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Cairo Church Attack Kills 25 at Center of Egyptian Christianity

coptic-cathedral-bombing
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

This article was first published by Christianity Today, on December 11, 2016.

At least 25 people were killed and 49 injured when a bomb exploded around 10 a.m. this morning during a worship service at the spiritual center of Christianity in Egypt.

It is the worst terrorist attack on Copts since the New Year’s bombing of a church in Alexandria in 2011 that killed 23 people.

A worship service of mostly women was targeted in the St. Peter and St. Paul church, adjacent to the St. Mark’s Cathedral and papal residence of Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt and worldwide.

Tawadros was traveling in Greece at the time of the attack. He will cut short his visit and lead funeral prayers tomorrow in the Nasr City district of Cairo.

So far, there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack.

“This is an unbelievable act against Egypt first and Christians second,” Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, told Christianity Today.

Please click here to read the full story at Christianity Today.

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Middle East Published Articles World Watch Monitor

Community ‘Justice’ Expels Copts from their Homes

A customary reconciliation session in Ismailia, from Misr el-Balad
A customary reconciliation session in Ismailia, via Misr el-Balad

My new report for World Watch Monitor, published June 17:

Forgive Emad Youssef if he and his extended family felt quite confused. The crowd welcoming them back to the village had only a few days earlier demanded they leave.

“They said this is the first time something like this has happened in our village,” he told private satellite channel, OnTV “and that, Inshallah, it won’t happen again.”

Yet it happens frequently in Egypt – at least 23 times in the last four years, according to new research released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Whose Customs? – a 78-page report by the group – points out that the period from 2011-2014 saw 45 instances in which sectarian strife was settled, in different ways, outside the law through “Customary Reconciliation Sessions.”

In concept, Customary Reconciliation Sessions are community-based conflict resolution, long established in Egyptian tradition. If two residents have a dispute, solving it through the judicial system is long and costly. Instead, “wise men” of the village will hear both sides and issue a binding ruling. Religious leaders are often involved.

If the dispute is violent, the Customary Reconciliation Session is a method to calm tensions and prevent escalation. Police are usually present to enforce security.

But in the case of Youssef and his relatives, all Coptic Christians, the session took place because police did not do their job in the first place.

”This (the forced ‘relocation’) happened while the police were in the village, and they did nothing to stop them,” a local Copt, choosing anonymity, said.

Emad’s brother Ayman is a migrant worker in Jordan, accused of sharing pictures deemed insulting of Muhammad on Facebook via his cell phone. Ayman claims he is innocent. Nevertheless, on May 27 a mob gathered in his home village back in Egypt, attacking the houses and fields of his family and their Coptic neighbors. The village of Kafr Darwish, about two-thirds Muslim, is located in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo.

Reports say that some local Muslim neighbors tried to defend the family, but the mayor was not able to control the situation. Officials and village leaders conducted a Customary Reconciliation Sessions and issued a verdict placating the mob. In Ayman’s absence his family was punished, resulting in the expulsion of 18 individuals, including Ayman’s mother and his 71-year-old father.

The displaced told of their ordeal as they were “traveling from one town to another and not finding a place to accommodate us.”

In this one instance, five families of 18 members had to contend with living in one room. “They expelled us while we have done nothing, we are struggling to provide for ourselves,” they said before their return.

Media is often inattentive to Upper Egyptian issues, but in this case the outcry was immediate. Popular broadcaster Ibrahim Eissa declared, “How is that we have an enlightened president but a Salafi [ultraconservative Muslim] state? We don’t have the courage to say: These are their homes and their life is here. Whoever stands against them and the law will be judged by the law!”

A day before Eissa said this, the Beni Sweif state governor had tried to intervene, announcing the displaced families would return. This only resulted in further attacks in the village. But the following day control was established. The governor convened a meeting in the village, with high profile political, religious, and security figures – and more than 2,000 residents.

According to Mideast Christian News, the governor announced that the law does not allow the displacement of any Egyptian from their home. He promised to restore the properties that had been damaged.

But Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, which helped first report the story, is not aware of even one Muslim arrested for the attacks. MCN reported that Christian villagers submitted the names of 20 individuals involved.

“I don’t consider this a happy ending, it is not a healthy situation and the law is not enforced,” Sidhom told World Watch Monitor.

Fanatics ”may harm Christians,” he said, ”but the greater harm is done to the sovereignty of the state.”

Ishak Ibrahim

 (right) with Amr Abdulrahman at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015
Ishak Ibrahim (right) with Amr Abdulrahman at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015

The incident was unique in that the state intervened to overturn the results of a Customary Reconciliation Session. But Ishak Ibrahim, lead author of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights report, said the non-prosecution of offenders is common. In the vast majority of cases studied, no arrests were made. In the few that were, the accused were released shortly thereafter. The reconciliation agreements often stipulated the relinquishing of legal procedures.

“If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian attacks,” said Ibrahim, “but accepting it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions. We put responsibility on the government because it is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. And while Article 185 of the penal code allows for a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

But the waiver of prosecution has not applied to Christian aggressors.

Not all incidents begin as sectarian. In 29 per cent of the studied cases, community tension resulted from a romantic relationship between a Muslim and a Christian, and in 16 per cent conflict emerged from land or other property disputes.

In each one where the Christian was at fault, legal prosecution continued after penalties, often exorbitant, had been stipulated by a Customary Reconciliation Session. But when the Muslim is at fault, reconciliation and social peace are emphasized. Sometimes there are no penalties whatsoever; other times the church has opted for waiving them to keep the peace.

Bias against Christians is also apparent in disputes with religious origins. Thirty-one percent of cases have to do with the practice of Christian religious ritual, including attempted church construction and repair.

Only one case was resolved in their favor.

‘Relocated’

Even the “Martyrs” Church, established by a presidential decision to honor the 20 Egyptian Copts killed in Libya by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, had to be “physically relocated” following protests and a subsequent Customary Reconciliation Session.

