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Christians in the Muslim World

Egypt at the Crossroads. The Courage of Encounter or the Abyss of Hatred

After the riots and the grave episodes of anti-Christian violence in the spring, amongst the governing classes of the country there is a growing awareness of the need for a major change in direction: it is no longer sufficient merely to 'sew up' the tears, as has often been the case in the past.

The last Christians living on the banks of the Nile are the victims of increasingly threatening attacks by Muslim radicals. Troubling accounts and testimonies', wrote a Western journalist following a series of inter-religious incidents that took place in Alexandria in April 2006 (Le Figaro Magazine, 20 May 2006). The title of the article, 'Egypt: the Copts have the Faith of the Desperate', for that matter, well expresses the tone of what is often written on the Christians of the East. There is in this an undeniable simplification and a laziness of thought, as is demonstrated by a more detailed analysis of what has taken place in Egypt over recent months and the echo provoked in the country by these events. This is what the new Catholic-Copt Patriarch of Alexandria, His Blessedness Msgr. Antonios Naguib, when being received at the Elysée by President Chirac on the occasion of the fifty-fifth anniversary of the œuvre d'Orient, wanted to express when he declared that he had observed a 'very clear change' in the approach of the Egyptian authorities, a change that involved adopting a conscious stance towards religious fanaticism and condemning it.

 

Let us look at the facts. On Friday 14 April 2006 a man armed with two knives burst into the Mar Girgis Church of Alexandria, a Copt-Orthodox church. He went up to the first floor, attacked a building worker who was engaging in restoration work, and then assaulted two other faithful. The three men were admitted to hospital, the first in a critical condition. The assailant then went to another church in the same neighbourhood, the church known as the Church 'of the Saints', and attacked worshippers who were at prayer. The outcome was: one dead, Noshi Atta Girgis, aged seventy-eight, and two wounded. The police were informed and had just acted when it came to be known that the assailant, a young man aged twenty-five, one Mahmoud Salaheddine Abdel-Razq, was preparing to attack a third church, the Church of the Holy Virgin. He was only arrested in a fourth church, that of the nearby neighbourhood of Sporting. The emotion provoked in the Copt community by these dramatic events was amplified by a declaration of the Ministry for Internal Affairs which assured people that the assailant was mentally unbalanced. 'We are not convinced of this explanation. It is an excuse to bury the event; we want to know the real causes hidden behind these attacks, of which our community was the target', declared a Christian of the neighbourhood, reflecting the common view. Thus on the next two days, which was the time of the Orthodox Easter, hundreds of young Copts took to the streets, set fire to cars, and looted shops to express their rage. The Muslims reacted and the outcome was severe: one Muslim dead, about fifty wounded, and a large number of arrests. 'The Ministry for Internal Affairs always says the same thing one is dealing with madmen and nothing else', declares a young Copt of the neighbourhood to the press, 'we want the truth, only the truth and nothing but the truth. If the police are not able to protect us, then we young people of the Mar Girgis Church will defend ourselves on our own'. Self-defence groups went into the squares and the police have put a rigid guard around the Christian places of worship. The immediate condemnation of these incidents by the highest authority of the state has not been enough to reduce the tension. Many Muslims are also troubled: Egypt is experiencing a grave incident that threatens its national unity.

 

