A recent Sout al-Umma headline read “Muslim women in Pope Shenouda’s prisons”. Sout al-Umma is the Cairo weekly independent paper with overtly Islamist inclinations, which has consistently adopted a policy of piling undue criticism against the Church and the Copts. The article under the headline in question told about Mamdouh Ismail, an Islamist lawyer who filed an appeal to the public prosecution demanding that security forces conduct searches of Coptic Orthodox monasteries and convents in search for Wafaa’ Qostantine.
Qostantine was the wife of a Coptic priest in the West Delta region of Beheira, who had disappeared in 2004. It was then alleged she had converted to Islam but, following wide demonstrations by the Copts who believed she had been abducted or seduced, was found by the police and declared she had been “born Christian and will die Christian”. Qostantine later stayed away from the public eye, and it is claimed she is now an inmate of a Coptic convent or monastery. Islamsits claim she is being held against her will, but Copts claim she is there voluntarily since she could never have led a normal life following the 2004 incident and thus chose the safety and seclusion of the convent. Another Cairo independent paper, al-Masry al-Youm, a few months ago printed that, in order to refute such rumours that may easily harm the reputation of an honourable woman and her family, the pope would persuade her to talk on TV so people would see and listen to her. The paper later claimed the security authorities vetoed the pope’s decision. The recent piece by Sout al-Umma described Pope Shenouda as a prison warden, which drove a number of Coptic lawyers to file claims to the public prosecution against the paper.
Alarmed by the claims, Sout al-Umma sought the intervention of Father Abdel-Messih Basseet, the priest of the church of the Holy Virgin in Mostorod, to persuade the lawyers to withdraw their claims. Even though the paper reported that the meeting was amiable and ended in peace, it went on to print that Fr Abdel-Messih’s personal opinion of supporting Gamal Mubarak as the upcoming president of Egypt was the official stance of the Church. Predictably, the move served to bring the Church under fire, with activists accusing it of meddling in politics and attempting to rally Copts behind Mubarak. Fr Abdel-Messih, however, stood firmly by the opinion he expressed as a strictly personal one.
So much for fomenting disunion between Egyptians.
The first page of a recent issue of the daily independent al-Masry al-Youm carried the headline “A Coptic lawyer files a claim against the film 1/0 on the grounds that it disdains Christianity”. Al-Masry al-Youm is among several papers which commented on this incident. It is worth noting that the film has not so far been screened publicly—the first public screening is scheduled for tonight—meaning that those who claimed it disdained Christianity had never seen it in the first place. They merely heard stories that the film tackled the issue of a Christian woman who obtained a civil divorce since the Church does not sanction divorce, then badgered the Church to acknowledge the divorce. I have not seen the film so cannot say whether it disdains Christianity in any way, but I can definitely say that the claim against the film has given it publicity beyond the producers’ wildest dreams.
A blow to liberalism
Interestingly, once the Coptic lawyers filed their complaints, three other complaints were filed to the public prosecutor by Islamist lawyers. Given that Islamists could not care less about disdain of Christianity, it would appear that they merely filed their protests to confirm their disapproval of cinema in its entirety. They would in all probability be elated to see all cinema theatres shut down.
It is my opinion that the Egyptian public ought to realise that tackling any case in drama adds a new dimension to the aspects that define it, and serves the purpose of freedom of expression and liberalism, two issues we should be championing since their loss would come at our own detriment.
The film’s leading lady Elham Shahine made a very appropriate comment when she asked those who protested against the film to “see it first”.