Friday Prayers for Egypt: Blasphemy


Egypt’s legal and judicial history is historic and impressive. Yet like other societies with a strong legal tradition, litigation is common. One result is often the slow pace of justice as cases can be tied up in court for years.

Yet this fact betrays the speed in which blasphemy cases have been processed recently. A number of Copts are under investigation or have already been sentenced for insulting Islam. The most recent case involves two children under the age of eleven.

What is behind this, God? Blasphemy laws have existed from before the revolution, so it is not simply a product of an Islamist regime. But the number of cases following the anti-Islamic film feels unprecedented. They are brought by individuals, not the state.

Weigh on the hearts of these men, God, to convict them if their zeal outpaces their mercy, if they are driven by judgment, or worse, by vindictiveness. Give wisdom to the judges as well, God. May they handle these cases with discretion and wisdom, submitting both to law and conscience.

Speak also to the accused, God. Rebuke them if they have intended offense; comfort them if they are unjustly tried.

There is even a Muslim under investigation, depicted on video burning a Bible. Many have noted his trial proceeds slowly, and he is not being detained. He acted at the scene of the US Embassy, perhaps enraged at the film in question.

If he was rash, help him seek forgiveness. If he was making a statement, give him guidance. If he sowed the seeds of discord in society, rebuke him.

But with him, God, and with all the others, spare them the judgment of law. And for those who cannot pray this sincerely, may the law be designed to justly honor both holy sanctities and inviolable freedoms.

And apart from the law, may honorable men of religion rush to forgive the offenders and show mercy. May they intercede for the accused in both this life and the next.

Weighty issues are at stake, God, beyond the dignity of each of these individuals. A constitution is soon to be written, which may well include provisions against blasphemy. Odd thoughts lend to conspiracy; was the outrage over the film meant to rally support? Could these cases be fast-tracked to provoke outrage and rally against?

And within this context, conflicting reports surround the small Coptic community in Rafah. They received threats if they did not leave the area. It seems some did, while the bishop denies they were forced. This may simply reflect the foibles of human nature. But if not, the story fits perfectly into either a conspiracy against Copts by Islamists, or into a conspiracy involving Copts (as either pawns or abettors) against Islamists.

But God, end the avails to conspiracy! In all these scenarios human lives are at stake. Open Egypt to a culture of transparency, so that men may live in dignity and know the reality of the challenges they face. Cease manipulations and constrain all manipulators. Establish soon a political system based on just principles and the consensus of society. May the constitution be written wisely and celebrated by all.

God, the impossibility of this task is well known, but intervene. Change the hearts of troublemakers and sincere disputants alike. Knit them together in this crucial stage, so that they may differ properly in the days to come.

Honor Egypt, God, and give her peace. Give her peace of mind.



Christians in the Sinai

The Sinai Region

Bishop Cosman is the presiding bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the diocese of North Sinai, consisting of an area 200km long and 127km deep. This roughly stretches from Port Said to Suez along the west (though these cities do not belong his bishopric).

Bishop Cosman states that the population of his bishopric is roughly 400,000-500,000 people, of whom about 3,000 are Christians, represented by 740 families. By contrast, over 2,000 Christian families live in the urban Cairo district of Hadayak al-Maadi. The bishop relates that the low population density makes for a quiet life, and that Christians have good relations, by and large, with their neighbors.

There are two principle cities in North Sinai, Rafah and Arish, each of which has been in the news recently with regularity. Rafah is the site of the crossing into Gaza, which was reopened following the reconciliation of rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. As the reconciliation has sputtered, however, so has the crossing of goods through the border, as many restrictions remain. Illegal tunnels in the area compensate in black market trade, and near here Gaza Palestinians stand accused of crossing the border to infiltrate through Sinai to Eliat, where several Israelis were murdered in a terrorist attack.

Arish, meanwhile, has been the site of internal Egyptian unrest. On Jan. 29 following a massive, peaceful Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi demonstration in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, including Arish, masked gunmen attacked the city police station in a shootout lasting several hours. Flyers were distributed calling for an Islamic emirate in the Sinai, linked to a supposed local al-Qaeda branch. This event that prompted the entry of the Egyptian military, though special agreement had to be secured first with Israel, as much of the area is demilitarized as mandated by the Camp David Accords.

Each of these two cities hosts a Coptic Orthodox Church. Arish is the seat of the bishopric, which was built in 1939 in the neighborhood of Dahya. Rafah, however, hosts the only licensed church, which was built in 1996. This church, however, was destroyed during the lawless initial days of the Egyptian revolution, and has not yet been rebuilt despite promises by the state, according to Bishop Cosman. He states the Christians are waiting patiently to take their rights to pray in Rafah Church. He does not know who committed this crime, as the sixty-plus attackers covered their faces while wielding automatic weapons.

In addition to the two churches the diocese owns three additional ‘service buildings’ that resemble ordinary structures but host regular masses and provide social outlets for the Christian community. Two of these buildings are in Arish itself, with the other in Masa’id, a smaller town roughly 12km to the east. A community of five priests, in addition to Bishop Cosman, serves the Christians of the area.

Only two of these priests, however, stem originally from the diocese of North Sinai. Neither does Bishop Cosman, who hails from Beheira in the Delta region, and was appointed ten years ago from the St. Mina Monastery to the west of Alexandria. That even two priests are local is quite an accomplishment, however, as nearly all of the area Christians originally emigrated from other quarters.

The original inhabitants of the territory of the diocese are native Arishis, some Palestinians, and large Bedouin families which historically roamed the desert. To this number came significant Nile Valley transplants seeking work, beginning in the 19th Century. The Christians of North Sinai belong to this last group, and live mainly in the cities of Arish and Rafah, though some are in the smaller, inland villages of Hassana and Nikhl, and some in temporary worker outposts connected to projects. Like the inhabitants of the area, Christians tend to be poor. They are employed primarily as teachers, employees of government ministries, or in construction.

As stated earlier, Bishop Cosman emphasized the Christians of North Sinai enjoy good relations with all their neighbors, as well as the Bedouins, which is one reason he does not suspect them of involvement in the Rafah church attack. These relations are cemented through mutual visits during holidays and funerals, though the small number of Christians stipulates their reach in the community is not that far.

Yet the real danger in the area comes neither from the Salafis nor the Bedouin, but the lawless and criminal elements hiding in the desert. Even so, the bishop seemed mostly unconcerned. “We trust in God,” was his simple reply.

The region of Sinai is mysterious, beyond the experience of either urban or rural Egyptians. It exists in the nexus of struggle between Egypt and Israel, state and Bedouin, and civilization and tribe. Within this flashpoint is a small community of Christians, mostly imperceptible in each of these conflicts. Yet their faith maintains they are salt and light nonetheless. Further research, including hopeful visits to the area, is necessary to determine if it is true.