The intensity of the emotion can in part be explained with reference to the fact that this was not an isolated episode. In October 2005 Alexandria had already witnessed clashes of a confessional character: a Copt candidate at the political elections had been forced to abandon his candidature in favour of a candidate of the Muslim Brothers who appeared to have encouraged violent anti-Christian demonstrations on the pretext of the spread of a CD held to be offensive to the Muslim religion. This, however, was an old CD and appears to be have been put forward because of the occasion. A few months earlier, in December 2005, it had been the Wafaa Constantine affair which had filled the news: Copts had taken to the streets for a number of days and accused Muslims of having taken a woman engineer, who was married to an Orthodox priest, in order to force her to convert to Islam. A few weeks after that incident, in February 2006, two young Copt girls brought out the crowds by making known their plan to convert to Islam. This is something that happens very often in Egypt for matrimonial reasons. However, the facts of what happened are difficult to establish because of the very heightened feelings on both sides. At times, alas, the facts are very clear, as in the case of the massacres of el-Kocheh in 1999, when the anti-Christian riots caused twenty-five deaths. This led to the government to establish a system to govern the procedure of conversion to Islam, which is one of the difficult points in the co-existence between Christians and Muslims. Often everything begins with a dispute between neighbours, a dispute over land or because of the reputation of a girl. Tempers gradually rise, weapons are brought out (there are a lot of these in Upper Egypt) and acts of violence are engaged in which religion acts as a pretext. The Egyptian people are not an extremist people; the usual reaction of the public and religious authorities is to try to calm people down by appealing to the feeling of national unity of all Egyptians. Pope Shenouda and the high Imam, shaykh di al-Azhar, appear together on television, make conciliatory speeches, a few arrests are made, and things stop there. In reality, the recurrence of these incidents, together with real discrimination against the Copt minority in the political life of the country, helps to create a climate of unease, indeed of psychosis. Hence the mass protests in Alexandria after the recent incidents.

 

 

A Broken Taboo: Silence

 

It interesting to analyse in detail the reactions of the Egyptian press to the dramatic events that occurred in Alexandria. Many people, both Christians and Muslims, this time recognised that a patching up on the surface was no longer sufficient. Thus Mohamed Salmawy, the chief editor of al-Ahram Hebdo, wrote on 3 May 2006: 'the attacks in Alexandria aimed at the faithful of three churches cannot be seen as an isolated act, even though their author is a criminal who acted on his own. The important thing here is not the number of people who perpetrated the crime but the existence within society of a current that has prepared the ground for this crime'. It is the certainly the case that the alarm bell has been sounding for some time, in particular at the hands of Christian leaders, but this time the recognition of the situation seems to have been especially strong in very different contexts and circles within Egyptian society. This is a curious change of direction at a time when the 'prohibited but tolerated' movement of the Muslim Brothers recently obtained an important number of parliamentary seats at the political elections held in the autumn of 2005. Mohamed Salmawy went on: 'the repetition in Egypt of these deplorable actions, including the recent events in Alexandria and their consequences, demonstrate that we all have a responsibility to take on our shoulders, whether the authors are individuals or groups. The responsibility is of society which at the beginning of the 1970s produced a certain religious fanaticism which had never before existed. The negligence that we have experienced in this area at a political and social level has only aggravated the phenomenon, and to the point that it has reached the level of crime'. In recent weeks this kind of analysis has been heard in various circles in Egypt, almost as though a taboo had been broken within a rather peaceful people the taboo of silence. This leader writer of the al-Ahram Hebdo went beyond this and invited Egyptians to 'address the problem starting at its roots'. In his view there are three fundamental questions:

 

Teaching: 'will help to bring into existence a new generation that will believe in the right of citizenship for every Egyptian, without dwelling too much on another person's religion or accentuating the religious differences that separate the two components of the nation'. Salmawy focuses on one of the great failings of contemporary Egyptian society the bad state of teaching made such by high population growth and the fact that 'underpaid' teachers lack motivation. This constitutes a fertile field for the spread of narrow and dangerous ideologies. 'In our day we learnt the spirit of religion before we learnt its practices', continues the author, 'whereas today religious teaching knows only the rites which, once emptied of their contents, become hostile to the spirit of religion'.

