3 October 2010
Sectarianism in Egypt has been escalating to alarming levels
The dreadful sectarianism that has been casting its shadows all over Egypt has gained new dimensions lately. The escalation came earlier this month when Islamic scholar and lawyer Selim al-Awa declared, in the talk show Bila hodoud (Without limits) on al-Jezira, that the State was too weak to stand up to the Church in Egypt, and that the Church was stockpiling arms and concealing them in churches and monasteries. Preposterous and ridiculous as these groundless allegations were, they carried the ominous overtones of war drums. How can uninformed or non-educated Muslims—and there is no lacking of them—be blamed if they interpret Awa’s words as a call for jihad? Especially given that Islamic papers and media have been increasingly harping on the same theme for the past months if not years. Some extremists even called for ostracising Copts.
Admittedly, the Copts were appalled. A common remark that circulated among them was that Awa knew very well his allegations were false, so why was he making them?
Sorry is not enough
In an interview with the Cairo daily al-Masry al-Youm during the same week, Secretary-General of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church Anba Bishoi voiced an opinion that the Copts were the original Egyptians and that the Muslims who came to Egypt were “our guests”. Then, in the “Conference of securing faith” held by the Coptic Church annually for scholars in theology, word got around that the printed abstract of Anba Bishoi’s lecture included a question he asked Islamic scholars to kindly research. This centred on whether the Qur’anic verses which brand Christians as apostates were original, or could have possibly been a later addition when the Qur’an was scripted in the era of Osman bin-Affan, a few years after the Prophet Mohamed’s death.
Predictably, all hell broke loose. The media accused Anba Bishoi of suggesting the Qur’an was misquoted. And even though it is common practice in Egypt to have the Bible constantly criticised as a misquotation of some original version, the Qur’an is viewed by Muslims as having been pronounced word for word by Allah; any hint of anything otherwise is totally unacceptable.
Both Awa and Anba Bishoi said they were sorry their words had been taken out of context; they had not intended to cause any pain. But the damage had already been worked.
Several complaints were submitted to the prosecutor-general against both scholars. Pope Shenouda III spoke against debates that involve matters of faith, and said he believed Anba Bishoi’s words about Muslims being “guests” had been taken out of context. He said he felt sorry “our Muslim brothers” were pained.
Sounding the alarm
The enlightened and the liberals in Egypt sensed the country was rapidly becoming a tinderbox ready to flare up at the slightest provocation.
Baheieddin Hassan insisted that neither being sorry nor apologising would resolve the dilemma. “Awa’s words were irresponsible,” he said. “The allegations he made, besides being totally unsubstantiated, are too serious to be taken lightly. He is a well-informed scholar whose words carry weight; thus the danger of a poorly informed public taking them for facts. Such rhetoric had been circulated before, but never by a trustworthy figure.
“As to Anba Bishoi,” Hassan said, “the situation in Egypt is too critical to allow for controversy on faith or any objective discussions about it.”
For his part, the security expert General Fouad Allam, former head of the State Security apparatus, accused the media of fanning the flames. He suggested a temporary ban on the print of material concerned with sectarianism, and called upon the wise men in this country to “rush to the rescue of Egypt”.
“Awa’s insistence that a priest’s son had imported arms into Egypt—while he knew it was children’s fireworks—and his propagation of the incident as the “Church stockpiling arms” cast very serious doubts about his intentions,” said Emad Gad of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Apologising may be a good step but is not enough to undo the damage.”
“The Muslims entered Egypt in AD460 with a battalion of 4000 soldiers,” Islamic scholar Ammar Ali Hassan said. “How can they alone be the ancestors of the millions of Egypt’s Muslims? On the other hand, how can there be any arms stockpiled in churches or monasteries, without the security apparatus knowing about them and taking action?” Irresponsible, erroneous remarks can only serve to inflame the already underlying sectarian tension, he said.
Mohamed Mounir Megahed of the Egyptians against Religious Discrimination movement, was in total agreement that the remarks made called for action.
The action came in the form of a declaration entitled “A call to the nation … Sectarian fires set the homeland aflame” signed by 18 rights groups and 124 Egyptian individuals deeply concerned about the issue. The declaration reminded that sectarian tension had been escalating alarmingly since the Nag Hammadi crime in which one Muslim passerby and six Copts were shot to death last January as they left church following Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve—Christmas is celebrated by Copts on 7 January. It went on to cite several incidents this year which led to sectarian tension or strife, and to stress that the State had fallen short of its responsibility in tackling the matter, either through negligence or what could even be described as the collaboration of some officials with the culprits.
The declaration confirmed the constitutional rights of equality and freedom of belief. They called upon the State, the country’s Islamic religious institutions of al-Azhar and Dar al-Iftaa’, and the Church, to collaborate to put off the sectarian fire through “transparency, candour, equality, and democracy”.