The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged copts
On the Coptic diaspora

Michael Wahid Hanna has a long essay on American copts and their political influence in MERIP, in which he examines the sometimes radical (or outright fanficul) positions the diaspora has taken, its interplay with the government and others in the "old country." He concludes:

In the end, diaspora activism must be judged by how it affects the lives of those the activists claim to champion. Demagoguery might find an audience in the West, but will undoubtedly erode the credibility and position of Copts in Egypt. Diaspora activists must also come to grips with the internal divisions of the Coptic community and the variety of experiences for Christians in Egypt, who face differing treatment depending on a number of variables, including socio-economic status and geography. Egypt is the site of genuine sectarian discord, and it would be perverse if the efforts of Coptic diaspora activists were a further cause of strife and a rallying cry for Islamists who seek to implement a vision of religious supremacy.

A good piece to read along this post by Magdi Atiya on the always worth reading blog Salama Moussa.


From Citizen To Problem: The New Coptic Tokenism

Paul Sedra, in Jadaliyya: 

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry released a statement this past Thursday that was entirely without precedent, and yet it received practically no media attention amidst the political turmoil the country is currently experiencing. According to the statement, “Beyond overlooking the violent and dangerous reality of the Rabea and Nahda sit-ins, a number of foreign governments and international media outlets have also chosen to overlook the recent increase in killings and attacks that are once again targeting Egypt’s Christian community.”

Observers of Egypt’s Coptic community could be forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief upon reading this pronouncement by the Egyptian government. What is so remarkable and, indeed, bewildering about the statement, is that the Egyptian government has repeatedly and forcefully denied the existence of sectarianism on Egyptian soil for decades. For an arm of the government to reference Copts as a target of violence—much less reference the Copts as a distinct community at all—is a stark departure from a long-standing policy of refusing the acknowledgment of sectarian divisions within Egyptian society.

Worth reading.

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.)

A statement made by al-Qa’ida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri (Ayman al-Zawāhirī), is believed to be one of the major catalysts for ongoing sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians and attacks by militants on the Sinai Peninsula and in other areas of Upper Egypt, south of Cairo.  His fiery speech accused Egyptian Christians of seeking a Coptic state in southern Egypt and alleges that they along with “crusaders, secularists, the Americanised military, remnants of Mubarak’s regime and some affiliates of Islamic groups” are responsible for former president Muhammad Morsi’s (Mursī) overthrow and were supported by Gulf money (link).

Violence in Beni Suef, Suhag, Fayum, and other areas of Egypt have led to the deaths of Christians and some Muslims.  Churches have also been attacked and vandalized in many of these areas under a variety of circumstances. In Suhag it is believed that an al-Qa’ida flag was raised on Saint George Church.  Also, one of the Armenian churches in Egypt was tagged with the words “Egypt is Islamist”.  Some attacks have been based on rumors of Christian attacks on Muslims, for example, while in other instances violence has been in protest of Morsi’s removal.  

Egypt’s army said on Wednesday that they have the captured or killed 227 individuals on the Sinai from 5 July to 4 August —103 of who were arrested and 124 of who were either killed or injured (link).  Attacks continue in the northern region of the Sinai Peninsula, most frequently in al-Arish, where several checkpoints have come under fire from militants. Other attacks in the region have included the murder of a Coptic priest in al-Arish and the beheading of a Coptic citizen in Shaykh Zuwwaīd early in July (link).

On August 7, the Prosecutor General ordered the arrest of 11 persons on charges of “murder, attempted murder, arson and possession of unlicensed weapons” following violence on Saturday, August 3, in Minya, a governorate located roughly 250km south of Cairo. The clashes are the latest in a series of attacks on Christians in Upper Egypt, which left one dead and over a dozen injured (link). Last month an attack on a Coptic church in Minya left the premises in a shambles and Father Ayoub Youssef believes that he barely escaped with his life from the attackers (link).

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.

