The war on Egypt's churches

Hamza Hamdawi, for AP: 

CAIRO (AP) - After torching a Franciscan school, Islamists paraded three nuns on the streets like "prisoners of war" before a Muslim woman offered them refuge. Two other women working at the school were sexually harassed and abused as they fought their way through a mob.

In the four days since security forces cleared two sit-in camps by supporters of Egypt's ousted president, Islamists have attacked dozens of Coptic churches along with homes and businesses owned by the Christian minority. The campaign of intimidation appears to be a warning to Christians outside Cairo to stand down from political activism.

This is on the hands of all of those who opted for escalation in the last few weeks, Islamist and non-Islamist. (And how about providing some protection to these obvious targets, while we're at it?)

Statement by the Coptic Church

A translation of a statement issued by the Coptic Orthodox Church, chiefly blaming international media for its depiction of events and warning against "foreign interference."  Translated by Osman Osman.

Statement of the Coptic Church
The Egyptian Coptic Church follows the regrettable development of events on the lands of our motherland Egypt. It affirms that it strongly supports the Egyptian Police and Armed Forces as well as all the institutions of the Egyptian nation in confronting the groups of armed violence and dark terrorism operating from inside and outside Egypt, the attacks against the State’s entities and the peaceful churches and the terrorization of Muslim and Christian Egyptians in full contradiction with the values of religions, moralities and humanity. 
Whereas we appreciate the stances taken by states and countries that understand the reality of such developments, we strongly condemn the misleading media coverage in the Western countries, and we call upon the media representatives to objectively look into the reality of events, and to refrain from providing an international or political cover for such terrorist blood-thirsty groups and all those who belong to them, as such groups intend to unfold devastation and destruction in our beloved country.
We call upon the Western and international media to reflect the real image of what is happening, in a truthful genuine manner and with due integrity.
While we present our condolences to the families of the victims and those who lost their lives in service, we wish the injured a speedy recovery.
We adhere to the strong national unity, and we fully reject all endeavours to drag the country into sectarian animosity. We consider that any foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Egypt is totally rejected.
While the hands of evil are involved in burning, killing, and destroying, the hands of God are close to us: protecting, fostering and building. We have confidence in God’s assistance that will help our Egyptian people in overcoming such a difficult chapter of our history towards a better and brighter future, where justice, peace and democracy will prevail, exactly what the people of the noble River Nile valley deserves.
Long live Egypt, free and dignified

 

Hulsman on attacks on police stations and churches

From the Arab West Report's newsletter, by its editor Cornelis Hulsman, a veteran advocate of better Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt who has extensive contacts on both sides:

The Kerdassa police station (Giza) has been attacked using an RPG after elsewhere in the city sit-ins of demonstrators were broken up. This resulted in the death of the local police chief and several police officers whose bodies have then be mutilated. Twenty other police stations were attacked, often with weapons that they were not prepared for. Demonstrators who claimed to be with the Muslim Brotherhood threw a police car with 5 policemen from a bridge killing all of them. Those images are spread all over and have created a shock-wave. It is thus no wonder that policemen seek safer locations to operate from. It also makes the mutual hate between police and Muslim Brothers and militant groups much deeper. The mutual hate is many decades old. Between 1992 and 1997 militant Muslims engaged in attacks on police and civilians. Militant Muslims and political Islamists were targeted by police, many of them ended up for years in prison, also if they had no involvement with any violence. The police did not have a good reputation. Officers were often accused of torture. It is thus no wonder that the police are most hated by Islamists and now, just as on January 28, 2011 and following weeks, are targeted.
The patterns of systematic attack on Egyptian security resemble those of January 28, 2011. People have again come from villages and popular areas to massively destroy government property. But unlike 2011, people now also targeted churches and Christian shops. AWR called priests, friends of ours, in Beni Suef, Fayoum, Maghagha, and Minya. The police have disappeared from all these cities and other cities because they became targets themselves and fled. That is no wonder if one sees on videos how policemen have been brutally slaughtered in Cairo and other parts of Egypt. The consequence is that the police are withdrawing to centers where they feel safe and can defend themselves better. The consequence, however, is that thugs have had more opportunities to engage in violence and destruction. The police in Assiut disappeared on the 14th from the street, but returned again on the 15th.
Violence is widespread, but AWR has also spoken with priests who told us that there had been no violence in their village or town. Much of this also, but not only, depends on local relations. Fear is widespread in all parts of Egypt. If particular areas have not yet been targeted they later may or may not become targets.
It all appears that General al-Sisi has made a miscalculation when he, in cooperation with other authorities, decided to end the demonstrations around the Rābaʽah al-‘Adawīyyah mosque and al-Nahda square. Protesters spread and throughout the country militant groups are seen. It is obvious that these groups are organized. It is not possible to explain how otherwise they suddenly appear all over Egypt. AWR has asked friends in various cities to explain why they believe that these were Muslim Brothers. Some friends said that the people marching with weapons in the streets scream, “Islamiya, Islamiya.” Many of them are young. They were surprised to see also small children among them. Priests we spoke to said they believed them to be a mix of Brothers joined by many thugs, people seeing an opportunity to loot.
Emad Aouni lives in Assiut and has seen Muslim Brothers he knows from the sit-in in Assiut participating in attacking churches. They were, however, not alone but in the company of members of the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah, Salafīs, and thugs. “They usually would not do this alone but in a group with other Islamists they would go along.”

