here his scholarly insight took the attention of the prestigious Umm al-Qurra University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, but contractual regulations with the Azhar required him to first complete his doctorate while teaching at the Cairo-based institution. After obtaining his PhD in Islamic doctrine and philosophy in 1986 from the Azhar, serving as dean in the Faculty of Da’wa (the Islamic Missionary Call), he accepted the post in Mecca, where he taught for nine years.

After many years of exposure to religious thought in the Gulf, however, Dr. al-Sayih began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with its extremist Islamic trends, especially Wahhabism. Wahhabism is an austere interpretation of Islam, seeking imitation of the manner of life as lived by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Unfortunately, it often results in a reactionary attitude to modern life, as well as rejection of other viewpoints and commonality with other religions. With growing awareness of the danger Wahhabism proved to authentic Islam, Dr. al-Sayih dedicated his life to exposing its errors.

This zeal resulted in a scholarly output of over 150 books and hundreds of articles written for Arabic journals around the world. Some of these books were co-authored by such luminaries as Dr. Ahmed Shawqy al-Fangary, Dr. Abdel Fatah Asaker, Dr. Rifaat Sidi Ahmed, Dr. Mohammed al-Halafawy and Sheikh Nasr Ramadan Abdel Hamid. His boldness in critiquing Wahhabism led also to the finding that much of what is attributed to Islam today is actually based on pious misunderstandings from poorly transmitted hadith, the stories recorded of Muhammad’s words and deeds. Never one to shy from controversy, Dr. al-Sayih was committed to discovering and teaching the truth as it revealed itself, finding in this the path to God.

Though he never committed himself to an actual spiritual guide or designated path, Dr. al-Sayih found sympathy with the Sufi interpretation of Islam. Over the course of his life, he attended over fifty international Sufi conferences, promoting an open and tolerant picture of Islam. This was more than a simple intellectual position. Dr. al-Sayih visited Makarious Monastery in Wadi Natroun, Egypt, and prayed over the grave of John the Baptist and the Prophet Elisha. He esteemed the monks there to be the truest of Sufis, who represent the best of Islam.

Furthermore, Dr. al-Sayih’s openness towards Copts facilitated his frequent collaboration with Arab West Report. Together they found commonality in the belief that Islam is not to blame for the often true difficulties Copts face in Egypt, but rather the ill interpretation of Islam which exasperates social tensions, giving ordinary community problems a religious face. This phenomena is often made worse when these tensions are manipulated by politics or religion. Dr. al-Sayih’s contribution toward promoting Coptic understanding in Egypt resulted in his commendation by no less an organization than Copts United, an American based group highlighting Christian difficulties in Egypt. Following the death of the Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, Copts United nominated him for succession.

Dr. Ahmad al-Sayih leaves behind a wife, three sons, and five daughters. He was buried in his village of Ezbet al-Sayih, and on July 12 received a commemorative farewell in Al Rashdan Mosque in Nasr City, near his home in Cairo. He was a man of both great mind and great heart, and will be missed by all who knew him. May Egypt produce similar scholars, who are able to follow in his footsteps.

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Coptic Participation in Politics

Georgette Qillini is a member of the Egyptian People’s Assembly. A Copt, she gained prominence during the crisis of Nag Hamadi, in which six Christians and a Muslim policeman were killed outside a church on Coptic Christmas. Qillini spoke boldly and decisively during the governmental review, laying blame on the Coptic governor of the region, Magdi Ayyub, Muslim People’s Assembly representative for Nag Hamadi, Abd el-Rahman el-Ghoul, and the Ministry of the Interior for their share in the “persecution”, in her words, suffered by Copts in the region. In her stance she was rallied around by many Muslims and especially Copts, who found in her a defender of their rights.

Finding a defender, however, is no easy matter. Copts comprise less than 1% of the membership in parliament, though their population in Egypt is estimated to be roughly 6-10% of the whole. This disparity was addressed by Qillini during a presentation given on June 28, 2010 at a youth meeting at St. Mark’s Orthodox Church in Maadi, Cairo. During her address she called the Coptic community to task for failing to participate in politics, encouraging them to “change themselves” rather than simply complain about their understood mistreatment in society.

Qillini opened her remarks with admission that ‘politics’ as a subject was on the lips of everyone. This is election season in Egypt and Copts as much as anyone pay attention to the national developments. Qillini expanded the thought, however, stating that politics is grounded in a political party system, of which most Egyptians, but especially Copts, are woefully absent. How then can they effectively participate at any level more substantial than conversation?

The first step, Qillini delineated, is simple knowledge of the system as constructed in the Constitution. Within this document our rights are found, she said, but we do not know them. Every Egyptian citizen – man/woman, Muslim/Christian, rich/poor – is guaranteed the same rights and must be offered the same opportunities. Failure to participate, however, unbalances this equation. Though rights are guaranteed, opportunities go by the wayside.

The second step is to focus on the maintenance of dialogue in society. Since the Copt is a person, complete, a full citizen before the law, he or she has every right to speak from personal perspective. Dialogue, however, requires being with the other, being open to the other, and knowing the other. Many Copts isolate themselves in church activities, and thus, know as little as they are known. If you have studied a subject, pursue it with diligence; then, be present in society so as to speak about it. Once in the public square, ask and be asked about all things.

The third step is to participate actively in elections, but even more so, in the political party system. Several months ago the leadership of St. Mark’s Church repeatedly encouraged the congregation to register to vote in the upcoming elections. Aware or unaware, Qillini asked those present, roughly 200 young adults but with substantial members of the older generations, how many of you have received your voter registration cards? Only about 25% raised their hands. Qillini pressed further, asking how many of these had voted. Of the 25%, only a quarter signaled affirmatively. Her last question asked how many present were members of an established political party. Only two identified as such.

Within her remarks Qillini anticipated and spoke to a common Coptic objection. What chance is there for participation, many wonder, when the political atmosphere is not pluralistic and anti-Coptic sentiment exists in many fields of society? Though not dismissing the assessment, Qillini stated though discrimination is an obvious growing attitude in the society, there are still many balanced voices which oppose it. The negative attitude of Copts in participating in politics, however, stems primarily from two sources: frustration and fear. Fear, however, has little to do with Christian faith. We pray ‘Our Father who is in heaven’, she counseled. If this is true, why should we fear? Have we forgotten that nothing can happen unless God wills it? Yes, there may be consequences which follow our efforts, but there is also reward. Qillini accepted that, of course, not everyone has the courage necessary to speak fearlessly. Nevertheless, everyone can gradually, but conscientiously, prepare themselves to build the courage required. Society will not magically change. We are the ones who must change ourselves first.

Following the presentation Qillini was presented with a banner on behalf of the youth of the churches of Maadi. The banner spoke of everyone’s support for her election campaign, celebrating her as the bravest voice in parliament and the best representative of Egyptian Copts. Afterwards, Fr. Yunan clarified that this banner was not a statement on behalf of the church, for the church should not involve itself in politics. Certain youth prepared this on their own, he said, and wished with it to honor Qillini. It was a telling sign, however, for the extent to which Coptic political sentiment has adopted her as one of its chief representatives. Should Qillini’s words have any fruit, however, she may in time prove to be less exceptional. She certainly would prefer it this way.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Shenouda Support Rally: Details and Reflection

Downtown, at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, surrounded by protest. Perhaps I am easily overcome, but my sincerest expression of belonging was represented in tears, three, four in number, but lingering on my cheek.

I was caught unawares by my surroundings, but I was not unprepared. Yesterday I was at this very same location participating in a press conference organized by Pope Shenouda in official church protest against the recent decision of the Supreme Administrative Court to compel the church to grant and sanctify second marriages following divorce. Finding the ruling contrary to the teachings of the Bible, Pope Shenouda stated in no uncertain terms that the church would not honor this ruling. He criticized the judiciary for interfering in religious matters which legal and Islamic precedent dictate should be left to the church. He stopped short of calling for the direct involvement of President Mubarak, but made it clear this was an act against the Coptic people and their faith, setting a stage of challenge between the church and state.

Following the press conference I had opportunity to interview many bishops of the church, among them Bishop Kyrillos of Nag Hamadi, who had attended an emergency session of the Holy Synod along with 82 other bishops from Egypt and around the world. At Arab West we have been following the events of Nag Hamadi, in which six Christians and a Muslim policeman were gunned down outside a church following the celebration of Christmas mass. Bishop Kyrillos was at the center of this incident and surrounding controversy, and I sought to arrange an interview with him. Not only would it be valuable to hear his version of the events and the current climate in the area, I also wanted to speak to him of peacemaking – what must be done to bring divergent parties together, and who might these parties be?

I was hardly expecting this opportunity, but having invested much ink and many prayers over the difficulties experienced in Nag Hamadi, an interview with Bishop Kyrillos represented the best opportunity to learn directly about the incident. Moreover, it was a chance to build a relationship with the central regional Christian figure, and possibly, humbly, be able to participate in the restoration of religious relationships in the area. How, I might ask him, have Christians responded since the murders? What can be done to show love and forgiveness in the midst of tragedy? How is the church preparing people to think and act in the spirit of Jesus? What would this even look like? Somewhat fearful that these questions are not being considered in Nag Hamadi, but with little evidence either way, here was a chance to hear from the source.

The series of coincides continues. At the press conference I met a friend who studies with me at a Coptic Bible Institute, who was also present on behalf of his media. Learning from him that he has cultivated relationships with many bishops which he would be willing to share, I phoned him that evening to ask for the bishops phone number. Late in the morning we connected, he remembered me from our brief encounter, and we set an appointment for 4:00pm. The next day he would return to Nag Hamadi, over eight hours away by train.

Not yet finished from cataloging and writing about the press conference I dropped matters in order to prepare for this interview, and shortly thereafter returned to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral where he resides when in Cairo. Not sure where to find him I inquired of those who seemed official, who sat me and my two colleagues from Arab West in an office and told me he would join us soon.

Alternately, we were told he was upstairs resting. We also heard he had not yet even arrived at the Cathedral. Yet everyone told us he would be present at Pope Shenouda’s weekly lecture given every Wednesday night at 7:00pm. In Egypt one should be used to waiting, so we sat patiently, made occasional inquiries, and hoped for the best. Meanwhile, the bishop’s cell phone had been switched off, so it was impossible to alert him we were there.

