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Church Burning Reveals Ugly Contest over Truth and Victimhood

Copts Pray in Burned Church
Copts Pray in Burned Church

What mentality of man will burn a church? In Egypt, what should be known as a house of prayer is now the symbol of civil strife amid conflicting accusations of blame.

‘Attacks on churches are being done by the former regime and their thugs, not pro-Morsi demonstrators,’ said Ahmed Kamal, youth secretary for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Helwan, an industrial district to the south of Cairo.

But this is nonsense to Bishop Thomas, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Qussia, 340 kilometers south of Cairo. His church was attacked by pro-Morsi protestors, but neighborhood Muslims rallied to defend it.

‘We recognize their faces and know who they are,’ said Thomas. ‘The Brotherhood is using us as a scapegoat to blame us for their failures.’

Anti-Christian rhetoric has been prominent among Islamists. Since Pope Tawadros, along with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, appeared with General al-Sisi to announce the deposing of President Morsi, many Islamists believe Copts to be part of a grand conspiracy against not just their movement, but Islam itself.

‘We don’t oppose Christians,’ said Kamal, ‘but we are against the pope – as we are against the head of the Azhar – who interferes to direct people to a particular political direction.’

This second half of this message is reinforced by Kamal’s local party representation. The Helwan FJP’s Facebook page notes that ‘burning houses of worship is a crime’, but then all but justifies it in an attack on the church.

After listing a litany of the pope’s offenses, it declares, ‘After all this people ask why they burn the churches.

‘For the Church to declare war against Islam and Muslims is the worst offense. For every action there is a reaction.’

Kamal recognizes this message may have been too general. The Brotherhood sees Islam as both worship and ideology, only the latter of which has been rejected by the church and anti-Morsi protestors.

Incoherence

But for Arne Fjeldstad, CEO of The Media Project to promote religious literacy in journalism, this error reflects the reality on the ground for Islamists.

‘Whatever the Brotherhood says [about nonviolence] is not listened to or communicated on the street,’ he said. ‘So there is a large incoherence among them.’

More than 50 churches were destroyed since Wednesday last week, including two Bible Society bookshops – the first time in Egypt’s recent history.  Some news organizations reported churches being marked for attack before the Brotherhood sit-ins were forcibly broken up.

Fjeldstad believes the Brotherhood will have a difficult time making theological sense about why God ‘turned against them’. But in the meanwhile, the sit-ins were filled with chants about martyrdom.

‘They have prepared the ground for future generations of warriors for Islam,’ he said.

Sarah Carr is an independent journalist and founder of mbinenglish.com, a web page which exposes the Arabic-only messages the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the FJP Facebook page above.

But she understands the rage of Islamist protestors, for she was a witness to the military-sponsored dispersal of the sit-in which killed over 600 people, not including 40 police personnel.

‘It was completely disproportional violence,’ she said, describing army vehicles mounted with automatic weapons firing into the crowds. Carr did not see any armed protestors, though she does not deny their presence.

‘The army needs to justify their terrorist narrative and use it to crush the Muslim Brotherhood,’ she said.

But the Brotherhood did resist. Political analyst Abdullah Schleifer notes that the Western tradition of nonviolent protest involves non-resistance to state-sponsored oppression.

‘Non-violence does not mean building barricades to hold off the Egyptian riot police and breaking up pavement stones to throw at them.’

Ahmed Kamal
Ahmed Kamal

Kamal freely admits the difference.

‘Gandhi is not necessarily our role model,’ he said. ‘He was good and his people were brave, but we have our peaceful model as well as per our book and principles.

‘We are unarmed in front of their weapons, but we will resist them. To be peaceful is not just to stay silent and wait for bloodshed. We must defend our lives even by throwing stones.’

But Emad Gad, a leading politician with the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, says they went far beyond throwing stones. His party is collecting evidence of protestors’ violent intent.

‘The army did not attack the people,’ he said. ‘They used tear gas and bulldozers and were attacked by armed protestors, and then they responded.’

For political analyst Eric Trager, both narratives make sense. The Brotherhood cannot win a battle against the security forces, but that may not be the point.

‘The Brotherhood seems to believe that if it can draw the military into a fight directly, it can create fissures within the military,’ he told World Affairs Journal.

To protect itself, the military must now push the issue to conclusion.

‘It [the army] entered into a direct conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even an existential one,’ Trager continued.

‘The military believes it not only has to remove Morsi, it has to decapitate the entire organization. Otherwise, the Brotherhood will re-emerge and perhaps kill the generals who removed it from power.’

Incitement

Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church in Cairo disagrees.

‘We witnessed bloodshed on our streets, vandalism and the deliberate destruction of churches and government buildings in lawless acts of revenge by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters,’ he said.

‘I appeal to everyone to avoid rushing to judge the authorities in Egypt.’

In attacking churches, though, Carr finds the Brotherhood playing into the hands of authorities – though society provides fertile ground.