AWR's website has been hacked, so the full piece is not up there. I am pasting it here for those who are curious – it also includes a full list of churches that have come under attack. 

The Brothers and the Copts

Mariz Tadros writes for the Middle East Institute on the campaign waged by the MB and other Islamists to blame Copts for the fall of the Morsi administration: 

A few days before the protests and throughout the week of demonstrations, media sympathetic to the Brotherhood launched a campaign that represented the protests as a Christian conspiracy against Islam. The campaign was staged with an intensity that was sufficient to catalyze bloody sectarian clashes. On the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated television channel Misr 25, Noureddin, a program presenter, made a fictitious announcement that Christians were attacking mosques. On an Islamist-affiliated channel, program guest Shaykh Mahmoud Shaaban, a Salafist, concocted a story that Christians had congregated in Tahrir Square and that their main chant was “Jesus is the solution,” as if Christians were countering the Muslim Brotherhood slogan, “Islam is the solution.”

There's a lot more there, and in my experience many Brothers have seen the protests, coup and overall crisis in sectarian terms – even if they did not want to encourage sectarian violence they saw themselves as the victims of a sectarian conspiracy in which the Church and "organized Christendom", for lack of a better word, played an important role. While it's undoubtedly true that the vast majority of Egyptian Christians were anti-MB (after all, Morsi had done little to win them over) this is a convenient recasting of the widespread anger at Morsi and the MB (to include even Islamists, never mind many ordinary Muslims) to energize a base for whom sectarianism has long been a driving motive. This is especially the case in parts of Egypt with large Christian populations, such as Upper Egypt, and it's not surprising that this is where there has been much of the sectarian violence of the recent weeks.

I also paste below an analysis from the excellent newsletter of the Arab-West Report, a inter-religious dialogue NGO and think tank. (Their website has been the victim of an attack, so it's mostly down for now.)

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Further reading on Salafi attitudes to greetings on non-Muslim holidays

Since we recently discussed the phenomenon of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi preachers warning their followers against wishing Coptic Christians a happy Easter, ​some reading I did yesterday may shed some light on the matter. It's from a book of essays called Global Salafism edited by Roel Meijer that contains contributions by many leading experts on the subject — Stephane Lacroix and Bernard Heykal on the Saudi variant to name but a few. The introduction refers to four "tensions" of Salafism as currently understood (that is, in its heavily Wahabbi-influenced dominant contemporary). These tensions, the author argues, have transformed a revivalist / puritan movement into one that is more politically problematic and often intolerant. Here's some screen grabs from the Kindle edition, since Amazon's Cloud Reader does not allow for even limited cut-and-paste:

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New sectarian fault lines drawn in Egypt

Don't get this logic from the Brotherhood:

The Salafist Front asked President Morsi to consult with Muslim scholars before attending the Easter mass, and banned its own officials from acknowledging the Coptic Easter holiday. Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Office member Mufti Abdel Raham al-Barr, who is also a professor in the Al-Azhar University, said that congratulating the Copts on the Orthodox Easter is “religious haram [taboo],” adding in a statement that “it is illegitimate to offer greetings for something that blatantly contradicts our creed….Our creed, as Muslims, is unequivocal: Christ – peace be upon him – was neither killed nor crucified, as Allah protected him from the Jews and elevated him to His presence. [Prophet] Isa – peace be upon him – was not crucified to be resurrected. Accordingly, there is no need to congratulate someone on something we know to be a falsehood, even though we do not deny our partners in the nation the right to believe or act as they please.”  
Al-Barr, who is an influential Muslim Brotherhood member, went on to distinguish between offering acknowledgment of other Christian holidays (like Christmas) and doing so for Easter: “Congratulating our Christian partners in the nation on their various occasions and holidays is an expression of charity ordered by Allah and of righteousness from which He has not banned us as long as it is not at the expense of our religion, and does not pronounce… any religious slogans or expressions that contravene the principles of Islam, and does not constitute any admission or acceptation of their religion or participation in their prayers. Rather, these would merely be words of courtesy common among people and would not entail any religious contraventions. There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, in greeting [Copts] on Christmas, as we believe that Isa – peace be upon him – is one of the primary prophets, that he is human and that his birth was one of Allah’s miracles.”

Surely if you can greet them at Christmas, which celebrates the birth of the son of God (in Islam Jesus is a simple mortal prophet), you can also greet them at Easter. The lack of logic in the differentiation between the two suggests that al-Barr is either doctrinally a Salafi or that he does no want to offend Salafis. Like President Morsi's decision not to attend the mass, it is a striking lack of understanding of the symbolic value of having even an Islamist president pay respects to the church and the Christian community, which can only be explained by intolerance.

Iraqi media ban and sectarianism

Paul Mutter writes in:

I have a piece at Tech President about the Iraqi government's decision to suspend the broadcasting licenses for 10 channels in the country following what is now two weeks of sectarian violence concentrated in and around Baghdad. One of the networks was Al Jazeera, but except for a single Kuwaiti channel that is meant to appeal to Shia Iraqis, the rest were either based in Iraq or owned by Iraqi expatriates, and are regarded by their critics as anti-government, pro-Sunni and, for some, pro-Baathist:

The networks’ offices have not been closed down, but they are no longer permitted to broadcast in the country. Wamith Al-Kassab, an Iraqi journalist, explained that the feeling among most Iraqis is that “people want peace, and if shutting a few channels will make this so, then why not?”

"It was no surprise that this crackdown happened the way it has because a few weeks ago, four newspaper offices were attacked by Shia militiamen in Baghdad”. This event, he said, "did not have the same effect as it used to have [on public opinion],” a sign of the exhaustion and mistrust Iraqi audiences feel towards media outlets in their country.

In Iraq today, he continued, the news media “is controlled by either pro-government forces, or by people that see in the Sunni demonstrations a chance for the past to return or a way for Iraq to became like Syria," alluding to the defunct Baathist Party of Iraq and the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI) formed by Sunni Arabs who seek to topple the Shia-dominated government of Nour al-Maliki. With Maliki's Shia coalition government in power, Sunni Arab media has the most to gain in criticizing the government — and also the most to lose in this tense moment if brought up on charges as accessories to the Sunni militiamen blamed for the spate of shootings and bombings in the past two weeks that have left hundreds killed and wounded.

Wamith gave me a lot of helpful context about the relationship between particular domestic channels and the government, plus the general state of press freedom in his country. The actions Maliki et al. took this past week against the networks shows just how deeply non-Sunni establishments have come to distrust the politics of the "Sunni media" these days - think of Al Jazeera Arabic's reception in Egypt and Syria nowadays. But, there is a lot of debate that is particular to Iraq's volatile coalition politics and general war-weariness, as I note that when "people doubt the independence of the media because outlets take up increasingly partisan stances for or against the Maliki government's policies, outlets risk becoming more polarized towards a pro-government line or towards positions espoused by the Islamist parties."