In the bishop’s defense, I arranged this interview in Arabic, over the phone, and the bishop himself is elderly and from Upper Egypt, known for a dialect all its own. I may have gotten the time wrong, or he may have been waiting for us in an entirely different location, or even just elsewhere in the Cathedral. It is best never to assume you have understood things correctly as a foreigner.

At 5:00pm someone came to talk with us who seemed as official as those from whom we inquired earlier. Still, he represented himself as one with connections, so after a while he returned and told us the bishop was not around, but that he would attend Pope Shenouda’s lecture and perhaps we could see him there. Disappointed, but also completely unsure this gentleman had any sounder information than those we spoke to previously, it at least gave us the excuse to leave the room and inquire elsewhere for the bishop’s whereabouts. Yet he made an odd statement that seemed out of place – we needed to leave the sitting room we were in for security.

On our way into the Cathedral we noticed dozens of signs that were not there the day before. Each one expressed support for Pope Shenouda from different personalities or dioceses, or else expressed protest at the decision of the court and commitment to live by Biblical teaching. It seemed strange, for why were these not posted earlier for the press conference? They certainly were produced, assembled, and displayed very quickly thereafter.

As we exited the sitting room we received our answer. The signs formed a corridor defining a space for an emerging demonstration. Naguib Gabraeel, a well known Coptic lawyer and human rights activist, was delivering an impassioned statement to the television cameras, and leading vociferous chants in support of Pope Shenouda and the church’s stance against the judicial ruling. Yet at the same time, only twenty or so demonstrators were gathered behind him echoing his chants of protest. Twenty people still made quite a scene and a lot of noise, but I cynically wondered how this would be displayed in the newspapers the next day. Would the press play it up to be larger than it was?

Of course, to be remembered is that we were only here by coincidence. Still, it was an opportunity to experience in person the passion held by many in the Coptic cause. Yet, with pause – does twenty people represent ‘many’? I stayed on the outskirts but within the throng. To be fair, the number was growing, but to jump ahead in time, but the time we left around 6:30pm the active demonstrators numbered only around seventy-five, while the passive crowd around them was perhaps between five and seven hundred, attentive, but definitely not engaged.

I am not a man of protest, for good or for ill. I have great respect for pacifistic civil disobedience, but have not joined in demonstrations of any kind, to know of their ilk.

In these matters, then, my judgment is limited, or, being yet virgin perhaps I experienced the events of the day more fully than seasoned activists, like Naguib Gibraeel and those behind him, who know how to put on a show. If a show it be, then it was one which unnerved me completely. After all, this was a Christian protest.

Christians, like all citizens, should have the right to protest. When angry they, like all humans, can easily respond in kind. Given the enormity of the issue – judicial rulings seeking to manipulate sacramental marriage practice – a protest can be seen as completely justified. Active participants, however, displayed their anger, frustration, perhaps even contempt for the decision rendered against them. Simultaneously, they heaped praise and adulation on Pope Shenouda, celebrating him as their champion. Slogans chanted fidelity to the Gospel, as this is at the heart of the remarriage debate. Yet fidelity to the Gospel was absent from conduct, especially concerning passages commending the poor in spirit and commanding prayers of blessing for those against you. Instead, there was hero worship – “Pope Shenouda is the Athanasius[i] of the 20th Century”. There was disparaging of government concerning the president – “Mubarak, why are you silent?” and the judiciary – “Oh judge, where were you during Nag Hamadi?” There was even evocation of martyrdom – “We received this religion from our fathers; we will give it to our children even at the price of our blood.”

I have written about this wondering at the nature of Coptic protest before, but this time, I was on the inside. The anger felt rawer, the lack of grace more appalling. Yet, strangely, hinted above through confession of cynicism, a different response touched me more deeply. It was the sense of manipulation that stole even the sordid glory from this occasion.

By all accounts Naguib Gibraeel was playing to the cameras. Surely protest organizers must be ringleaders, and Gibraeel is sincere in his beliefs and care for the Coptic-Egyptian cause, if theatrical in his methods. Yet a protest, to be real, must draw on the pinched nerve of the community. Even if manipulated, or for a better word – organized – a rally cannot be sustained unless the crowds assemble and join in.

As hard as the sloganeers chanted, the troops did not fall in line. Hoisted above the throng on the shoulders of supporters, they took turns chanting from their composed poetry with the active crowd of seventy-five repeating their couplets. The hundreds more gathered around listened, watched, turned away, and though they filled the allotted square, they hardly filled the protest. Some were drawn into the chanting, others began to chant but then lost stamina. It was rather sad.

I have a desire to believe the sincerity of people in their words and actions. Even in those with whom I disagree can be found virtue if behind their cause they are pursuing good. Dramatics aside, these protest organizers were seeking to aid the Coptic cause. Yes, they were manipulating the news, even if flailing in manipulating the passion of those around. I am of a different sort, but I can recognize, through effort, that their hearts are good.

Until, that is, a source within both church and security circles confirmed my fears that this was a game. He offered me a scoop: The president has already decided to intervene in this matter and suspend the judicial ruling against the church. He is simply waiting until the Copts protest sufficiently so that he can be seen as coming to their rescue. Behind the scenes, I was told, he communicated this to demonstration leaders, who were giving the president what he needed. By the morning, the crisis would be over.

This source represents himself as being well placed; he has been correct previously and at other times he has been less so. On this occasion, however, his words met my impressions and the two became bedfellows. As I wandered through the crowds this was my one thought – insincere manipulation.

Incidentally, the next morning there was no announcement. Perhaps the source was off base; perhaps the demonstration just wasn’t good enough. Either way, the impasse between church and judiciary stands, but how many people really care? By reading our press review you can get the impression that this is consuming Coptic attention. By reading our report on the press conference you will see that Pope Shenouda almost never holds one. This is big; why then was the protest hollow?

It may be that Copts have so little experience in political participation having been – according to your favored interpretation – marginalized or self-isolated, that they did not know how to protest. The ringleaders ably followed a script; the average Copt knew something was going on. The result, though, was a fizzle. Indeed, in many of the protests implemented by disgruntled Egyptians, who are equally – according to your favored interpretation – marginalized or self-isolated, the picture, though I have only read of these in the news, is of a toddler frustrated he cannot yet say or do all that he knows is within him. Thus he flails, kicks, and starts, but to little avail. It is a stage of growth, cute when occurring in your own scion, but melodramatic otherwise.

The melodrama, mixed with manipulation and the absence of mercy, gave me heartache over the state of Christians. Yes, this ruling is against them, but they seem to be imitating in the wrong direction. Their proper object did indeed conduct a high profile demonstration of protest against the-powers-that-be in the ancient temple. As stated earlier, in doing so Christians are within their rights.

Yet are they within the spirit of their faith? Here, I am reduced only to questions, knowing neither the culture of demonstrations nor the culture of Egypt. What, though, would a proper Christian protest look like? How can the Coptic community stand up for its rights with courage and conviction, yet at the same time call down blessings upon their temporal adversaries? Can love and protest co-exist?

Following the murders at Nag Hamadi certain Christians filled the streets and smashed windows and vandalized cars. Following the protests at the Cathedral certain Christians looked to attack and overturn the automobile belonging to a Coptic member of the People’s Assembly, Nabil Luka Bebawi. He had appeared at the protest but is widely disparaged by Copts who see him as a traitor to their cause through his support of government policy.

By and large, Copts, like most Egyptians, are peaceful people who desire the absence of violence. Protest, however, usually draws on negative emotions and frustrations, and can easily lead to contempt and destruction. When Copts have protested, their conduct is generally salubrious, if sputtering. Incidents like the above are against the norm, but the manner of demonstration, lacking a widespread group commitment to love, enables the excess.

Politics, protest, or prayer? Surely there is room for all three. The proper mix, the proper spirit; may they, ideally in conjunction with their co-citizen Muslim brothers and sisters, find the proper way.

To view our video taken from the event, with translation, please click here.

[i] Athanasius (293-373 AD) was one of the greatest bishops from the See of Alexandria, and one of the central figures of Christian history for his role in defeating the Arian heresy. He was also celebrated as an Egyptian national hero for his role in resisting the political and religious machinations of the Roman empire and Byzantine church.

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A Call to Coptic Weaponry, from Abroad

As a quick update, I am working on a new text concerning the development of Christianity in Egypt that could be ready in a little while. In the first days following a new birth, replete with requisite sleepless nights (worse for Julie than for me), it is a little harder to write. In the meanwhile, I remembered this text I wrote following the Nag Hamadi incident which we published in Arab West Report, but I neglected to post it until now. It exemplifies part of our work which is a media critique of the local press, along with a personal reflection. I hope you enjoy.

The January 27th edition of Akhir Sa’a, an Egyptian weekly newsmagazine affiliated with the government, printed the bold headline “Expatriate Copts Encourage Egyptian Christians to Carry Weapons against Muslims and Security.” The story, complete with pictures of handguns, rifles, and peaceful demonstrations both inside and outside Egypt, commands immediate attention from the reader, especially given the charged sectarian atmosphere following the tragedy of Nag Hamadi, in which six Christians were gunned down randomly upon exiting Coptic Christmas Eve mass, January 6, 2010. This incident has drawn condemnation from all sectors of Egyptian society, but many Copts view it as but one more example in an extended progression of violence against their community. Though this aggression is unorganized, its perceived increasing frequency is causing great alarm. It has not, however, caused any domestic call to arms.

Expatriate Copts are a controversial topic in Egypt. Wealthier and more politically active than their compatriots in Egypt, many seek to lobby their adopted governments to put international pressure on Egypt to defend Christian well being. Through their bilingual websites they are able to inform both Western and Egyptian populations of Coptic issues, but from a position of advocacy, not news. Pope Shenouda has at times condemned their excessive reactions and demonstrations, which threaten to disturb the generally peaceful, though at times uncertain, attitude that prevails between Christians and Muslims, and between Christians and the government. At the same time, the results of their advocacy are popularly seen in many Egyptian Copts who rely on their foreign ‘reporting’ over a distrusted local press, which results in an increasing attitudinal divide between them and their perceived ‘Islamic’ neighbors and government. Naturally, Muslims and government are disturbed by the generalist and sensationalist characterizations of these expatriate Coptic websites, and an article which exposes their stridency is certain to sell copy.

