7 November 2010
The saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Our reading of the Cairo papers this week takes us to the daily State owned al-Ahram which has issued a new weekly supplement on Upper Egypt. The State’s official mouthpiece began by including a feature on al-Salam village in Assiut, the birthplace of Pope Shenouda III. Even though the feature was proof of the good intentions of the writer towards national solidarity, it strongly brought to mind the fact that good intentions are insufficient to ameliorate problems such as sectarian differences; in fact they may pave the road to hell. Especially given that these differences have become deeply engrained in the Egyptian pshyche.
So what did al-Ahram do to assert the concept of national solidarity? The flaring headlines of the Salam feature screamed that Pope Shenouda had a Muslim brother. The article explained that a Muslim woman called Hajja Zeinab had, in the 1920s, breastfed the baby boy Nazir Gayed who had lost his mother and who grew up to be Pope Shenouda III. Al-Ahram then went on to say that Hajja Zeinab had a son, and drew the conclusion that this son is the Pope’s ‘brother-in-breastfeeding’. It is common practice among villagers that, if a mother dies, other village women take it in turns to breast-feed the orphaned baby. Muslims hold the common belief that such babies would be brothers or sisters to the breastfeeding mother’s own children. But let me remind the eminent al-Ahram that Christianity does not believe in the concept of ‘siblings-in-breastfeeding’. Neither, along an analogous line, does it condone mixed marriages—marriage is a Holy Sacrament in Church—a practice commonly propagated by Muslims as a tool of social union, basing on the Islamic principle that Muslim men can marry Christian women. Instead of stressing the superficial notions of siblings-in-breastfeeding or mixed marriages as proof of social cohesion between Muslims and Copts, those who work on dialogue between religions ought to focus on the values common between them if we are ever to attain solidarity. As for breastfed ‘siblings’ or mixed marriages, they only serve to accentuate the differences between the two religions,
Al-Ahram’s feature pointed out that the Pope did nothing to benefit his birthplace, despite his illustrious position. I really cannot understand what was expected of the Pope, who is not a governor or a businessman, and thus cannot erect new projects or found development plans. The feature eluded its main raison d’être, which was to advocate national unity. Tackling sensitive issues requires journalistic professionalism, an ingredient conspicuously missing from the al-Ahram feature.
A thief’s religion
The columnist Fatma Naout recently wrote in the daily independent al-Masry al-Youm about the true story of a Copt’s house that was robbed while the owner was at work. The Copt’s neighbours caught the thief, gave him a beating, and called the police just as the owner came home. The problem was that the officer in charge discovered that the thief was Muslim while the home owner was Copt. This meant, the officer said, that unless the Coptic owner withdrew his claim, the case had to be referred to State security lest it escalates into sectarian violence. But what complicated the matter further, the officer explained, were the thief’s bruises, because the common notion goes against a Christian beating a Muslim. The officer in charge advised the owner to withdraw his claim and treat the thief at his personal expense, which he actually did. “Black comedy” appears to be the only appropriate description for the incident.
I applaud, as many other writers and journalists did, the State’s recent decision to close down a number of satellite channels which propagated salafi thought and made it their business to constantly attack Christianity. These shows contributed much in inciting hatred against Christians, and in working up the crowds to demonstrate against the Coptic Church and Pope Shenouda III. But, curiously, the freedoms committee of the Journalists Syndicate hosted a number of these channels owners and presenters under the pretext of ‘defending freedom of expression’. Does the freedoms committee defend ‘freedom of expression’ or the ‘freedom to disdain Christianity’? I pose this question to Mohamed Abdel-Qodous, who heads the committee, and await his reply.
Last Monday a harsh statement was released by the so-called Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, following their attack on the Sayidat al-Najat Catholic church in central Baghdad in which at least 52 Iraqi Christians were killed and dozens held hostage. The statement threatened the Copts of Egypt that they were next in line to be attacked unless, according to the statement, the ‘Muslim’ women imprisoned in the churches and monasteries of Egypt were released. The statement gave the Coptic Church in Egypt a 48-hour deadline to release the alleged female captives. The two women, were married to Coptic priests and left their homes in the wake of domestic disputes; Wafaa’ Qostantine in December 2004 and Kamilia Shehata in July 2010. Extremist Muslim movements in Egypt claimed that both women had converted to Islam and were detained by the Coptic Church against their will. Both the Coptic Church and al-Azhar—the topmost Islamic authority in Egypt and the only place for official registration of conversions to Islam—categorically denied that the women had converted. The Church said each was at a ‘safe place’ where they were free to stay.
On Monday evening the talk show al-Ashira massa’an (10 o’clock) on the independent Dream satellite channel hosted the security expert General Fouad Allam to sound his opinion on the al-Qaeda statement, which had caused not-a-minor public worry. “The statement is not the first of its kind”, General Allam said. “The alleged al-Qaeda Iraqi branch had issued such statements before, and nothing happened”, he proceeded. He explained that there was no al-Qaeda in Iraq, but there were many small movements which attribute themselves to al-Qaeda. Allam was sure the threats against Egypt were hollow; Egypt, he said, had a well-developed security apparatus that was not to be compared to Iraq’s. He called on the Interior Ministry to issue a statement explaining the security measures taken by the ministry to reassure Copts.
“Egypt categorically rejects having its name linked to such a criminal act” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced, adding the country “strongly condemned” the attack on the Church. The Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt’s Parliament, issued a statement confirming that State is responsible for the security of all Egyptians.