Numerous appeals have been made to reflect on the condition of the Copts in Egypt, the Christians in the Middle East and, generally, all ethnic and religious minorities. A chaos of hypotheses hovers about those behind the attack. Some people remember the threats by the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq”, immediately after the attack on the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad. Effectively, revenge was threatened against the Coptic Church unless Wafa Constantine and Camelia Shehata were liberated: these are the wives of two Coptic Orthodox priests, who are said to have publicly converted to Islam to then be consigned by the police back to Pope Shenouda III. Others attributed the attack to some fundamentalist movements from which Egypt is not immune. Everyone, however, agrees on acknowledging the failure of the security forces. The authorities claim that it is impossible to avoid suicide bombs but until the moment of the attack the police stationed at church entrances only disposed of wireless phones and occasionally guns -- but no explosive detectors. It must be said that the attack is the first of its kind in a church in Egypt. But had the threat coming from Iraq not arrived early enough as to allow more accurate security measures?
The device contained about 10 kg of locally produced dynamite with added nails and contraptions designed to cause the maximum number of victims. The scene after the attack was terrible: splinters, blood, shreds of human flesh everywhere, an exploded car, cries and tears. In particular, angry protests were heard from young people who had started to gather to organize demonstrations, throwing stones and destroying property, challenging police and the authorities, including government ministers who had come to express their condolences. These scenes were repeated both in the Cairo papal residence and during the funerals that took place outside Alexandria, in the monastery of Mar Mina. At a local level, a generalized Muslim-Christian solidarity has taken the form of marches and demonstrations, some peaceful, some accompanied by violence. All Muslims, politicians, religious, party representatives, have condemned the attack and whoever lurks behind it. There has been a succession of unusually violent demonstrations by young Copts, in Alexandria and Cairo. Pope Benedict and many kings and heads of State, including the Saudi mufti, have condemned the criminal action. This global resonance, still ongoing, presents different versions in the local media: pressure to defend minorities, undue attempts to secure foreign help, interference with the Country’s internal affairs, solidarity, etc.
The last few years have clearly shown that there is a limit even to the proverbial patience and endurance demonstrated by the Copts during their long history. The most dangerous aspect of the attack, at the origin of the ensuing riots, is that it rubs into wounds that have been deepening in the last few years. To remember them, from the most recent to the oldest, we should mention first of all the mabnà al-khidmât clashes in the ‘Omraniyya quarter, in Giza’s governor’s palace (December 2010). On that occasion, some Muslims attacked the building to prevent it being transformed into a church, whilst the competent authorities abstained from applying the law by repressing any possible violation. More than a hundred Christians were arrested and jailed and half of them are still in prison. Despite the presence of very good Christians in all the main parties, the December 2-10 elections results played a lot on anti-Christian feelings, with the consequence that hardly any Christian candidates were elected. Last Orthodox Christmas (January 2010) a Muslim opened fire on some Christians leaving church soon after mass in Nag Hammadi, in the South of Egypt, and seven people were killed. Still in Alexandria, in April 2006, a Muslim attacked three different churches, stabbing anyone within range and successively fleeing. The Interior Ministry declared that the attacker was affected by mental illness (Muhammad al-Baz, Gahîm al-Aqbât [Coptic Hell], 2007, pp. 153-154). The killers of more than twenty Christians who had lost their lives in the al-Kosh incidents (January 2000) were declared innocent by the Court.
These, however, are just examples. The harshess of the Christian reaction in Egypt can be better understood when considering some contributing paradoxical factors. On one hand, feelings inspired to a positive sense of civilization are expressed; on the other, in terms of accepting the other as such, leaving religion aside, minds are still slow to change. No one seems troubled by the shady businesses proliferating along Pyramids Street but some people seem not to understand that building and restoring churches is actually legitimate. As soon as the least attempt to pray within a house or an apartment block is discovered, ordinary people rush to destroy, burn and kill. In the name of Christians, but without consulting them, some Muslims declare that the Christians enjoy full freedom of worship -- but none of them wants to mention freedom of conscience, nor are Christians allowed to talk about the extent of their suffering (Khaled al-Muntasir, Ta‘âlû nasma‘hum (1) [Come and Listen to Them], «al-Masrî al-Yawm», 4/1/2011, p. 4).
