On Coptic Christmas Eve, 6 January, Copts watched with pride and joy the simultaneous opening al-Fattah al-Aleem Mosque and the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Christ, the largest Muslim and Christian religious edifices in the Middle East. Located side by side in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, they were built in record time, and opened on Christmas Eve by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. It was an unprecedented celebration that embodied the values of tolerance and equality in citizenship rights, especially given that President Sisi was joined by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the world’s topmost authority on Sunni Islam, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb; and Pope Tawadros II, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The speeches given: the Pope’s at the Mosque, Sheikh Tayyeb’s at the Cathedral, and the President’s warm-hearted talk inside the Cathedral, acted as good omens for the new year. They asserted that the Egyptian State was moving steadily towards rejecting religious discrimination and extremism, and empowering equal citizenship rights for all Egyptians.
The celebration underscored President Sisi’s declaration some two months earlier: “We neither interfere with who a person worships; nor with whether or not he or she worships in the first place.” This declaration had me and many others look up to a new era for Egypt where freedoms are asserted, the law enforced, and all Egyptians stand on equal footing before the State. We all felt proud of this Egypt, the image it was projecting, and the objective it was striving to achieve.
Did that mean, however, that we had all at once rid ourselves of the fanaticism and extremism that plague our citizenship rights and disfigure our nation? Did the opening of the New Capital’s Mosque and Cathedral work as a magical wand that abolished all weak-spirited hate acts in Egypt? No, we are not dreamers, and we never imagined this would be the case. But we believed the situation would eventually change to the better, provided two conditions are met. First, freedom must be established all over Egypt. Second, the law must be firmly enforced and State prestige upheld. These two conditions are vital in the handling of any sectarian violence; otherwise one is strongly reminded of the Egyptian folk saying: “I hear what you say and I believe you … then I see how you act and am bewildered!”
This brings me to the recent incident in Minya … oh Minya! Minya is a province that extends 100km from north to south alongside the River Nile; its capital Minya city is situated at its midpoint 250km south of Cairo. The province boasts the lion’s share of “sectarian incidents”, a term that has come to denote violence against Copts in Egypt. So much so that whenever we optimists express confidence in a better future for Egypt, despondent voices are quick to cry: “How about Minya? A State within the Egyptian State! No matter the changes in its political and/or security top officials, Minya remains stubbornly inured to violence against Copts, as though mightier than the State and the rule of law.”
What happened in Minya last week is the same old recurrent scenario. I publish here the statement issued by its bishopric last Friday 11 January, following the violence that had erupted in Manshiyet Zaafarana:
“The Coptic Orthodox Bishopric
The Diocese of Minya and Abu-Qurqas
“Explanation regarding the problem at the church of Mar-Girgis (St George) at Manshiyet Zaafarana
“Manshiyet Zaafarana is situated 5km east of the town of al-Fikriya in Minya; the Bishopric owns a small place where it has been holding prayers for some time for Copts residing in the village, who number some 1000 persons. On Monday 7 January, a few hours after Christmas Mass concluded [Copts celebrate Christmas on 7 January] a number of extremists broke into the de-facto church, but were evicted by the police guarding the church. Two priests and a few Copts remained in the church. As they expected, an attack took place on Friday 11 January 2019, at 1:30pm; a mob of around 1,000 [Muslim villager] extremists converged on the church, demanding that it should be closed. The police arrived and attempted to pacify the mob by promising them their demands would be met… They evicted the two priests and the few members of the congregation who had been inside, and shuttered the building, amid an elated response from a jubilating, gloating mob.
“This is not the first time a place used for worship by Copts in Minya is closed to appease fundamentalists and extremists, to the detriment of the Copts.
“This comes in the wake of declarations by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb in favour of churches, also positive talk and actions by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi that every Egyptian has the right to practise his or her religion of choice, and to Pope Tawadros’s huge efforts to preserve national unity. Until this statement was issued, no action had been taken against the perpetrators and offenders, even though their actions were no secret and they are known to everyone in the village. As long as there is no deterrent action, others will be encouraged to behave in the same manner … May God protect Egypt from all evil and harm.”
My only comment to the Egyptian State: “I hear what you say and I believe you .. then I see how you act and am bewildered!”
16 January 2019