The article itself appears to be fairly balanced, but builds only on one article and one comment to a different article, both posted on the website of the ‘US Copts Association’ – The comment comes from an article written by Rafat Samir, who identifies himself as a human rights activist, lamenting the November 2009 attack on Christians in the village of Farshut, in which shops were looted and homes were burned. Significantly, he does not call for Christians to arm themselves in response. The Akhir Sa’a article, however, quotes from a comment posted to the article, which states:

It is necessary for Copts to arm themselves as quickly as possible, with immediate training also for women in the use of weapons. Priests must also carry weapons to defend themselves against Muslim attacks and those from the Islamic police. The only solution is that every Christian martyr be followed by the killing of ten Muslims.

In choosing this comment, the most vitriolic reaction among the fourteen comments posted, Akhir Sa’a selects simply the voice of a common man, but amplifies him as a representative of ‘expatriate Copts’. The second source for the magazine comes from an article written by Father Yuta, a pseudonym used by an otherwise unknown figure, who represents himself as a priest of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Though official church pronouncements have stated that this voice in hiding does not represent church opinion, he is a frequent commentator to the US Copts Association website. Again, the magazine references him as someone who is calling for general armament to meet the threat posed by atrocities such as Farshut and Nag Hamadi. Though his statements will be presented later, it is interesting to note that of the 104 comments which follow Father Yuta’s article, of those which present a clear opinion, nearly 75% speak against him. Below it will be clear why this is the case.

The magazine is wholly out of line in transforming these two voices into the general headline ‘expatriate Copts’, but it can posit an excuse in the tagline of the US Copts Association: Representing all Christians of Egypt. This, however, is clear exaggeration on the part of the website, for which neither expatriate nor Egyptian Copts bear responsibility. While the article fails to quote an official church representative about the personality of Father Yuta, it does quote Sameh Fawzy, director of Citizens for Development and a well-known Coptic commentator who declares,

This type of language bears no relation to Christian identity, which forbids the use of violence or the answering of violence with violence. Certainly it is not possible for Copts to interact with these ideas.

It is interesting to note that among the team which prepared the article was an attendee of our recent media workshop, which trained in the techniques of balanced and objective journalism. The article was structured fairly, giving space to all sides for expression. That this was an article at all, however, is an example of irresponsible reporting. One article and a reader comment do not equate to the general ‘expatriate Copts’ proclaimed in bold lettering. Though the headline may not have been under his control, he is making a mountain out of a molehill. The voices he presents are worthy to be highlighted, but expatriate Copts do not deserve to be lumped together with them.

There is little story here at all. Egyptian journalist Osama al-Ghazoly notes that Akhir Sa’a is among the least influential and least read newsmagazines, and in the month since publication there has been no development of the story whatsoever. Yet a stark headline such as this one demands attention, as well as arrest of the idea. The call is shocking and immediately prompted our office to call for an article in response.

Regardless of the differing Christian stances toward self-defense, practical, social, and legal considerations all demand the condemnation of the call to armament. Copts represent less than 10% of the population of Egypt. These exceptional expatriate voices are calling for a general attitude of armed opposition toward both neighbors and government, and are urging wealthy expatriate Copts to fund the enterprise. Even if increasing, the acts of aggression against Christians almost always have an additional social interpretation, and represent isolated incidents from among thousands of peaceful villages. A general armament would likely be viewed by the population at large, living in peaceful coexistence if not complete social integration with Christians, as an act of aggression. Any exchange of violence would result in a bloodbath for the Copts. How much more so since the call is for Christians also to arm themselves against the government! It is the state which is best equipped to provide protection and equality of citizenship, yet these voices urge it to be viewed as the enemy.

It would be one thing to state that these voices call only for the use of weapons in self-defense, but even this is uncertain. Instead, Father Yuta states, in an article published on the US Copts Association website in Arabic, though noticeably absent in its English version,

I completely shoulder the responsibility before God, and I understand the Scriptures very well when I tell Copts that they have to respond strongly to Muslims’ attacks. Christianity prohibits its followers from attacking anybody; however, it does not prohibit them from defending themselves. Therefore I call on every Copt who finds himself before a Muslim who wants to assault or kill him, to kill that Muslim to defend himself. Similarly, if you find yourself before a Muslim trying to kill another Copt, you must hurry to prevent that Muslim from killing the Copt. If a Muslim attempted to burn a Copt’s home, Copts should put that Muslim’s home on fire. Every Copt should cooperate with the other Copts. If Muslims put a church on fire, then Copts should put the nearest mosque to that church on fire too.


Copts should not hide in their homes leaving Muslims to burn their houses! They should go out and defend their homes using all the means and possible weapons to defend themselves. If a soldier shoots a Copt, all Copts should attack all the security officers and take weapons to shoot the security officer and police officer of the highest rank in the site, because he is responsible for giving fire orders against Copts. If this happened no officer will give a shooting order against Copts, because the price will be so high.

And finally, if anyone is concerned that in these actions he will be sinning against God,

I tell all Copts of Egypt that there is no absolution and no blessing for he who does not defend himself and the life of his Coptic brethren who are attacked or assaulted by Muslims or by the Egyptian security apparatus. To all Copts in Egypt I say: You have the absolution and the blessing if you defend yourselves against Muslims. To those who fear punishment if they are killed attacking Muslims I say: If you think you are committing a sin then I carry it for you on the Day of Judgment, and hence you are innocent before God who gave us the power to bind and to release.

A case can be made that there is logic behind this call, but it appears to be far from a Christian ethic. While Christians are divided about the right and extent of legitimate self-defense, Father Yuta is advocating an eye for an eye, and more. Yet Jesus declared in Matthew 5 that an eye for an eye was no longer valid, commanding his followers to not resist an evil person, but to turn the other cheek. It is correct that Christians should not shrink back from attack, but Father Yuta puts forward his idea of resistance in neglect of Hebrews 10:32-39, which speaks directly to the situations Copts have faced in Farshut and elsewhere:

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

While no Copt should submit meekly to the confiscation of a home, abandoning completely the rule of law in a modern state, these verses praise the Christians in question for maintenance of their joy during their trials. It calls for perseverance, not resistance, for their confidence in eternal possessions will be rewarded regardless of the state of their temporal goods. In fact, undue attachment, signaled through resistance, is the very ‘shrinking back’ which Father Yuta proposes. It results in God’s displeasure, not approbation.

Yet a proper question is addressed to the US Copts Association: Why have you published such an opinion? In their mission statement, accessible from both the Arabic and English webpages, they state:

We would like to make it very clear that we aim to realize these objectives solely through peaceful and legitimate means.

Instead, in this article it is clear that Copts are called, when attacked, to vigilante collective retributive justice. This call runs counter to common sense, Biblical mandate, and the website’s own mission statement. It deserves an official retraction.

As stated earlier, the call to armament is not heard in Egypt; it is only uttered by the few, frustrated voices which operate within the confines of safety and freedom of Western democracies, or else behind the mask of anonymity. Though their advice is clear, their judgment is in question. Yet at the same time, they make clear to Copts in Egypt the path that lies before them. Armed resistance in international geopolitics can at times be understood for oppressed and occupied ethnic minorities, seeking freedom from a dominating power. This is not at all the description of the situation for Copts in Egypt. Coptic Christians and their Muslim neighbors are equally Egyptian, and national law regards all with equality, however uneven in occasional misapplication.

Yet even if the situation did reflect ‘oppression and occupation’, Copts would need to choose their greater identity. Would they wish to exist as a political—even military—bloc, seeking rights and protection in the carnal ways of the world? Or would they wish to live and behave according to higher ethical ideals, as would be expected in their identity as Christians? It is not suggested that these positions are absolutely exclusive; Christians maintain membership in two worlds, the temporal and the eternal, and life demands negotiation between the two. Yet whereas Father Yuta urges Egyptian Christians in one direction, spokesmen are necessary to urge the opposite response, toward peace, forgiveness, and love. Unfortunately, as concerns publications like Akhir Sa’a and other media, this alternate formulation of Coptic identity sells far fewer newspapers.

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Easter, Reluctantly

Easter in Egypt is a negotiated reality; this is true for both the nation’s Christians and myself.

All last week at work I wondered about the holiday schedule. Ours is a multi-religious and liberal office; if someone wishes a religious holiday, they can pretty much have it. The Copts who work with us would take the day off and go to be with family, some traveling six hours away by train to Upper Egypt. What about the foreigners, though? Or the Muslims, would they be expected to work? Unlike Christmas, Easter is not a national holiday in Egypt. Islam celebrates the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary, but denies the resurrection indirectly, for it denies first the crucifixion, believing Jesus ascended into heaven before his arrest. Though the government is not Islamic, in this matter it toes the line with the Muslim majority by not confessing the holiday.

Toeing the line is partial, however, as I discovered at work. National law allows Christians to take the day off from work en masse, but reckons it as a claimed vacation day. Given the reality of a national holiday the day after Easter – Shem al-Naseem, or literally, ‘Smelling the Breeze’ – this policy allows Christians to celebrate their holiday, but allows all citizens to create for themselves a four day weekend. Shem al-Naseem is a cultural vernal festival dating back to Pharaonic times; Muslims and Christians celebrate it equally, though I have not yet researched why it is tied to the Easter holiday. Some Copts see this as an implicit national recognition of Easter, though it is missing from the official calendar.

An event at our office disclosed to me another shade of Easter in Egypt. We have been trying to arrange an interview with a prominent Muslim scholar from al-Azhar University, and my supervisor told me we would meet Tuesday after Easter. I was quite happy with the news, but she continued adding that he originally asked for Saturday evening, but we proposed Tuesday instead. This news meant little to me, though I was somewhat glad not to have a work appointment on the weekend. I shrugged my shoulders however, saying, “OK, whatever the sheikh wants would have been fine.” I figured we should bow to his schedule, but at this my supervisor, a Coptic Christian, was aghast. “What,” she exclaimed, “don’t you celebrate Easter?” It took me a few seconds of puzzlement, but then I remembered that church celebrations always occur on the eve of a holiday, not the day of. The day of is a feast; a day to indulge after weeks of fasting. Children gather at the church to play and the priests open their offices to receive the well wishes of visitors, but there is no mass.

