Thousands of Copts descended on the Orthodox Cathedral in Abbasiya, Cairo on Friday, May 6, in response to a Salafi Muslim demonstration at the same location a week earlier. Salafi Muslims represent a conservative current in Islam which calls for the strict application of sharia law and rejection of modern, democratic principles, believed to be Western in origin. The previous Friday, April 29, Salafis rallied for the release of Camilia Shehata and other Coptic women believed to have converted to Islam, yet allegedly held illegally in Coptic monasteries. Salafis conducted similar demonstrations repeatedly over the past several months, but this was the first time they gathered at the heart of Orthodox Christianity in Egypt – the papal seat of Pope Shenouda III. They called for the prosecution of the pope, and Copts interpreted many of their chants as insults against him and their community.
Feeling threatened, lay Coptic groups issued a call for a counter demonstration at the cathedral in anticipation of a subsequent Salafi protest. John, a Copt from Matariya, a town to the north of Cairo, stated the demonstration would be held within the walls of the cathedral, not outside. Groups would be stationed at the four gates, to prevent entry should the Salafis so attempt. Yet John instructed his delegation that if the Salafis remained outside and simply hurled insults, Copts should remain silent. Asked if there could be a positive reply, chanting words of blessing of the Salafis, John stated this would nevertheless be received as provocation. Silence would be the best response, and provide the best testimony. If attacked, however, Copts should resist and defend the seat of the pope.
Coptic fears are understandable, while also being an overreaction. Certainly Salafis engaged in provocation by marching at the cathedral. In weeks previous certain Salafi groups desecrated shrines erected at the tombs of Muslim saints, believing these to be heretical accretions to pure Islam. Yet sharia law calls upon Muslims to honor and defend churches and monasteries, and though they demonstrated at the cathedral, they inflicted no material harm. Nevertheless, Salafi groups stand accused of several grievances against the Copts perpetrated since the revolution, and there is a general sense, unproven, that remnants of the former ruling regime and its security forces intentionally stoke sectarian tensions. Yet despite the presence of rumors, it does not seem any threats were directly issued against the sanctity of the cathedral.
On Thursday, a day before the anticipated protest, Yassir Metwali, a leader of the Coalition to Support New Muslims, one of the chief post-revolution organizers in the defense of Camilia Shehata, declared there would be no demonstrations that day. The cancellation was issued late and was not widely known; in any case most Copts had already made their plans to gather. Metwali stated this was unrelated to the Coptic gathering. Unmentioned may have been another factor; Thursday morning the al-Ahram newspaper published photos of Camilia, her husband, son, and Coptic lawyer, seated together happily. The lawyer, well-known activist Naguib Gibraeel, produced documentation stating he was authorized to speak on Camilia’s behalf, who asserted she was happy in her Christianity. Surely this would not satisfy Salafi clamor, as claims and counter-claims of fraud have been exchanged between the two communities. All the same, it may have given them pause.
There have been two other issues dominating Salafi attention since the cathedral protest. The first was an attempt to usurp the pulpit at the Noor Mosque, the largest in Abbasiya. The second was the death of Osama bin Laden.
Shiekh Hafez Salama is a celebrated war hero in Egypt. In his retirement he had dedicated himself to religion, founding the Association for Islamic Guidance, through which the Noor Mosque was built. Yet since the 1970s the Egyptian government has attempted to bring all mosques under the supervision of the Ministry of Endowments. Ostensibly, this was to curb the potential for unaffiliated imams to use their pulpits to spread extremist or terrorist ideology. The effort has been mostly successful, with 95% of mosque imams receiving certification from the official ministry. The current imam, Sheikh Ahmad Turki, has been in place since 2002. Muhammad, a garage attendant in the neighborhood of the Noor Mosque, states he enjoys wide favor and is loved in the community. He also expresses admiration for Hafez Salama.
Hafez Salama, however, reflects Salafi trends, and has sought to inculcate them in the mosque since the revolution. For the first Friday prayers following the success of the revolution, he approached Ahmad Turki to allow popular Salafi preacher Muhammad Hasan to address the people. He acquiesced, provided Salama secure permission from the Ministry of Endowments. He did, it was approved, and all proceeded normally.
On April 22, however, clashes broke out between supporters of Hafez Salama and Ahmad Turki, in which sticks and knives were employed to force Turki to abdicate his position. He has called for intervention from the military to enforce ministry protocol, but in advance of this Friday’s sermon, Salama announced he would lead the Islamic funeral ‘Prayer for the Absent’, in honor of Osama bin Laden.
Police and military personnel maintained a heavy presence both inside and outside the mosque, assuring the ascent of a ministry-approved imam, though not Turki. There were no signs of altercation during the proceedings, but following the sermon and the exit of military personnel, Salama boomed with his powerful voice, honoring the hero and martyr, Osama bin Laden, calling for a march on the US Embassy. As he finished, chants began within the mosque and a crowd exited and assembled, waving banners extolling the fallen al-Qaeda head.
