Egypt would not be Egypt without its churches
Of all the attacks by the Islamist supporters of ousted president Mursi some 10 days ago against Coptic churches, community centres, schools, homes and businesses, it is the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya that has borne the brunt
Of all the attacks by the Islamist supporters of ousted president Mursi some 10 days ago against Coptic churches, community centres, schools, homes and businesses, it is the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya that has borne the brunt. More than 40 Coptic churches, homes, and institutions were targeted; even an orphanage was attacked. Watani talked to Anba Macarius, Bishop-General of Minya.
Why did Minya top the sites of Coptic institutions targeted by the Islamists?
Regrettably, Minya has long been ignored as far as development is concerned. Poverty is rampant among the population, unemployment is high, and education levels are very low. Many Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leaders and those of the Gamaa Islamiya come from Minya, and given the solid clan loyalty entrenched in Upper Egyptian communities they have a strong influence on the people.
Why did the people themselves, Muslims and Christians, not confront the attackers to protect the churches, as has been the case in several other sites where Copts and churches were targeted?
People could not gather together to form neighbourhood squads because they were terrorised; they felt threatened and unsafe. They had no sense of relief till the military arrived on the scene in armoured vehicles. The people welcomed them with ululations of joy.
Have you been able to assess the losses yet?
We haven’t. We’re working together with the Catholic and the Evangelical Churches, who
also suffered severe losses. But we have to be very careful since the stories already circulated about the burning and looting are not always accurate. We will wait until things settle down to present a comprehensive, accurate list of the losses. In the meantime, all indicators point at huge losses; Minya was the governorate most affected by the brutal attacks, but the one that broke my heart most was the unmerciful attack against the orphanage of Gunoud al-Massih. Even though all the children escaped unscathed, they are traumatised by the horror of the experience.
Why did the Islamists target the Copts so viciously?
The MB are penalising the Copts for joining in the massive protests against Mursi’s Islamist rule on 30 June. This despite the fact that the Copts participated in the revolt against Islamist rule not in their capacity as Christians, but as Egyptians first and foremost. They went out holding the Egyptian flag, not a cross; they demanded a civic State and social justice, not the freedom to build churches. They were part and parcel of the national movement; they took to the streets with the millions of Muslims who had the same demands. But the MB probably see the Copts as the easy prey. They have been attacking Egyptian institutions too: the Mallawi Museum in Minya; the Giza governorate building which goes back to some 100 years ago; the Ministry of Finance building, and many others. But these attacks were not focused on a specific sector in the community as were their attacks against Copts.
So what can be done in face of this situation?
Better and stronger security by the Interior Ministry is of course the short-term solution. In the long run, however, Minya—and all of Upper Egypt for that matter—needs a comprehensive development plan.
Ever since 2009 we have been accustomed to seeing massive Coptic protests against attacks on them and their churches. This week, more than 50 churches all over Egypt were burned, as well as countless homes and businesses, schools and community centres, but the Copts have kept their peace. What can be the reason for this?
There is a general view that the Copts realise that this time they were attacked not merely in their capacity as Copts, but within a wider plan to destabilise the Egyptian non-Islamist State. The Copts would not be part of that. They would not be used to strike Egypt, its people, armed forces, or police.
According to our faith, we should expect hardships on account of our being Christian. We should accept this calmly; we should forgive those who wrong us and pray for them. But our peace and forgiveness do not mean that the crimes are all right, or that the criminals should not be brought to justice. There can be no justification whatsoever for crime; crime is unacceptable and the cruel people who inflict it cannot be left to pursue their unacceptable deeds.
Yet the vicious attacks against the churches have had one bright side: they have put to the lie all allegations that churches and monasteries are military bastions that house arms. This preposterous allegation had for years been propagated by Islamists and was believed by a poorly informed public. No matter how strongly we denied it, it found ready ears because we
were cornered into being on the defensive. And that allegation was exploited in an evil manner; it was very potent in spreading hate against the Copts and the Church because it implicitly gave the impression that they were planning some kind of war against Egypt. It also gave rise to calls that the churches and monasteries in Egypt should be put under the sequestration of the State, a situation Copts could never, never accept. Now it is obvious that these allegations were a very big lie; if we hid arms, why didn’t we use them to defend ourselves?
Since we respect the state of law, the State must restore our rights. The Church is an Egyptian institution and the homes, shops and businesses of the Copts are part of Egypt’s economy. Egypt can never be Egypt as we know it without the churches.
How do you see the international handling of the current situation in Egypt?
The Church never gave significance to outside forces. If we had anything to say or anyone to blame it would be to our government, not to any foreign country. Even the Coptic Diaspora did not give us any support.
Historically, the Coptic Church has always been a thoroughly Egyptian national Church. Even during hard times, when foreign forces offered Copts protection, the Church refused. There is the famous story of the Pope Boutros al-Gawli (1809 -1852), who received a visit from a Russian envoy offering the Church the protection of the Kaiser. The story goes that the Pope asked one question: “Does your Kaiser die?” The envoy was stupefied. “Everyone dies, your Holiness,” he said. “Of course the Kaiser dies.” The Pope then answered: “Well, why should I trade the protection of the One who doesn’t die for that of one who dies?”
25 August 2013