Eight per cent of cases had to do with expressing opinions on religious matters. The majority involved simply “liking” a Facebook page deemed insulting to Islam, and resulted in expulsion of the offender from his village.

World Watch Monitor previously reported on Gad Younan, a teacher from Minya arrested with some of his students for a video in which they made fun of Islamic State. Mideast Christian News  has recently reported that judicial procedures resulted in his release on bail pending further trial, but that the Customary Reconciliation Session agreement continues to demand he not return home.

“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdulrahman, head of the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Abdulrahman explained that those who conduct the reconciliation sessions often view them as above and apart from the law. This status is buttressed by the police presence that implicitly endorses the process.

And in a rare departure from Coptic restraint in criticism of the government, Bishop Aghathon of Minya accused local authorities of collusion with conservative Muslims in Customary Reconciliation Sessions. He told a Coptic satellite television channel that, in one incident in his diocese, the typical mob protest was instigated by security.

General Sayyid Nour el-Din, former director of security in Minya, defended the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions. “It does not conflict with the law at all, it has to do with the prevention of bloody conflicts,” he told OnTV. “The security presence is there to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.”

Nour el-Din said security has to be especially vigilant as Islamist groups are looking for any excuse to explode the situation. Strong especially in the poorer southern governorates, their presence coincides with the use of Customary Reconciliation Sessions following sectarian incidents. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reported 48 per cent of cases are from Upper Egypt, 33 per cent from Minya alone.

The Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the forced displacement of Copts in Kafr Darwish, while blaming the church for tearing apart national unity through its support of the government.

This latter sentiment was emphasized by Amr Abdul Rahim, a former member of parliament from al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, an Islamist group implicated in many attacks on Copts in Upper Egypt during the 1990s.

“The church is part of Sisi’s regime,” Abdul Rahim said. “(The church clergy) have to wake up and realize they are playing with Coptic lives and leading them to a holocaust.”

Though Abdul Rahim insists that “Muslims” are not against Copts, his criticism makes no distinction between Islamist ideology and Muslim identity.

‘Roots of the Problem’

Statistics assembled by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights indicated the use of one Customary Reconciliation Session per month during the interim rule of the military, when, following the fall of Mubarak, a security vacuum existed and Islamist groups felt themselves in the ascendency. During Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led presidency, the rate rose to 1.25 per month.

It declined under interim president Mansour and incumbent president Sisi following the removal of Morsi, but the practice continues all the same. The report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted six incidents, outside the scope of its report, in the first half of 2015 alone.

“From Mubarak to today, no regime has dealt with the roots of the problem,” said Ibrahim, the report’s lead author.

Sidhom tied Customary Reconciliation Sessions to an unreformed educational system that does not properly instill the values of citizenship. Related is a weak state apparatus that submits to the pressure of militant action apart from the law.

But Ibrahim emphasized he is not against Customary Reconciliation Sessions in principle.

“Anything that extinguishes sectarian tension is beneficial, as long as the process of law continues,” he told OnTV. “The problem is that it is a replacement for law, often compelled upon the weaker party, reflecting the local situation of power.”

But where power is balanced and tension is not high, Christians, like Muslims, avail themselves readily of a Customary Reconciliation Session, especially in view of a judicial system saddled with millions of new and pending cases.

“In 90 per cent of the cases, CRS is beneficial,” Fr. Yu’annis Anton of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Minya told World Watch Monitor. “Relationships are reconciled and everyone takes his rights.”

Anton speaks from a long experience with Customary Reconciliation Sessions, underlining their utility in non-sectarian cases. This is not the case of Kafr Darwish, he said, which was an emergency situation.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted that its 45 cases detail only Customary Reconciliation Session use following sectarian clashes, not the practice itself.

Perhaps following in the footsteps of Jesus, Emad Youssef chooses to reflect positively.

“This trial was from God, who has used it to increase the love shown to us by Muslim neighbors,” he said.

“They have made reconciliation,” added the 71 year old father. “We have returned home, in goodness and peace.”

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: ‘With their Blood, They are Unifying Egypt’

(credit Mohsen Nabil / AP Images, via CT)
(credit Mohsen Nabil / AP Images, via CT)

From my new article in Christianity Today:

Late Sunday night at an otherwise quiet curbside café in Cairo, customers put down their tea and backgammon. They sat riveted, watching Egypt’s president pledge retaliation against the Islamic State in Libya.

Earlier in the day, jihadists released a video of the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians. Following President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s declaration of a week of mourning, the channel switched to images of the orange-clad victims, walking to their death on the shores of Tripoli.

“Do you see that?” one customer exclaimed, rising to point out the scene to his friend. “They dressed the Copts like in Guantanamo. This is horrible!”

The remark demonstrates the gut-level reaction of Egyptian Muslims, contrary to the desires of the Islamic State.

“There has been a very strong response of unity and sympathy,” said Andrea Zaki, vice president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. “People are describing Copts as Egyptians, first and foremost, and with their blood they are unifying Egypt.”

The article then provides commentary from other Christian leaders, and ends with a very direct message:

This thought is the central feature of nearly all Coptic advice to Christians in the West: Support Egypt.

Sidhom speaks openly of his “grudge” against the US administration, and no longer holds hope that American organizations can help. Zaki asks Western citizens to pressure their governments to see the “reality” and designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist entity. Kharrat asks for tourism and investment, especially in Upper Egypt.

But all ask for prayer.

“We are praying for God to change the hearts of those who have been raised on extremist thoughts,” said Anton, “and that this generation of Sisi will be different.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, published February 18, 2015.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Infighting Between Coptic Groups Not Helping Maspero Justice Campaign

Regla Gamal
Regla Gamal, standing next to her brother’s memorial plaque, translated: The martyr, Subhi Gamal Nassif

Three years after Maspero and Regla Gamal is still wearing black.