The size of the protest, in comparison to the expanse of the mosque which was filled to capacity, was rather miniscule. Perhaps around two hundred demonstrators committed to the approximately hour walk downtown to the embassy. As they departed, significantly slowing traffic patterns in front of the mosque, a driver stopped and shouted, “They are corrupting the image of Islam! Who are these people and what are they doing to our religion?”
Meanwhile, Copts at the cathedral seemed aimless as their expected challenge never materialized. Several hundred milled about outside the walls of the cathedral, unsure what to do next. A priest and cathedral lay leaders tried to usher them back inside, but to no avail. Military and police personnel kept to their positions, but shortly thereafter a contingent arrived from the Noor Mosque, only a five minute walk away, to guard the flow of traffic.
Within the commotion media began appearing and taking statements from various people. Fr. Basilius, who had arrived from Ma’sara, an area to the south of Cairo, provided commentary. “We are here only to defend our father’s house, as anyone would defend their father’s house,” he said. “The Salafis are not our enemy, only Satan is our enemy. We have no weapons except the cross, and God is our protector.” When asked if there was a way to return blessing upon accusing Salafi chants, he spoke similarly as John, quoted earlier: “If they revile us, we will remain silent. In this way they will see their actions in comparison to ours, and be affected.”
Shortly thereafter, perhaps prompted by the appearance of cameras, several Copts gave up their silence. Several dozen gathered together with placards and banners, and began chanting:
- With our spirit and blood we will sacrifice for you, oh pope!
- Christians and Muslims, one hand!
- Not military and not religious, we want a civil state!
- Long live Egypt!
Perhaps a hundred or two watched along, as the military kept the protest from blocking traffic. In comparison to the thousand or so protestors who had been inside the cathedral, this demonstration also appeared somewhat minor. Opinion, however, was that Copts would fill the cathedral again next Friday, to be ready should the Salafis return.
Click here for a video clip of the protest. The chanting heard is ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!”
By now having arrived at the US Embassy, it was clear that the Salafis had maintained their numbers through the heat of the day, but had not increased them. Army personnel did not allow them to gather directly in front of the gate, yet their presence slightly down the street still took place in sight of the waving American flag. Chanting condemned the US military operation which assassinated bin Laden, and called for the release of Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind cleric held in an American prison for involvement in a pre-September 11 attempt to bomb the World Trade Center. Ominously, there was also a chant commemorating an Islamic-era victory over Jews in the Arabian Peninsula, warning Jews that the army of Muhammad would soon return.
Click here for a video clip of the protest. Muslims are engaged in afternoon prayers in front of a military contingent guarding the embassy.
Ayman is a youthful, beardless protestor about twenty years old. He and Ahmad maintained that bin Laden was not involved in the September 11 attacks at all. Al-Qaeda, they said, was against the killing of civilians, though certainly some died as collateral damage in attacks on legitimate American military targets involved in Iraqi and Afghanistan occupations. Furthermore, he never killed other Muslims. Asked about the bombing of a Muslim wedding procession in a hotel in Jordan by al-Qaeda operative al-Zarqawi, they denied he was involved. Instead, in effort to discredit the organization American friendly Arab governments would commit such atrocities. The New Year’s Eve church bombing in Alexandria, they said, was orchestrated by the Egyptian Minister of the Interior, Habib al-Adly.
Tarak is an older protestor, though also beardless, in contradistinction to the great majority of bin Laden supporters present. His opinions were more nuanced: “Yes, Osama bin Laden admitted to the September 11 attacks, and we must not countenance the killing of innocent civilians. But I certainly support bin Laden for his courage in opposing the American military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which far more innocent civilians perished. For this, bin Laden is an Islamic hero, and he died a martyr.”
It should be noted all three individuals were civil and friendly in their conversation, taking no offense at the presence or questions of an American interlocutor.
As the day closed and the protest ended I walked five minutes from the US Embassy to Tahrir Square to take the metro home. The atmosphere was festive, with many protests going on simultaneously. One was for the release of demonstrators arrested following a military raid on Tahrir in which it appeared rogue soldiers were involved. Another was a sole woman surrounded by a handful of onlookers wailing over an issue I couldn’t quite understand. Another supported the recent Palestinian reconciliation and called for the end of the Israeli occupation. The largest was a rally in solidarity with Arab protests taking place around the region, complete with flags of the different nations of the Arab League.
As I reflected on the day’s events, I called to mind the words of Alaa’, a Muslim guard for a minor government office outside the Noor Mosque, where I purposed to take refuge should the bin Laden demonstration have turned violent. “For thirty years we had almost no freedom of expression. Now, the pressure has given way to an explosion. Soon, things will settle down and get back to normal.” Indeed, protests have multiplied and are scattered over a multitude of issues, many at odds with one another. So much so, any individual protest is lost in the sea of demonstrations, appearing irrelevant in the process. Yet each protest is imbued with utmost fervor, as the group seeks to make its demands and criticisms known.
That this has occurred with the utmost of civility is a testimony to the Egyptian people. May it so continue, and may the balance of justice, in the end, satisfy its many claimants.