In the West we celebrate Christmas Eve, but there is no such thing as Easter Eve. Yet if you remember the events of Nag Hamadi, the murderer targeted the church around midnight the day before Christmas. As there is no correlation between Coptic Christmas and the Western calendar of December 25, this fact can easily be lost on the non-Orthodox reader. This year it so happens that Coptic and Western Easter fall on the same date. Yet even I, living here now for eight months and more tuned in than most foreigners to Orthodox affairs, was caught off guard by an Easter Eve service.

Unfortunately, once I had learned of it I was not that excited. We experienced the Christmas Eve service in Maghagha, which was wonderful as we enjoyed it with the family of a local priest in his small village. Yet we arrived by train halfway through the service, so we did not have to endure a four hour mass ending at midnight with two squirming, sleep deprived children. Managing them for an hour and a half was enough, but once it was over we went to the priest’s home and enjoyed a sumptuous feast of meat, meat, and more meat. You can read about this experience here.

Easter Eve in Maadi had none of these advantages. Though we have been attending the local Orthodox Church since shortly after arrival, we have yet to make good friends there. In saying this I do not blame them; there are many legitimate reasons for this, which I describe here. Yet even so, the celebration for us would be the four hour mass, with two children, and no meat. We decided to pass.

I continued to waver. I was fully agreed that our girls should sleep and Julie would be home with them, but what about myself? I could go alone. In the days leading up to it I went back and forth on this decision several times. As a family we went to the international church Good Friday service, and we were content to let that be our Easter church attendance. We figured we would join the children’s escapades on Easter morning at the Orthodox Church, and in the afternoon a Coptic friend from the Bible Institute had invited us to join them for lunch Easter afternoon. So all in all we set aside time for the holiday, both by ourselves, with foreigners, and with Egyptians. I could appreciate a quiet evening home on Saturday, so why bother with another mass?

On the other hand I kept being jabbed by a conscious that reminds me we are trying to belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Who could confess this desire and yet ignore Easter, the holiest of holidays? There is a virtue in discipline, but I will not claim it here, for my assessment of personal motivation is far too cloudy, with a likelihood of showers. Is worshipping God and being thankful for the Resurrection anywhere near my decision making process? Hardly. Part of the reluctance of going alone is that there will be no ‘credit’. Usually, my daughter Hannah sits on my lap during the service, so I get ‘credit’ for being a good and spiritual father. Furthermore, the service will be packed and any individual will be lost among the crowd. Somewhere in my mind is the idea that if I am faithful in attendance over time I will be noticed and get ‘credit’ in this quest for acceptance and belonging. There would be none of that on Saturday. Worse, I was fully conscious that I could get at least get ‘credit’ in this blog, which would be impossible if I didn’t go. I will not bother to untangle these threads of condemnation, but in the end, go I did.

As I approached the church I was glad I did. I arrived at 8:45, less than an hour after it had begun. On most occasions the church would be about quarter full at this juncture in the mass, but tonight I noticed they had set up two outside areas with live feeds supplying the action on big screen TVs. These already had numerous people sitting comfortably in the cool evening breeze, but I pressed inside anyway and found a seat on the stairs leading upwards in the balcony. If nothing else, this was to be an experience.

As I took my place I noticed my supervisor with a friend of hers in the opposite corner. Ah, credit! The evening was starting out great. About half an hour later it got even better. During this time most of the mass, unfortunately for me, was held in Coptic. Coptic is a dead language except in liturgy, but it has been aggressively promoted in recent decades by church leadership seeking to strengthen Christian identity by, among many other methods, resurrection of the ancient Egyptian vernacular tongue. Many in the audience were chanting along, having memorized the hymns, reciting along with words they would otherwise have no idea of the meaning.

Suddenly, they switched into Arabic, chanting, as slowly as possible as the lights dimmed and the curtain was drawn across the opening in the iconostasis, “al-Masih qaam, bil-haqiqati qaam,” translating the phrase any Easter-going Christian would recognize, “Christ is risen; he is risen indeed.” Except that in accounting for the solemn, deliberate rendering it would more be like this: Chri-i-i-i-i-i-ist is rise-e-e-en; he-e-e-e-e-e-e is ri-i-i-i-s-e-e-e-e-en i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-inde-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e, e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ed. It was eerie, but effective.

Meanwhile, in the Orthodox Church the iconostasis serves to separate the altar from the congregation, holding icons of Jesus, Mary, and the twelve disciples on a lattice which allows preparation of the Eucharistic host to be viewed by all. The main view, however, is through a wide opening in the center, which as mentioned was closed by a curtain as the lights dimmed. Symbolizing the curtain in the ancient Jewish temple which divided the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest could enter once a year, the mass continued for several minutes in near darkness. Then, with the loud clash of cymbals the lights flashed on and the priest reopened the curtain, setting off a spell of ululation from the women congregants. The curtain was torn in two; Christ had risen from the grave. The mass continued, appropriately, with the reading of the Gospel account of the empty tomb.

I wish I could say the euphoria continued, at least in me. Sadly, though ultimate responsibility rests only in my own human heart, I can find blame in all others around. Allow me to explain.

As I described, I was getting caught up in the presentation. Before the darkness the Bible readings were of such inspiring passages as the resurrection body of I Corinthians, the first Pentecost sermon in Acts, and the Petrine celebration of Christ’s once-for-all death and descent into Hell to preach there the Gospel. When the lights dimmed I was caught completely by surprise, but found myself one with the worshippers even shedding a tear in the darkness. Why, then, did I find the flood of light just a little bit cheesy? Why did the ululation ring hollow, and end sooner than it seemingly should have? For me this was a first time experience, but for everyone else it was observed for however many years that person had been alive. In the darkness, there is no choice but to be silent; with the light comes rejoicing, but who can fake an excitement when it is completely expected? Worse, once the lights came back on several in the congregation began to exit.

I could only guess that most of these were women who needed to get back home to prepare the after mass feast. Surely they were to be excused, but their number increased as the mass continued on. Another large contingent left after the sermon, and the congregation dwindled to about the size of a normal, non-holiday mass. I looked at the time and noticed there was still another two hours to go, and the original ideas of wishing a quiet evening at home as opposed to yet-another-mass returned. If everyone else was leaving, why shouldn’t I? If only from stubbornness to see it through to the end, I stayed.

As I anticipated, it became just an ordinary mass, only on speed, which made things worse. Because of the additional events of the holiday the rest of the liturgy was accelerated to make sure everything ended by midnight. This included my favorite sing-along hymns, which stood in stark contrast to the earlier ‘He is risen’ solemnities. Not only was I conscious of everyone leaving, wondering why I was there, I was also growing tired and sleepy. Still I soldiered on – not the best attitude for worship, but still.

At the end communion was distributed, which surprised me, since there was no communion at the Christmas Eve service. For Lent the Orthodox will fast all day Friday, and then again for eight hours on Easter Eve leading up to the midnight Eucharist. After all had partaken the priest turned to address the congregation, rebuking them for failing to maintain an attitude of reverence in the church, beginning early their Easter revelry. With this, announcements were given, holy water was sprinkled on all, the Lord’s Prayer recited, and everyone exited.

I had told Julie that if offered I would accept an invitation to join someone for the Easter midnight feast. I did not really expect one to be given, but neither did I go out of my way to be friendly. Perhaps this is either a virtue or vice – I was not engaging but at least I held back from worming my way into someone’s hospitality. Instead I went forward to greet the priests, again straddling the line between sincerity and duplicity. On Easter one is to call all friends and wish them a happy holiday, and doing so in person now with the priests I whom I know additionally from the Bible Institute is an even better gesture. Of course, it also grants me the ‘credit’ I earlier was not expecting, grand manipulator that I am. Pausing to see if the third priest I know was also available (he was not), I made way to leave.

Exiting the church I maneuvered between a wonderful scene of Copts dressed to the nines, mingling with friends and exchanging Easter greetings in the cool air of 12:15am. I also exited to witness two other scenes which return to the theme of Easter negotiation in Egypt. Stretched grandly across the street between the trees of the traffic circle was hung a cloth banner impossible to ignore. In bold lettering it wished the brother Christian Copts of Egypt a ‘Glorious Resurrection Holiday’, to translate literally, presented by Muhammad Murshidi and Hussain Magawir, members of the national parliament. Remembering the earlier statement of Islam about Easter, these two Muslim names can either be praised for their commitment to tolerance and national unity or else admonished for shameless pandering for votes. In my opinion, I think the first is more likely, and this was my initial reaction, nearly causing another tear to trickle.

The second scene dried it up, though further reflection might stimulate the tear duct further. As I was walking away back home I saw on the other side of the banner six policemen keeping watch in the center of the traffic circle. I stopped to count; altogether around the church I found sixteen policemen on patrol. For context, churches in Egypt are always under guard, but only two or three are usually to be found, at least in Maadi. It was a clear and immediate reminder of Nag Hamadi, and the efforts of the government to prevent any similar tragedy from marring a second Christian holiday. Praise God, all was fine, as things are 99% of the time in Egypt. It is the 1%, however, which reminds the Egyptian Christian, and this foreign observer, that Easter is a holiday necessary to negotiate with a Muslim majority nation.  

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An Azhar Sheikh on Nag Hamadi

Continuing a viewing of material which we prepared for our peacemaking project reporting which has not yet been posted here on the blog, I here list below an interview I had with a fairly prominent and controversial sheikh from the Azhar University. During our conversation we spoke about two subjects primarily: First, his very modern and reformist views of Islam; second, his opinion on the events which took place in Nag Hamadi. For the first comments I encourage you simply to read on; for the second I can preview that he provides an insightful view of how many Muslims of Egypt view this tragedy. For a balancing perspective on how most Christians view the event, please click here for an interview I had with a Cairo bishop in the Orthodox Church. If you would like to read my reflection on these divided perspectives, you may click here. Now follows the report from the Azhar sheikh, for your reading pleasure:

Dr. Ahmad al-Sayih is a controversial figure in Egypt, though I was not aware of this before seeking an interview with him. Instead, I had met him informally for the first time at a meeting of the Moral Rearmament Association, an Egyptian NGO with which he is friendly, but not a member, during which he made very open comments about Islam and Christianity being one religion and of the necessity cooperation between them. This put the idea in my head of speaking with him about potential assistance with the Center for Arab West Understanding in our efforts to promote social peace and reconciliation in Egyptian areas which have experienced conflict. Though I filed this information away for later use, a more pressing reason to interview him came after the incidents of Nag Hamadi, in which six Christians were killed upon exiting Christmas Eve mass, along with a Muslim policeman assigned to guard the church. Shortly thereafter I learned Sheikh Ahmad was from the governorate of Qena in which Nag Hamadi is located; might he be an acceptable spokesperson to travel and speak of peace?

