5 April 2009
Our reading of the Cairo press this month takes us to the weekly al-Anwar (The Lights), the mouthpiece of the Nasserist, Arabist al-Wifaq al-Qawmi (The National Cohesion) political party, which spread on a full page the issue of the building of churches in Egypt.
The major story on the page came under the title: “Islam allows the building of churches, but Islamic scholars ban it”. The writer, Mahmoud Abdou, wrote that most Islamic scholars said that the “People of the Book”, meaning Christians and Jews, ought to be banned from building places of worship in Islamic-majority countries basing on the so-called “Omar’s conditions”. These conditions are said to have been instated by Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph who ruled Arabia after the death of Mohamed the Prophet in the seventh century, and whose rule witnessed the Islamic conquest of neighbouring countries. Abdou insisted that the story of Omar’s conditions has very feeble historical backing, and the same applies to all the prophetic hadith (words or sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohamed) on the question of church building in countries ruled by Muslims. It thus follows, according to Abdou, that there is no historical evidence that the building of churches or synagogues is banned by Islam. Why then, he questions, do Muslim scholars ban it—and ban it so strictly at that?
Al-Anwar attempted to answer the question by taking it to present-day Islamic scholars. Since the official fatwa on the topic says that: “The issue of the building of churches, and the rights of Christians, are to be ruled by the courts of law and the discretion of the ruler”, and since this sounds like a downright evasion of the issue on the part of Islamic scholars, the paper took the question to the official fatwa body, Dar al-Iftaa’. “We approached Fawzy al-Zafzaf, former head of al-Azhar commission on the dialogue between religions, for an explanation,” the paper wrote. Once he heard our query he declined to answer saying he was too ill to talk.”
For his part, Sheikh Gamal Qutb, former head of the Fatwa Commission, said the issue of building churches ought not to be discussed in public. “If I say it is banned by Islam,” he said, “I would be going against sharia. And if I say it is permitted, I would be giving extremist Christians licence to—unnecessarily—build a huge number of churches. They would use my words as a weapon to build, unchecked, countless churches.”
The paper wrote that its reporters approached the most prominent telemuftis with the question of how sharia, Islamic legal code, rules on the building of churches, but none gave us any answer. They were all either not available for comment, or declined to give an answer. A mufti is one who issues a fatwa, Islamic legal opinion; telemuftis are the counterpart of televangelists.
Finally, al-Anwar went to the famous ‘moderate’ Islamic scholar Tareq al-Bishri who, the reporters wrote, welcomed them warmly. Once he knew the topic they were questioning, though, he quickly declined to talk saying he would be too busy during the following few days.
Another prominent Islamic scholar, Mohamed Emara, did exactly the same thing.
Truly, it looks like the Great Escape.
Two years on citizenship rights
The daily independent al-Dostour (The Constitution) decided to find out what has become of the ‘citizenship concept’ which was placed two years ago at the forefront of Egypt’s Constitution.
Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour, secretary of the liberal al-Wafd political party, told the paper that, despite the prominent place assumed by the citizenship concept in the Constitution, incidents of sectarian violence were on the rise and were getting more violent. He gave as an example the notorious armed attack against the desert monastery of Abu-Fana in January 2008 then again last May. The general climate and prevalent culture, Abdel-Nour said, cannot be wiped out by an article in the Constitution, but require a renewed religious address, as well as a media and school curriculum that promote tolerance and acceptance of the other.
Both Abdel-Halim Qandil, coordinator-general of the opposition Kifaya (Enough) movement, and assistant secretary-general of the Islamic Work party Magdy Qarqar agreed that the problem with the inadequacy of the citizenship concepts lay with the ruling regime that should be changed, they said.
For his part, Sayed Abdel-Aal, secretary-general of the leftist Tagammu party, said the State was biased against minorities and actually aided the spread of extremist thought by allowing the broadcast of media programmes that called for fanatic, divisive ideas.
So much for citizenship concepts.