Please note: The following was written a few days ago following a largely Coptic protest at Maspero. Obviously, it must be reconsidered in light of the horrible events of this evening, in which several were killed. All the same, this should do well to set the context for what happened today.
Outraged at the burning of a church in Marinab in the governorate of Aswan, over 1000 Copts and Muslim supporters marched in Cairo on October 4, 2011 from the heavily mixed Muslim-Christian neighborhoods of Shubra to the Court of Cassation in Ramsis. Afterwards, several hundred moved to the Egyptian Radio and TV Building in nearby Maspero, announcing a sit-in at the site of several previous Coptic protests.
Unfortunately, the immediate spark that ignited this protest in Marinab is not at all clear. Many if not most demonstrators believed otherwise. A common interpretation claims extremist, likely Salafi, Muslims surrounded a church and torched it, besieging their minority Christian neighbors in an effort to keep them from having a place of worship and perhaps to drive them from the area. This despite the fact that local Copts possessed official documents authorizing building renovation.
A full report on what transpired will be published soon, based on the findings of Cornelis Hulsman and Lamis Yahia during a visit to Marinab. What is emerging, though, is a far more complicated tale. While it appears the Christians of the village may have had authorization, this may have been gained on false pretenses. Or, it could have come through a ‘deal’ made between the governor and the deputy priest of the bishop to keep quiet a conversion case – which often result in sectarian tension – in exchange for authorization to construct a church. Stay tuned for full analysis of documents and testimonies, but regardless, the burning of the building occurred on a slow boil.
Christians in Marinab had long used a nondescript structure as a church, which was well known to the Muslims of the village. Negotiations had been underway to tear down the building and replace it with a formal church building. Muslims objected not to the conducting of religious rites but to the physical markings of church architecture. Confident in their authorization, the Christians began to build. Then, in light of the security void in the region following the revolution, they began to exceed their mandate.
Muslims brought this to the attention of authorities: Christians exceeded the approved height of the structure, and added four unauthorized domes to the roof – typical of Coptic Orthodox architecture. This was not disputed by local Copts, and they began to dismantle. Two of the domes were removed and the walls lowered. Copts stated this required careful, painstaking effort, lest the building collapse. Muslims felt they were moving slowly, stalling, and perhaps deliberately leaving some domes untouched.
On Friday, September 30, something set the Muslim community off, which will require more investigation. Perhaps fearful Christians would circumvent agreements and get away with it, a group of 200-300 youths took the matter into their own hands, using simple tools to tear down the building. This eventually swelled into around 1000 strong, and security looked on doing nothing. At some point some Muslims arrived with gasoline, and used it to set the structure ablaze. As the church-to-be is in a densely populated area of the Christian ‘quarter’, the flames spread and consumed much inventory in the neighboring warehouse. Christian properties were also damaged, and looting took place. The general sense – which can be disputed – is that Muslims wished to target the church, and some wayward youths engaged in violent excess. It is clear, however, that Muslims could have done far more damage to Marinab Christians had they wished, and did not do so.
There is nothing redeemable in the actions of these Muslims, as their Islamic chauvinism led them first to oppose a physical Christian imprint on their village, and then to take the law into their own hands. Yet perhaps law is a misnomer, for it seems both Christians and Muslims abused its absence. Application of law had long been a neglected feature of Egypt; after the revolution the ongoing security void is a deep mystery.
It is this lack of government that gives legitimacy to the Coptic protest at Maspero. Marinab is the third church to be attacked since the revolution, following Atfih and Imbaba. Christian hopes raised during the revolution, which appeared to portend a new spirit of cooperation and national unity, are being dashed as frustrations with the former regime re-circulate, and perhaps increase. Yet the response of anger to the Marinab attacks reflects a lack of understanding and a jumping to conclusions. Neither the state nor the church provided (or were able to provide) the depth of complexity and shared complicity which led to the unjustified Muslim attack, however much both groups felt they needed to take the matter into their own hands. Yet a simple narrative of persecution and extremist opposition is more easily digestible.
Unfortunately, it is a narrative which is polarizing, even as it bears marks of true suffering. It is a tale that isolates Christians, even as it is self-fulfilling. It was also clearly evident at the Maspero protests.
I was in attendance with Cornelis Hulsman, who supplies many of the remarks which follow. I also know a few of the Coptic organizers, and find them to be good people who are not manipulators. Yet that might not be true of all.
Whether or not they possessed a true history of the Marinab conflict, Fr. Philopater, Fr. Mityas, and Fr. Abram Suriyani, a monk, are all Coptic Orthodox clerics with strained ties to church hierarchy. They, along with other priests from Shubra, Ma’asara, Beni Mazar and elsewhere, appeared to be coordinators. While they were celebrated by many, followed by large gatherings, one protestor in particular upbraided the priests as bringing trouble on the Copts. He said this while repeating the frequently heard Coptic chauvinism of being ‘pure-bred’ from the Pharaohs, as opposed to the Muslims of mixed Arab blood.
Since the revolution there has been a movement among Christians to rejoin society as opposed to remaining walled in the church leaving Pope Shenouda to represent Coptic interests. This, I find, has been a largely positive development, even as it imitates the popular activist techniques of protests and sit-ins. The above priests appear to reflect this trend, and constantly remind both Copts and media their presence does not infer church sanction of the event. I do not know the priests well, and must be reticent to cast accusations. Yet an activist by nature is often single-minded; as he may have the tendency to neglect greater context, he may also face the temptation to simplify a narrative. This is no sin, yet it may not reflect wisdom.
Their fellow activist, Rami Kamel, general coordinator for the Maspero Youth Union, received a phone call from the office of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, seeking to know their demands and sit for dialogue. He refused, stating he would offer demands the next morning. At another point during the evening Fr. Philopater was removed by security, apparently for negotiations, but later returned and the sit-in continued. The entire time the Maspero area was surrounded by military police and central security; veterans of public demonstrations we know – one an activist, the other security – conjectured appearances suggested they would violently clear the area.
Meanwhile, the Maspero Youth Union had drawn up and printed demands, reflecting a simplified and exaggerated narrative. It stated, for example, that though noble Egyptians have followed the news of the Marinab church, ‘we Copts follow with weeping hearts as our churches are daily exposed to burning and destruction’.
Furthermore, a threat was issued: ‘We know full well that the events of Marinab will not be the last as long as the military council and those running the country remain incapable of protecting Egyptian Copts’ churches and the lives of their sons. … As such, we have no choice but to struggle for our just cause by taking all possible measures of political escalation until we gain all of our squandered rights.’ They then list the following six demands:
- Arrest of criminals who incited and caused the incident (in Marinab).
- Resignation of the Aswan governor and investigation into his inflammatory statement to the media against the feelings of Copts, and of his lie about the truth of what happened.
- Immediate investigation of Officer Ahmed Fathi, security detective in Edfu, and the security director of Aswan, and their collusion in the sinful aggression.
- Rebuilding the church of Marinab on state expense.
- Rapid issuance of a unified law for building houses of worship, as well as laws to criminalize incitement and sectarian discrimination.
- Setting a specific timetable to implement the above mentioned demands.
The October 4 sit-in was in fact an escalation, though no more than the Maspero Youth Union had organized in the past, and no more than countless other groups have done since the revolution. Taking up residence in front of the Radio and TV Building, 1000 Copts lingered here and there, unimposing in terms of sheer mass, but blocking the busy Cornish Road along the Nile River all the same. Hundreds of security personnel actually stopped the traffic, with tension in the air if their presence was to deter an attack against the Copts, as happened during their last sit-in, or in fact to remove them.
A sit-in protest requires large numbers to solidify presence, and a few Copts murmured their disappointment at the turnout. They pressed forward all the same, but most appeared subdued, even dulled to the effort. Some said people were getting tired of protesting.
Not all. There appeared to be a group of fifty or so, never organized as such exactly, but asserting themselves right at the front lines of the security cordon. There they would chant in their faces, provocatively – ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!’ or even ‘the people want the fall of the field general!’ (i.e. Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council). One protestor even went as far as to slap a policeman in the face. Showing great restraint, the army removed him without incident.
The restraint did not last, and the agitators continued. Earlier in the day Fr. Philopater urged the Copts to be peaceful, and several stated security was itching for conflict as an excuse to remove the protestors, and slander their reputation in the process. Yvonne Mossad, a media coordinator for the Maspero Youth Union, showed great courage to put herself in the middle of nearly every run-in, urging Copts to back down. They did not always, and in one flare-up the military police began hitting a protestor with his shield, and gunshots were fired into the air.
This was about 12:30am, and we had already made the decision to begin leaving in order to catch the last metro at 1:00. At the sound of gunfire everyone scampered chaotically, but things calmed down again. We left, hoping for the best, hoping the sit-in would proceed peacefully. As it turns out, I wish we had stayed, though it was probably for the best we left.