As it turns out, Sheikh Ahmad is from a small village which bears his family name, situated only 30 kilometers from Nag Hamadi. Izbet al-Sayih, where he is from, has only five to six Christian families—which live in peace with their more numerous Muslim neighbors who guarantee their safety—but is part of the larger community of al-Qara, which is one-third Christian. Sheikh Ahmad testified that local Christians speak of him as ‘their’ sheikh. Continuing up the administrative ladder, al-Qara is connected to Abu Tisht, which is equal in level and population to Farshut, where it is reported that a Christian young man raped a Muslim girl, leading in the belief of many to the violence experienced both there and in Nag Hamadi. Abu Tisht, meanwhile, is connected to the regional capital of Qena.

Sheikh Ahmad received me in his home in Madinat Nasr, a suburb of Cairo, and immediately gave me insight into his prodigious volume of authorship as well as his favored subjects of controversy. He has written 157 books and hundreds of articles in Arabic newspapers and journals around the world. Many of these books are concerned with commentary on the Qur’an or on commentators of the Qur’an, resurrecting ancient manuscripts and updating their language and relevance to the Islamic community. The other prominent subject of his attention is combating the un-Islamic nature of Islamist movements, most notably the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and many strains of the Muslim Brotherhood. This critique would be controversial enough, as their ideas have wide if not full acceptance by many in Egypt. He proceeded, however, to carve deeper into general Muslim understanding.

Sheikh Ahmad produced for me two recent newspaper articles which conveyed this thoughts—and the strong reactions against them—declaring both polygamy and the ‘torture of the grave’ to be heretical. Common Islamic belief holds that a man may marry up to four wives at one time, provided he can care for them equally, and that upon death all people, including Muslims, undergo a ‘squeezing’ as the angels interrogate them about their faith, measuring them against true doctrine. These ideas, especially the latter, have been debated among Muslims for centuries but are widely held today as correct belief. Sheikh Ahmad challenges these prevailing ideas, and furthermore declares that 60% of what Muslims believe today to be accumulated superstition (khurafa).

These superstitions were attributed to falsified words and stories attributed to the Prophet Muhammad by his early followers. He specifically blamed the Gnostic sect (al-Ghunusia) for many of these forgeries, which have worked their way into the holy sources of Islam through authenticated collections of these hadith. I asked if the great researchers of these collections, including Bukhari and Muslim, were part of this ‘conspiracy’. He nodded in great enthusiasm that I had understood him properly.

These were not always the beliefs of Sheikh Ahmad, though the story of his ‘conversion’ was not discussed during this interview. After leaving Qena he studied directly at al-Azhar University, and was in time enrolled among its professors. After many years he was seconded for five years to a university in Qatar, where he drew the attention of Um al-Qura University in Mecca. Al-Azhar was unwilling to allow him to transfer under a similar arrangement asking him instead to teach five years in Egypt before taking the post. With this understanding he completed his doctoral studies in Islamic doctrine and philosophy and attained the position of dean in the faculty of dawa (the call to Islam). Thereafter he resigned to take the more lucrative paying post in Saudi Arabia, where he taught for nine years. He spoke of his deep exposure to Islamist ideas during his time abroad, with which he grew increasingly frustrated. He also commented that he had attended over fifty international Sufi conferences, professing a great preference for this line of though, though he himself was not a Sufi as he was not attached to a teacher (murid) in an established school (tariqa). He described how in a visit to Makarius Monastery in Wadi Natrun, Egypt, he recited the opening sura of the Qur’an over the relics of John the Baptist and Elisha, praying in their churches, and esteemed the Christian monks there and elsewhere as the truest of Sufis, who are the best of all Muslims.

Following our discussion of Islamic doctrine I asked Sheikh Ahmad specifically about Nag Hamadi. He mentioned three main tribes, but concentrated on two of them, one of which he divided into three smaller tribal units. He spoke first of the Arab, which he divided into the Qulaiyat, of which he is a member, Washishat, and Samaana groupings. He stated that there were over three million Qulaiyat spread throughout Upper Egypt, but that 60% of the governorate of Qena was from the Ashraf tribe, which claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Historically the Ashraf were at odds with all tribes in the region, but are no longer characterized as such. The other tribe he described was the Hawara, who had originally migrated from the Maghreb many generations ago, and with whom the Arabs still have tension. Christians, he described, are not related to these tribes by blood, as they predate the tribes, but come under association with the dominant tribes of their village. This gives them status of near-members, and the Christians associate themselves proudly with the village they occupy as well as with its prominent tribe. Christians will participate in defending the honor of the village and the Muslim tribes provide protection for the Christian inhabitants. Sheikh Ahmad described this as the normal set of relations.

In this context I offered the question that there was no sectarian struggle in Nag Hamadi, and Sheikh Ahmad immediately agreed, stating that the whole affair was first the fault of a Christian, and secondarily of the government. Once the promiscuous relationship between the Muslim girl and the Christian young man, who was an employee of her family, was discovered in her village of al-Shaqifi, traditional customs called for the death of both. This would be regardless of their relationship being consensual or not, or if the girl was underage or not. As to these matters Sheikh Ahmad professed no knowledge. The honor of the family was violated, however, so the young man should be killed, after which the girl would be killed by her own father, as all marriage prospects would hereafter be forfeit.

The young man is from a village called Qum al-Ahmar, which has only one or two Christian families. If he had been killed straightaway none of the subsequent troubles would have happened. He, however, fled to his relatives in Farshut to seek protection. Tribal revenge was then exacted on Christian businesses in the city. The sheikh himself volunteered the information that the Christian businessmen of Farshut are very wealthy and control area finances, but when I asked him if there was financial motive in the attack or else a deliberate play against Christian influence, he denied this, stating that the only establishments attacked belonged to the young man’s relatives. This would be an important indication of the validity of his analysis, which needs to be verified through other sources.

During this time the young man was arrested, coming under police protection, making the customary right of the family to take revenge impossible. Sheikh Ahmad placed much blame on the local security forces for miscalculations and lack of consideration of the consequences of their arrest. Had they allowed tribal custom to run its course, meaning he would have been killed, all would have been fine. I asked him about the relationship of Islam to these customs, and he strongly asserted that there was none. Why then, I questioned, could he state this? Granted that it is the reality of the situation, with which all people must adapt, but as a man of religion how could he believe this was the best situation? Sheikh Ahmad agreed that while Islam would call for the punishment of a sex offender, the religion called for this to carried out by legitimate authorities, not by vendetta.

The situation became further complicated when the families of the Christian young man fled from Qum al-Ahmar to the seat of the bishopric in Nag Hamadi. Here they received welcome and protection, but according to the sheikh also made the bishopric a viable target for revenge, as it had interfered in a blood feud. This, he believed, is why the church was subsequently attacked.

This explanation prompted two serious questions. First, why did the families flee the village if they were under the protection of the dominant Arab tribe? Sheikh Ahmad had previously explained that Qulayiat would prevent the entrance of any foreign tribal element that sought to harm local inhabitants. Regardless of the guilt or innocence of the young man, the village would protect its own, and avenge any act perpetrated against its sons or daughters, Christian or Muslim.

Sheikh Ahmad did not have a satisfactory answer for this question. He imagined that perhaps someone in the bishopric convinced the families they would be better off under its protection, as life in the city of Nag Hamadi was less governed by the dominance of tribal altercations. Still, though an understandable sentiment it made me wonder about the realities of protection offered to the Christians of the area. A previous testimony from Nag Hamadi, from the Coptic community, described the Christians in good relations with the Hawara tribe, which was at odds with the Arabs, who among the tribes were the most antagonistic toward the Christians. Without putting too much confidence in his description, might the Arab Qulaiyat of Qum al-Ahmar been divided in their tribal loyalties? The Muslim girl also belonged to the tribe of Qulaiyat. Aware of any hint of vacillation perhaps the Christian families felt their safety strongest in the church? Of course, the testimony of the sheikh about the refuge of these families in the bishopric demands confirmation, as it is the first we have heard of this connection to the attacks of Christmas Eve.

The second question was answered more confidently. Many commentators, both Coptic and Muslim, have questioned the attack on the church as a violation of tribal custom. They state that revenge must be enacted upon the extended family of the accused; never would shots be fired recklessly into a crowd of innocents. Even if the families were stationed inside, the gunmen opened fire randomly. Many have alleged this is not traditional tribal practice.

Sheikh Ahmad related a story which may refute this line of argument. A few years ago a policeman in the region assaulted a villager, kicking him repeatedly in the groin and stomach, inflicting injuries from which he later died. The police officer was from outside the area but his origin was known; the villager was a member of the Washishat tribe of the Arabs. Shortly thereafter the Washishat organized an attack on the local police headquarters where this officer was stationed. No effort was made to travel to seek out his family. It was sufficient to attack the symbol of his authority and exact revenge on the group, even though his fellow officers were not relatives and had nothing to do with the excesses of the guilty policeman. Perhaps being frustrated in their inability to kill the young man the sense of revenge was then turned against the symbol of his community.

I asked Sheikh Ahmad about another item of information learned earlier, that the ‘Baltaga’, the violent underclass which was responsible for most civil unrest, and from whom, it is said, the gunman of Nag Hamadi originated, had great representation among the Arab tribe.  He agreed that this was correct, but added that all the tribes had their ‘Baltaga’. Asked about their self-identity he related that these would view themselves as heroes (abtal). They are the ones who carry out the dirty work of tribal revenge, which this element takes very seriously. They could alternatively be described as guns-for-hire. Sheikh Ahmad stated that it would not be fitting for a respectable member of the tribe to take a gun himself and exact revenge if the honor of his family demanded it. Instead, he would commission the ‘Baltaga’ to do the job, and it would get done. There are known families famous for their participation in this ‘trade’, and when I suggested the word ‘mafia’ he signaled that I had understood.