What the Coptic pope wants from the Muslim Brotherhood

Pope (pope-elect?) Tawadros II is off to a great start, not as a spiritual leader or even a Christian, but as one of the most important national figures in Egypt tout court. Here's what he said about his relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP):

They asked me what I would wish for from the FJP. I replied that I request two things from the FJP; freedom and justice, only.

He's also suggested postponing his own coronation ceremony because of the train disaster near Assiut that claimed the lives of at least 50 children this morning, winning much respect for the gesture. Maybe he should do that and give President Mohammed Morsi a chance top reconsider his absolutely flabbergasting decision not to attend the ceremony. You only get a new pope every few decades, after all, and there would be no greater way to reassure Egypt's Christian community and start off on the right foot with the pope.

Salama Moussa suggests the church should leave an empty seat on the front row at Abbesseya cathedral when the ceremony takes place. Maybe that would send back the right message.

✚ Egypt's Christians fear 'a season of blood'

Egypt's Christians fear 'a season of blood'

Betsy Hiel, reporting for the Pittsburg Tribune, on Salafists spreading terror among Copts just on the outskirts of Cairo. 

CAIRO — In the Shubra El Kheima section of this sprawling capital’s outskirts, a herd of goats and three rail-thin horses pick through garbage piles.

Rattling old cars and exhaust-belching buses honk at darting three-wheeled “tuc-tuc” taxis.

On a narrow dirt street, four police officers guard brick pillars rising from the mud.

This was going to be a Coptic Christian community center — until ultra-Islamist Salafis seized it and declared it a Muslim mosque, according to Emad El Erian, a spokesman for a Coptic rights organization.

“They threatened to burn some of the Coptic houses in the neighborhood,” he said.

Salafis occupied the site every night until a prosecutor ruled that the land belonged to the Copts and ordered a police guard, local residents say.

“It’s as if (they) are challenging the police, the government and the general prosecutor, and that they want to drag the Coptic Christians into sectarian violence, a season of blood,” El Erian said.

Last week’s incident was the latest attack on Egypt’s Christian minority — but not the week’s only one: A veiled woman sheared a Christian girl’s hair in Cairo’s subway.

Such attacks — like crime in general — have risen in number and intensity since last year’s ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak. Christian churches, homes and shops have been looted or torched; Christians have been forced to flee some villages.

The situation seems to contradict President Obama’s assertion in the Oct. 22 presidential debate that Egyptian officials must “take responsibility for protecting religious minorities, and we have put significant pressure on them to make sure they’re doing that.”

That is the real question — why is the government not arresting them? Like in Tunisia where the government drags its feet in arresting Salafis who torch liquor stores, there is too much hesitation. The state needs to come down on its people with its full weight, prosecute them to the full extent of the law, and go after the preachers who incite this kind of violence.

The Coptic papal elections

The Coptic papal elections

I didn't blog about Monday's election of the next patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, so here's a few links:

One of the interesting consequences of this election is the direction the church might take on issues of wider public interest — such as Egypt's new constitution. I don't expect a change of tack, but having an official pope elected and able to guide his flock will make a difference if, as expected, the debate over the constitution gets rougher.

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.

How much Copts trust the Brotherhood

Not at all:

A poll conducted by the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations, led by Coptic activist Naguib Gobrail, suggests that a majority of Copts support Amr Moussa for the presidency.
The sample consisted of 3000 Copts.

Moussa received 78 percent of votes in the poll, while Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh got 22 percent, Gobrail said. The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Khairat al-Shater, and Salafi-oriented candidate Hazem Salah Abou Ismail both got zero votes.

 Not bad for Aboul Fotouh though.

Pope Shenouda III, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, dies

Pope Shenouda III  was arguably one of the most important figures of 20th century Egypt, and one of his ancient church's most transformative figures.  Shenouda  guided his flock, the largest congregation of Christians in the Middle East, to massive political, social, economic and religious change. In doing so he broke with tradition of a more spiritual role for the pope and embraced a political role that made him  one of the pivotal figures of the last 40 years. on this blog in the past I have been critical of the Pope, notably for his for his politicization of the church, his  autocratic tendencies,  and misplaced bet on the Mubarak regime — most notably his unprecedented 2005 endorsement of the reelection of Hosni Mubarak.

