14 November 2010
Two weeks on the atrocious attack by an alleged al-Qaeda Iraqi faction against the Christians in Sayidat al-Najat Church in Baghdad as they attended Sunday Mass, during which some 52 worshippers lost their lives and scores were injured, the Copts for Egypt movement organised a candlelight vigil in front of the Iraqi embassy in Cairo. The vigil was intended to share the grief over the Iraqi loss and express solidarity with the Iraqi people, while at the same time denouncing and rejecting the threats against Copts and the Coptic Church.
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq announced that the next target for its attacks would be the Egyptian Church which was given a 48-hour deadline to “free the Muslim women held captive in the apostate monasteries and churches of Egypt”. The allusion was to the two women Wafaa’ Qostantin and Kamilia Shehata who were married to Coptic priests and left home—Qostantin left her home in December 2004 and Shahata in July 2010—owing to domestic problems, but were escorted back by the police. The Church says they are staying in ‘some safe place’ where their privacy is secured following the dilemma they went through, but extremist Muslims claim they had converted to Islam and were being held against their wishes. Both the Church and al-Azhar, the Islamic authority in charge of officially registering Muslim conversions, insist the women never converted, but the extremists are not convinced. The issue has been blown out of all proportions, with demonstrations erupting for five consecutive weeks in Alexandria, following Friday prayers, violently calling for the ‘release of the captive women’.
Following the recent threat to the Egyptian Church, security around churches in Egypt was tightened. The Baghdad attack and the threats were denounced by Egyptian Islamic figureheads. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak assured the Copts the government will protect them in the face of
al-Qaeda threats. And online, Internet traffic carried a conspicuously large volume of condemnations by Egypt’s Muslims against the threats.
Pope Shenouda III commented on the incident by saying it was an instance of intended evil turned to good, quoting the Bible saying that all things work together for the good of those who love God. The incident, he said, served to reveal the underlying genuine compassion between Egypt’s Muslims and Copts.
Dozens gathered in front of the Iraqi embassy in Cairo, holding candles and signs reading: “No to Terrorism” and “We are all Egyptian.” They sang to the love of Egypt, and offered condolences and flowers to the Iraqi ambassador Nizar Essa Al-Khairallah who assured the organisers that Iraqi Christians were a basic element of the Iraqi community and that, as such, they were fully under the State’s protection. He handed Copts for Egypt a copy of the declaration by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry condemning the Baghdad church attack and the attempt to threaten Iraq’s security.
Vigil organiser Hany el-Gazeery said the gathering was to reject al-Qaeda’s threat to Christians and express solidarity with Iraqis. He called for a positive role for the media and educational and cultural institutions to combat extremist thought, and for legislation to criminalise the propagation of sectarian division and hate. “Religion should not be exploited politically, but should go back to the confines of the mosque and the church,” he said.
The majority of those gathered expressed similar sentiments. “The Constitution, laws, and curricula ought to be purged of all religious bias,” Copts for Egypt member Wagih Yacoub said.
“The matter should go beyond candlelight vigil,” rights activist Hussam Yasser said. “We should actively work to confront the real reasons behind the sectarian sedition that is being inflamed inside Egypt.”
Mohamed Abdullah, a university student, said: “I came here to tell al-Qaeda that ‘Islam is innocent of the image you propagate,’ and to tell the Copts that ‘you own this country as much as we do, we live together for better and for worse, and Egypt has always been a home to all civilisations’.”