Read the whole article here.

Influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria Widens War’s Scope

Influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria Widens War’s Scope

Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango, in the NYT, write that Iraqis are continuing their sectarian fight in Syria:

BAGHDAD — Militant Sunnis from Iraq have been going to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad for months. Now Iraqi Shiites are joining the battle in increasing numbers, but on the government’s side, transplanting Iraq’s explosive sectarian conflict to a civil war that is increasingly fueled by religious rivalry.

Some Iraqi Shiites are traveling to Tehran first, where the Iranian government, Syria’s chief regional ally, is flying them to Damascus, Syria’s capital. Others take tour buses from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, on the pretext of making a pilgrimage to an important Shiite shrine in Damascus that for months has been protected by armed Iraqis. While the buses do carry pilgrims, Iraqi Shiite leaders say, they are also ferrying weapons, supplies and fighters to aid the Syrian government.

“Dozens of Iraqis are joining us, and our brigade is growing day by day,” Ahmad al-Hassani, a 25-year-old Iraqi fighter, said by telephone from Damascus. He said that he arrived there two months ago, taking a flight from Tehran.

The Iraqi Shiites are joining forces with Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iran, driving Syria ever closer to becoming a regional sectarian battlefield.

The Salafist who loved Mina Daniel

✚ The Salafist who loved Mina Daniel

Wonderful piece by Yasmine Fathi in al-Ahram English profiling Mina Daniel, the revered Christian activist killed on October 9, 2011 during the Maspero massacre. It begins by talking about Tarek al-Tayeb, a Salafist who met Mina Daniel in Tahrir Square during the anti-Mubarak uprising and instantly became his close friend:

Despite the closeness of the two, El-Tayeb still struggled to overcome his discomfort at having a Christian friend.

"I never told him how I felt about Christians," says El-Tayeb. "He would sometimes tell me that he loved me and I would respond by saying that I hate him. It was just hard for me to get rid of these fanatical ideas all at once. It took time."

Since becoming a Salafist, El-Tayeb made sure he was civil to his Christian neighbors and colleagues, however, being friends with a Christian was simply out of the question. Danial was different.

"I just could not hate him. For the first time in my life, I found that I could not hate a Christian. I could not put this barrier of religion between me and him," El-Tayeb explains, "The emotions I felt towards him destroyed all of these shackles. I didn’t understand it then and I still don’t understand it now. What is it about Danial that made him have this impact on people?"

The revolution, or whatever you want to call it, was a remarkable transmogrifying moment for many people. We tend to forget it.

A year ago: The Maspero massacre

A year ago today, the Egyptian army violently repressed a protest led by Coptic Christian activists across from Maspero, the building where Egyptian state TVand radio are headquartered in Central Cairo. Panicking soldiers crushed protestors with their APCs and fired live ammunition, and state television incited against Christians. Later that evening, mobs of Muslims attacked Christians and Muslims who had taken part in the protest. Twenty-seven protestors died during the clashes, as well as an unknown number of soldiers.

The Egyptian military in charge at that time promised an investigation but also alleged that "hidden forces" were responsibile for the clashes to discredit the military. The investigation has not yielded any results thus far. There is a march at Maspero today to commemorate the massacre. 

Below is our coverage at the time:

 

 

Malak: Dahshour and sectarianism

Dahshour and sectarianism

Karim Malak writes on the timing of Egypt's latest sectarian incident in Dahshour in context of the election of the next pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church:

With both the state and the Church caught up in a web of crises, it is no wonder that the incident will be swept under the rug. For the Church, however, it may serve as a good battle cry rally, a smokescreen to all the controversy over the papal elections and the candidacy of Bishop Bishoy. Despite a laymen opposition front’s objection, most observers agree that his candidacy will go through. The election committee has also decided to go ahead with the old Nasserite election law with some amendments so Churches abroad are recognized and have the right to vote.

Registration of voters continues to be with a letter of the archbishop of the area. Sadly not all Coptic faithful have the right to vote. Any amendment to the election by-law would retain interim Pope Pakhomios in power for an extra period; this makes his term a sensitive one.