On 9 October 2011 her 26-year-old brother, Subhi, was shot dead during a mostly Coptic demonstration in what became known as the Maspero massacre.

Twenty seven Egyptian Christians were killed by the army as thousands protested against attacks on their churches, the majority crushed under the wheels of swerving military vehicles.

To date only three lower ranking soldiers have been convicted, each being sentenced to between two to three years in prison. Despite the best efforts at justice by Coptic activists and relatives of the victims, their differences have led to infighting that is hindering their cause.

‘These are clothes of mourning,’ Gamal, 39, told Lapido Media. ‘I will not stop wearing black until justice comes and those responsible are judged.’

Egyptian tradition dictates female relatives of the deceased wear black for a period of 40 days, up to a maximum of one year. But at the memorial service held in the Cairo church where their remains are interred, most of the women among those now known as ‘the families of the martyrs’ were similarly dressed.

The night of the massacre Wael Saber, one of three official spokespeople for the Union of the Families of Maspero Martyrs (UFMM), watched horrified as his brother Ayman was hit by an army personnel carrier.

‘The state has dragged its feet,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘We demand transparency and justice, and will not be silent in front of their blood.’

Purposefully silent, however, were the mostly Coptic activists of the Maspero Youth Union (MYU). Formed in solidarity with Egypt’s revolution, they called for the march that ended in tragedy. To mark the anniversary the MYU braved Egypt’s current security crackdown with a candlelight vigil.

Sympathisers

Dozens of sympathisers gathered, but included only two relatives of those slain.

This is because the UFMM was formed in response to the MYU and other activists speaking in the name of the victims’ families and soliciting donations on their behalf, Saber explained.

Fady Yousef, president of the Coalition of Egypt’s Copts called the MYU a ‘corrupt entity’.

‘They are not loved because they have made profit off their blood,’ he said, referring to money raised by MYU that didn’t reach families of the victims.

Mina Magdy, a spokesman for MYU, denied any wrongdoing, stating they have spent countless hours with Saber and the families to demonstrate their innocence.

One of the founding members of MYU, Mina Thabet, attributes the discord to the corrupt media. ‘The regime depends on people repeating the same accusations [against activists] over and over until they believe it, and this is what is happening,’ he said.

Bickering

But the bickering between activists and families carried over into the memorial service, attended by busloads of relatives. The hubbub and media show offended many.

‘Ninety per cent of those here today have come to be seen and to have their picture taken,’ complained Wagdi Gamal, Regla’s brother.

Veteran Coptic activist Hany el-Gezery was there and also criticized the MYU. ‘They want to be a hero and to show they exist,’ he said. ‘But in this case the only voice that counts is of the families of the martyrs.’

Political father to many of the activists, Gezery recently dissolved his own Coptic movement to merge more fully into the national effort to support the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But he wants the former top brass held accountable.

‘I saw General Hamdy Badeen [Egypt’s former head of military police] with my own eyes, standing there as it began,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘I accuse him directly.’

During the candlelight vigil, some protestors held a banner with Badeen’s picture, along with former leaders of the military council Generals Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan, quietly calling for justice. President Sisi, though director of military intelligence at the time, was not mentioned.

That is, until unaffiliated youth arrived and began chanting against him, calling for the end of military rule. The MYU got them to quickly quiet down and shortly afterwards ended the protest.

Saber, Gezery, and Magdy are all critical of the government for delaying attention to Coptic issues, but so far do not hold Sisi personally responsible.

‘Sentimental’

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the leading Coptic newspaper Watani, notes that most Copts are still being patient with the new president, and believes it is a ‘sentimental’ accusation that activists accuse the former top officials without sufficient evidence.

The MYU did solicit donations, he recognizes, but knows of no lawsuit leveled against them for fraud.

Similar to both activists and families, however, he wants the Maspero case to reopen.

Until then, Regla Gamal will continue to wear black.

‘We have no hostility toward the army, but we want the case to reopen and if the military leaders are guilty they must be judged,’ she said.

‘Why this hasn’t happened yet we don’t know.’

 

This article was originally published at Lapido Media on October 15, 2014.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Despite 600 Deaths, Egypt’s Christians Support Military’s Eviction of pro-Morsi Protestors

Sit-In Dispersal

From my recent article in Christianity Today:

Despite the deaths of more than 500 Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the resulting retaliation against Christian targets nationwide, Egypt’s Christian community stands with yesterday’s decision by the military-backed transitional government to break-up the pro-Morsi sit-ins.

“If a peaceful sit-in took place in Times Square and locked down the city, how long would it take American authorities to disperse it?” said Ramez Atallah, head of the Egyptian Bible Society. “The government spent six weeks trying to solve this crisis, and finally used force. What were the alternatives?”

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Coptic newspaper Watani, explained why one alternative—to simply allow the protests to continue indefinitely—was not a better choice.

“If it had been a peaceful protest, we should leave it there. Have the army encircle it to prevent more weapons from entering, and wait for their morale to falter,” he said. “But the sit-in surrounded 20 to 30 high-rise apartment buildings, and the people had to submit to daily checks by the Muslim Brotherhood simply to go in and out of their neighborhood.

“They were terrorists, holding hostage thousands of residents.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Protest and Prayer in Egypt

Crowd 6

Rarely has a constitution so divided a nation. Protests, both for and against and sometimes violent, have filled the street. Egypt’s Christians, meanwhile, are caught in the middle. Though united against the proposed draft, their responses have varied considerably.

“It was definitely right for Christians to protest,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani and a long time advocate of cooperation with the Islamist administration.

“But this was not a Christian move, it was a liberal Egyptian protest meant to save the civil state.”

Despite his conciliatory position toward the Muslim Brotherhood, Sidhom had warned the day might come to return to the street if Islamists tried to implement a religious agenda. When President Morsi assumed temporary dictatorial powers to push through this constitution, he believed it was time.