Earlier in our conversation Sheikh Ahmad stated his desire to travel to Nag Hamadi with members of the Moral Rearmament Association as soon as the security situation would allow. He mentioned that he wished to speak about the message of humanity which binds all men together, and not simply of Islam, no matter its true relation to the principles of humanity. He wished to emphasize that Muslims and Christians were brothers and that such a crime was an assault against all. Despite his understanding of tribal customs in no manner did he wish to communicate his support; after all, the Prophet declared that the life of a person was more inviolable than the sanctity of the Ka’aba.

I esteemed this message, but emphasized that a general message of religious tolerance did not seem to be necessary based on his assessment of interreligious relations in the area. Instead the situation appeared to call for a religious assault on the culture of revenge killings, emphasizing patience and forgiveness over the desire to retaliate. Might it be possible, for example, to go to the ‘Baltaga’ and instruct them about their violation of Islam in fulfilling their tribal customs? This, he conjectured, would be useless. These patterns have been ingrained in the population since Pharaonic times, and could not be changed through personal communication. His solution was gradual and broad, of which he was optimistic in its success. It would take fifty years, he declared, but the greater culture of openness and tolerance is already spreading in Upper Egypt. There was a time, as previously mentioned, that the Ashraf tribe was at war with everyone; now, they live in peace with the others. His own tribe until recently forbid intermarriage with other groupings, and even maintained a practice of slavery. Today these remnants of traditional culture have passed away. This transformation is slowly penetrating even smaller villages, and it will not be long until a better moral consciousness has settled into the majority. Though this infiltration is happening primarily through television and media, he is hopeful that his general message soon to be delivered may play a role, however small.

With this comment we exchanged good wishes for success and cooperation as we jointly wish to promote this general culture of peace. Sheikh Ahmad referenced the similar work being done through Dr. Rifaat Ahmad of the Jaffa Center, with whom we have had previous acquaintance. He also agreed to provide a review for the peacemaking paper summarizing our findings in preventing and assuaging incidents of conflict, provided we translate the document into Arabic. In all of these matters it is hoped that we may have found another friend in contributing to a network of social peace and reconciliation, one who has been involved far longer than we have. No matter how controversial some of his views may be, we desire to work with all, and Sheikh Ahmad appears to be a powerful contributor.


Remembering the Christmas ‘Martyrs’ of Nag Hamadi

“Don’t cry for me, mother; to a martyr you’ve given birth. Murderers killed your son, on a night of Christmas mirth.”

These lines of poetry were crafted for the fortieth day memorial service held for the six young Egyptian Christians randomly gunned down while exiting a Coptic Christmas Eve mass, January 6, 2010, in Nag Hamadi, three hundred miles south of Cairo. They reflect the worries of the Christian community of Egypt that their situation as citizens, even in terms of safety, is steadily declining.

The particular use of the word ‘martyr’, however, carries a strong implicit message. It is common in Egypt for both Christians and Muslims to use this word for anyone in their community who dies unnaturally, regardless of cause. Beneath this general usage, though, is a Coptic remembrance of the hundreds of martyrs celebrated daily in the liturgy, who suffered death for their Christian faith. The message is given that these young men were killed for their faith in Christ, and this at the hand of a killer alleged to have cried while firing, “I avenge my Muslim sister!”

The vengeance in question refers to an event two months earlier in a nearby village, where a Christian man is alleged to have raped a 12 year old Muslim girl. This is the opinion of Sheikh Ahmad al-Sayih, retired professor of Islamic doctrine and philosophy at Azhar University, who grew up in a village fifteen miles from Nag Hamadi. While he condemns the murder on Islamic grounds, he sees it as part of the culture of revenge killings for which the area is known. In this understanding, shared by many Muslims, the attack was simply an expression of tribal justice, having nothing to do with sectarian strife.

Amin Makram Ebeid, a retired doctor and Coptic intellectual, disagrees. He sees the incident as part of an unorganized but increasing pattern of sectarian violence against the Christians of Egypt. He doubts the account of rape, as well as the status of the girl as a minor. He states that tribal revenge would be executed only against family members, not random worshippers exiting a church on the holiest of Christian holidays. These considerations indicate the sectarian nature of the crime, and in these matters he echoes the opinions of many Copts.

Governor Magdi Ayoub of Qena, in which Nag Hamadi is located, is the only Copt among the twenty-nine governors of Egypt. Instead of being acclaimed by his religious community, however, he is reviled as being subservient to Muslim interests so as to maintain his post. Though he states that he is an Egyptian governor first and a Copt second, many Copts reject him for failing to address Christian concerns in deference to his position in what is seen as an increasingly Islamic state. Viewing religious discrimination as part and parcel of true Islamic religion, more than a few Copts anticipate further violence as a coming inevitability.

A different explanation is offered by Osama al-Ghazoly, a prominent Egyptian journalist. He agrees that violence in Egypt is increasing, but this is true of society in general, independent of sectarian tension, though it is certainly an aspect of it. He criticizes both Muslims who deny that sectarian violence exists at all, as well as Christians who view it only through this lens. Regardless of the origin, it is only the government which can extend protection to any citizen, Christians included. Copts may do well to criticize the governor’s performance, but not his position.

The Egyptian government is treating the attack as a non-sectarian isolated incident and increased its promotion of national unity. Egyptian society, however, remains divided about the causes and necessary responses to the attacks in Nag Hamadi, though all have categorically denounced the violence. Yet as the interpretations of the killing vary so dramatically between the two communities, the religious divide threatens to grow deeper. As the forty day commemoration service is a shared practice of both Muslims and Christians, and given the mingled blood of the young Christians with the Muslim policeman also killed in the attacks, perhaps this occasion may serve as a reminder that peace and the future of Egypt is built upon both religious communities.

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A Coptic Demonstration

Two days ago the Coptic community of Egypt witnessed a unique event. On Sunday, February 14, Valentine’s Day, a rally was organized downtown by over two hundred Coptic participants in protest over the Nag Hamadi killings on Christmas Eve and the subsequent handling of the case by the government. Here below is an email which described the event with illuminating pictures (the text is from the email except for translations):

(translation: Shame on Egypt for what is happening to Egyptian Copts)


Pictures .. 200 Christians demonstrated in Tahrir Square

Sunday, February 14th, 2010 – 17:43 

 More than 200 Christians today in Tahrir Square, led by the Liberal Party of Egypt and the Copts of Egypt and the Center for a million of human rights, and demanded an end to attacks on the Copts.
The demonstrators chanted slogans against Abd al-Rahim al-Ghoul, MP and accused of being behind the crime of Nag Hammadi.For his part, he said Hani Jazeeri Chairman of the Movement “Copts of Egypt to” go to the Peoples note was provided by Dr. Fathi Sorour, Speaker of the People, calling for the adoption of discussion of the bill Uniform Building places of worship in the current session and cancel meetings of peace and the rule of martial law and bring the perpetrators to the actual trials fair and accountability form of political and public leaders and security events in the Nag Hammadi and other sectarian incidents.


(translation: The traditional reconciliation sessions govern us with a rule of iron)

(translation: The Million Center for Human Rights – No to violence among the children of one homeland… No to forcing the Copts to vacate their homes… No to traditional reconciliation sessions…)

(translation: Shame on all of Egypt for what is happening to Egyptian Copts)

(translation of the black sign with white letters in the previous pictures: No to pressures from security)


There are many factors here which need brief explanation. Notice first the tattoos on this man’s arm, and in other pictures. Nearly all Copts tattoo a simple cross on their right wrist or hand, but this man’s tattoo is very elaborate, with also a picture of a Christian saint. It is expressive of a deep identity allegiance to Coptic Christianity.

MP Abd al-Rahim al-Ghul is a local politician in Nag Hamadi which was not supported in the previous election cycle by the bishop, resulting in the Christian vote going to his opponent who then won the election. Furthermore, after he denied any relationship with the alleged killer who gunned down the Christians exiting the church, a photo surfaced in which he was pictured standing side-by-side with him. It is important to note that the investigations continue but the trial of the alleged killer has not yet begun.

Reconciliation sessions are a traditional way of adjudicating disputes outside the rule of the law. While innocent in and of themselves, many Copts feel that previous incidents like Nag Hamadi have been ‘solved’ through these ‘reconciliation’ sessions which have been forced upon them by the security forces. In many cases though compensation has been paid by the government to victims the criminals who attacked Christian homes or churches have gone free. In defense of the government it is often difficult to establish guilt in a mass action, and therefore criminal proceedings are difficult.

The uniform bill for building houses of worship is a legislative proposal to stipulate the same regulations and freedoms for both mosque and church construction. Currently, while there is great freedom and simple regulations for building a mosque, it requires the permission of the governor to build, expand, or repair a church. Human rights activists of both religions have called for this bill, and a recent survey by Watani International, a Christian owned daily newspaper, declares that 60% of MPs support the bill as currently drafted, while a further 29% support it with some reservations. Nevertheless, the issue has stalled, and in light of the Nag Hamadi incidents the government has promised to revisit the bill in next year’s legislative session.

Focusing on the demonstration itself, however, there are interesting points to note. Official permits for demonstrations are rare given in Egypt, though demonstrations can begin and have an effect without quick putdown by the government. As is seen in the pictures the police are standing guard, but obviously not breaking up the proceedings. It is unknown, though unlikely, that permission for this demonstration was received beforehand, but prior warning may have been given to secure a police presence, or else security became aware through monitoring the public online organizational activity. Later information revealed that the demonstration proceeded from Tahrir (Liberation) Square, which is the center of downtown Cairo, to the nearby Parliament building, but upon the movement of the demonstration the crowd was dispersed by the authorities.

Arabs outside of Egypt have remarked about the substantially greater freedom enjoyed here than in other nations of the region. As such, as a political event, does this rally speak well of Egypt? Obviously, it is protesting the conduct of the government in the handling of the Nag Hamadi case, but in allowing the at least temporary gathering does this indicate a growing allowance for freedom of expression?