‘We’ve seen for decades how you have one person with an agenda [to spark sectarian attacks] and then others are very happy to jump in,’ she said.

‘It doesn’t take much incitement from the Brotherhood or anyone else.’

Yet the authorities, she finds, are not innocent.

‘It is no good to go to conspiracy theories, but why did you break up the sit-in and not protect churches?’ she asks. ‘What should we conclude?’

The conclusion is a morass of relativity, reflective of a polarized society overlooking travesties on all sides.

‘The number of police killed is almost insignificant,’ said Kamal, ‘compared to the two thousand killed and ten thousand injured on our side.

‘This confirms our peacefulness.’

 

This article was originally published on Lapido Media.

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Recent Links to Aided Works

Soon to be released documentary on religious relations during the Egyptian revolution

As we have lived in Cairo, we have appreciated the help of many who have taught us the local scene, culture, and political and religious realities. As we approach three years in country, then, it is rewarding to be able to share some of our insights with others who are writing about Egypt.

Freely you have received, freely give.

Of course, if we pat ourselves on the back for commitment to this principle, we violate others by the internet equivalent of standing in the street corners and issuing praise to self.

Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is linking to.

So be it: I hope the following links are helpful in putting forward our opinion on some recent events, as well as introducing the works of others who also are doing their best to make sense of Egypt, write accurately, and hopefully serve her.

Eunice Cunha is a Portuguese researcher in the United States, and inquired recently about the position of Copts in Egypt in light of current circumstances. Here is an excerpt, which she posted on her blog:

Amador Square (AS):
Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Copts were there, at Tahrir Square, demanding the ousting of Mubarak’s regime. What has changed for Copts, a year later?

Jayson Casper (JS):
A couple clarifications, first. Though the Muslim Brotherhood was not there officially when the revolution began, many of their youth were. Furthermore they were there officially after January 28.

Similarly, the Coptic Orthodox Church was not there in the beginning, or afterwards, though Christians did contribute from the earliest days. Christian activists I know, however, lament that their fellow believers were so few.

But you refer to the changing euphoria that Copts had following the revolution. Simply, they were dealt a huge blow by the military in the events of Maspero, and the other powers which emerged are mainly Islamist. I don’t think Copts want to go back to the old regime – they recognize the limitations and false freedoms of Mubarak. But they would not mind a reformed continuation of what was, though this creates a dissonance that mutes overt support for the revolution.

Please click here to continue reading at her blog, Amador Square, which explores the connection between Tahrir and Portugal’s own revolutionary history.

A little while before that, I was able to assist in an article exploring the relationship between the Orthodox and Evangelical Church in Egypt, especially in light of numerous but mostly non-official defections to the latter since the revolution. The author, Sarah Carr, is my superior in all things Egypt, but given the subject I was able to provide some perspective, and a quote. Here is an excerpt from the article in Egypt Independent:

There has also been a slight change in relations between the Coptic Orthodox and Protestant churches, with a joint prayer session held in the Saint Samaan Church in Manshiyet Nasser.

“It was a bit strange and out of context that the late Pope Shenouda welcomed that event, after demonizing similar events before and warning “his children” against participating in such events. Maybe it is a sign of a change? Maybe it is politics,” Zekri wonders.

Casper suggests that this unity is a natural reaction to the Islamist resurgence and that the church “can’t stand against the tide of a more inclusive Christianity. The trend is towards saying, ‘we’re all Christians.’”

Please click here to continue reading. Sarah’s own blog, Inanities, is an often humorous look at Egypt from Sarah’s bi-national perspective.

Still earlier, I had the chance to introduce Avi Asher-Shapiro to a young Coptic activist. Avi is a Fullbright scholar who was researching Coptic issues, which resulted in the following article from the Carnegie Endowment, from which an excerpt is given:

Above all, Maspero demonstrated that, even in the face of explicit violence, the church’s hierarchy is not yet willing to break with the SCAF. Many bishops are jockeying to replace the aging Shenouda (rumored to be very ill), and few would risk losing the military’s support in a future bid for the papacy.

But the church is underestimating the damage these SCAF ties are inflicting on its relationship with its young membership. As Coptic activists become increasingly defiant, the church may find it impossible to contain its adherents. According to Ramy Kamal, the best way forward is for the church to withdraw from political maneuverings and salvage its spiritual role. Or, as he told me: “We must save the Church from itself.”

Please click here to continue reading. Other articles from Avi can be found here at Salon.com.

Finally, Johnny and Rebecca Weixler are American filmmakers who visited Egypt to make a documentary about the Arab Spring. Beginning with the Alexandria bombing which unleashed great inter-religious sentiment, they chronicled how ‘One Hand’ became a dominant chant of the revolution. I had the opportunity to introduce them to a few characters who exhibit such sentiment.

Johnny and Rebecca have no article, but their website provides the trailer to their movie, subtitled: The Heroic Struggle for Muslim-Christian Unity in the New Egypt. Please click here to view it.

It has been a privilege to get to know all of the above; may Egypt be better off because of their work.