 

The mass media: 'What has been the message of the mass media after the beginning of the 1970s? Has it not perhaps been the official mass media, made up of certain preachers, that have transformed our sublime religion into a farce that influences millions of viewers?' This analysis may appear severe but it is a proven fact that the television and more recently Internet and CDs sold at a low price are powerful instruments in the spread of retrograde ideologies, which come for the most part from Saudi Arabia;

 

'The responsibility of religious institutions has been fundamental in aggravating the phenomenon of religious fanaticism', Salmawy goes on. Observing that al-Azhar had declared hitself against the destruction of the Buddha by the Talibans in Afghanistan, he asks: 'How has al-Azhar reacted to the fact that a person of our society killed a human being for the simple and clear reason that he did not belong to his religion. Will al-Azhar keep quit or issue a communiqué condemning the episode, or revise the retrograde message that led to the deplorable state in which we now live?' The analysis is crude but it is true that the juridical intensity to which the Ulemas often abandon themselves often provokes bewilderment: are there not better things to do, for example, than condemn the production of statues, as the Grand Mufti of Egypt did on 31 March 2006?

 

'The essential thing is not to know whether a madman or a person who was not mad committed the attacks in Alexandria', concludes Salmawy. 'Unfortunately the sick motives that led this criminal to commit his crime do not belong to him alone. They are spread amongst the members of our society'. In recent weeks this point of view has been very present in the Egyptian press, including the pro-Arab newspapers. Thus the review October has argued that 'the language of classic preaching used in a massive way in mosques and above all in the working-class districts continues to be a language that is overly pervaded by aggression and incites people to see non-Muslims in a negative way. One is often dealing here with inciting the masses, certainly to piety, but too often in a way that encourages their tendency to intolerance' (October, n. 1540, April 2006). Ibrahim al Naggar, of the Centre for Political and Strategic Studies of al-Ahram, is of the same opinion and one could give many examples of this point of view.

 

 

A Challenge for all Egyptians

 

The condemning of religious intolerance in Egypt is an important step and it is a great help that those who do this are enlightened Muslims. But it is always necessary to develop a more subtle analysis of this very complex social reality of the co-existence of two religious communities. Other situations demonstrate that a minority can have its own space and play a dynamic and constructive role. It is clear that the contemporary international situation does not in the least contribute to keeping temperatures down, above all when the President of the United States of America justifies his hegemonic aims by speaking about a 'crusade against evil'. When the top figures in the state launch slogans such as 'we are all Egyptians, a single people for centuries' this rests on a correct perception of popular feelings. But this should one day be translated into the emergence of a secular state not bound by the excessive influences of the sacred, a state that will allow each person to be equal before the law. Certain Egyptian political leaders have referred to the subject of a secular state in recent weeks.

 

For that matter, one should not keep silent about the provocations of certain Copt circles, above all those of the diaspora, who blow up incidents and raise temperatures, which are already too much inclined towards paranoia, given that these people often live in a sort of cultural ghetto. How can one not admit that many Copts in Egypt take pleasure in listening to an Orthodox priest, Abuna Zachariah, who broadcasts abroad on the channel al-Hayat and makes speeches that are very offensive to Muslim religious feeling? The Copt hierarchy, too, should ask itself questions about certain speeches addressed to the faithful. There are certain legitimate grievances: it is not normal, for example, that at the time of the last political elections not one Copt was elected for the four hundred and forty four seats in the National Assembly, and this at a time when the country has about six million Christians, that is to say eight per cent of the population. This led President Moubarak to appoint five to balance the scale a little. But can one continue to say, as it is often stated, that the true inhabitants of Egypt are the Copts who gave their name to the country (Aegyptos), with the implication that the Muslim Arabs are intruders, whereas in fact for the most part they are of Copt origins?

 

In reality, the real challenge is to want to live together in society and to learn day by day to enjoy the diversity of cultures. Some people are already working in this direction in daily life, in schools; then there are the NGOs and citizen's associations. There are places where one can learn to live with the other, as has been the case for centuries in Egypt, as the Copt writer Milad Hanna loves to observe. Instead of constantly repeating that the only future for Christians is exile, a thesis often accredited by Western observers, why should we not address together the great problems of poverty, illiteracy and the advance of women? This would offer Egyptians unique opportunities to experience the enrichment that comes from their diversity. The dream is that Christians and Muslims will tell each other that they have something to learn from each other, in their experience of God, of prayer, and of compassion. To achieve this a conversion of hearts is required. The Gospel spirit encourages Christians to take the first step.

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