“There are many indirect clauses that can lead to an Islamic state, and a few direct ones as well,” he said. Chief among these is Article 219 which makes traditional Islamic jurisprudence the primary source of legislation. Article 4, furthermore, gives a role to unelected Muslim scholars who must be consulted on laws regarding their conformity with shariah.

But it was the Islamist response to these protests which makes Sidhom believe they have shown their true colors.

“They made vicious remarks stating the protests were 60-80 percent Christian,” he said. “This shows they realize the solidarity that exists between liberals, moderate Muslims, and Christians, and they are trying to break it.”

Indeed, in an effort to mobilize votes for the constitution, the official Muslim Brotherhood website featured a story alleging Christians exchanged SMS messages urging a ‘no’ vote because they wanted ‘a Coptic state’. Safwat Hegazi, appointed by Morsi to the National Council for Human Rights and a fixture during his presidential campaign, warned the church that if it threatened Morsi’s legitimacy Muslims will threaten them ‘with blood’.

Hegazi’s remarks were filmed at a Salafi Muslim sit-in protest at Media Production City, where they believe their image is being disfigured in the press.

“In the sharia, which people do not understand correctly, everyone takes their full rights – the woman, the non-Muslim, everyone,” said Ibrahim Eid, an ophthalmologist and the media coordinator of Students for Sharia, present at the protest. Salafis there were peaceful and friendly.

This message came across to Daniel Wahba, a Coptic taxi driver. Idling in the parking lot, Salafis engaged him winsomely.

“Is there anything in the constitution that will hurt us as Christians?” he said. “Won’t we still be able to go to the church and pray?”

But it was the fear associated with general Islamist domination that affected Susie Fayiz, a Coptic housewife. “I didn’t vote,” she said. “They are just going to rig the referendum in their favor anyway.”

Preliminary results show the ‘yes’ vote in the lead with 56 percent, amid accusations of fraud. Half of Egypt’s electorate is scheduled to vote next week.

Thousands of Christians took to the streets to protest, and thousands of Christians went to the polls to vote. In between, ten thousand gathered to go to their knees in prayer.

The church is led by Fr. Simaan (Simon), who serves the Christian garbage collectors among whom he built this church.
Fr. Simaan

“We are here tonight to pray for Egypt in all that it is going through, and let us pray with tears,” said Fr. Simaan, a Coptic Orthodox priest serving the city’s garbage collectors. Their expansive cathedral is built into a cave in the Muqattam Mountains east of Cairo.

One year earlier, Fr. Simaan conducted a similar prayer gathering for all of Egypt’s Christian denominations, which drew upwards of 40,000 people. Plans to repeat the expression of unity have been in the works for months, but this meeting was only announced one week earlier, scheduled for two days before the referendum.

If there was any intentionality it did not appear during the rally. From 6pm until 6am the next morning, not once was the referendum mentioned. The general state of Egypt, however, was on everyone’s mind.

“Some of us see demonstrations and conspiracies, but I see Egypt going right. I see great days ahead of us,” said Fr. Andrawus, an Orthodox priest from Damanhour in the Nile Delta.

“Some say this country is being destroyed or being stolen. I say God is coming and he will not be late. This coming year will be the best ever for the church. The heavens will open, the church will be united, and we will be freed from fear and learn to love.”

Love is Fr. Simaan’s great emphasis, and he wishes to tell the world Copts love their nation and their fellow citizens. As Egyptian flags flew everywhere, six different satellite channels carried his exhortation.

“We pray for our brothers, both Christian and Muslim.  We pray for our brothers, the Salafis and the Muslim Brothers,” he preached to great applause.

“We pray for them that God will open their hearts and keep them from harm. We are not in a war, we are in prayer.”

The church took no official position on the referendum, other than to encourage people to vote. Many participants, however, freely interpreted the point of these prayers.

“We pray for stability, safety, and a constitution we can all agree on, not one from just one slice of the country,” said Michael Magdy. Others, however, were less specific of divine providence.

“We love Egypt because it is our country, and we love God,” said Amal Samy. “We’re confident he will stand with us and lift this crisis, giving a rescue no one can expect.”

Fr. Simaan does care for a good constitution, but his focus is elsewhere.

“Perhaps the current circumstances are permitted by God as part of his plan,” he said. The Islamists have their sharia and their plans, and God will hold them accountable according to what they have received.

“But he will hold us accountable for how we live with them.”

Protests and prayer have their essential place, but amid the crises of Egypt, perhaps this is the way to peace.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Egypt Erupts Again: Christians Resist Muslim Brotherhood President’s Power Grab

Cross and Quran Held Aloft at Tahrir

From my new article on Christianity Today:

The recent deaths of two teenagers best communicate the situation in Egypt today.

Gaber Saleh, a 16-year-old revolutionary activist, was killed in confrontations with police in Tahrir Square last Sunday. That same day, Islam Massoud, a 15-year-old Muslim Brotherhood member, was killed in clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi in Damanhour, a city in the Nile Delta.

The deaths reveal a nation deeply divided by the decision of Morsi last week to appropriate all governing authority until a new Egyptian constitution is completed and a new parliament elected. Protests have broken out throughout the nation; Tahrir Square has once again filled to capacity. Many of Egypt’s judges have decried the attack on their independence, with the two highest appellate courts joining others in a nationwide strike.

The nation’s Christians are firmly in the opposition camp.

At least officially, Egypt’s Christians are not calling to depose Morsy:

“This is a national issue, not a Christian one,” says Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt and a former member of the constitutional assembly.

“As Christians, we are not calling for the downfall of the president. And we do not fight against the authorities. As a church, we ask only for a suitable constitution for Christians and Muslims.

“But normal people have the right to be in the squares.”

Some, if not many, might hope for it, but the outrage is directed primarily at his constitutional declaration. It has led a vice president to resign from his administration:

Morsi’s opposition is not just in the street. Samir Marcos, Morsi’s vice president for democratic transition and the most prominent Coptic member of his administration, has resigned.

“I refuse to remain [in my position],” he told the international Arab newspaper Asharq Alawsat, “in light of this presidential decision that is crippling to the democratic transition process … and which is contrary to what I am trying to achieve through my position.”

One idea floated now is that his powers could be submitted to a referendum, or yield to a referendum on a rushed constitution:

This might also create a scenario where a weary public votes “Yes” in the constitutional referendum to follow, simply to end the deadlock and restore stability. In the process, liberals and Christians fear, the public would accept a flawed and religiously tinted constitution.

Of course, either way the people vote, a deadlock might continue. The Muslim Brotherhood will hold a rally on Saturday to support the president, whereas they previously canceled a competing protest out of fear for “bloodshed.”

“In order to save Egypt from going back to square one—dropping into chaos and nearly civil war—we have to think of a compromise,” said Sidhom. “But I fail to see how or where.”

Please click here to read the whole article at Christianity Today.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Can Egypt’s Christian Assistant President Get Democracy Back on Track?

Samir Marcos

Four and a half months into Mohamed Morsy’s presidency, much of Egypt’s democratic transition is still on hold. Parliament remains dissolved. A new constitution is still pending, beset by legal challenges. In this political limbo, Morsy has appropriated even more power than former dictator Hosni Mubarak enjoyed before the January 2011 revolution.

However, alongside Morsy in this limbo is Samir Marcos, a Coptic intellectual serving as assistant president for democratic transition.

This is the opening of my new article on Christianity Today, discussing if it was wise for him to join an Islamist administration, and, if he will have a real voice. Please click here for the full article, featuring diverse Coptic answers to these questions.

“We told him, ‘Accept the position and be involved in the administration, and we will be behind you and support you. But if you feel you are being marginalized and not listened to, resign and make this clear to everyone,'” said Gaziri.

Of course, others disagree.

“The Muslim Brotherhood’s reputation in the international community will improve with him there, but Copts will not gain anything,” said Mamdouh Nakhla, head of the Word Center for Human Rights. “It is very difficult to change the regime from the inside.”

But I appreciate this perspective:

“The most unwise thing to do would be to refuse working with the administration due to its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “Despite our different perspectives concerning the civil state, we must maintain at least the minimum of dialogue so that we can work together for the good of Egypt.”

It is well and good to play politics, and Christians, like all people, can disagree about how to play it properly. But at the end of the day, the defining criteria must be to do what is right, even if others will take advantage.

There are degrees of right and wrong, so one must be very careful before rejecting the political stance of another. For someone like Nakhla, who is convinced the Muslim Brotherhood is a hypocritical, power hungry organization, it can certainly be ‘right’ not to aid or abet them.

Still, for good or for ill, they are currently entrusted with running the state for the good of the country. Succeed or fail, all citizens must work for the same aim. I believe Marcos is doing well.

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Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Morsy Moves against the Army: How to Write about it?

It has taken me a long time to write anything about the Sunday surprise: President Morsy forcing the resignation of senior military men Mohamed Tantawi and Sami Anan. At the same time, he unilaterally canceled the army announcement appropriating legislative authority and constitutional oversight to itself. Morsy then gave himself these privileges.

Much of my delay was due to shock, the rest due to efforts to figure out what it all meant.

My first response came almost a week later by necessity, as I am glad for the habit of writing Friday Prayers. It was very helpful to try to frame the event in a manner all people here could pray.

Morsy’s moves were good, but not as good as some make them out to be. They were also bad, but not as bad as others make them out to be.

Certainly the army leadership was guilty of mismanagement during the democratic transition, if not worse. Moreover, it was never fitting for the military to formally take the powers it did, even if there were justifying factors.

In one sense Morsy put things right, but by taking power to himself he put them wrong again.

One of the main reasons the revolution railed against Mubarak was over his dictatorial command of the regime. Now, as the beneficiary of the revolution, Morsy has even more power.

Yet while this image is there, it should be drawn in. Morsy could not have sacked army leadership without the help of junior army leadership. These may be less adversarial in public, but in private may still act as a check on his power.

The question is, if this is true, are they a check on his revolutionary and democratic ambitions, or on his Islamist ambitions? Which does Morsy hold closer to his heart?

In contemplating this question I recalled a conversation I had with a leading Coptic media figure several months ago. Then I found a new writing opportunity, resulting in my first full reflection on Morsy’s gambit, published yesterday at Egypt Source. I wrote:

The worried Coptic voice interprets this as a grand scheme to implement an Islamic state. The frustrated liberal voice interprets it as evidence of their Machiavellian lust for power. Both may be right.

But what if the Brotherhood really means it? ‘Trust us’ may not result in everything the Copt or the liberal desire, but it may reflect a real Brotherhood wish to honor the goals of the revolution in respect to the conservative social reality of Egypt.

Or perhaps I have the wool pulled over my eyes.

In November of last year following the Islamist victory in the first round of parliamentary elections, I interviewed Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani. Imagining I would hear alarm bells from an intellectual leader in the community, I was surprised by the exact opposite.

“I believe the Muslim Brotherhood wants to prove they can create a form of democracy,” Sidhom said, “that respects the rights of all Egyptians.” He went on to describe several positive pre-election meetings with Brotherhood leaders, from which he was convinced they were ‘decent people’.

Yet when asked why they would not submit to a consensus over binding constitutional principles, his answer has echoed in my mind in all events since.

“Perhaps … they don’t want it said, ‘They did so only because they were forced to.’”

Click here to continue reading the article.

Upon finishing the article I had the disquieting feeling I had functioned as an apologist for the Muslim Brotherhood.

But here is the rub. The West enjoys liberal governance and has for decades. The revolution in Egypt is only now seeking its creation. Does the Brotherhood seek this? If so, they may need an autocratic moment to give it birth. All their concentration of power may be to show themselves the ultimate servant, when they bequeath it back to the people.

They should not be given the benefit of the doubt – there is no room for this in politics. The possibility, however, needs to be raised.

I am very cautious. Most testimony I have heard across the Egyptian political spectrum is that Morsy is a good man. I believe that power corrupts; while a man can be a benevolent dictator or philosopher king, a system cannot.

Is Morsy ushering in a new era, or is the Muslim Brotherhood ushering in a new system?

Only time will tell.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Copts Split over Boycott of Clinton over Support for ‘Islamo-Fascism’ in Middle East

This article was originally published at Lapido Media on August 1, 2012.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared religious freedom in Egypt to be ‘quite tenuous’ following the releaseof the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report. Despite chronicling several instances of sectarian violence against Coptic Christians, their community finds itself increasingly divided over its longstanding support for America.

At issue is Clinton’s alleged support for the nation’s first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsy.

The Orthodox Church and Coptic politicians boycotted a recent meeting with Clinton as she visited the fledgling democracy. Some Copts, meanwhile, demonstrated at the US Embassy against her visit.

Bishoy Tamry

‘We believe there is an alliance between the Obama administration and the Muslim Brotherhood, which supports fascism in the Middle East,’ said Bishoy Tamry, a leader in the primarily Coptic Maspero Youth Union, formed following post-revolution attacks on Cairo churches.

‘The US thinks the Brotherhood will protect their interests in the region but it will be over our bodies as minorities.’

President Morsy won a highly contested election rife with rumors of fraud and behind the scenes negotiation between the Brotherhood, Egypt’s military council, and the United States.

‘We knew the next president must have US support,’ said Tamry, ‘because the military council rules Egypt and the US pays the military council.’

Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually in US military aid, compared with $250 million in economic assistance.

Yet, according to Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, Copts have been disproportionately affected by these rumours.

‘Copts fell victim to the conspiracy theory that said Morsy did not win and Shafik [his opponent] was in the lead. I found no compelling evidence of this conspiracy.’

Nevertheless, Copts find reason to believe the US is taking sides in an Egyptian political question. Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader Khairat al-Shater stated his group’s priority is a ‘strategic partnership’ with the United States.

Clinton, meanwhile, urged President Morsy to assert the ‘full authority’ of his office. Egypt is currently undergoing a struggle between the Brotherhood and the military council over the political transition to democracy.

Bishop Thomas

Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Orthodox Church told Lapido Media, ‘We did not meet with Clinton because of the unclear relationship with the Brotherhood and the support they have given it.

‘Things are not settled in Egypt,’ he said. ‘Why was she in such a hurry to come?

‘The current administration does not understand the agenda of the Brotherhood which has been clear for decades – to revive the caliphate and apply shariah law.’

Emad Gad is one of two Copts elected to the now dissolved parliament. He received an invitation to meet with Clinton, but refused.

‘In exchange for Morsy’s being named president,’ he said, ‘the Brotherhood is expected to protect Israel’s security by pressuring Hamas – the Brotherhood’s branch in Palestine – not to launch military attacks against Israel, and even accept a peace agreement with Tel Aviv.’

Sameh Makram Ebeid

Sameh Makram Ebeid, the second Coptic parliamentarian, gives a different emphasis. Though not invited to the meeting with Clinton, he agreed with the refusal of Gad and other Coptic politicians.

He told Lapido: ‘There are two objections to her visit. The liberal forces say – true or false I don’t know – the Americans were in cahoots with the Brotherhood and handed them the country.

‘The second is that you should not meet with the Copts as Copts, but as part of the liberal movement, as the third way between military and Islamist.

‘She wanted to meet with individual liberal politicians, but they were all Christians,’ he said. ‘If you start segregating the country you’re making a big mistake.’

Segregating and dividing the country was also a concern of Revd. Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Council of Churches. In an interview with Lapido, he said the Orthodox clergy withdrew from the meeting only one hour before it started, but that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox laity attended.

Baiady told Clinton of Coptic fears of a repetition of Iraq, where Christians fled the country following American interference. He also spoke of Egyptian concerns the US would divide Egypt, especially the Sinai, using it as a solution for the problem of Hamas.

‘She is a good listener and took many notes,’ said Mr Baiady.

‘Clinton said we have to back the winners and those who lead the country. They have the best organization and power on the ground, based on the parliamentary elections.

‘We have to support the people, she said, and not oppose them.’

Raed Sharqawi, a reporter present at the Coptic demonstration, agrees with Clinton.

‘America has relations with every nation in the world,’ he said. ‘The US is also the shield for the Copts, and always will be. This protest is foolish.’

As Egypt’s transition muddles forward, there is ample room for confusion. The military and the Brotherhood emerged as the two strongest forces, making Copts wonder about their future. Within this mix, Clinton’s visit in support of Morsy has led to this near unprecedented rupture in Coptic-American relations.

‘The US will make us into another Pakistan,’ said Tamry as the protest continued. ‘We have come to say don’t interfere in our business.’

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Egyptian Christians Back to Square One

Coptic priest casting his ballot

Posting to the blog has been a little scarce these days, after a furious run-up to the elections. The good news is that the writing focus has been directed to publications seeking coverage, and the first of these was published this afternoon at Christianity Today. I hope another one will come due next week, but for now, please enjoy this preview, and if it grabs you click below to conclude the reading on their site.

…..

After a year of new forms of political engagement, why do Copts still face the same ‘bitter choice’ of old regime vs. Islamists?

Despite the best efforts of Christian and Muslim revolutionaries, the first free presidential election in Egypt’s history has resulted in an all-too-familiar choice: old regime vs. Islamists.

The nation’s Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission confirmed on Monday that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy advanced to the run-off election against Ahmed Shafik, former president Hosni Mubarak’s last-ditch appointee as prime minister during the revolution’s early days. Both candidates gathered nearly 25 percent of the vote. Only a few percentage points behind was Hamdeen Sabbahi, whose late surge as the revolutionary choice was not enough to displace Egypt’s traditional combatants.