At the same time, it is noteworthy that only three newspapers covered this event. While this could be understandable by the government newspapers this is odd for the party press and independent dailies. These often carry a moderated anti-government message in the selection and presentation of the news. Why would this event not receive their attention?

This question is more significant given the unprecedented nature of the demonstration. While the Western reader is likely accustomed to every interest group holding protests here and there, not only is such demonstration rare in Egypt in general, it is almost unheard of among the Christians. The demonstrations which do occur are almost exclusively held on church property. Expatriate Copts in America, Europe, and Australia often hold demonstrations abroad, seeking to pressure the governments of their adopted countries to pressure the Egyptian government in turn. In general these efforts are not appreciated by Coptic Orthodox Church leadership, which seeks to cultivate a positive relationship with the government, which is very critical of outside interference in its affairs. Nevertheless, individual Copts often look with longing at the freedom enjoyed by their oversees compatriots, and revel in the criticism leveled at a government which is increasing viewed as being ‘Islamic’ or at least discriminatory against Christian interests. For the first time, it seems, Christians in Egypt have adopted these methods locally.

It is an open question to consider if this is a positive or negative development for local Christians. On the one hand, they are taking an active role in the political process, carefully navigating the uncertain allowance of the government to publicly air their complaints. By all indications the demonstration was peaceful. Furthermore, it is an internal and not international response. The protest was joined by local human rights organizations and organized by an opposition political party. The demonstration reveals a growing sphere of civil society participation to be enjoyed by many, if not all, and Christians are among those benefiting. This appears to be a positive development for both Egypt and its Christian community.

On the other hand, is this the best method for airing Christian grievances? In all indications the activity was political; should this be the domain of church-related issues? Furthermore, though the demonstration was peaceful, it was not full of peace. Notice the faces and postures of the demonstrators. These are angry and confrontational, and the slogans are provocative, anti-government in implication if not in direct formulation. Is this proper Christian behavior?

The Christian is here faced with his dual identity as members both of a state, in which he or she enjoys the common rights of citizens, and members of a religion, in which he or she is called to high standards of conduct in preference to the interests of others over his own, and is chiefly called to represent God and Jesus over earthly concerns. While it is good and beneficial, most Christians agree, for Christians to participate actively in the affairs of this world, most Christians also agree the manner of this participation must be regulated by the teachings of Jesus and other Scriptures.

It is difficult to imagine a public demonstration of protest which does not protest, or an angry litany of complaint which is not angry. This demonstration straddles the line between the rights of a citizen and the responsibilities of a Christian. It is difficult to know the balance. It is a negotiation Egyptian Christians have been involved in for some time, but now face a new field of application; may God give them grace. Concerns of the government and the Muslim majority also play a substantial role in their choices; no activity is conducted in a vacuum. These choices will provoke reactions and consequences which could go in any number of directions. Wisdom is called for, with prayerful consideration. Or, perhaps there has been too much prayer already – now is the time to act!

Biblical examples are multifaceted. Christians can find examples of prayerful resignation to circumstances, pious submission to government, astute political maneuvering, decisive claiming of rights, and zealous upheaval of the status quo. Which, if any, of these options is best for the Christians of Egypt? Which is best for the nation as a whole? Who should make this decision? Can various groups answer the question differently? What are the consequences of each? What are the potential benefits? Which best cements the rights of citizens? Which best testifies to the love of God?

May God grant Egypt his blessing, and its citizens his wisdom.

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Bishop Marcos on Nag Hamadi

The recent killings in Nag Hamadi have engendered various reactions throughout Egyptian society. Some have cursed the darkness, while others have closed up their eyes and ears altogether. Some, however, have been spurred to action, but sensitivity, distance—geographically and culturally, and ignorance make it terribly difficult to know what to do. We at the Center for Arab West Understanding (CAWU) find ourselves in this third grouping. We have a project designed to encourage peacemaking, and we have a region in Nag Hamadi which is in need of peace. We also possess internal compunction to make a difference, but find these motivations are like the hitting of a head against a wall; what can we do? With fractions of ideas we sought counsel from a trusted advisor, Bishop Marcos of the Coptic Orthodox Church, of the diocese of Shubra al-Khayma.

Bishop Marcos, in addition to providing spiritual leadership for an influential district of Cairo is also the point person for communication activities of the church. He also serves as a board member for CAWU, and has provided us with advice and insight for many years. Our group was composed of Eng. Sawsan Gabra, head of CAWU, Osama al-Ghazoly, and Jayson Casper, and shortly after arrival we welcomed additional parties to our conversation.

Bishop Marcos had informed us by telephone as we sought to gain an audience with him that he was traveling on Sunday to Nag Hamadi with a delegation from the United States and Australia. The news that he was to visit the area was encouraging—we hope that he might provide great service to the church and city—but what was this foreign delegation?

As we began our conversation the facts became clear and Bishop Marcos introduced us to the foreigners in question… (click here to continue)

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Stubborn Ideologies and Uncertain Details

In the wake of the Nag Hamadi killings prevailing Egyptian sentiment has asserted the essential unity between Muslim and Christian, presenting the Christmas massacre as an aberration of the norm. The dominating idea is that Egypt is a country with two religions, but one culture. Muslims and Christians have studied and worked, suffered and prospered, and lived and died as one people, sharing in communal bonds of fraternity, celebrating jointly their religious feasts. Though this is an idealized presentation, it is also largely the truth, and the promotion thereof can be a powerful reminder to all sides as they reel from the weight of this tragedy. Easily the Christian can now see himself under attack; easily the Muslim can see his religion being hijacked. If the idea of ‘two religions but one culture’ can take hold of the popular consciousness it can prove to keep these communities united in the face of sectarian dissent or denial, as will be seen below. The ideologies of the two communities, however, may prove a stubborn barrier. 

Popular unity can only be celebrated if it is believed, and many Coptic sentiments lament its absence. For these, the events of Nag Hamadi are simply further confirmation of the deteriorating state of Coptic acceptance in society. They see a culture and governance which is increasingly Islamic, and picture themselves outside of it. They believe the cries of national unity to be hollow, uttered by politicians worried more about preserving the national image than preserving the safety and rights of its Coptic citizens.

Indicative of this ideological stranglehold is a conversation recently conducted with a prominent Coptic intellectual. This is a fine man with interreligious friendships and respect for his government. In discussing the Nag Hamadi incident, however, he was adamant about this being an example of persecution against Christians by militant Islamist elements within his country. He is careful not to label the action ‘Islamic’, for he esteems the Muslim interpretation of faith offered by his colleagues, which he admits is known as ‘liberal’. Whereas many have seen the aggression instead as an expression of tribal sentiment in reaction to the shame incurred from the rape of a 12 year old girl in a nearby village, he rejects this explanation. He has heard it said—and from a Muslim source—that it was not a rape but consensual relations, and not with a minor, but a legal adult. He has heard this; he has no confirmation. Nevertheless the ‘refutation’ of the claim of rape takes away the possibility of tribal honor killing. The only possible scenario remaining is that of religious extremism. Inasmuch as the killing took place at a church on the holiest of holidays, the subtleties of the rape account are easily brushed aside in the preservation of a prevailing ideology. 

While many Muslims have a real belief in their essential unity with Christians in the fabric of their country, they have other issues to confront. Namely, how could such a crime be committed by Muslims, with that religious identification emphasized over the epithet ‘Egyptian’ as the attack was upon a church, during Christmas? The external appearance of the incident is entirely sectarian; having moved through a period of active and admitted Islamic violence in the previous decades, the average Muslim is loathe to witness its reappearance. They believe their religion to be essentially peaceful and such aggression to be against the faith. Acts such as Nag Hamadi, if understood in sectarian light, could provoke a crisis of faith.

Indicative of this ideological stranglehold is a conversation recently conducted with an average but pious Muslim young woman. This is a fine woman with interreligious friendships and respect for the Christian religion. In editing a text from the Coptic intellectual I asked her to help me supply some of his missing references to Qur’anic verses. The author had identified several verses which encourage Muslims toward peace and coexistence, for which he had supplied the references, but also spoke of other messages which some extremists utilize to preach violence. Here he gave no references, and the process of editing required they be supplied. 

My colleague became very reluctant. Rightfully claiming that she was not a scholar, she was slow to state what verses might be intended, lest a wrong understanding be given of her religion. “Of course,” I said, “we just need references, you know, the verse that says ….” “But that verse does not mean violence,” she defended, “the Prophet said …” “It is not our viewpoint, we are only editing,” I replied, “we carry the voices of everyone, no matter what their opinion.” She continued to demur, wondering if in doing this work we would be aiding the writer in this wrong interpretation of Islam. She did see enough of the writer’s text to admit that he was being balanced and only describing the views of certain Muslims, but the simple motion toward anything which might attach violence to Islam was nearly paralyzing.

This attitude can be seen specifically in the popular rush to identify the attack at Nag Hamadi with the rape of the 12 year old girl. If such a heinous crime can be attributed to distant tribal customs then Islam bears no responsibility, only the Muslim—if he can be called that—who perpetrated it. The general, peaceful Muslim then can carry on in the conviction that his religion is peaceful without having to be disturbed by an act of violence that carries all the markings of sectarianism. This is not to say that Islam supports violence, it only suggests the complications in the text for crafting one’s internal theology. As concerns the attack on the church and motivations involved, the subtleties of the crime can be easily brushed aside in the preservation of a prevailing ideology. 

The facts of Nag Hamadi are not clear. The motivations of those involved are less so. The facts of the rape in the nearby village are not clear. The connections to the killings in Nag Hamadi are less so. This scenario has not stopped pundits, commentators, lawyers, human rights activists, expatriate Copts, politicians, journalists, priests, and foreign media from pronouncing their opinion. This chorus has been joined by others who issue statements without sources, and others still who labor to report only the facts. This is normal in such a tense and explosive atmosphere; it will take time to sort through the chaff to get to the wheat. Even then, among many the official pronouncements will lack credibility, sending the issue back into the morass of presuppositions and rumors.