But I'll leave discussion of that to another day, and  instead urge you to read this overview of his life by one of the best non-Egyptian experts on the church and religious life in Egypt, Cornelius Hulsman of the Arab West Report:

Egyptian Christians are mourning the death of Coptic Orthodox Pope and Patriarch Shenouda III, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 88. Pope Shenouda (August 3, 1923 - March 17, 2012) was extremely popular among millions of common Christians. A charismatic reformer and an advocate of Christian rights and interests in a predominantly Muslim country, many considered him as their father. Common Muslims liked him for his critical stance towards Israel, but both Christian and Muslim intellectuals were critical of his mixing politics with religion. No doubt he was the most influential Christian leader in 20th century Egypt. He was co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Sunday School Magazine in 1947, was consecrated as monk in 1954, became Bishop of Education in 1962, and Pope in 1971.

Metropolitan Bishoi, secretary of the Synod since 1985, described in 2002 the dramatic changes during Pope Shenouda’s reign. The number of monks, priests, bishops, church servants, and churches dramatically increased. Monasteries expanded as never before since the arrival of Islam in Egypt. During Pope Shenouda’s rule, the emigration of Copts increased tremendously as a consequence of better economic perspectives and a search for greater freedoms outside Egypt. Pope Shenouda responded to this trend by building hundreds of churches outside Egypt, whereby most (if not all) were personally consecrated by him.

And the conclusion that hints at the succession battle that has been rivaled only by the Mubarak succession question in Egypt's public life:

For at least the past ten years there have been discussions about the succession of Pope Shenouda. Until 1928 only monks had been elected to the papacy. Three diocesan bishops had been elected to the papacy in the 20th century but that had also resulted in resistance by those who believe that the church should adhere to its ancient principles for the election of a new pope. Bishop Marcos of Shubra al-Khayma stated that Pope Shenouda himself saw no problem in the election of general bishop as pope as opposed to a diocesan bishop.

Just as the death of Pope Yousab in 1956 resulted in a struggle around the succession, so Father Musa of Beni Suef suspects a struggle over the succession of Pope Shenouda. There is division over who could be eligible (monks only or monks and general bishops). There are furthermore several ambitious bishops. For whoever will be elected, it will not be easy to stand in the shoes of a pope who had such a tremendous impact in his church and who has enjoyed so much popularity. Yet, for the church, it is important to soon have a strong new leader again in order to be able to safeguard the position of Christians in a country that is in transition following the Revolution of 2011.

At a time when bishops and other church leaders are publicly disagreeing on what presidential candidate they support, you bet this succession is going to be heated.

The pope and the holy virgin

This very nice piece by Youssef Ramez on appearances of the Virgin Mary in Egypt over the course of 2010 has a great passage that encapsulates very nicely Pope Shenouda III:

Le pape Chenouda III, primat de l'Eglise copte orthodoxe a affirmé lors de l'un de ses sermons hebdomadaires que les visites de la vierge en Egypte étaient avant tout motivée par son amour pour le pays qu'elle a connu pour l'avoir visité lors de l'enfance du Christ: «quand le pays lui manque, de temps à autre, alors elle s'y rend pour une visite». Il ne manque pas de rappeler au passage que «nos frères musulmans l'ont même vue avant les chrétiens», qu'ils «reconnaissent son héroïsme» et la «révèrent et l'aiment autant sinon plus que certains protestants chrétiens».

My translation:

Pope Shenouda III, primate of the Coptic Orthodox Church, affirmed during one of his weekly sermons that the visits of the Holy Virgin to Egypt were motivated by her love for the country, which she knew from visiting it during Christ's childhood: "when she misses the country, she decides to make a visit." He did not fail to remind in passing that "our Muslim brothers even saw her before the Christians", that "they recognize her heroism" and "revere her as much if not more than some Christian Protestants."

This combines classic Egyptian chauvinism with the usual token cross-sectarian stuff and the obligatory protestant-bashing — in fact the article goes on to cite a church publication that the Virgin came to Egypt to warn about the protestants.