The majority of Copts voted for Shafik, according to Mina el-Badry, an evangelical pastor in Upper Egypt. “Not from love, but to oppose the Islamists,” he said, “because [Shafik] is from the army and will know how to run the transition, and because he is clear and firm in his word and decision.”

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Coptic newspaper Watani, also sees the necessity of Christians supporting Shafik. “The revolution is now in the hands of political Islam,” he said, “and Copts must make a bitter choice to support the civil state.”

Yet many Copts wonder why this bitter choice has returned.

Click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.

 

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Many Copts Anxious as Islamists Win Majority in Parliament

Egypt’s parliamentary elections are over.

While noting irregularities, former US president Jimmy Carter, through his Carter Center for promoting democracy, has judged the elections to be “acceptable.” When the first post-Mubarak parliament opens session today (January 23) its composition will be 72 percent Islamist.

The celebrated chant of Tahrir Square – “Muslims and Christians are one hand” – has given way to sectarian politics in which liberal parties, favored by the great majority of Copts, received a crushing defeat.

The Democratic Alliance, dominated by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood, has won 46 percent of the seats. The more conservative Salafi Nour Party has captured 24 percent. A handful of smaller Islamist parties add another 2 percent. Liberal politicians, who were once hopeful, are reeling from their losses. Coptic Christians are left pondering their murky future.

Today, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed article about risks to freedom that observed, “Especially critical is protection for Copts, the canaries in Egypt’s coal mine. The fate of Egypt’s democracy—and the chances for the emergence of non-Islamist options—will rest on whether this millennia-old community, as well as an array of other groups, feels comfortable in the new Egypt.”

Amin Makram Ebeid, a Coptic intellectual and author, summarizes four primary Coptic responses:

  • A minority, though sizeable, is planning to emigrate.
  • The largest group is looking for spiritual, perhaps even mystical solutions.
  • A smaller party is dedicated to stay and fight for their rights, especially in securing a non-Islamist constitution, which according to the national referendum in March is the provenance of parliament.
  • Finally, there is a group that is looking to cooperate with Islamists, provided Copts do not lose their identity in the process.

Paula Magdy, a 24-year-old volunteer librarian in a Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, illustrates the group seeking spiritual solutions. “We pray to God to save us, but I am not afraid. Up until now we have not been sure about anything. Maybe they have won elections, but we will win the war?”

Fawzi Khalil, a pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Church also estimates most Christians fall into the spiritual solution category, with only about 10 percent actively participating in shaping the political outcome for Copts.

Standing their Ground

Emad Gad is one of the 10 percent, representing the group wishing to stay and fight. He is a Coptic leader in the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, winning a parliament seat in the north Cairo district. Naturally, he offers political perspective.

“We don’t fear the result of elections because there were many violations that skewed results. In any case, parliament will not form the government, the president will, and the military council also maintains its influence.”

For him, the constitution is the largest battleground, but liberals are working on an agreement with Islamists for each party to nominate a limited number of members to the committee which will draft it.

Nevertheless, “If Islamists reach toward a Saudi-style government we have many means to resist. Certainly the new generation is able to go once again to the streets. I expect Egypt will remain a civil state.”

Fr. Philopater

Father Philopater will also stay and fight, but his is a religious perspective. A controversial priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church who has repeatedly clashed with the hierarchy, Philopater expects a continuation of the suffering of Copts.

“The one benefit is that persecution will now be obvious, as under Mubarak it was always assigned to hidden hands or deviant people.”

Furthermore, Copts should not cooperate with Islamists. ‘It is true some speak of protecting Copts, but others speak about jizia, call us infidels, or instruct Muslims not to greet us in the street.’

Ebeid agrees with non-cooperation. “Christians should not support them in their quest for power. If we sell ourselves, why should liberal Muslims continue to fight?”

Cooperating with Islamists

Then there is the group which promotes cooperation. Rafik Habib, son of a now-deceased prominent Protestant pastor, represents a tiny Coptic constituency that actually favors Islamist rule. He is among roughly one hundred Copts who are founding members of the Brotherhood’s FJP, and serves as one of its vice-presidents.

He believes Egypt must accept the essential religious basis of society, not deny it.

“Secularism surrounds Christianity and the church and weakens its role in society. Under an Islamic state it can be completely different because the main function of the Islamic state is to protect religion, not to restrict it.”

Youssef Sidhom

More typical are Copts who wish to cooperate with Islamists but due to necessity. Among these is Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani.

“In order to keep any vicious Islamist appetite at bay we must stay at the table with them and remind them they promised not to hijack Egypt.”

Unlike Philopater, Sidhom has a degree of trust in the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who through his interactions with them finds them to be decent people.

“I believe the Brotherhood wants to prove they can create a form of democracy that respects the rights of all Egyptians.”

Similar to Social Democrat Gad, however, Sidhom is prepared.

“Our Plan B if Islamist groups seek an Islamic state is to oppose their constitution in a referendum, but if it is accepted, Copts and liberal Muslims – 40 percent of the population – will take again to the streets.”

All Politics is Local

While these responses are varied, it is “the street” that decides. This is not the street of Tahrir Square, but the poor, crowded neighborhoods in every city of Egypt.

In Warrak, a suburb of Cairo, Shadia Bushra, a 45 year old Coptic widow, cast her vote for the Freedom and Justice Party.

“I don’t know much about politics, but I followed the general view of the neighborhood.”

Essam Sharif

It did not hurt that when her local church failed to intervene to defend her rights in a property dispute, Essam Sharif, her Salafi neighbor and a leader in the Nour Party stood by her side, retained a lawyer, and helped win the judgment against wealthier Christian neighbors.

“I told her I would have done the same if she was opposed by Muslims,” stated Sharif.

Stated Islamist commitment to the rights of all has also won support from Copts in Maghagha, a small city in Upper Egypt. Sheikh Hamdi Abdel Fattah is a candidate for the Nour Party.

“I will consider myself the candidate of Christians ahead of Muslims, even if they do not vote for me. As such, I have to demand their rights. This is both democracy and Shari’ah law.”

Sheikh Hamdi and Fr. Yu’annis

Father Yu’annis is a Coptic Orthodox priest in Maghagha and has campaigned openly for Abdel Fattah.

“I don’t support him as a Salafi or as a Muslim, but as a person. He is from our village and I hope all Salafis will be like him.”

Yet he is pragmatic as well. “If we see more than two-thirds of the people are for an Islamic state we cannot stop them from having it, so as the Egyptian proverb says, ’With him who wins, play with him’. I must do my village duty to stand by him, so he won’t say I caused him to lose, and if he wins, he will be thankful.”

Perplexing Questions

The seismic politic changes in Egypt during the past 12 months are still underway. Copts and others fill this resulting uncertainty with fears and expectations in wildly different directions.

Essam Thabit, a Coptic school teacher in Maghagha, believes all will be well. “Whoever comes to power will make sure they treat Christians better than the old regime, even though they know Christians won’t vote for them. I expect many churches to be built.”

His Coptic colleague Yasser Tekla from the neighboring city of Beni Mazar expects, and oddly welcomes, the worst. “I will vote for the Salafis now so they will come to power and people will see them truly, and then reject them afterwards.”

Many Copts hesitated during the revolution, while others joined wholeheartedly. The initial celebrations of Tahrir – where Muslims and Christians alternated protecting each other at prayer – have been followed by multiple instances of bloody sectarian conflict.

This has prompted Copts to ask themselves hard questions: Should Copts take refuge in the military council against Islamists, or with Islamists against the military-as-old-regime? Should they enter the political arena and trust its processes, or enter their churches and trust in God?

So far, clear answers to these questions seem beyond the reach of Egypt’s Christian minority.

This article was published originally at Christianity Today. Please click here to view it at that site.

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Islamist Victory: What Next for Copts, Liberals?

Youssef Sidhom

During the January revolution in Egypt many, including Christians, feared the worst. Behind the euphoria of courageous demonstrations for freedom lurked an Islamist threat believed to be anti-Western and anti-Christian. Nearly a year on, early results foretell its decisive victory. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is tagged to receive 40% of the vote, while the ultra-conservative Salafi Muslim coalition won an additional 20%. Liberal parties, socialists, and those connected to the former regime divided the rest among themselves. The early pessimism appears to be warranted.

Yet according to a leading Egyptian Coptic intellectual, Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, pause should be given before adopting this sentiment. Most important to realize is these early results pertain to only one-ninth of parliamentary seats. Due to Egypt’s complex election structure, the polls of November 28-29 included nine of twenty-seven governorates. Each governorate elects only one-third of seats through traditional single-winner competition. The remaining two-thirds are determined by proportional party vote, and these will not be revealed until after all three election stages have been completed. ‘Though Copts and liberal groups have been greatly disappointed,’ states Sidhom, ‘we must encourage their continued participation in the next two rounds.’

Yet it is true that preliminary results are not encouraging for those opposed to the Islamist project, as the greatest concentrations of liberal sentiment, including Cairo, were part of first round voting. Of concern is the current plan for parliament to draft Egypt’s new constitution. If an absolute Islamist majority rules, they may be able to pressure the military to ignore agreed upon principles to define Egypt as a civil state guaranteeing rights for all its citizens. An optimist by nature, Sidhom is prepared for this worst-case scenario. ‘If Egypt is hijacked into an Islamic state we will oppose this in the ratification referendum. If it is passed, Copts and liberals, representing 40% of the population, will take again to the streets. A parliamentary majority has the right to pass legislation, but the constitution, which governs legislation, should reflect the will of the whole nation.’

Nevertheless, Sidhom does not expect this dire outcome. Having participated in dialogue with Islamist leaders including the Muslim Brotherhood, he believes them to be ‘decent people’ despite the ‘vast area of mistrust which has not been overcome through their nice words’. He is puzzled by why Islamists reject efforts to craft a ‘Bill of Rights’ type document to bind all political parties to certain civil constitutional principles. Yet, ‘I believe the Muslim Brotherhood wants to prove they can create a type of democracy which respects the rights of all Egyptians. Perhaps they reject the document because they do not want it said they did so only by being forced.’

To ensure this result, Sidhom believes liberal parties must not adopt the role of opposition and reject Islamists in the upcoming parliament. Rather, as the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has intimated, they should join a coalition government. ‘This does not mean liberals give up their values, but instead represent their national duty not to leave the scene entirely for Islamists. In order to keep any vicious Islamist appetite at bay we must be at the table with them, to remind them they promised not to hijack Egypt.’

As for the Christian community, this is also a time of transition. Coptic turnout is estimated around 70%, exceeding the national percentage. Yet as Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church ages, the future is uncertain. Sidhom states, ‘Too many priests either encourage Christians to stay in the church, or else to go into the streets and fight.’ It is good Copts are operating politically independent of the church, he believes, but their manner of demonstration often does not reflect Christian values. ‘Copts do not know how to do this; our culture is hurting us now.’

As for whether or not Christians have gained anything since the revolution, Sidhom says, ‘I believe we should give democracy a chance to work. It is illogical to imagine changes by now, but this will rectify itself over time.’ He does not fear great sectarian troubles as in other countries, as long as Christians fulfill their responsibilities. ‘Egypt is not Nigeria or Lebanon; Copts are scattered throughout the whole country. Our only hope is to integrate completely into the political and social arenas.’

Sidhom’s hope will be put to the test in the coming few years. May his vision prove true, over much prevailing fear.

 

note: This text was written following the close of the first round election phase. The third and final phase begins in a few days.