17 April 2011
Here is the second episode in a dreadful series of events that appear to have no end in sight. We had thought that the 25 January revolution would open a new chapter in the relations between Muslims and Copts—given their obvious solidarity and sympathy all through the 18-day uprising. The then prevalent climate of Muslim Coptic solidarity urged Coptic pundits to stress that the transformation to a civil democratic State should top the demands for reform, rightfully eclipsing all else. In that sense, the Coptic file with its deep grievances, they argued, had to be temporarily shelved until the foundation of the aspired modern State is laid. Then, they believed, Coptic grievances would be spontaneously, automatically resolved within the expected dominance of equality and citizenship rights.
I am still exercising self-restraint in responding to the incessantly deteriorating sectarian conditions. I am even content to write this editorial under a title in the form of a query, one that reflects the current bitter reality rather than attempts to shed light on what may be expected in the future. The latest events undoubtedly raise serious concerns over the fact that those today in power in Egypt appear to be readily giving way to the will and whim of fanatics, extremists and outlaws. The events imply the new rulers are in state of quandary; they do not realise the perils of lax law enforcement or the threat this poses to the authority of the civil State, and ultimately play into the hands of the extremists.
The past few weeks witnessed several appalling events. The Coptic villagers of Sole in Etfeeh were attacked and forced to flee their homes as fanatics set the village church on fire in the wake of rumours of an illicit affair between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman. In the Upper Egyptian town of Qena, fundamentalist Salafi Muslims cut the ear of a Copt, claiming they were applying the Islamic penalty hudoud against him upon [false allegations] of sexual immorality. Outlaws in the village of Nazlet al-Badraman in Minya, Upper Egypt, terrorised the village Copts with crimes that appear to come right out of the dark ages. In all cases, no culprit was referred to court. The most recent incident in this outrageous string of events occurred less than two weeks ago in the village of Qamadir, in Samalout, Minya. Let me point out that the problem is not about fanatic practices or ugly extremism; we are now accustomed to sustaining fanatic-driven attacks every once in a while. Most alarming, however, is the manner in which the authorities deal with culprits, the prototype official answer in such events being to ‘reconcile’ culprit and victim. The far-reaching repercussions of ‘reconciliation’ secure the disrespect of the rule of law, the forfeit of the community’s rights, and the retreat of civil State authority before Salafis and other extremists.
Qamadir’s Copts had years ago founded an association for community services and had, in 2001, obtained licence for a building to house the association and to perform religious rites. The 550sq.m. mud-brick building became commonly known as the Mar-Yuhanna (St John) church and offered services to the village’s 2500 Copts. Cracks appeared soon enough in the fragile building, however, and those in charge of it applied to the local authorities for licence to demolish it and erect a new one. Typically, the appeal fell on deaf ears. When the Copts saw the winds of change sweep the country following the 25 January revolution, they filed a new application to the Minya military ruler who swiftly commissioned the local building authority to compile a report on the building in preparation for granting the licence for a new building. When a group of Muslim extremists led by Salafi imams got wind of the matter, they objected and called for the Coptic association to be closed altogether on the grounds that it hurts their sensibilities to have a church close to a mosque they had built only six months ago.
If was difficult for the Copts to understand how a six-month-old mosque could be used as a pretext to close down a 10-year-old church. Secure in their conviction that their request to demolish their old, dilapidated church and build a new one was fully legal and legitimate, they filed a complaint to Samalout police department. The police officer in charge told them that the church is a cause of sedition and he had no objection to closing it. Horrified, the Copts staged a sit-in in front of the governorate in protest. The result was that Muslim extremists attacked the Copts’ homes in Qamadir and besieged the old church building, blocking access to it. Authorities found it necessary to interfere, and police and army troops moved into the village. Instead of imposing the rule of law and preserving the prestige of the State, however, the matter was resolved as follows:
• Under the auspices of Minya military ruler and with the approval of the governorate’s attorney-general and security director, a “reconciliation session” was held. It was decided that the Coptic association and its church should be moved from the building it has occupied since 2001 to another location to avoid tensions owing to the presence of a six-month-old mosque in the vicinity.
• The Copts would be allowed to perform prayers inside the building until Easter. Afterwards, the process of constructing a new building would start.
• The new building is 300sq m wide, around half the area of the original one. The ‘reconciliation’ terms state that the new building should be no more than one storey high and should include no features to distinguish it as a church: no cross, no dome, no bell tower.
• A popular convention would be held in the village to display the friendly relations and age-old unity of the village Muslims and Copts.
Everybody thinks that the crisis has been resolved in a peaceful manner. Nobody realises the sparks smoulder yet underneath the ashes. And nobody cared to attend the funeral of the victims: the law, citizenship rights and respect of the State.