According to media reports the sit-in was dispersed forcibly around 1:00am. Other sit-ins have been dispersed by security, so there is nothing anti-Coptic in the government response. Force, to be sure, is required when resistance is met, even if that resistance is passive. Having left the area, we cannot comment on the behavior of the protestors. One video circulating afterwards on the internet, however, clearly shows an excess of violence. Even if the man in question was one of the agitators, surely an internal military investigation will be forthcoming.
In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’
And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’ (Luke 18:2-8)
What then for the Copts of Egypt? How should those in Marinab be judged, or in Maspero, for that matter?
Let us imagine the Coptic villagers to be completely innocent in this case – victims – as investigations may yet conclude. Certainly their situation is not easy, and one Muslim in Marinab allegedly told his neighbor, ‘May God rest the soul of Islam. If we let this church be erected then Islam is buried in this village.’ Testimony on both sides seems to point to a shared causation, if of a different manner, between Muslims and Christians, but in such an atmosphere, Christians may wonder if they are equal citizens under the law. Difficulty in building churches has been long established.
The history and commonality of this difficulty should not numb the reader, as if it is a normal, simple inconvenience. Add to this slight the tales of discrimination, educational and media bias, and the pressures of a growing extremism, and the picture is painted of the Copts as the widow in the parable, calling out for justice. The sit-in at Maspero was not just about Marinab, it was about accumulation of grievances and frustrations. It is the experience of a community; legitimate or not it is the perception of many. Not a few Muslims agree with them as well; there are issues between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.
Allow a minute for the conspiracy to be advanced to undo this statement. Under Mubarak, many say, the security apparatus would play with religious tensions for political gain. These many now attribute the attacks in Atfih, Imbaba, and elsewhere to the remnants of the Mubarak system seeking to preserve their power base by discrediting the revolution. Enflaming Muslim-Christian tensions is among the best ways to do so both home and abroad. Noteworthy is the fact that the Aswan governor was a Mubarak appointee who maintained his job. Could the church insistence in building a church – with domes – come from subtle suggestions quite aware it could spark tensions? Could the individuals who brought the gas to burn the church simply have been paid thugs – as well as those who thereafter looted? It is unlikely investigations will uncover anything of the sort, but within a confusing post-revolutionary setting, questions of all natures are asked, and linger.
Either way – under a dominant Islamic chauvinism or a lingering security conspiracy – Copts have been crying out for justice for a long time. The parable encourages them to continue, for God is not an unjust judge. Surely he will grant respite – quickly, it assures – and without a begrudging heart. Do Copts believe this? Or has God proved himself unjust, unhearing, uncaring? Many Copts seem to believe God hears and answers better in America or Europe, for they are leaving their villages for cities, their cities for the capital, and the capital for refuge abroad. As one Copt stated in Maspero, ‘Egypt is rubbish; a garbage country!’ However difficult the plight, this is the voice of one having long given up on God; is he not the judge of every nation?
It is not that Copts must only pray. It is right for them to strive politically. It may even be right for them to demonstrate. Yet the question of Jesus must cut them to the marrow: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?
Did the Copts in Marinab call out for justice, or did they seek to manipulate for their interest? Did the youths at Maspero carry forward the cries of previous generations, or did they take justice into their own hands? Yes, both are dealing with reality as best they can, as normal efforts, they find, are frustrated. Yet are they acting from faith? Are they acting in accordance with faith? Faith changes reality. Or, is God unjust?
It is a frightening question. Answers are not easy. It calls for humility and introspection. It calls for creativity and action. It calls for hope and love.
The Jews to whom Jesus addressed his parable were waiting for the restoration of the kingdom. They are still waiting. Their picture of justice – a people governing their own land – is surely commendable, but was ultimately faulty. They cried to God for centuries; some abandoned this for increased moral purity, others for political escalation, still others for isolation from society. Each of these responses is current to some degree in Egypt today. Yet all of them failed. The kingdom never came.
At least not as they expected it. Jesus’ kingdom was of the spirit, and it remains established around the world, including Egypt. What does God intend, then, as justice for the Copts? It remains to be seen. It is proper for Copts to pursue all manner of human justice, as long as they recognize this is not necessarily the same as the vision of God. His justice – whatever its fulfillment – is coming quickly. It only remains for Copts, and all Egyptians, to maintain faith on the earth, and to act accordingly.