Who among us does not hold to an ideology through which he or she interprets reality? The reader is invited to critique the ideology which has informed this article. Nevertheless, in an issue as charged and vital to Egyptian peace as Nag Hamadi, it proves difficult for even the best of humanity to set aside an ideology before the facts are in place. Instead, indications and deductions, however logical, cement the established viewpoint and establish the discourse of each community. Egypt is a country of two religions; the analysis of reactions of both demonstrates that it is also a country of one culture.


Press Review of Nag Hamadi — Catch-up Summary

As promised, here is the latest, and currently last installment on press articles on the Nag Hamadi shootings. Today I attended a press conference hosted by an Egyptian NGO which sent an investigative team to the area, conducting interviews and drawing conclusions, or at least further questions. Two of my colleagues are working on a report about their presentation, and I can post that when they are finished and it goes online. In the meanwhile, unless we produce another catch-up press review tomorrow, I will likely post a reflective piece I composed about this incident which we emailed out along with other reports to both our paid and unpaid subscribers. Should you wish to be on such a list you can follow the links through the Arab West Report link on the right, or if you email me at Jayson (dot) Casper (at) ideasworld (dot) org, I can take care of it for you.

After that post, unless there is new news to relate, as I mentioned yesterday I hope we can intersperse some ordinary stories about our lives here. Julie has written a wonderful piece, for example, about our refrigerator. If you can stand the anticipation, I will try to post that one soon.

Here is the link to the press review.


Press Review of Nag Hamadi — Part Six

As I mentioned yesterday, this is the last of the original daily updates following the Coptic Christmas murders at Nag Hamadi. Tomorrow I will post the piece added to our webpage today, which summarizes the news as recorded in the press up to today. Thereafter we will only do summary press reviews every couple days as there is news to report. I will seek to keep you up to date, but hopefully in a few days we might return to our normal blog activity, letting you read reflections about our normal life, including work, every couple days or so. Normal is nice, but active can also be fun.

Please click here for the press review:


Press Review of Nag Hamadi — Part Five

Current plans for this press review series have slowed on the daily edition at part six, but there is another cumulative press review in the works today. In my estimation tomorrow I will link to part six, perhaps the next day to the weekend summary, and then see what happens thereafter.

Here is the link to part five:


Press Review of Nag Hamadi — Part Four

I have supplied the next link in the series of media summaries about the events in Nag Hamadi. I am a couple of days behind, but I think that is ok for now. The news is slowing down, so we may not need to continue the practice of daily summaries for much longer, though of course we will continue to chronicle the news. We currently have these reviews posted through day six, and I will post links to these day-by-day until it runs out. Should you wish to be as up-to-the-minute as possible, the link in the right-hand column to Arab West Report will bring you to our homepage, where you can follow this and other news.

Here is the link to the Day Four press review:

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A Priest’s Opinion on Nag Hamadi

During our stay in Maghagha for Coptic Christmas, we got to see Christian reactions first hand as the news about the killings in Nag Hamadi began to spread. We discussed this somewhat in our reflections on Day One and Day Two of our Christmas celebration. There was shock, discouragement, and resignation. Sadly, many Copts believe that they lack the necessary concern of the authorities to prevent such atrocities, and even to respond by arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators.

I do not wish to comment about the validity of these perceptions, but they are widely held. One of the results is that many Copts suffer from a disengagement with society; having been let down so many times they are reluctant to participate anew, and put no trust in government to intervene positively. Though these reactions can be seen as natural and potentially legitimate, it can also be said that this will lead to only further rupture between Muslims and Christians, and between Christians and the state. Many Copts recognize this, and are fervently urging their fellow believers to re-engage.

In the wake of such despair it is difficult for many Copts to find a positive vision. We were fortunate, however, to be staying in the home of one such priest. I asked Fr. Yu’annis (John in the Coptic language) what he would do if he were a priest in Nag Hamadi. He answered in three parts, addressing the government, Muslim leaders, and the Christian community. A summary of the conversation which followed has resulted in a report, and is now presented here…

During the Coptic Christmas celebrations I had the opportunity to stay with my family in the home of Fr. Yu’annis in Maghagha. Fr. Yu’annis is a priest for the Coptic Orthodox Christian community in Qufada, but maintains his residence in Maghagha, the seat of the bishopric, about fifteen minutes away by car. We were able to witness with him the events of January 6, in which gunmen waited in ambush outside a church in Nag Hamadi, Qena, and shot dead six Christians as they exited Christmas mass. One Muslim police officer was also killed in the attack.

Fr. Yu’annis has been a longstanding friend of Arab West Report, which has noticed his exceptional manner in relating to government officials and Muslim neighbors. He has been instrumental in securing permission to build or expand over twenty churches in the bishoprics of Maghagha, Beni Mazar, and Mattai, during a time in which many Egyptian Christians complain of difficulties in this regard. Based on this background, I asked Fr. Yu’annis what he would do if he were a priest in Nag Hamadi. How should a Christian leader respond to such a violent act against the community?

Fr. Yu’annis answered in three parts. The first and immediate action would be to go to government officials, ask questions, and listen. These would include the governor, mayor, and leaders of the police force. He would ask them, simply, what they plan to do about this. He would not interfere, but he would continue to inquire. It would be hoped that through these interactions he might craft good relationships with these officials, but also signal to them that he is following the events and will not let the matter drop. Ultimately, authority and responsibility lie in the hands of the government, and it is best to remain in good communication with all its representatives.

The second action should be directed toward Muslim community leaders, including the mosque preachers but not limited to them. The point here is not to level accusations but to strengthen relationships. Even so, a rebuke could be in order, though it must be properly delivered.

Fr. Yu’annis remembered the Biblical story of David, after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed by sending him to the front lines of battle. God sent to him the prophet Nathan, who told him of a poor villager whose one sheep was taken from him to be slaughtered for the guest of his rich neighbor, even though this man had many sheep of his own. David was outraged and ordered that this man be taken and put to death. Nathan replied promptly, “You are the man!” David was caught in condemnation through his own words and made conscious of his sin, for which he then repented.

Though the parallel is not complete, this is the manner with which Fr. Yu’annis would approach Muslim leaders. Nathan came to David as a friend; so would Fr. Yu’annis approach the Muslims. Nathan refrained from displays of anger and outright accusation; Fr. Yu’annis would similarly recognize the futility of such an effort. Instead, like Nathan he would ask a question: If we had done this to you, killed your worshippers exiting a mosque, what would be your response toward us? In seeking to help these leaders understand the event from the perspective of the other, he would also seek to establish their own claim of responsibility for the climate in which this atrocity was committed. Accepting this responsibility, he hoped, might lead not only toward initiatives of rapprochement, but also toward personal and community repentance.

Finally, Fr. Yu’annis would direct his third action toward the Christian community. He would urge the people toward patience and forgiveness, but would also give a harder command. Though it would be easy to retreat in frustration at the tensions present between the two communities, the Christians of Nag Hamadi must resist this temptation. Instead, they must make certain to preserve the normal and natural relationships they have with individual Muslims of their community. Where these do not exist Christians should be active to craft them. The atrocity was committed by one to three individuals, who may or may not have been connected to other elements in the area. Regardless of a possible wider scope, they do not represent the majority Muslim sentiment, which would condemn this crime. If Christians retreat, however, they would give Muslims cause to doubt them, and where there is little relationship, there is little concern. Instead, by preserving and strengthening the relationships that do exist they send a powerful statement of community unity in the face of difficulty and potential sectarian strife.

Fr. Yu’annis was powerfully affected by the events at Nag Hamadi, and as we discussed them and listened to the incessant media reporting from which it was impossible to turn away, his eyes welled up with tears. Not only were these for families torn asunder, but also for a community which appears about to suffer the same fate. In such cases, it is far better for policy to be determined by sadness than by anger; may his thoughts also be conjured by the priests of Nag Hamadi.


Press Review of Nag Hamadi — Part Three

I have little commentary to offer today; we continue to follow the story and think about what we might do, if anything. The last thing I would like to do in presenting this information is put forward a false hope in ourselves. As an Egyptian friend here recently told us, as we asked his advice and wondered if he might go and play a role, the most important thing to do now is to pray. Please join us in this effort.

Click here for today’s link.


Press Review of Nag Hamadi — Part Two

In an effort to keep you up-to-date with the news, I will continue to post the media summaries we provide as long as the subject is dominating the Egyptian press. As you read in the last update, it is difficult to sift the wheat from the chaff in these reports. The true and accurate often stands side-by-side with the exaggerations and inventions, and it is hard to know which is which. Right now, it is important just to listen and record. If we are able to investigate this situation further, these reports will be the foundation from which we can ask further questions. If any of you have the time to help us play detective, please feel free to read along and keep track of the names, crimes, insinuations, and accusations. Other perspectives are always helpful.

Click here for the link. Thank you.


Press Review of Nag Hamadi

We hope you have enjoyed our accounting of Coptic Christmas; there is still one more day to come, and hopefully some pictures to be shared thereafter. In the background of our Christmas stories, however, has been the events of Nag Hamadi, in which six Christians and a Muslim policeman were killed in a drive-by shooting while exiting the Christmas Eve mass. The incident has received international attention, and has dominated the Egyptian media consciousness in the days which have followed.

Our work at Arab West Report translates articles from the Egyptian newspapers and provides detailed summary thereof. In addition, we review these articles as necessary to provide fact checks and analysis. Due to the sheer number of articles on this topic, however, we have instead provided a press review, which we often do when there is a topic which dominates the news. This press review summarizes all the relevant articles from the major newspapers and combines them in one report. This manner of summary allows all voices to be heard, no matter how contradictory. This sampling may not clarify our understanding—our minds prefer a simple sound bite we can digest and process—but it does establish the complexity of the situation. It is hoped that by beginning from complexity clarity can emerge.

I have provided a link here to the press review. The assembly and analysis you will read is not my personal work, rather, it is that of my colleagues. The larger question for us here is what can we do about this? Do we have a role in encouraging reconciliation in the area? If so, how and when? I cannot say we have the answers to these questions yet, and even when we do, it may take a while to share them. I will look to link to further press reviews as we develop them, however, that you can follow along. If you care also to pray for peace in this region, and wisdom for us on how to contribute, that would be greatly appreciated.