Nasser’s papal election law bars women from voting altogether and practically disenfranchises the laity from taking part and holding the clergy accountable to their vote (since the election by-law has a skewed electorate of more clergy than laity). While we have heard of disgruntled opposition inside the Church lobbying against the clergy, the elephant in the room seems to be the election law itself. Yet the laity is too weak to muster as little as a murmur against the election law. However with Pope Pakhomios, a qualified bishop, at the helm now, it seems that he may have his tenure quietly renewed and this issue may come to the fore if the right lobbying is done.

Meanwhile in Syria

We live in Egypt, and so focus there, but obviously this weekend major protests took place in Syria. It looks like it will get worse there before it gets better, though, if Anthony Shadid's latest report is accurate:

As it descends into sectarian hatred, Homs has emerged as a chilling window on what civil war in Syria could look like, just as some of Syria’s closest allies say the country appears to be heading in that direction. A spokesman for the Syrian opposition last week called the killings and kidnappings on both sides “a perilous threat to the revolution.” An American official called the strife in Homs “reminiscent of the former Yugoslavia,” where the very term “ethnic cleansing” originated in the 1990s.

“Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen sectarian attacks on the rise, and really ugly sectarian attacks,” the Obama administration official said in Washington. The longer President Bashar al-Assad “stays in power, what you see in Homs, you’ll see across Syria.”

Podcast #15: After Maspero

In this week’s podcast, we turn to the tragic events on October 9 in Downtown Cairo, when at least 25 people (mostly Coptic protestors) were killed at the Maspero state TV building. Ashraf, Ursula and I host New York Review of Books contributor Yasmine El Rashidi, an eyewitness to the massacre, and talk about what happened and its consequences.

Links for this week’s episode:

Arabist Podcast #15

Mariz Tadros on Maspero

This part of her excellent MERIP article highlights the state media complicity in the violence:

The second action was to announce on state-run television that “Copts” had put the army itself in peril. Subtitles at the bottom of the screen read: “Urgent: The Army Is Under Attack by Copts.” The presenter called upon all “honorable citizens” to go to Maspero to help defend the soldiers. Around this time, a report was also circulated that that two officers had been martyred at Coptic hands. Viewers at home were not unmoved. Indeed, that evening, many residents of Bulaq and other nearby working-class districts armed themselves with clubs and other weapons, before heading off to Maspero to assist the army in beating up and even killing protesters. One corpse had its head split in two, clearly by a sword or another sharp instrument, not an army-issue weapon.

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In Translation: Alaa al-Aswany on bigotry

As every week, we bring a selected commentary piece from the Arabic press translated into English, courtesy of Industry Arabic, a full-service translation company founded  by two long-time Arabist readers.

Alaa al-AswanyThere was not enough time to wait for the reaction to the sad events of October 9 — and in any case many commentators are simply speechless, as are so many Egyptians — so instead we picked an op-ed by the novelist Alaa al-Aswany published last week. It touched on the issue that motivated last week’s Coptic protest: a lack of government reaction to an attack on a church in Aswan governorate by local Islamists, with the governor preferring to impose a negotiated solution between the Salafists and Christians rather than impose the rule of law, which would have protected the Christians.

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Notes from a shell-shocked Egypt

Here are links to pieces I read yesterday about the massacre at Maspero on October 9, in no particular order, while above is Rawya Rageh's report for al-Jazeera English last night. A longer post is forthcoming, but the mood in Egypt is one of mourning and suspended life (Cairo felt eerily empty yesterday), with the political outcome unclear. There has been some focus on whether elections will be postponed (SCAF says no), but I think this is besides the point: the real question is whether political parties and civil society will push for genuine accountability (for the military and the state media), and more generally whether the parties and revolutionary movements have the appetite to take on SCAF. More on all this later.

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Maspero and sectarianism in Egypt

The clashes that broke out a few hours ago at Maspero, the large Downtown Cairo building near Tahrir Square that houses the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (basically, state TV and radio), are a deeply worrisome turn in Egypt’s fledging transition.

Worrisome because they started off at a protest of Christians (joined by some Muslims) over restrictions on church-building and have taken on a more sectarian overtone than anything we’ve seen so far.

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