Individual relationships between the majority of Muslims and the majority of Christians are more than excellent – I say it with conviction based on personal experience. However, some religious from both sides foster fanaticism and non-acceptance of the other. This opens the way to all sorts of violence. Some Muslims in Egypt forget all the good things done by Christians but remember the smallest slights, even when these have taken place outside the Country. Everyone is mobilized when a Muslim immigrant in a Western Country feels treated unfairly, for the simple fact that not having achieved what he wanted is considered a form of religious, cultural or ethnic discrimination. The Christian Egyptian citizen, however, is not always treated with the equality provided for in the Constitution, as the least important bureaucrat has the power to frustrate it. After the murder of Marwa Sherbini, martyr of the hijâb¹ , in Germany, several Egyptian lawyers offered to take over the lawsuit. But as soon as Pope Benedict XVI recalls the duty to protect Christian minorities in the East the Sheikh al-Azhar protests, defining the Pope’s appeal an «interference with the management of internal issues», ignoring the fact that Popes never have ceased from advocating respect towards the dignity of each and every human being.
Again: immigrants exist everywhere, but only in Egypt are the diaspora Copts seen as a band of criminals who defame the good name of the Nation by the simple fact that, as they live in Countries that ensure full freedom of expression, they defend their brothers at home. The State Constitution talks about equality among the citizens, but the affirmation that the shariah is the main source of law infringes equality at the actual Constitution level, for those who care about the issue. It does honour to President Mubarak to have introduced the concept of “fellow-citizenship”, though this has still not been turned into day-to-day practice, and this increases bitterness among the Copts. The number of writers and media professionals manifesting a spirit of respect towards Christianity and the Christians, particularly after 9.11, continues to increase but a fanatical minority monopolizes the official information channels. Because of the social, political and economic pressures affecting all citizens indiscriminately, people tend to overreact for futile reasons and it is easy to point the finger at someone and make them into targets of religious hatred, even in those cases where the victim is not directly responsible but just “different from me”.
A Personal Experience
In June 2006 the annual conference of the Oasis Foundation was held in Cairo. On that occasion a meeting took place with the then Rector of Al-Azhar University, His Excellence the Sheikh Ahmad at-Tayyeb, accompanied by a group of university professors. The topic was “The Fundamental Rights of Man”. As usual, the Sheikh at-Tayyeb spoke very openly about the values of Christianity, showing great respect. Then followed a question-and-answer session, kept at a theoretical, rather than practical, level. After the meeting, while people were leaving the hall, I found myself next to a professor from the organization regulating teaching in Al-Azhar University, whose contribution had been particularly open and balanced. Taking that opportunity, I asked her: «Within Islam, do human rights apply to all men and women or just to Muslims?» Without hesitation she answered: «Of course Islam assures all rights to every individual, not just to Muslims». I replied: «Why, then, should a Christian sweat blood over obtaining a restoration permission for the wall of a toilet belonging to a church whilst the construction of a mosque needs no authorization and, in fact, the building materials are supplied free of charge?» «You certainly know that there is a majority and a minority». As I could foresee this answer, I replied: «But I had asked you whether there exist rights applicable to each and every man». «I honestly did no know this problem you are talking about». «You are excused because you belong to the majority and not to a minority, and you don’t know what the minority suffers». When she asked my name, I said: «I am one of those mentioned in verse 82 of the Sura of the Feast: “And you will find that the closest people in friendship to the believers are those who say, "We are Christians." This is because they have priests and monks among them, and they are not arrogant.”».
Fr. Milad Sidky Zakhary,
Director of the Institute of Religious Sciences in Alexandria
1. The reference is to an Egyptian woman emigrated to Germany and stabbed in 2009 inside the Dresden Court by a 28-year-old German. The man had been sued by the woman for insults and threats connected with her wearing the hijab.
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal